At a midnight showing of The Dark Knight Rises in Aurora, Color., an armed man in a gas mask entered the theater through an emergency exit. He released a teargas bomb, then proceeded to shoot people in the audience. The shooter, identified as 24-year-old James Holmes, killed 12 and injured at least 50 before being arrested “without a struggle” by authorities.
Mass murder horrifies us whenever it happens. But this shooting has stricken us on another level. Holmes, who is eerily similar to characters in The Dark Knight, may have been rebelling against the Nolan film itself - namely, the superheroic trope of good versus evil. Whether Holmes’ resemblance to Batman characters was intentional, the crime has unnerved us all because he took advantage of a mass cultural phenomenon and the movie-going experience itself.
Our shock seems inextricably linked to The Dark Knight Rises. The final chapter of the Christopher Nolan trilogy has been hyped fanatically for weeks, with some predicting it would be the biggest box office hit of all-time. Holmes is eerily similar to characters in the film. Holmes’ gas mask immediately conjures up the gas mask of Bane, the villain set on destroying Gotham and obliterating any sense of justice in the city. Mirroring Bane, Holmes appears to have planned the shootings - audiences described him as calm, and he left willingly with the police. Often cold-blooded murderers rationalize crime by telling themselves they are delivering justice that “the system” cannot provide. Yet ironically, vigilante justice is what Batman is supposed to provide to save Gotham. While this is only speculation, it’s possible that Holmes was motivated to rebel against the assumptions behind The Dark Knight Rises. He is saying there is no difference between Batman and Bane. In his mind, there is no difference between good and evil.
Whether or not he meant to relate to Batman and Bane, Holmes certainly took advantage of the mass cultural phenomenon and movie-going itself. These were average Americans excited to see the most hyped movie ever. The Gabrielle Giffords shooting and the Oslo massacre were politicized; the media hammered home how exceptional the congresswoman and the children of the political elite were which in a way made the incidents less scary. Unlike Giffords or the children in Oslo, what makes this even scarier is we actually could have been these victims.
If targeting an anonymous group weren’t enough, Holmes shot them while they were watching the movie. This is not a minor detail. As put so aptly on Think Progress, the shooter took advantage of a cultural ritual - when we let down our guard to be transported to another world. By attacking the way he did, Holmes has disturbed our entire experience of movie-going.
The tragedy has been made more immediate by social media. Within minutes, witnesses blew up Twitter. A victim uploaded a photo of his bloodied shirt on Reddit; People outside of the theater have uploaded videos of the scene onto YouTube. I can’t even bring myself to look at visuals - I get chills just reading the tweets. In this incident, social media has reinvigorated our sense of tragedy - rather than numbing us with excessive details.
Stranger-than-fiction details, such as the 20-mile proximity to the Columbine shootings and a victim’s blog post about escaping another mall shooting last month, make the incident that much more spine-chilling.
It’s unclear whether the incident should be a moment for political statements, or purely mourning. But Holmes’ crime does remind us that movies make us especially vulnerable, and that they often reflect reality in ways we don’t expect.