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

The social discourse around the Aurora shooting at the screening of The Dark Knight Rises reveals a schizophrenic culture struggling with the issue of its own sanity. With so many different voices vying for attention, it has found itself contending with confusing impulses and messages.

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.

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