When A Madman Shoots Up A Movie Theatre, Should We Blame The Movie?

This week The Dark Knight Rises premiered across the globe and despite good reviews most people will remember opening weekend for a wholly different reason. During one midnight showing in Aurora, Colorado James Holmes (24) clad in a gas mask and body armour casually shot cinema-goers. Currently 12 are confirmed dead and 58 are injured. Holmes is in custody and officials are attempting to get into his apartment, which is booby trapped. All of this is troubling, deeply so, but what makes it worse is the claim making it into the press today, that Holmes told officials “I am the Joker!” instantly putting the film series under the spotlight. 

Early reports drew comparisons between his outfit and that of TDKR’s Bane, and now reports of dyed hair and the aforementioned Joker claim make it very difficult to make this seem like a random shooting. It’s clear that the film series was influential on the execution of Holmes’ plans, and I find it as troubling that people are quickly trying to put up the ‘Not the Films Fault’ signs so quickly. Reading comments on news items it’s clear that most would prefer to think that this was a random act of cruelty, but the evidence is not so easily ignored. Since A Clockwork Orange was released in 1971 ‘copy-cat’ crimes inspired by movies have been a regular occurrence, and although some claims are little more than spurious links dug up by the press, others are overt and undeniable.

What a film can’t do is make someone kill.

What a film can do is inspire the method that someone who could kill would put into action.

Movies are inspirational – at least well made ones are – on a great many levels. How many people bought Ray-Bans after seeing them in Men in Black? Suppliers of long trench coats were pleased with the reaction to The Matrix and Wayne’s World introduced the world to a whole new vernacular.

If a man clad in a Bane-like outfit and who claims he is ‘The Joker’ opens fire in a screening of The Dark Knight Rises it would be negligent to assume that it was just co-incidence. Now I’m not saying that the film series is dangerous, or that it was clearly going to inspire someone to act in a violent, abhorrent manner, but it is a series about anarchy and violence, grounded in a more realistic setting. It is feasible that this would ‘speak’ to someone in a certain frame of mind. There is no way that anyone could predict that one person would take inspiration from the film in the way that Holmes did, but to instantly try to distance the film from the actions is folly.

It’s clear – at least from early reports – that this event was planned meticulously. The organisation suggests that this was not a guy flipping out in a theatre, instead that it was pre-meditated and calculated. The effect of the film series on the execution of these pre-planned actions cannot be ignored, but should it be blamed?

Of course not.

Humanity is beset by obsession and fascination, we are all, in some way deeply affected by the world around us. Some of us buy merchandise, others will paint their car to resemble a movie car; some may dress up and attend conventions, while others will pick up a gun and go on the rampage. How and when an influence will permeate our psyche is something that no-one can really predict. Some films overtly attempt to implant suggestions into the viewer’s mind, while others will fill a scene with product placement, hoping that Will Smith will subliminally persuade us that we need new shoes.

All of this may look like I see the events in that movie theatre as inevitable, and in many ways they could well have been. Holmes planned the attack, and while the film may have influenced his decisions in terms of action, it couldn’t have made him specifically pull the trigger. That said, the themes in the trilogy do deal with violence, crime and anarchy. Random acts of violence feature prominently in The Dark Knight in terms of the Joker’s plans, and the bank scene in particular is one that could easily be linked to the attacks.

But that’s the issue, it’s easy to link the attacks to a film that features similarities.

When the killers of Jamie Bulger were arrested the nation wanted to find a reason for such a horrific act, something that could have ‘made’ them commit such an act of brutality, and eventually Venables’ father was seen to have rented Child’s Play 3 before the crime was committed. While he emphasised that his son and friend had never seen the film there were some similarities to the case, enough for the press to demand that copies of this ‘video nasty’ were burned publicly. It was easier to blame the film than accept that evil could exist in young people. In some way it would be easy to brand the film as the ‘reason’ Holmes went into the cinema that night, but all we can really state is that the specific film that was on was inspired by his obsession.

The film didn’t enable Holmes to act, that blame can only really be laid at the feet of America’s stance on firearms, but it was instrumental in it, and I don’t think that it is something that we should try to ignore or to explain away. It’s unfortunate that someone would use a film series that has amazed critics and entertained film-lovers the world over as a source of ‘inspiration’.

It definitely shouldn’t stop people going to the cinema, it’s one of the last great escapes of the modern world. A great film is supposed to take you away from the bad things in the world. Don’t let the actions of one deranged nut stop you going to see a film this week.

The next time someone says that Holmes was obsessed by all things Batman, shrug it off. Chances are he was/is and that’s not a criticism of your favourite film or you as a film-goer. It’s a criticism of Holmes – even if they don’t realise it. Movies can inspire great people to act in a very positive way, and they can inspire evil people to put on a mask and attack someone, but they can’t change who you are.

Blame the Movie?

Perhaps.

Blame the person?

Definitely.

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