Amy Schumer, the “Trainwreck” Shooting, and the Benefits of Skepticism

May 12, 2016

As the Center for Inquiry has spent nearly 40 years reminding people, there are many benefits to skepticism and critical thinking. Skeptics, though hardly immune to faulty logic and cognitive errors, are less likely to be taken in by false claims, especially about psychics and alternative medicine for example, as well as scams of various types.

But there are also more subtle benefits to carefully analyzing claims and beliefs, including assuaging guilt. Sometimes thinking about an emotional situation logically and critically can help people feel better. This is because magical thinking sometimes leads people to blame themselves for bad things that happen to them. Believers in prayer, for example, who get sicker may get angry with themselves for not having enough faith or not praying hard enough to heal, while believers in the New Age “law of attraction” may blame themselves for bringing depression or bad luck into their life. But it can happen in other contexts too, such as when we don’t carefully analyze a situation. Actress Amy Schumer provides a case in point.

In an interview with Barbara Walters about a July 2015 incident in which a man named John Houser attacked the audience at a Louisiana screening of Trainwreck, which she wrote and co-starred, Schumer said, “Knowing it was my movie, I did feel some distant sense of responsibility. Did this animal seek out my movie? From the way he felt about women it sounds like he did… It’s like when the Dark Knight shooting happened, and in Paris. The idea of people trying to go out and have a good time-you know, like looking forward to it? I don’t know why that makes me the saddest.”

Schumer is referring to the fact that Houser had a long history of mental illness–he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder–and had for years endorsed a variety of racist, sexist, conspiracy, and anti-government views.

Slate blogger Amanda Marcotte echoed Schumer’s sentiment: “When news emerged that a middle-aged white man in Lafayette, Louisiana, opened fire at a showing of the Amy Schumer vehicle Trainwreck, I immediately had this sinking feeling that the movie choice wasn’t a coincidence–that this was…an act of rage at women.”

Unfortunately this sort of speculation laid the groundwork for Schumer needlessly blaming herself for another’s actions. Schumer and Marcotte interpreted the crime as a manifestation of misogynistic rage, but in the year since the shooting, no indication has emerged explaining why Houser chose that film.

It could have been hatred of that film specifically, or of the writer or director or any of the actors. It could have been that he wanted to shoot as many women as possible and assumed that the audience for a typical romantic comedy would be mostly women. It could have been because Schumer is Jewish, and Houser is known to have admired Hitler. It could have been because the film included minority actors he was racist against. It could have been because his mental illness manifested itself in voices telling him to kill. The truth is that we really don’t know; at the end of the day there’s no evidence one way or the other.

Though we don’t know why Houser chose that theater or that specific film (since he shot himself as well) we do know what Houser did once there: he did not target women but shot at random. A July 28 news article titled “John Russell Houser Fired ‘Indiscriminately’: Lafayette police release initial report” states that “The Lafayette Police Department on Tuesday (July 28) released an officer’s initial report taken from Thursday’s (July 23) shooting at The Grand 16 Theater, which left three dead and nine injured. The two-sentence report, taken at 7:28 p.m., is brief but says much: ‘Suspected [sic] entered movie theater, produced a firearm and began indiscriminately firing into the ground [sic]. Multiple victims were shot and at least one was killed,’ the report says. Police had said gunman John Russell Houser started firing into the crowd about 20 minutes into the 7:10 p.m. screening of Trainwreck. The initial report indicates police responded 18 minutes from the start of the movie. The initial report also aligns with police statements in the days following the shooting…”

While the attack may or may not have been motivated by antipathy toward Trainwreck’s cast or crew, the idea that it was rooted in misogyny seems even less credible when you note that over half of the people Houser shot (excluding himself) were men: Six out of the eleven victims were male. While the two victims who died were women, there’s no way that Houser could have deliberately wounded them more severely than the men; it’s just as likely that six men could have been killed and five women escaped with minor injuries. And, of course, it’s not clear that 59-year-old Houser could have specifically targeted women in the darkness of the theater even if he had tried.

In the end, mentally ill Houser shot at the crowd “indiscriminately” (that is, not aiming at any specific people based on gender, race, or other distinguishing characteristic) and in doing so wounded more men than women. Thus it’s not clear how his views towards women played any role; perhaps Marcotte and Schumer were misinformed (though both apparently felt conversant enough with the facts to write and speak on the incident), or they were simply guessing. In either event the speculation obviously (and needlessly) hurt Schumer emotionally.

Investigators believe that the killer chose that screening specifically, having found the date and time in a notebook he left. But no one knows why Houser picked that time and place to start shooting; one guess is as good as another absent any evidence. As skeptics know, the burden of proof is on the claimant–in this case those who claim to know Houser’s motive–and there seems no evidence that Houser targeted Trainwreck because of any hated feminist message.

Ironically, Schumer’s film was in fact widely condemned for being anti-feminist, with several prominent news outlets and bloggers accusing the Schumer-scripted film of pandering to sexist stereotypes of women including a woman changing herself for a man’s approval. Thus even had Houser’s attack been a reaction against a pro-feminist message, it’s just as likely that he would have avoided shooting that film’s audience specifically because (according to some) it explicitly endorsed his views about women.

Blaming the Media

The leap of logic seen in the speculation is not surprising. People are quick to assume that a violent attack on a film’s audience must symbolize anger at the content of that specific film, but it’s not necessarily true. Schumer has no reason to feel guilty about Houser’s actions; she did nothing to provoke the attack, and Marcotte’s suggestion smacks of victim-blaming. By all accounts the killer was severely mentally ill, and unless some journal or diary emerges that specifically addresses the issue, we will never know exactly why he chose the Trainwreck screening.

After every high profile shooting there is always a scramble to find out why, to seek simple answers to why some tragedy happened. Pundits pore over the killer’s every post on social media, rant, or complaints to others trying to divine what exactly led to the horror. Schumer is only the
latest of a long list of people who have tried to blame entertainment media for real-life social ills. I discussed this in an earlier blog about those who speculated that James Holmes, the man who attacked a crowd at a Batman film screening in Aurora, Colorado, must have been inspired to kill by The Dark Knight Rises or one of its villains (and which Schumer referenced in her interview):

It’s easy to see why people would jump to the conclusion that the film and the massacre were related, but in this case it’s pretty clear that the film itself did not inspire the shooter; as far as is known the shooter didn’t even see the movie. Furthermore, this attack clearly took preparation, and had probably been planned for days, weeks, or even months. The theater was showing the midnight movie as the first screening of the film, so there’s very little chance that the film itself inspired the violence, since there’s no indication that Holmes himself had even seen it.

The question of the link between media violence and real-life violence was examined–and largely discredited–in Michael Moore’s documentary Bowling for Columbine, which pointed out that the Columbine school shooters Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold had actually gone bowling shortly before their murderous, suicidal rampage–surely bowling didn’t cause the violence? The fact is that violence and shootings have occurred in countless theaters over the years, and the location of the theater may turn out to be much more relevant to the motive for the shooting than the particular movie showing at the time. Denver is less than twenty miles from Jefferson County’s Columbine, the location of worst school shooting in the United States.

Blaming the media for social problems is nothing new, and has been done for decades. In 2010 the thriller Black Swan was blamed for causing anorexia and other eating disorders in audiences, and the year before that the horror film Orphan was accused of causing adoption rates to drop if audiences of potential adoptive parents saw the film and believed that they might unknowingly adopt a homicidal dwarf. If this shooting had occurred somewhere else–say, for example, at a nightclub or a college-few would be asking questions about whether there was some particular identifiable social or cultural media trigger. Those who seek to do violence and damage–especially high-profile damage–will always be able to find crowds and opportunities for their evil.

Schumer clearly took the Trainwreck shooting personally, and chose to use the tragedy as a platform to push for gun control reform. It’s normal and natural to search for answers to why tragedies happen, but when we apply critical thinking to the issue it’s clear that Amy Schumer has nothing to apologize for, nor any reason to feel guilty or responsible in any way for a mentally ill monster’s decision to attack an audience at her film. It could have happened for any reason, or no reason at all. Hopefully she–and we–can learn a lesson in skepticism from this tragedy.