Bane for Real: How the Aurora Killings Shattered Movie Fantasy

An outrage that mimics the mayhem in The Dark Knight Rises renews the debate on the link between violence in movies and in real life

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NYPD officers keep watch in front of an AMC movie theater where the film 'The Dark Knight Rises' played in Times Square on July 20, 2012 in New York City.

They thought he was part of the show. When James Holmes stepped through an exit door into the Century 9 auditorium showing The Dark Knight Rises Thursday night, the audience members nearby took him for one of those fans who arrive a multiplex dressed as favorite characters from the movie they’ve come to see. Outfitted in a gas mask and Kevlar suit, sporting an assault rifle and a Remington 870 shotgun, Holmes bore an initial resemblance to Bane, TDKR’s gaudiest villain, who may well have been on the screen at that moment. But he was not the costumed surrogate of the audience in that Aurora, Colorado, theater. If the testimony of eyewitnesses is accurate, Holmes proceeded to do what Bane does in the movie: invade a public place and terrorize the people in it. He was a surrogate for the violence on the screen — Bane for real.

In slaughtering people guilty only of wanting to be among the first to see the summer’s most avidly anticipated entertainment, the gunman ended and ruined lives in a town just 19 miles from Littleton, site of the massacre at Columbine High School 13 years ago. He imposed a sick sense of déjà vu on Denver-area citizens, who must cordon off a still larger part of their hearts for perpetual mourning. He also revived two longstanding American debates: on the real-life effects of violence in movies, and on the easy access to guns for wildlife sportsmen, cautious homeowners and murderous psychopaths.

(MORE: Don’t Blame Batman for the Aurora Shooting)

For a movie industry primed to celebrate the blockbuster  premiere of the last film in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, the tragic news hung black crèpe over TDKR. Warner Bros., the film’s distributor, is withholding statistics on the domestic and foreign earnings until Monday, when TIME’s box-office report will appear.

The killings had one effect new to American culture: they toxified the whole experience of moviegoing. They turned a movie house, which people attend believing that all the mayhem will be on the screen, into a charnel house. They overturned the notion of the multiplex as refuge. This weekend, it became one more venue for police patrols and pat-downs, and for U.S. civilians’ queasy anticipation of a copycat terrorist attack — an apprehension that is its own terror. Briefly or lastingly, the murders punctured the aura of the movie audience as one of the last great American communities.

Let’s All Go to the Movies

In the computer age, many Americans are approaching the status of hermits and invalids. We stay at home to work, to shop, to have sex (actual and virtual) — and to watch movies. But about 1.5 billion times a year, this housebound generation ventures outside to see a film. What Variety’s Art Murphy noted 35 years ago about the persistence of moviegoing is still true: it’s a great cheap date. Except for attending church, it is also our largest communal activity. And in both venues, the communicant accepts and surrenders to a higher power: a deity or a movie.

Watching a film at home, the customer is in charge; he can pause or rewind, fast-forward or stop. The film’s ability to cast its spell may be broken by a phone call, a text message, dinner time or boredom. And the image, even on a 55-inch wall screen, is just one element of the decor in a home viewer’s line of sight; the movie is always competing for attention. But in a theater, we moviegoers are totally vulnerable: small creatures in a huge dark room, with nothing to focus on but a giant image over which we have no control, and which keeps unspooling even if we are so terrified that we think we want it to stop. We don’t want it to stop; its power over us is the thrill and thrall we’ve paid for.

(PHOTOS: The Aurora Movie Theater Shooting: Scenes from the Aftermath)

Who else is so vulnerable? Children, tucked in bed at night, perhaps also in a darkened room, hearing their parents tell a story. The tale may be set in a distant realm, where princesses battle trolls, or it could be as immediate and threatening as the one about the monster in the closet. Whatever the subject of a bedtime story, kids usually don’t beg the parent to stop; no, they want to know “What happens next?” That is the hook for moviegoers of any age as much as for preschoolers in pajamas. The movie house is our bed at night, with filmmakers as the tale-spinning parent. And the excitement for all of us is that the scary story could be true but, for now, isn’t. Maybe later, in our dreams.

The Aurora killer shattered that compact. He leapt through the fourth wall to create the vilest kind of performance art and, for now, made it hard to make believe in a movie house.

A History of Violence, from Thomas Edison to Christopher Nolan 

The twist to the Aurora outrage is that it mimics the subject of the movie whose screening it interrupted: terror in public places. Bane and his gang commandeer of the Gotham City Stock Exchange, blow a hole in one of the city’s bridges and set off explosions under a football field in a stadium filled with horrified fans. These scenes pack a memorial queasiness for many Americans, especially New Yorkers, since Gotham City is clearly Manhattan. Thanks, Mr. Nolan, but we’ve been through that. Instead of scaring people with the usual fantasy scenarios — visions of what might be — Nolan used the Batman template to create revisions of what already happened.

That’s nothing new; movies have been exploiting tragedy for more than a century, in documentary and fictional form. The 1903 Electrocuting an Elephant, from the Thomas Edison company, presented exactly what it promised: the spectacle of Topsy, a Coney Island elephant who had killed a worker, standing with heavy cables attached to its body, then teetering and collapsing as it sizzles with electricity. In 1912, the silent one-reeler Saved from the Titanic was released just one month after the foundering of that unsinkable ship, and starred an actress who had been onboard. In the intervening hundred years, Hollywood has been in the business of making entertainment out of the darkest headlines. But whatever their topic, whomever they put at risk, movies are essentially sensational; they transform the senses of seeing and hearing into feeling.

(MORE: How to Talk to Your Kids About the Shooting)

And that means playing or preying on fears. TDKR manipulates the fears of its audience (especially its New York City audience) in exactly the same way that horror films exploit the viewer’s fear of grotesque assault, and a romantic drama threatens the death of a loved one, and the early Disney animated features — Snow White, Pinocchio, Bambi, Dumbo — tapped kids’ fears of being separated from or losing a parent, or morphing into a braying donkey if they skipped school. People went to see TDKR Thursday night for a good scare, to be virtually violated, while realizing, if only as they walked out, that it’s only a movie. The crowd at the Century 9, tragically, got a different show.

The Movies Made Him Do It

Earlier in the week, some readers of the Rotten Tomatoes aggregate website of movie critics saw a couple of negative reviews of TDKR and pelted the writers with abuse and, in a few cases death threats; for a few hours, Rotten Tomatoes shut down its comments page. Those angry bloggings may be an expression of the increasingly rancid tone of public debate, but they were still irresponsible and creepy. The people who went to TDKR probably weren’t aware of those threats, but they did see a trailer for another Warner Bros. film, Gangster Squad, which features a scene of gunmen blasting away from behind a movie screen and strutting through the theater, the audience panicked as police rushed in. Warners pulled the trailer and, according to a story in today Los Angeles Times, is mulling changes to that scene — the movie’s climax.

TDKR, which is rated PG-13, doesn’t have nearly the violence level that Gangster Squad showed in the trailer. It does include scenes of intense peril. But of all the people in the Aurora auditorium that night, the only one who hadn’t seen any part of the movie was the killer. If his psycho spasm had occurred in a theater showing The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, the urge to generalize on violent culture might be replaced by head-scratching about the assailant. I think he invaded that particular movie house not because TDKR is a drama about a city in the grip of terror — though that could be a side perk — but because he knew the theater would be packed with potential victims.

In April 1999, the week of the Columbine killings, I wrote a TIME story defending popular culture against those who thought that action movies like Natural Born Killers and the ghoulish songs of Marilyn Manson had contributed to violence in American schools and on the streets. “Revenge dramas,” I wrote, “are as old as Medea (she tore her sons to pieces), as hallowed as Hamlet (seven murders), as familiar as The Godfather. High drama is about the conflict between shades of good and evil, often within the same person. But it’s easier to dream up a scenario of slavering evil and imperishable good. This is the moral and commercial equation of melodrama: the greater the outrage suffered, the greater the justification for revenge. You grind me down at first; I grind you up at last. This time it’s personal.”

But I argued, “movies may glamorize mayhem while serving as a fantasy safety valve. A steady diet of megaviolence may coarsen the young psyche — but some films may instruct it. Heathers and Natural Born Killers are crystal-clear satires on psychopathy, and The Basketball Diaries is a mordant portrait of drug addiction. Payback is a grimly synoptic parody of all gangster films. In three weeks, 15 million people have seen The Matrix and not gone berserk. … Flash: movies don’t kill people. Guns kill people.” That point applies to TDKR as much as to The Matrix. The debate should be about the Second Amendment, not the First.

(MORE: Read Corliss’s story on Columbine and violent pop culture by subscribing to TIME)

Before Thursday night there had been no incidents of mass killing in a U.S. movie theater. Now there’s one — a minuscule sample from which to draw inferences about the mortal effect of popular culture. Of course it’s arguable that violent movies encourage violent behavior, if only in a few people who already have violent inclinations. Typically, though, the point of view in even the goriest film is usually that of the victim, not the perpetrator. These movies say that violence is exciting but bad, evil and wrong; it has consequences. And there’s almost always a good guy to beat the bad guy in the end.

Let’s Go Back to the Movies

Terrible things happen; people weep for the victims, curse the villain, calibrate the impact on their own safety and move on. Massacres take place at universities like Virginia Tech, but kids still go to college. For all the indelible memories of 9/11, air travel in 2012 is above the level of 2001. A man’s dearest friends may have died in a highway crash, yet he gets in a car every day.

Granted that schooling, flying and driving may be seen as essentials, whereas moviegoing is a luxury, an entertainment decision. But isn’t it just as important to be amused, thrilled or frightened in the dark, to be part of the community of strangers? They convene in a place of commerce that, when the lights go down and the picture starts, is transformed into a Mesozoic cave where elders enlighten and frighten the young with tales of woolly mammoths (Ice Age 4) and superhuman warriors battling infernal foes (The Dark Knight Rises).

“Tragedy Lowers Grosses,” read a headline in Nikki Finke’s box-office report today on the Deadline Hollywood website. No question that some Batman fans stayed away from TDKR this weekend. Yet Finke’s estimate of a $161.1-million gross suggests that the film will achieve the third highest three-day opening of all time, after The Avengers and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2. People went to the movie. Just as important, a lot of them went to a lot of movies: business was up 35% from the same weekend last year.

That’s some good news out of a bad-news weekend — not that Hollywood made money, but that the anticipation of a fun night out will always triumph over real-life anxieties. In the community of moviegoers, hope trumps fear.

MORE: TIME’s Full Coverage of the Aurora, Colorado Shooting