Fewer than 24 hours after the tragic death of 12 people at a midnight showing of “The Dark Knight Rises” in Aurora, Colo., the northeast Ohio theater where I watched the movie was still sold out, but the audience was subdued, reflective, cautious.
I almost stayed home out of respect for those who had died and — I’ll be honest — out of fear. I wasn’t so much worried about a repeat in violence, but rather that the very act of going to the movies would be changed irrevocably, the playful anticipation when the house lights dim forevermore replaced with a feeling of dread.
And the atmosphere was changed. Police officers patrolled the front lobby. Extra employees were on hand inside the theater. Before the movie began, people carried on whispered conversations, retreated into their phones, or just sat quietly. Nobody joked. Few smiled. The movie elicited only tiny ripples of applause, not the thunderous ovation one might have expected from the concluding chapter of one of Hollywood’s most successful franchises.
I found myself considering the height of the seats in front of me, wondering how everybody in the row could possibly take shelter behind them. At one point early in the film, a tall, thin man stood and made his way toward the exit. Was I the only person to find sinister intent in an innocent popcorn or restroom run?
These are thoughts I never had in a theater before. The “me” who just a week earlier sat in the same seat and watched another film without marking the location of the exits and pondering the mental well-being of the people around me seemed hopelessly naive.
It’s the same way people felt when flying or entering a public building for the first time after 9/11. Today, it’s impossible to envision a time when luggage and tickets were all that were needed to board a plane — an era before scanners, pat-downs and 3-ounce or smaller bottles in carry-on bags.
Diminished freedom is the price we all pay each time somebody does the unthinkable, like opening fire in a crowded theater. We hold meetings and conduct earnest conversations, draft new guidelines and hope it will keep us safe — or safer — until the next time.
Bodies were still in that auditorium-turned-abattoir in Aurora when at least one theater chain banned masks (AMC), at least one politician turned up the rhetoric about gun control (New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg), and at least one reporter asked if the shooter was emulating the villain Bane from the film (NBC’s Matt Lauer).
Other theater chains likely will follow AMC’s lead and tighten guidelines about what can and cannot be worn and brought into a movie theater, if they haven’t already done so. Some may even end midnight showings altogether, but I hope not. Millions of people enjoy the innocent fun of seeing a movie “first,” and the vast majority are decent, law-abiding people.
Nothing in the shooter’s background prevented him from buying guns; over the last few months, he amassed quite a collection. Certainly, the nation would benefit from serious debate over the ease with which people can procure assault rifles, but to use this tragedy to keep guns out of the hands of law-abiding citizens would be unfair. (And nobody is more anti-gun than yours truly.)
Finally, it’s hard to say what serves as a trigger for a diseased mind. It’s easy to look at, for instance, the Columbine High School massacre — just 13 miles from Aurora — and pronounce that the two young killers were hopelessly enthralled by violent video games. Yet cause-and-effect is notoriously difficult to establish, as evidenced by the thousands of people who play similar games with no ill effects.
“Batman” — the movies and the comic books — is about the need for good people to stand up against injustice. If the Aurora shooter was fixated instead on the villains in the series, he missed the point entirely, about that and a great many other things.
Society likes the assurance of pat answers, because it gives us something to fix. Tighter security at movies. No costumes. Tougher gun laws. More socially responsible entertainment.
But the ugly truth is that sometimes bad people do bad things with no advance warning, despite our best efforts at prevention and detection. If we close one avenue, they will only find another, and the best we can do is stick together and refuse to let them cow us into submission.
That’s why I went to the movies Friday night, and why I’ll keep going back. To do otherwise lets the bad guys win.
cschillig on Twitter
Originally published July 26, 2012, in The Alliance Review.