A Cultural Aside on the Aurora Shooting; Or, Can Movies Inspire People to Kill?
The grisly shooting in Aurora Colorado, at a screening of “The Dark Knight Rises,” has sparked a debate about U.S. gun policy. Do guns kill people or do people kill people? This facet of the tragedy is what our pundits and commentators are now fixated on.
What surprises me is how little people are talking about the cultural significance of the shooting–namely, that the shooter James Holmes seems to have been inspired by The Joker of the earlier Batman film, “The Dark Knight.” Anthony Lane, writing for The New Yorker, is one of a few writers to dwell on this connection, and he ultimately concludes that “no film makes you kill.” I see his point–that films don’t kill people, but people kill people. And yet, I think he is too quick to dismiss the ties between the villain of the Aurora shooting and that of “The Dark Knight.”
When “The Dark Knight” came out in 2008, everybody was talking about how morally disturbing it was. My sense is that people were troubled by the amorality of The Joker and his delight in taking lives at will for no purpose whatsoever. The Joker, played by Heath Ledger, who of course ominously died of a drug overdose not too long after the film was released, was a frightening embodiment of psychopathic evil. In 2007, Ledger described The Joker as a ”psychopathic, mass murdering, schizophrenic clown with zero empathy.” The Joker’s evil is something that affected nearly everyone I knew who saw the movie.
Could it have affected Holmes, too? Was Holmes inspired by The Joker to act out his maniacal terror fantasy? He must have been. Holmes, after all, came into the theater decked out as The Joker would be–his hair died a reddish-orange and with a deadly arsenal of weapons on him:
From the front of the theater, the shooter set off what witnesses and authorities described as tear gas or a smoke bomb. He then started firing weapons, including a semi-automatic rifle and shotgun, as the horrified crowd realized too late that the dark figure in their midst wasn’t connected to the violent action movie.
“There were many, many rounds fired,” Aurora Police Chief Dan Oates said at a news conference Friday, adding, “This is a very tough day for a whole lot of people.”
Corbin Dates, a 23-year-old AT&T Inc. worker at the late-night screening, said that when he saw the theater’s emergency doors swing open and a man walk inside, he thought it was some kind of movie-related stunt. Even as people screamed, he thought it was part of the show. Then he saw the man throw a gas canister into the crowd and begin firing.
Holmes had methodically thought his plan out. He even rigged up his apartment with deadly booby traps, which were intended to inflict maximum damage on the police who would be sure to search it in the aftermath of the murders. Holmes’ coolly calculated effort to inflict the maximum amount of casualties, from the gas canisters to his rigged up room, is perhaps the most Joker-like–the most strikingly evil–element of this story.
Beyond that, there are further reports that Holmes is acting like The Joker in jail:
Holmes, 24, first told cops he was Batman’s enemy The Joker after the massacre in Aurora, Colorado, on Friday that also left 58 people wounded.
His deranged behaviour has continued in jail with him spitting at guards.
One prison insider said of the gunman, who is under suicide watch in solitary confinement: “He hasn’t shown any remorse. He thinks he’s acting in a movie.”
Holmes’s answering machine message was also inspired by The Joker.
Glenn Rotkovich — who ran a gun range the maniac tried to join — told of his shock when he tried to ring Holmes.
He said: “His message was bizarre. He was slurring words but he didn’t sound drunk. Looking back, I think he was trying to be The Joker.”
The more details you read about the shooting, the more you realize that the line between fiction and reality had evaporated in Holmes’s mind.
There’s no doubt that the guns Holmes had on him allowed him to kill people on a mass scale that would otherwise not have been possible. But are the guns what caused him to act? Like many of us, he was clearly emotionally affected by “The Dark Knight.” More, he was likely inspired by the amorality of The Joker in that movie. I’m pretty agnostic on the gun issue, but even without guns, who is to say Holmes, a neuroscience grad student, wouldn’t have simply gassed the theater or gone in there with knives to kill people?
The basic point is that the tragedy in Aurora is more a cultural event than a political one (about gun control). The basic question is what to do about that? We obviously can’t censor emotionally and morally fraught movies–in this case, a great thought-provoking one–that have moments of disturbing amorality in them just because they might set some psychopath off. But is there anything we can do, from a cultural standpoint?
I haven’t seen the latest installment in the Batman series yet, but Mark Judge nicely points out that it has an elevating moral theme–hopefully one more elevating than the last film’s, especially given the recent tragedy.