One Month After ‘Batman’ Massacre, Still No Evidence of Film Influence

August 22, 2012

One thing I try to do as a journalist and skeptic is revisit claims and predictions that appear at one point to see if they were true or not. I've done this with many different topics, including psychic predictions, predictions about whether Barack Obama planned to outlaw guns, and whether a horror film called Orphan would really cause adoption rates to plummet, as was claimed. It's more than just an exercise in finding out who was right and who was wrong; it also often provides a useful post-mortem analysis of where thinking and logic worked-or didn't work. It can offer important lessons in skepticism.

So in that spirit, I decided to revisit a blog I wrote on July 20 titled, "Real-Life ‘Dark Night': Did Batman Inspire Killings?" The thesis of my piece was that, based on the information available at the time, there was no evidence that the shooter, James Holmes, was inspired by the Batman film whose premiere he shot up-and indeed there was good reason to doubt that he had been inspired to kill either by The Dark Knight Rises or its villain, Bane.

(Fair warning: Close analysis of arguments takes time and space, and this blog is over 2,500 words long. If you're not interested in an in-depth look at the claims that shooter James Holmes was inspired to massacre and injure dozens by Batman films--and issues of media-inspired violence in general--then this blog isn't for you.)

In my original blog I wrote: "One immediate question was linked to the news: What, if anything, was the connection to the Batman film? It's easy to see why people would jump to the conclusion that the film and the massacre were related, but in this case it's pretty clear that the film itself did not inspire the shooter; as far as is known the shooter didn't even see the movie. Furthermore, this attack clearly took preparation, and had probably been planned for days, weeks, or even months. The theater was showing the midnight movie as the first screening of the film, so there's very little chance that the film itself inspired the violence, since there's no indication that Holmes himself had even seen it." It seemed like a fairly straightforward analysis that avoided much speculation and simply explained why a popular claim circulating at the time was probably wrong.

The Responses

The response I got from readers was interesting-and generally critical. It has now been a month since the attacks, and we now have the benefit of having more information come out to determine whether or not the original claims and speculation has been borne out. Interestingly, commenters who were otherwise in agreement that I made an error, or engaged in unwarranted speculation, didn't agree on what exactly I was wrong about.

Allow me to unpack the claims; here are the main issues:


Question #1: Was James Holmes inspired by The Dark Knight Rises?

The question in the media-and the one I very specifically addressed-was whether the shooter was inspired by the film playing on the big screen behind him during his massacre: The Dark Knight Rises. The question was not whether Holmes was inspired to kill by the 1960s television version of Batman, nor by the 1968 Batman cartoons, nor by the 1992-1995 show Batman: The Animated Series, nor by any of the various other Batman film adaptations or comic books. The question being asked widely in the media at the time was if Holmes was dressed like (or role-playing) Bane, the villain in the film.

One writer, William London, considered it a "plausible hypothesis" that Holmes was inspired by the film, though in my original piece I explained why it was pretty clear to me that Holmes was not copying or inspired by the character of Bane: "Holmes was dressed in a bulletproof vest and a riot helmet, along with a gas mask. This has led to speculation that he may have been inspired by the Batman villain Bane, who also wears bulletproof armor and breathes through a mask (though it's not a gas mask). It could be a case of a real-life fan dressing like a movie villain (this is nothing new, as legions of Star Wars and Harry Potter fans know), or it might merely be a case of dressing appropriately for the plan of attack: If a person is planning to be in a shootout and use a gas or smoke grenade, then a bulletproof vest and a gas mask are logical equipment for the purpose, and may have nothing to do with Bane or Batman."

Question #2: Was James Holmes inspired by anything having to do with Batman, such as the villain the Joker?

So even if it's clear that Holmes was not (and indeed could not have been) inspired specifically by the villain in the new Batman film how plausible is it that he was inspired by the Joker, the villain in the previous Batman film?

The speculation that Holmes was influenced by something having to do with Batman seems to rest on two items: 1) the fact that Holmes had dyed his hair red or orange in possible imitation of a clown like the Joker; and 2) statement made by a law enforcement official that "Witnesses told police that Mr. Holmes said something to the effect of ‘I am the Joker" (quoted in the July 21 New York Times, p. A12). From this detail, speculation ran rampant. One poster, "Gray" suggested, "For a little insight, Google ‘I am the joker.' So the guy shows up in court with his hair dyed orange... "I'm the Joker!" I think we know where his lawyers are going with this."

Assuming that it's true that Holmes said "I'm the Joker" to his victims and/or the police, that doesn't mean he was "inspired" to kill his victims by either the Batman films or villain. By all accounts Holmes is mentally ill, often zoning out and being unresponsive in court. The idea that anyone could assign a motive to Holmes's actions with any confidence based three or four words-and no other evidence-is absurd.

The hypothesis that Holmes was inspired by the Joker would be much stronger if there was more than just his statement; for example if he has been in a Joker costume (which are relatively inexpensive and easily available), or if her had been in clown makeup. But what about Holmes's dyed hair? Isn't that clearly an imitation of the Joker? That seems compelling until you realize that the Joker doesn't have red hair in any of the Batman films (or anywhere else, for that matter). Neither Joker in the films (played by Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger) had red or orange hair: the Joker's hair is-and always has been-green. If Holmes was imitating the Joker as has been claimed, he seems to have done a very poor job of it, neglecting to adopt the character's makeup, hair color, costume, or any other characteristic of the iconic villain. In fact I've seen no evidence that Holmes used any part of the Joker's image, character, or anything else.

Who actually said "I am the Joker! I'm gonna load my guns and blow everybody up!"? Not James Holmes but instead a man named Neil Prescott who threatened to shoot his coworkers in a mass attack at Pitney Bowes plant in Washington D.C. on July 27. Though news reports say that Prescott explicitly referred to himself as "the Joker," he was not dressed like the Batman villain, nor was there any connection or relevance to Batman at all. Thus we see that just because a person refers to himself as "the Joker" or "a joker" or whatever doesn't mean that he's inspired by a Batman film or character. And, bringing us back to the original point of my piece, there is in fact not a single reference to the Joker anywhere in by The Dark Knight Rises, a choice the director Christopher Nolan explicitly made.


Some suggested that I speculated far beyond the evidence in my blog. There was actually very little speculation in my piece, and what there was of it has been supported, not refuted, by the facts that have come out since the shooting. Let's examine my analyses and predictions:

1) The shooter had begun preparing for the massacre long before The Dark Knight Rises was released, and therefore the attack could not have been inspired by the film since it had not even released yet. I wrote, "this attack clearly took preparation, and had probably been planned for days, weeks, or even months."

This speculation turned out to be completely accurate; as the Associated Press reported in a story headlined "Cops: Rampage Suspect Prepared for Months," "The Colorado shooting suspect planned the rampage that killed 12 midnight moviegoers with "calculation and deliberation," police said yesterday, receiving deliveries for months that authorities believe armed him for battle and were used to rig his apartment with dozens of bombs."

2) I also speculated that the shooter had not seen the film The Dark Knight Rises: "as far as is known the shooter didn't even see the movie...The theater was showing the midnight movie as the first screening of the film, so there's very little chance that the film itself inspired the violence, since there's no indication that Holmes himself had even seen it."

This, also, seems to have been completely correct; it was indeed the film's premiere and therefore it was the first opportunity Holmes could have had to see (or be "inspired by") the film. The shooting took place at approximately 12:30 am CT, following previews. Though Holmes might have watched the first ten or so minutes of the film, he clearly arrived at the theater (prior to seeing any of the film) armed and intending to kill. Based on there being no evidence that Holmes had seen the film, my conclusion that Holmes could not have been inspired by a film he had not seen was accurate logical deduction, not speculation.

So the question becomes, given the total absence of any evidence that Holmes was inspired by The Dark Knight Rises, why several readers took issue with my post. There is no evidence that Holmes ever even saw the film he was supposedly "inspired" by. There's also no evidence that he dressed like, or adopted any distinguishing characteristics of, any Batman villain including Bane and the Joker. Where then does that leave us?

Missing Links and the Burden of Proof

Several commenters took me to task for what they understood as my explicit denial that Holmes could have been influenced by the Batman film, or the media in general. One poster, Nick, wrote, "There has been NO information released about the gunman or his motives. But you're sure that the film had nothing to do with it? This could have been planned in hours. Sorry, this is simply irresponsible reporting, IMHO."
Another poster, Randy, wrote "It depends on what your definition of "inspired" is. It's hardly necessary to see the film to be inspired by it to do something. Maybe the shooter didn't like the idea of yet another Batman movie by Nolan. Maybe he didn't like the trailers, TV spots, or clips. Maybe he believed the recent Bane/Bain nonsense. This being a midnight movie premiere, rather than a generic showing, it seems likely this particular movie was chosen for a reason."

But by far the most through rebuttal along these lines came from William London: "Considering that "The Dark Knight Rises" (1) received much advanced publicity and advertising regarding the behavior and motivations of the Bane character, (2) is based on well-known comic book characters including Bane, and (3) is thematically linked to two previous movies featuring psychopathic violence similar to that perpetrated by the Colorado shooter, you should acknowledge that it is at least plausible (even if it cannot be confirmed) that the shooter was in some way inspired by the release of "The Dark Knight Rises" and/or something linked to it. Your piece is overly dismissive of the notion that media depictions can sometimes inspire unhinged people to commit specific types of violent acts. I suggest that a careful review of the relevant literature would be more enlightening than citing Michael Moore's storytelling....It's prudent to avoid jumping to premature conclusions about media influencing violence. Likewise it's prudent to avoid dismissing plausible hypotheses, especially when offering only a superficial discussion of relevant facts."

I'm glad that Nick, Randy, and William brought that point up; let's examine it more closely. In the weeks since the shootings, there remains no evidence I have seen demonstrating that Holmes's actions were in any way inspired by the new Batman film, or any other film or media depiction, for that matter. It takes more than orange hair and a comment about being a Joker to conclude that the shooter was motivated to kill by anything to do with Batman. The Dallas Morning News, far from suggesting that the film inspired Holmes, reported that the shooter's "background gives no clue of doctoral student's motive." Notably, it did not state that Batman or any film gave a clue about his motives.

At the time there was no evidence that the shooter was inspired by the Batman film, and there remains none. In fact, according to The New York Times the only clue offered at the time was that Holmes seemed ordinary if socially awkward, and that "He spent much of his time immersed in computer, often participating in role-playing online games." Thus the only media mentioned as a possible influence was role-playing computer games, not films. Of course the description "often participating in role-playing online games" describes hundreds of millions of people-almost none of whom commit massacres.

Though a Batman mask was reportedly found in Holmes's apartment, there is no indication from him at all that he was motivated or inspired by the character, the film, or anything else. Contrast this situation with the recent school shooting at Texas A&M University, in which the alleged shooter, Thomas Caffall, stated explicitly in Facebook posts that he was "inspired by" several famous military snipers and sharpshooters who he mentioned by name (Fernandez, Manny. "Gunman in Texas Wrote of ‘Inspirational' Snipers," New York Times Aug. 15 2012 ). Caffall idolized and mimicked the snipers and cited them as inspirations.

London criticized me for not providing "a careful review of the relevant literature" about the link between media and social effects. This comment demonstrates a profound misunderstanding of skepticism and the burden of proof. I didn't cite any references for the simple reason that I wasn't making a claim. As all skeptics know (or should know) the burden of proof is on those making the claim.

Another poster, "Griff," wrote, "I can conclude you believe the media has no effect whatsoever on human behavior? ... Can't say I agree that TV, movies, etc. have no effect on human behavior." (Of course I never suggested that "TV, movies, etc. have no effect on human behavior," that's a rather obvious straw man argument.)

Let's be very clear about the claim I addressed: that the accused Colorado shooter, James Holmes, was "inspired" either by the film The Dark Knight Rises or its villain. Some people have tried to broaden the claim to state that Holmes was inspired by the Batman mythology, or a character from it (such as the Joker). These are perfectly reasonable, plausible claims that lack one crucial thing: good evidence.

It's also falling into the fallacy of moving the goalposts: If I prove that Holmes could not have been "inspired" by the new Batman film he hadn't seen (or the villain in it), then the claim changes to say that he was inspired by a different Batman villain, the Joker. If I demonstrate that there's little or no evidence that Holmes was "inspired" to kill by the Joker, then the claim changes to say that he was inspired by the Batman mythology, or media violence in general.

It's not up to skeptics to prove that vaccines don't cause autism, the burden of proof is on those who claim they do. It's not up to skeptics to prove that a UFO did not crash in Roswell, New Mexico, in 1947; it's up to those making the claim to offer proof or evidence. And it's not up to me to prove that Holmes was not inspired by a Batman film to massacre theatergoers; it's up to people like London to prove that is the case.

The question is not, "Is it possible that Holmes was inspired by the Batman film?" but instead, "Is there good evidence that Holmes was inspired by the Batman film?" It is up to London, not me, to offer evidence that "that the shooter was in some way inspired by the release of The Dark Knight Rises," which he considers a "plausible hypothesis" despite the fact that there's no evidence Holmes even saw the film that "in some way inspired" him. But suggesting that it is incumbent upon me to prove that The Dark Knight Rises, or another Batman film, or anything else did not inspire or affect Holmes is simply illogical and poor critical thinking.

The irony is that while I was being (inaccurately) accused of basing my piece on evidence-free speculation, several posters responding to my piece were doing exactly that-speculating (without offering evidence) that Holmes was inspired by The Dark Knight Rises, or another Batman film.

Of course, new details are still coming out in this case, and it's possible that I'm completely wrong. If anyone wants to try to make the case and offer evidence that Holmes was indeed "inspired" to kill by The Dark Knight Rises, or any Batman movie, cartoon, comic book, or villain, I'll be happy to look at it and change my position.