Fear Itself

How Did the Big Screen Become Linked to a Crime Scene?

by Steven Aoun

6 September 2012


When Fantasy Becomes Reality

The massacre in the cinema certainly gave some people within the entertainment industry cause for concern. Film producer Harvey Weinstein claimed to be so concerned that he urged Hollywood not to shirk responsibility and went so far as to publicly call for a summit on violence. The creator of Sons of Anarchy weighed in with own thoughts by calling bullshit on Weinstein’s public relations exercise. Kurt Sutter summed up the responsibility of the artist in the following way:

“Man communicates as best he can. Artists take that communication and turn it into a form of expression. Since the time we became upright, we’ve been expressing ourselves. Cave walls are covered with crude drawings of men (family) and the hunt (survival). We express what we feel. What we feel most deeply is love and fear. Artists have been exploring the depths of that for centuries. Violence is part of that fear. We are drawn to it because we are afraid of it. The expression becomes our way of controlling that fear, understanding its role in our existence. For the writer, it’s fantasy. Taking the most extreme, intense, unimaginable fear and throwing it at our characters allows us to explore, and in the process, manage that primal terror.

When violence strikes the real world and fantasy becomes reality, people panic. Rightly so. Mass homicide is a terrifying thing. But to lay blame at the feet of artists is too easy… James Holmes is clearly a man who lives with a mind full of terror. For him, there is no fantasy, there is no reality, his moral compass contains no dial. In my unprofessional opinion, his use of The Dark Knight Rises was his way of creating an audience for his psychosis.” (Kurt Sutter, “Love, Fear, and the Art of the Toy Gun”, 6th August, 2012).

Sutter’s defence is revealing because Sons of Anarchy tests the limits of our moral compass. It also provides an interesting counterpoint to the Batman mythology. The show’s creator — like the audience — wants his violence and wants to condemn it, too. If a compass is an instrument used to orientate ourselves, Sons of Anarchy attempts to point us north and south simultaneously. It allows us to live vicariously through outlaws, but (like Batman) can only do this by ordering its morality and characters into good and evil, heroes and villains, etc. In order to get our sympathies and loyalties, Sutter (like the rest of Hollywood)implicitly relies on a moralization gap found across shared psychotic disorders . Such disorders perpetuate the myth of pure evil common to mental illness and screenplay treatments.

The real problem of evil, however, is not that bad things happen to good people or some people are inherently bad. It’s that immoral behaviour is drectly linked to moral thinking: evil is committed in the name of a just cause and made possible via self serving biases.

Sons of Anarchy and the Batman franchise thereby similarly provide an easy ride for viewers: their occurrences of violence are ideologically motivated and narratively justified. Since we’re supposed to identify with specific characters, there’s a gap between the way we sympathetically perceive a protagonist’s behaviour and the way we critically view an antagonist’s actions (the same actions are viewed through a different moral lens). The moralisation gap can perhaps best be summed up thus: Harms inflicted are seen as justified and forgettable, harms suffered are seen as unprovoked and grievous.

Sons of Anarchy also suffers from delusions of grandeur when justifying its self serving approach. A series about a band of outlaws is somehow modelled on Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Identifying with the show becomes self refuting: a power struggle within a royal family and lawless gang are thematically linked in Sutter’s mind. He therefore struggles with the question of anarchic principles in the most contradictory way: legitimacy though lineage. Not unlike Nolan’s Dark Knight, Sutter attempts to ground this legitimacy within a concept of nobility and sovereign power. And so like Batman, a son’s moral authority is passed down through an inheritance: vigilante justice becomes their birthright. Nonetheless, our two sons of anarchy approach violence from different directions. Their moral compasses are directed towards reinforcing socially distinct ideals (law and order and anarchy respectively).

The shooting in the cinema obviously transgressed a socially sanctioned space for violence. The outlet for violent impulses was happening on the wrong side of the screen. Holmes’ senseless actions, however, did make sense on some level. It confirmed that American’s live in a gun culture and that even the mentally ill will resort to gun therapy to solve their problems. While this gun culture predates the advent of cinema, we need to acknowledge its causal role in affirming such a masculine code. Specifically, narrative cinema enacts a daily ritual on the screen: power fantasies as social remedy. The gun has come to codify fear itself, and apparently the best way to defeat fear is to literally get a grip. The right to bear arms remains an integral part of America’s historical narrative and cultural identity. Consequently, the people calling the shots in popular culture typically wield a firearm. It doesn’t matter which side of the divide people find themselves on, shotgun medicine can be used to cure what ails them.

This power fantasy is a psychosis sanctioned by history and normalised on the screen. It’s difficult to have a rational debate about gun control when gun fire has become the social discourse. The situation appears to be beyond help when popular culture prefers to let guns do the talking (shoot first, ask questions later). Gun violence statistics tell a more troubling story and speak to an increasingly disturbing reality. There are approximately 90 guns for every 100 people in America while 85 deaths occur each day, or three deaths every hour. As the Law Centre to Prevent Gun Violence elaborates further

“The United States experiences epidemic levels of gun violence, claiming over 30,000 lives annually, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. For every person who dies from a gunshot wound, two others are wounded. Every year, approximately 100,000 Americans are victims of gun violence. In addition to those who are killed or injured, there are countless others whose lives are forever changed by the deaths of and injuries to their loved ones.

Gun violence touches every segment of our society. It increases the probability of deaths in incidents of domestic violence, raises the likelihood of fatalities by those who intend to injure others and among those who attempt suicide, places children and young people at special risk, and disproportionately affects communities of color.

Mass shooting tragedies… receive significant media attention. However, gun deaths and injuries in the U.S. usually occur quietly, without national press coverage, every day.”

While the horrific reality might not get much media attention, popular culture aids and abets the power fantasy. We therefore need to acknowledge an increasingly vicious circle, one that foregrounds the pop-cultural side of the debate.

“Specifically, the ways that Hollywood has drifted in recent years toward sanctifying firearms as the most powerful means of self-validation in action films, the go-to remedy for most wrongs, real and imagined, the universal vehicle of catharsis, cleansing, rectification.

The most dangerous promoter of gun violence in contemporary society isn’t the gunmaker or the National Rifle Association, it’s Hollywood. Movies are how guns are exhibited, marketed and sold. When did you last see an advertisement from Glock or Ruger or Smith & Wesson? Unless you read a specialty magazine, never.

That’s because the market for firearms isn’t widened and regenerated through consumer advertising. That happens through lurid, breathtaking portrayals of gun violence, lovingly depicted in harrowing detail, as plot elements indispensable to the contemporary action film.” (Edward Wasserman, “Killing as a Cinematic Art Form”, 17 August, 2012).

These plot elements invariably become plots in which to bury other people. While many of us can obviously distinguish between movies and real life, it’s a distinction without a difference. Our conception of ourselves is already a narrative device: movies merely project the storied nature of human conduct onto the screen. That is to say, there is a causal connection between how people view their actions and the stories they tell about them.  Someone’s life story is, of course, a personal narrative, and their identities are the result of creative acts of meaning: it involves creating (and replaying) scenes in their memories. If mentally ill and well adjusted stories share a common theme, it’s that we are all continually updating a treatment of our own lives. Narrative psychology goes so far as to urge that we are living in one another’s movies: adapting the screenplay called ‘real life’ means identifying the main characters and casting them into different roles.

“The way in which we visualize each scene not only shapes how we think about ourselves, but how we behave… Narratives guide behavior in every moment, and frame not only how we see the past but how we see ourselves in the future.

Mental resilience relies in part on exactly this kind of autobiographical storytelling, moment to moment, when navigating life’s stings and sorrows. To better understand how stories are built in real time, researchers have recently studied how people recall vivid scenes from recent memory. They find that one important factor is the perspective people take when they revisit the scene — whether in the first person, or in the third person, as if they were watching themselves in a movie.

Seeing oneself as acting in a movie or a play is not merely fantasy or indulgence; it is fundamental to how people work out who it is they are, and may become.” (Benedict Carey, “This Is Your Life”, 22 May, 2007).

We all find ourselves cast in particular roles and the resulting home ‘movies’ reflect a shared imagination (self serving biases, editing process, etc). Such framing takes place in the mind’s eye and direct our actions accordingly. The moralisation gap obviously plays an integral role in the construction of such narratives: it gives the narrators a just cause to kill someone as they create (and replay) scenes in their heads. It isn’t difficult to see the connection being made: people wielding firearms are also shooting a movie in their heads. Perhaps they even think they’re recreating a scene they have already seen on the screen. The self becomes a centre of narrative gravity, and the ‘actors’ invariably see themselves as the main attraction.

The tragedy is that a person with a great amount of intellectual and emotional maturity saw the link between narrative and identity. Prior to losing the plot, James Holmes explained his interest in cognitive neuroscience.

“Researching learning and memory interests me because these are the very cognitive processes which enable us to acquire information and retain it. They are at the core of what distinguishes us as people. (P. Solomon Banda, “Letter of Recommendation”, 11 August, 2012).

It’s important to reiterate that neither guns or movies directly cause people to be violent: they’re more sufficient causes, or links in the chain of causality. We have been killing each other long before guns came onto the scene or Hollywood movies gave mass murder its cinematic quality. Indeed, the history of civilisation coincides with a history of violence, and people have been telling stories to justify their actions for as long as anyone can remember. The problem is that America’s story is inextricably linked to the gun, and movies will keep telling that story indefinitely.

In an ideal world, repeated news stories about mass murder would result in stricter gun laws and inevitable disarmament. American’s, however, live in the real world and in fear of one another. Being disarmed by the government is amongst the citizenry’s biggest fears: it would require martial law and an armed resistance resulting in disproportionate body counts. The situation is clearly out of control when the mentally ill can also arm themselves to the teeth, and it was only a matter of time before another sequel played into everyone’s hands. The question is: how do people break out of a vicious circle when a fear of guns encourages them to purchase firearms so as to instil even more fear?

The 24/7 news cycles enact this vicious circle in real time. James Holmes’ horrific actions obviously merited widespread media attention: we all want to understand the cause and effect of senseless violence in order to contain it.

“Beyond the calls for the execution of the perpetrator, and the pronouncements of his apparent insanity, beyond the stories of grieving families, the calls for stricter gun control laws, and pronouncements of sympathy for those suffering in Colorado, one sees above all the search for some type of explanation. People want this tragedy to make sense somehow, to understand it, and to thereby regain some measure of control over the situation and return to normalcy. The norm, of course, is the problem in the first place.” (Elliot Sperber, “When Violence is the Norm”, 23 July, 2102).

The problem is the mass media’s complicity in mass murder, or the nature of the feedback loop between murderers seeking media attention (fame, infamy) and consumers seeking out coverage of the latest media sensation. We are now talking about a different causal connection — the link between the public’s right to know and creating cause celebres out of the resulting publicity. The right to bear arms and the right to know is obviously a potent combination when you throw people’s right to be famous into the mix: someone’s fifteen minutes can have great effects.

The chain of causality links many distinct events together. Homes’ actions were assured of a mass audience, and mass murder was possibly staged to get everyone’s attention. He was also following in the footsteps of other people who have similarly achieved in/famy and will inspire other copycats to share the stage in turn. As Cho Seung-Hui ‘s media manifesto indicates, mass murderers are inspired by other famous murderers seeking attention, and act out accordingly. It’s therefore no coincidence that Holme’s shooting spree occurred at a highly publicized media event and (was arguably) a publicity tie in.

“James Holmes must also have been insane, and his inner terror expressed itself, as it often does these days, in a link between pop culture and firearms. There was nothing bigger happening in his world right now than the new Batman movie, and in preparation for this day, or another like it, he was purchasing firearms and booby-trapping his apartment. When he was arrested after the shootings, he made no attempt at resistance. His mission was accomplished.

I’m not sure there is an easy link between movies and gun violence. I think the link is between the violence and the publicity. Those like James Holmes, who feel the need to arm themselves, may also feel a deep, inchoate insecurity and a need for validation. Whenever a tragedy like this takes place, it is assigned catchphrases and theme music, and the same fragmentary TV footage of the shooter is cycled again and again. Somewhere in the night, among those watching, will be another angry, aggrieved loner who is uncoiling toward action. The cinematic prototype is Travis Bickle of Taxi Driver. I don’t know if James Holmes cared deeply about Batman. I suspect he cared deeply about seeing himself on the news.

Should this young man—whose nature was apparently so obvious to his mother that, when a ABC News reporter called, she said “You have the right person”—have been able to buy guns, ammunition and explosives? The gun lobby will say yes. And the endless gun control debate will begin again, and the lobbyists of the National Rifle Association will go to work, and the op-ed thinkers will have their usual thoughts, and the right wing will issue alarms, and nothing will change. And there will be another mass murder.” (Roger Ebert, “We’ve Seen this Movie Before”, 20 July, 2012).

While Ebert seeks to minimise the link between real and imaginary violence, he nonetheless sees another important link: mass murder as media creation. The irony is that he also refers to a famous movie character—Taxi Driver‘s Travis Bickle—to help us understand the connection between violence and madness. Particularly ironical is his reluctance to see that Batman’s Bruce Wayne also had bats in the belfry, and treated ‘a deep, inchoate insecurity and a need for validation’ by projecting terror onto the mean streets of Gotham.

Robert De Niro as Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver (1976)

Robert De Niro as Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver (1976)

Despite the link between mass media and mass murder, we cannot directly blame a media saturated culture for reporting and commenting on the news. Media outlets didn’t put a gun to James Holmes head or direct him into the cinema to commit murder. If we allow ourselves to think like that we’d be more like James Holmes than we’d care to admit: it would clearly be delusional and paranoid thinking. Pointing the finger in this way would be akin to shooting the messenger or holding them directly responsible for the weather.

Nonetheless, the media does remain responsible for the moral climate, or the temperament of the surrounding environment. When a competitive media is focussed on sensationalist treatment, it becomes symptomatic of the madness scaring us. Resorting to conventional storytelling tropes—demonising the perpetrator, insisting on a triumph of good over evil, seeking closure in a revenge fantasy, etc.—reduces human suffering to a pre-packaged spectacle. Its more interested in heightening the dramatic effect than exploring (and addressing) the root causes. The only therapeutic value that such storytelling has is that it provides false consolations when confronting our worst fears. We have to bridge the moralisation gap by providing the missing link: through an awareness of our shared humanity and responsibility.

We can cross this gap by blacking out the identity of mass murderers. Such a media blackout ensures that their victims remain the focus of attention and preys on every (potential) killer’s fear of insignificance. We need to adopt a healthier narrative by curing our addiction to the myth of pure evil . Instead of preying on everyone’s worst fears, the mass media needs to stop jumping the gun and allow cooler head to prevail. And the only way it can do this is by speaking truth to power (fantasies). In other words, we need to divest evil of its grandiosity or mythic resonance by completely banalizing with the morally neutral language of psychiatric explanations. Less grandiose explanations cut mass murderers down to size, and take back their power (fantasy). It also recognises that murderers are amongst the victims of massacres, and allows us to humanise their own suffering.

James Holmes

James Holmes

Extending sympathy and understanding ensures that we can focus on the bigger picture. Anyone following the latest developments will see the difficulty in bringing a moving picture into better focus. While information remains piecemeal and contradictory, the writing was clearly on the wall in this treatment of the story. All said and done, we are obliged to question the moral standing of a society able to adopt an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ approach to an escalating problem. As we have seen, it is dangerous for a community that literally embodies the faculty of reason to leave a mentally ill person to their own devices.

We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work. We are a wholly independent, women-owned, small company. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing, challenging times where costs have risen and advertising has dropped precipitously. PopMatters needs your help to keep publishing. Thank you.

//Mixed media

NYFF 2017: 'Mudbound'

// Notes from the Road

"Dee Rees’ churning and melodramatic epic follows two families in 1940s Mississippi, one black and one white, and the wars they fight abroad and at home.

READ the article