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Colorado Movie Theater Shooting Shatters Our Sense Of Safety

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By Ian Landau

Across the country last night, after months of anticipation, sold out crowds filled movie theaters to take in the midnight premiere of the latest Batman movie, "The Dark Knight Rises." But the thrill of the movie's release has been utterly dashed in the wake of the horrific shootings during a screening in Aurora, Colo., in which a lone gunman opened fire on the audience, shooting some 50 people, 12 fatally, authorities say.

At this point we know very little about the suspect in the shooting, James Holmes, 24, an Aurora resident. The Aurora Police Department released one statement earlier today, but it did not contain any information about a possible motive for the shooting or any indication of what Holmes has told police so far, if anything. Reports say Holmes's only previous run-in with the law was a traffic ticket in 2011.

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Inevitably, speculation has run rampant about the suspected shooter's mental health. But one expert warns of making pronouncements until we know more. "It's really preliminary, and at this point it's hard to know what's behind [the shooting]," says Alan Manevitz, M.D., a psychiatrist in private practice in New York City and an attending physician at Lenox Hill Hospital.

Manevitz says while attempts have been made in the past to create a profile that would help us identify potential rampaging gunmen, there simply isn't one. "In the past we've seen people come from well-adjusted and well-to-do families, as well as from broken homes," he says. "Some are loners and some have had friends. No one shooter fits a definitive psychological profile." In Holmes's case, Manevitz wonders if the young man has a previous psychological history or a history of threats, violence or psychotic thinking. "We don't know any of that at this point."

Societal Impact
In addition to forever scarring the lives of so many in the town of Aurora, the nation at large is reeling after the shooting. Addressing the tragic events at a previously scheduled event in Florida, President Obama remarked earlier today: "There are going to be other days for politics.This, I think, is a day for prayer and reflection." Manevitz says our strong reaction is partly due to the location Holmes chose for his crime. "Traditionally in America movie theaters are a safe, family environment where everybody goes and settles down into the dark," he says. "You can watch a scary movie because you know you're safe in the movie theater and can enjoy the experience." The Aurora shooting has suddenly turned that upside down. "That presumption of safety gets shattered," Manevitz explains, "and you feel the vulnerability at that moment."

He says it's understandable that anyone considering seeing "The Dark Knight Rises" might now be having second thoughts. "If you go see Dark Knight now, you have an identification with what happened [in Aurora]," he says. "You don't just say, 'Oh, I'm going to the Batman movie.' You say, 'I'll look over my shoulder.' And that's a natural reaction."

Children in particular may struggle with the emotional impact of the Aurora shooting. "The Dark Knight Rises" is rated PG-13 and undoubtedly millions of kids are planning to see it. But they may now have very confused feelings. In circumstances like these, Manevitz says, young children and adolescents may experience an acute stress reaction. Parents should be on the lookout for such things as new fears, distressing dreams, aggression and separation anxiety. "A child might now say, 'I don't want to go to the movies,'" says Manevitz. He recommends parents be reassuring and try to keep kids from ruminating on the events in Colorado.

Violence In Media
The Aurora shooting may also prompt parents and others to wonder anew about the link between violence in movies and other media and real-life violence. "The Dark Knight Rises" features "intense sequences of violence and action," according to the Motion Picture Association of America's justification for its PG-13 rating. And while research is mixed on the effects of media violence, Manevitz for one is certain that media at least has some influence on us -- even if the exact ways it affects us are unknown. "In the old days when Fonzie showed a library card on "Happy Days", library registration shot up nationwide," he recalls. "When the Budweiser campaign started shouting 'Wazzup!' everybody was screaming 'Wazzup!' So of course media affects us."

But that doesn't mean violent media necessarily has negative effects either. "While cop shows and crime reports make us scared," says Manevitz, "they also make us understand the reality and teach us you have to be careful in situations."

Regardless of the effects of media, however, or the explanations that may eventually emerge for the Aurora shooting, there is no sense to be made of the senseless violence. As Manevitz says, the most we can take away from the tragedy right now is a reminder "that life is fragile and that violence can come in at any point in time."

How did you react to the news of the shooting? Do you think that violence in movies can lead to violence in real life? Let us know in the comments.

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