Does it matter that Friday's mass murder in Aurora, Colo., took place at a screening of "The Dark Knight Rises"? Many in the entertainment media have said no.
Christopher Ferguson at Time argued that murderers can "latch onto any one of a number of things as a distorted rationale for their crimes," so it doesn't matter that accused shooter James Holmes happened to have chosen this screening as the venue for massacre. CinemaBlend's Katey Rich said much the same thing in a post entitled "Don't Let Anyone Blame The Dark Knight Rises For The Colorado Tragedy." And movie critic Anthony Lane, in an eloquent essay posted to the New Yorker's website Friday morning, wrote, "The pain dealt out in Aurora is infinitely more important than the fate of one movie."
These writers all have a point. Certainly, it seemed crass for Deadline Hollywood's Nikki Finke to rush to consider the implications the deaths would have on the movie's opening weekend box-office returns.
And epidemiological studies have mostly discredited the idea -- often bandied about by politicians critical of Hollywood movies -- that violent movies encourage violent behavior.
"I've reviewed all the research that's been done on this issue in the last several decades. And I don't think there's any good evidence that links exposure to violent images on television and movies and the tendency to commit violent acts," University of Toronto psychologist Jonathan Freedman told The Huffington Post.
Likewise, famed forensic psychiatrist Michael Stone rejected the suggestion that a movie can cause someone to become a murderer.
"I don't think it's the case where a young person sees a violent movie and then from that reason alone, in the absence of another trigger, goes out and decides it's a cool thing to do and buys a gun and shoots a bunch of people. I think's it's about some event in his personal life, unrelated to any movie, about which we don't yet know a heck of a lot," Stone said.
(For years, by the way, this was not a widely shared belief. The Beatles' "White Album" was forever associated with the Manson family murders after prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi wrote about Charles Manson's obsession with the record in his book "Helter Skelter." In 1985, the heavy metal band Judas Priest was sued for the role its music supposedly played in the suicides of two Nevada teenagers. And reporters rushed to blame the 1999 murders at Columbine High School on their perpetrators' love of violent video games and "South Park.")
Yet as Dana Stevens pointed out in a thoughtful essay on Slate, the fact remains that the gunman chose a midnight showing of a popular -- and violent -- movie. And according to Ray Kelly of the NYPD, Holmes told the police officers who arrested him, "I am the Joker." Kelly said the suspect's hair was colored red, just as Heath Ledger's Joker was in one notably violent scene featured in "The Dark Knight."
Stone said several mass murderers have modeled their crimes after killings depicted in movies. But because Friday's midnight screening was a local premiere, it's highly unlikely Holmes had even seen the film before planning his crime. In Stone's view, what may have attracted the killer above all was the event's power to generate publicity.
"He moves himself up from a pathetic nothing to a very important person who's getting his 15 minutes of fame by not only the mass murder, but by dressing up as a cartoon character. That would tend to nail his image even more solidly in the minds of the public who follow the event," Stone said.
Dr. Emanuel Tanay, a clinical psychiatrist at Wayne State University who has written about the pathology of murderers, said Holmes' self-professed identification with the Joker could be a sign of a deeper delusion.
"Many present-day movies are really a promotion of violence, though some people are more vulnerable than others -- especially those who have a mental illness. This is bizarre psychotic behavior. That much is clear. What's the underlying delusion or system? That we may or may not find out," Tanay said.
While stressing that the overall effect of violent movies on a population is close to neutral, Freedman acknowledged that it's always possible an individual movie could encourage some unstable person to commit a specific act of violence.
"If you have 100 million people watching violent movies and one of them or five of them or 10 of them have a delusion that they are the people in the movie and they're going to go out and do the same thing as those characters ... it's hard to know. It's conceivable that there are people who are primed to commit terrible acts, and that for some of them, watching some of these movies pushes them over the edge and causes them to commit a violent act," he said.
In short, unless Holmes is some type of extreme behavioral outlier, "The Dark Knight Rises" didn't play a part in his crime. He may be a fan of the franchise, and he almost certainly knew that its premiere would be an extraordinarily high-profile event. But the same could be said for millions of other Americans. And even if he truly believes that he's the Joker, it's still safe to say that Batman didn't make him do it -- his delusions did.
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