I saw The Dark Knight Rises at the drive-in this weekend. At first it felt a bit odd, and I wondered if I would know at which point in the film, the shooter entered the Aurora Century 16 Cinema and opened fire on the audience. Would I feel a shiver or an eerie tingle. Morbid, yes, but the precipitating sense of terror-by-proxy didn’t last beyond the first minutes.

Since I was at the drive-in, one of my favorite places on the planet, with special visitors Mr. Lousy and Doris W. at my side, gorging on Vietnamese take-out and French pastries, parked in front of a family with pre-schoolers enacting their own Batman/Catwoman-inspired martial arts performances as their father sat smoking cigarettes in their stroller, I became lost in the rather blissful summer moment around me, and thankfully, I lost the moment in my mind where twelve people were murdered and scores of others injured in a shooting rampage – while watching the same film that I was.

I don’t feel guilty for enjoying myself at the film, but even that sweet summer night will always have a thread of tragedy running through it. I don’t know how many degrees of separation there are between me and the audience in Aurora, but I feel almost as if they were fallen brethren: people so excited for a film that they show up for a midnight screening to see what many no doubt anticipated to be their favorite film of the year.

I understand them: people crazy to see a movie.

I don’t understand the shooter: a man crazy to murder and maim in a massacre at a movie theater.

The Century 16 Cinema after the midnight showing of The Dark Knight Rises.

  • Was he so mentally ill that he actually felt a bond to the ultra-disturbing, psychopathic Joker, played to unnerving effect by Heath Ledger in the previous film in the Christopher Nolan-directed Batman trilogy, The Dark Knight?
  • Was he so desperate for attention or fame that he was willing to open fire into an innocent crowd whose most notable link to him appears to be Batman movies?
  • Was he compelled or influenced by the prior film to act out as The Joker, using a terror tactic that would have been small in scale but not out of line with that grotesque, blindingly disturbing character? Rather than just bonded to the villain, did he feel he was the character, or could ascend/descend to him through action?

A Wrench in the Gears (Joker/Heath Ledger/Batman) by Jim Hance

Or was it all three?

There are also the trailers for the new Batman film, all four of which have an ominous pitch of mass-destruction and impending doom set either to a pounding cheer or to the reverential clarity and focus of a child’s rendition of the national anthem. The second of the trailers showcases Bane’s biggest boffo moment, exploding the ground underneath the football field to create a spectacular form of terror and introduce himself as Gotham’s unquestionable new center of power.

This is no spoiler for anyone with a TV, computer, or a movie ticket. In fact, the football stadium scene served as the key spectacle from the trailer revving up fans for The Dark Knight Rises. It was incredibly intense, and on consideration, remarkably similar to the attack on the Aurora cineplex.

When I look at Bane standing in the shadows of the stadium, waiting for his big entrance, I have to ask myself if the Aurora shooter saw himself as another Bane before entering the theater, waiting for a precisely perfect moment to wreak terror on the film audience, soon to become his audience, just as Bane made the stadium’s spectators his.

***

The Dark Knight Rises, with its magnificent trailers and the preceding Dark Knight with its highly unsettling villain, may help to explain something about the shooter and his motivations, but I found another film, in another series, which perhaps brought me even closer.

A few weeks ago, I decided to watch Scream 2, the second in the Wes Craven Scream series written by Kevin Williamson. I can’t watch much horror today because I find it generally repulsive, but I remembered being surprised and scared by Scream 2 when I saw it second-run fifteen years ago at The Davis Theater in Chicago, so I thought I’d give it a go and test the film and myself in terms of how well we’d aged: the movie as a horror sequel made 15 years ago, and me as a discerning viewer with tastes changing over time.

It is a good horror film, with the meta-awareness/semi-parody horror sub-genre still fresh enough to allow for some genuine laughs as well as gasps of shock. The movie is packed with 1990s references and really dates itself as 1997, which I don’t find unfortunate at all, since I enjoy when films really capture their era. Scream 2 does so, with its giant cell phones, Friends meta-jokes, O.J. trial references, stars like Sarah Michelle Gellar, Portia de Rossi, and Timothy Olyphant just before their big rise, and a script that works in tandem with the audience’s knowledge and expectations of how a standard horror/slasher film from that period was assembled.

What could Scream 2 possibly have to do with the Aurora shootings at the midnight premiere of The Dark Knight Rises?

A lot.

Scream spoilers from the tetralogy/quadrilogy (I looked those terms up) follow.

The Scream franchise always opens with an elaborate murder or murders, usually of a bigger-name performer, which came as a shock when Drew Barrymore was killed off in the opening scene of the first film; after that, the opener became one of the series’ hallmarks and the source of great anticipation, though not of surprise.

Omar Epps and Jada Pinkett as innocent, doomed moviegoers in Scream 2.

In Scream 2, the victims are played by Omar Epps and Jada Pinkett (pre-Smith), a couple out for a fun night at the movies, with Williamson and Craven working the meta-angle hard by predictably killing off the Black characters first, and more saliently, by staging the murders at the premiere of a film-within-a-film, “Stab,” which tells the story of the original Scream.

Like the opening of the Dark Knight Rises, the “Stab” premiere is an anticipated event, not just a blockbuster’s big weekend. Fans show up in the Ghostface costume (worn by the killers from the first film) with plastic daggers chasing one another up and down the aisles and through the lobby.

The Omar Epps character leaves his seat to use the toilet, and is stabbed in the head in the men’s room as he eavesdrops on some bizarre noises in the adjacent stall.

Jada Pinkett and Ghostface from Scream 2.

The killer then returns to Epps’ seat next to Jada Pinkett, silently posing as Epps. Just as the first “Stab” murder takes place – with Pinkett’s character talking to the screen in another wink at the camera, this time a questionable one at African American audience participation at the movies – she notices real blood dripping just before the costumed killer proceeds to stab her multiple times, in synch with the slaughter on the “Stab” movie screen.

As she stumbles onto the stage, the rambunctious crowd initially cheers, thinking that the dying woman soaked in her own blood is part of a prank – until she drops dead with a thump that opens to the title of Scream 2.

The similarity between the Scream 2 opening scene and the Aurora shootings now makes me uncomfortable. The horror film and the Aurora midnight show of the Dark Knight Rises share the innocuous entry of a costumed character from the preceding film in the series, Ghostface/The Joker, who the audience believes to be part of a prank or promotion, and who subsequently takes advantage of the lighthearted reaction with a broad sweep into terror.

When I watched the Scream 2 opening on Youtube yesterday, it felt prescient in a terrible way. I squirmed viewing it this time, not for the stabbing, but for the m.o. used to carry it out. It also made me question what it is about horror and onscreen killing that I actually enjoy. Is it mounting suspense, a cathartic release of fear, or slightly sadistic voyeurism. And if it is even a trace of the latter, does that lump me in with the mass murderer in Aurora?

No, I believe I’m squarely in the first two camps. I have avoided all the torture-porn horror of the new millenium, and I have to ask myself what the appeal of that is. I feel my indignation towards the Saw and Hostel films is justified even though I have never seen them. I won’t take anything away other than disgust.

Still, though I don’t feel very odd about enjoying The Dark Knight Rises, I do now about Scream 2.

Timothy Olyphant and his plan to become a criminal sensation and successfully blame the movies for his killings.

The finale of Scream 2 also makes me wonder about the motives of the Aurora shooter. Once one of the killers is revealed as the Timothy Olyphant character, he launches into a campy, wild-eyed explanation, not of his methods, but of his motivation and his anticipation of becoming a media sensation, an instantly public figure who will consciously blame the effects of watching horror films for his crimes. He wants fame and infamy in a single swoop.

This leads me toward the mind of the Aurora killer. I may not fully understand how he could bring himself to do what he did, but perhaps I have an idea of his motivation, which, as with the Olyphant character, could quite well exist with a serious mental illness.

The Aurora audience is reported to have thought the killer’s entrance – with him wearing dyed-orange Joker hair and what appears to me a Bane-like mask – a prank or a stunt. And maybe it was a stunt – on a twisted scale of psychopathology.

I can only hazard a guess.

Dave Cullen, a journalist who authored a book on the 1999 Columbine shootings, warns us not to assume we know the motivations of the murderer. In his July 21 Op-Ed piece in the New York Times, he explains that the media fed the public easy answers as to why two high school kids would commit the atrocities that they did: they were outcasts seeking revenge against bullies.

However, their journals indicate far more complexity. One of the boys was clearly psychopathic and full of hate filling page after page of his writings; the other showed a jagged mixture of longing for love and hatred directed not at other students, but at himself. The latter boy was not psychopathic, but deeply depressed and suicidal.

The Aurora gunman acted on his own, so far as we know at this point. It seems we are left with a single mind to question, but I find myself looking not only into his, but into mine as well.

How do I feel about violence on the screen? I am fairly inured to it and have even felt slightly irritated when my movie suggestions get vetoed on account of violence. Just as I find torture scenes meritless in film, should I also find other acts of violence, ones that I have become hardened to after decades of TV-viewing and movie-going, equally distasteful and even abhorrent?

I don’t know. But when I watched the opening clip from Scream 2, flashing in my mind, beyond the opening theater scene, meant to usher in the sequel with spectacular flourish and a sly but wicked wink, were images of the 12 people, including a child, shot to death at The Dark Knight Rises midnight showing at the Aurora Century 16 Cinema.

Greg Zanis returns to Colorado to plant crosses for the shooting victims at the Century 16 Cinema, just as he did after the Columbine High School shootings.

Then I worry. About a society, including myself, desensitized to violence and expecting it as entertainment. About semi-automatic guns freely available online to mass-murderers. About films and their publicity designed to rev up the audience that inadvertently ramp up a mentally ill man plotting a massacre of human beings as they pass popcorn to their friends, whisper to their dates, beg their father for another Junior Mint, or sit wide-eyed in wonder celebrating a birthday that would come again.

I think of summer movies largely as escapism – from drudgery, from hard times, from unhappiness, from a daily grind. The shootings in Aurora feel especially cruel since the gunfire was directed at people lost in the escapist excitement of a midnight movie in a darkened theater. The communal aspect of moviegoing turned tragic as it was exploited by a man who seized a shared moment and ruined it forever.

Below is a photo I took at the Vali-Hi drive-in showing of The Dark Knight Rises on opening weekend. A drive-in literally packed to capacity with families grilling dinner, kids tossing a football, older folks walking the dog, moms chasing toddlers, children climbing onto the roofs of cars, and teenagers spread out on blankets staring up into the sky.

That was my summer movie. It should have been the movie for everyone.

View from our spot in the very back row of the Vali-Hi in Lake Elmo, MN on opening weekend for The Dark Knight Rises.