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

During a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises, violence moved from across the screen into the audience. The shooting spree might as well have come straight out of a nightmare: it exhibited an unhinged logic as an agent of chaos upset the established order. The Joker (sic/k) unleashed terror, of course, by opening fire on people who had come to watch Batman defeat the forces of evil. The shooter projected the chaos in his head onto a different screen — one without a partition or protective layer.

The ensuing pandemonium would have been as surreal as it was terrifying. Like the person shooting at them, audience members initially had difficulty in distinguishing between fantasy and reality. Holmes’ murderous rampage was originally mis/taken for the film’s mise en scene. We all know now, of course, that the shooting in the cinema was not supposed to be included in the composition of the shot. People on the edge of their seats were suddenly lying dead in the aisles or fleeing towards the exits. This was not a scene in 3D but an unfolding tragedy with incalculable effects and misery.

The resulting narrative captures an inconceivable horror: the Aurora shooting can now be viewed as a sequel to the Columbine High School and Virginia Tech massacres. These male students didn’t appear to be settling old scores but rather, they seemed to be trying to beat one another’s high score.

While seeking attention might be a trigger point, social neglect remains the recurring theme. Equally troubling is the way society attempts to lower the level of discourse by minimising its own liability. It will either seek refuge behind simple moral explanations or turn on itself to avoid being targeted.

Ducking for cover behind terms such as ‘nutjob’ or ‘evil’ is perfectly understandable. Value laden terms reintroduce a semblance of order into a chaotic world. Nonetheless, our tendency to mistake character assassination for psychological insight remains questionable. The possibility for understanding is diminished when we write off people acting crazy as the personification of evil.

We also question the morality of impugning the character of ‘mentally ill’ people per se — while turning mental illness into a form of entertainment. Witness how we generally tar and feather the ‘mental’ — as either a menace or embarrassment to society. It’s bad enough that these lost souls typically suffer torments that relatively sane people can only imagine – we have to diminish the mentally ill by dehumanizing and marginalising them even further. We’ll generalize from one illness to another, tarring different people with the same brush of fear and misunderstanding.

Dividing people into ‘us’ and ‘them’ — or good and evil — therefore does more harm than good. If we’re to understand — and combat — (mass) murder, we need to dispel the myth that murderers emerge from the shadows. As the FBI report on spree killing indicates, mass murderers are not so much social misfits or dysfunctional loners, but normal members of the community. They’re not freaks but one of us: they come from the ranks of our own families and friends. Their outbursts of violence are therefore symptomatic of recognisable social and/or psychological problems. (See also the Virginia government’s report on the mental health history of Seung Hu Cho to understand the difference between Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, who were also very different from each other).

And if the reports of schizophrenia or dysphoric mania are true, James Holmes came to embody fear itself. He would have been increasingly confused by — and absolutely terrified of — himself prior to terrifying the rest of us. It was his own fear that drove him to meet with not one, but at least three mental health professionals prior to the massacre.

We’re obviously not trying to excuse the massacre or diminish the trauma of survivors. We’re more commenting on the moral psychology of a society pandering to its own fear and ignorance. Indeed, many of the victims – people who escaped with their lives, families and friends of the deceased – are now contending with mental health issues. Readers are therefore encouraged to reach out to people tormented by a horrific experience such as this.

The issue of our own mental well being is simultaneously thrown into question when we also reward people for acting ‘crazy’. Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger were not only celebrated for their performances of a famed ‘psycho’ in the Batman franchises, we all took pleasure from the way their characters introduced chaos into the social order. One of the most disturbing features of social scripts is the way they direct and frame such contradictory behaviour: random acts of violence become entertaining when filtered through a screening process.

Talk about crazy. On the one hand, we want to hold the ‘mental’ completely responsible for their actions. On the other hand, we diminish them for failing to measure up to our own standards. The double standard was readily on display in our response to the massacre: to be mentally ill is the real moral failing.

We’ve also watched the standard conveniently double back on itself. By collapsing the medical into the moral, society is able to split off its mental functions and dis/place the schisms within its own identity. Particularly troubling is the way such moral judgements are coded — they’re structured around an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ mentality typical of any psychotic episode. Indeed, the resulting social discourse reveals a schizophrenic culture struggling with the issue of its own sanity. With so many different voices vying for attention, society has found itself contending with confusing impulses and messages.

The voices that can be heard in our head range from the persecutory to the delusional. Psychological impairment can be seen in the way the shooting has triggered conspiracy theories about who was really behind the massacre and fan clubs publicly supporting their favourite ‘Holmie’. Mass murder has also been used for cheap shots and free publicity.

We’re not talking about a lunatic fringe – other voices within the mainstream can be heard talking about us, too (and yes, we include the sound of our own voice amongst the ceaseless chatter). Despite the court’s gag order, these voices include: the role of violence in entertainment , the gun control debate, the media’s responsibility in covering mass shootings, male violence as a public health issue, the issue of parental responsibility, the question of institutional liability , the problem of reconciling religious belief with human suffering and receiving messages from a non existence God – aka Colin – personally explaining his absence at the Aurora shootings.

It’s worth stressing that schizophrenia does not mean split or multiple personalities – that’s a misconception perpetuated by popular culture in order to heighten its entertainment value. We’re more alluding to a psyche’s inability to integrate its own mental processes. It’s where a breakdown between thought and emotion results in an incoherent moral identity.

The 2012 Aurora shooting has become an ink blot test, or screen onto which a conflicted society can project its personality characteristics and emotional functioning . It’s no accident that people typically see a bat in ink blots such as this:

Such projections invariably give order (shape, meaning) to inherently random patterns and relationships. The irony is that the Batman franchise is predicated on this very psychological process. It inadvertently provides a way to make sense of societies’ dysfunctional response to the shooting in the cinema. Specifically, Nolan’s take on the Batman mythology is presented like a Freudian case study and can be extended to the real world it is already modelled on.

Batman’s origin story dramatizes what psychologists call internalization of the object, or where the outer becomes the inner so as to achieve order. Internalisation refers to a process in which subjects transform real or imagined regulatory interactions and characteristics with the environment… into inner regulations and characteristics. If a subject finds something about the objective world fearful, for example, the best way to keep it safe and orderly is making those fears an integral part of their subjective world.

Within the context of the franchise, the appropriation occurs via the imperative: to defeat fear one must become fear. The rhetorical stance of the series is that we have nothing to fear but fear itself, and that it is therapeutic to turn our innermost fears (self destructive impulses, anxieties, etc) into an external force for good. It involves re/creating the world in our own image and projecting it out there for all the world to see. The Batman mythology therefore shares a psychological process with popular culture itself – that we can work through our issues by directly confronting them. Popular culture resembles the bat signal in that is a projected self image. It can act like a distress signal and summon our innermost conflicts to resolve them. The question before us, then, is therapeutic value of screen violence: how is confronting our worst fears being helpful?

The connection between real and imagined violence has always disturbed blood soaked cultures.Indeed, the blood trail can be followed all the way back to antiquity. Modern research into the links between media violence and violent behaviour, however, remains questionable. And yet the shooting in the cinema invariably raises the question: how did the big screen become linked to a crime scene? Our shock at the Aurora tragedy, of course, is that screen mayhem (somehow turned) into real horror. Holme’s horrific act of violence,

“… violated our sense of the movie theatre as a place of safety and escape, where we can be thrilled by all kinds of wonderful and terrible things secure in the knowledge that none of it is real.” (A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis, “Audiences are Finding Diversity at Summer Movies”, 8th August, 2012).

While this is a fine characterisation of what was so shocking about the Aurora shooting, it fails to see the bigger picture. Like many consumers of violence, it wants to believe in the idea of ‘escapism’. The notion of retreating into a world of make believe, however, is a delusion. In reality, there is no ‘escape’ into the movies (or videogames, etc). Psychologically speaking, movies merely return us to the world in a different way – by giving expression to (shaping, releasing) real fears and desires.

Tom Hardy as Bane in The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

Violent movies mask – conceal, protect – our true identities by hiding behind various tropes and genres. We’re not suggesting that all of these ‘masks’ are compatible or that it is impossible to see through them — merely that they project a world view taken as given on some level. Our response to violence therefore presupposes a shared sensibility (assumptions, attitudes, prejudices, etc) and invariably tests the limits of our moral identities.

We’re (hopefully) all aware that violent movies are not committing real acts of violence — they merely provide a relatively safe environment in which to engage our violent impulses . Nonetheless, the widespread desire for ‘violence as entertainment’ speaks to the content of our characters. Like all media — videogames, books, radio, television, etc — they store and transmit information about ourselves. Movies establish the link between reality and fantasy, and acts as a go between to reconcile the differences between them.

The real question, then, is not the possible link between media violence and violent behaviour. Rather, the question is: where does the violence in the media really come from and can such violent impulses be regulated and contained there — i.e., what are the nature of the causal links between them? The concept of causality is, of course, integral to our understanding of a mediated reality : it cements our place in the world by establishing meaningful connections there. Indeed, it has been called the cement of the universe because it acts as a mental adhesive — it holds everything (including our concepts and minds) together. We therefore cannot interpret away the role of causality and find ourselves directed back towards the relationship between fantasy and reality.

As we shall see, what links them is the notion of a just cause.

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)

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

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.