What causes a seemingly ordinary human being to become a monster?
What combination of biochemistry, psychological trauma, substance abuse, and outside influences cause a mind to snap and descend into murderous madness? Or is it all simply a result of demonic possession?
Again we face these unsettling questions amid the horror of Aurora, Colorado, where a brilliant 24-year-old University of Colorado graduate student in neuroscience allegedly went on a killing rampage at a midnight showing of The Dark Knight Rises, the final episode in director Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy.
The suspect, James Holmes, 24, clad in body armor nearly from head to toe, threw tear gas canisters into a packed movie theater, then began firing methodically into the crowd. A dozen people, nearly all of them young, were killed and 58 others were wounded in one of the worst mass murders in American history.
Holmes had a semiautomatic rifle, shotgun and pistol. He reportedly amassed 6,000 rounds of ammunition over the Internet during the past weeks and months. Police say he planned the assault with “calculation and deliberation.” He also booby-trapped his apartment with ammunition and deadly chemicals.
But he was also as mad as a hatter. Police say he told them, “I am the Joker,” modeling himself after the psychopathic criminal in Nolan’s last film, The Dark Knight, played by the late Heath Ledger in the most disturbing acting performance since Anthony Hopkins portrayed Hannibal Lecter.
This is where we get into some truly dangerous ground. No one can accuse an artist or film maker of directly causing mass murder, and I’m certainly not laying the blame at Nolan’s feet. Who could seriously argue, for example, that the Beatles were responsible for the Manson murders because Charles Manson interpreted “Helter Skelter” as the signal for a race war?
But, courtesy of the Drudge Report, here’s a 2008 commentary on The Dark Knight in the feisty British conservative Telegraph by critic Jenny McCartney that caused the hair to stand up on the back of my neck.
McCartney blasted the earlier film for its “sustained level of intensely sadistic brutality.” She continued:
I believe, however, that there is some distinction between violence which is clearly fantastical in origin, such as that in Harry Potter, and that which is realistic and sadistic in tone, such as that in The Dark Knight…
Increasingly, extreme screen violence is used not as a necessary adjunct to a greater point, but as the pleasurable point in itself…
Is there a link between screen violence and actual violence? Fans of violent films will tell you – frequently in the most aggressive terms – that there is not. Yet we know that children are, to greater and lesser degrees, highly imitative of what they see. We know that there is escalating public concern about violent crime…among teenagers.
And we know that entertainment aimed at young people is becoming markedly more violent.
I had a similar reaction to The Dark Knight when I saw it in an IMAX theater in Fort Lauderdale. It gave me nightmares and haunted me for days afterward, but not in the way great movies usually do.
And yet there were several families at the late-night showing, including children who looked as young as six (the age of the youngest victim of the Aurora mass murder). How can parents take kids that young to see this film—in IMAX, no less?, I remember thinking.
It may not have been just ignorance, but a profound coarsening of the culture and a lowering of the threshold at which ultraviolent behavior is seen as family entertainment, which McCartney addressed in her commentary.
How will those young children in the IMAX theater in Ft. Lauderdale react to violence in the future? Will they see it as something glamorous or alluring?
And God forbid they follow the path of the lonely, disturbed young man who may have sat in a dark theater in San Diego and for whom Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker inspired a parallel descent into madness and evil.