Real-Life ‘Dark Night’: Did Batman Inspire Killings?

July 20, 2012

A mass shooting at the premiere of the new Batman film has cast a pall on the franchise and raised questions about media-inspired violence.

According to an ABC News piece, “A lone gunman dressed in riot gear burst into a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., at a midnight showing of the Batman film “The Dark Knight Rises” and methodically began shooting patrons, killing at least 12 people and injuring at least 50. The suspect, James Holmes, 24, of Aurora, was caught by police in the parking lot of the Century 16 Movie Theaters, nine miles outside Denver, after police began receiving dozens of 911 calls at 12:39 a.m. MT. Police said the man appeared to have acted alone. Witnesses in the movie theater said Holmes crashed into the auditorium through an emergency exit about 30 minutes into the film, set off a smoke bomb, and began shooting. Holmes stalked the aisles of the theater, shooting people at random, as panicked movie-watchers in the packed auditorium tried to escape, witnesses said.”

One immediate question was linked to the news: What, if anything, was the connection to the Batman film? Holmes was dressed in a bulletproof vest and a riot helmet, along with a gas mask. This has led to speculation that he may have been inspired by the Batman villain Bane, who also wears bulletproof armor and breathes through a mask (though it’s not a gas mask).

It could be a case of a real-life fan dressing like a movie villain (this is nothing new, as legions of Star Wars and Harry Potter fans know), or it might merely be a case of dressing appropriately for the plan of attack: If a person is planning to be in a shootout and use a gas or smoke grenade, then a bulletproof vest and a gas mask are logical equipment for the purpose, and may have nothing to do with Bane or Batman.

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 film 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. In that case, too, many people claimed that the killers wore body armor (though police later disputed it).

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.