Real-Life ‘Dark Night’: Did Batman Inspire Killings?

July 20, 2012

A mass shooting at the premiere of the new Batman film has cast a pall on the franchise and raised questions about media-inspired violence.

According to an ABC News piece, "A lone gunman dressed in riot gear burst into a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., at a midnight showing of the Batman film "The Dark Knight Rises" and methodically began shooting patrons, killing at least 12 people and injuring at least 50. The suspect, James Holmes, 24, of Aurora, was caught by police in the parking lot of the Century 16 Movie Theaters, nine miles outside Denver, after police began receiving dozens of 911 calls at 12:39 a.m. MT. Police said the man appeared to have acted alone. Witnesses in the movie theater said Holmes crashed into the auditorium through an emergency exit about 30 minutes into the film, set off a smoke bomb, and began shooting. Holmes stalked the aisles of the theater, shooting people at random, as panicked movie-watchers in the packed auditorium tried to escape, witnesses said."

One immediate question was linked to the news: What, if anything, was the connection to the Batman film? 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.

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.

The question of the link between media violence and real-life violence was examined-and largely discredited-in Michael Moore's film Bowling for Columbine, which pointed out that the Columbine school shooters Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold had actually gone bowling shortly before their murderous, suicidal rampage-surely bowling didn't cause the violence?

The fact is that violence and shootings have occurred in countless theaters over the years, and the location of the theater may turn out to be much more relevant to the motive for the shooting than the particular movie showing at the time. Denver is less than twenty miles from Jefferson County's Columbine, the location of worst school shooting in the United States. In that case, too, many people claimed that the killers wore body armor (though police later disputed it).

Blaming the media for social problems is nothing new, and has been done for decades. In 2010 the thriller Black Swan was blamed for causing anorexia and other eating disorders in audiences, and the year before that the horror film Orphan was accused of causing adoption rates to drop if audiences of potential adoptive parents saw the film and believed that they might unknowingly adopt a homicidal dwarf.

If this shooting had occurred somewhere else-say, for example, at a nightclub or a college-few would be asking questions about whether there was some particular identifiable social or cultural media trigger. Those who seek to do violence and damage-especially high-profile damage-will always be able to find crowds and opportunities for their evil.


#1 Steve Ahlquist (Guest) on Friday July 20, 2012 at 9:20am

This attack was not inspired by Batman. This was an attack on Americans enjoying their secular rights, for reasons as yet unknown. This was an act of pointless terrorism and an attack on the very values espoused in the mythology of Batman. “A gun is a coward’s weapon. A liar’s weapon. We kill too often because we’ve made it easy… too easy… sparing ourselves the mess and the work.”

#2 nick (Guest) on Friday July 20, 2012 at 9:53am

“in this case it’s pretty clear that the film itself did not inspire the shooter”

Really?  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

#3 Randy on Friday July 20, 2012 at 11:06am

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 (“see it” being the obvious inspiration).  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.

#4 William M. London (Guest) on Friday July 20, 2012 at 12:11pm

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. You should also acknowledge that it isn’t hard to cite anecdotes describing violent acts clearly influenced by some features of theatrical performances. Cherry-picking anecdotes is to be avoided.

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.

#5 rytl4847 (Guest) on Friday July 20, 2012 at 3:00pm

The film really could have had nothing to do with the shooters motivation. If the shooter was set on attacking people at the theatre, the midnight showing of a massively hyped movie would guarantee that every seat would be filled. Just a hypothesis, better judgements can be made when more data is released.

#6 gray1 on Monday July 23, 2012 at 9:00am

For a little insight, Google “I am the joker”.

#7 Griff on Monday July 23, 2012 at 11:17pm

So, I can conclude you believe the media has no effect whatsoever on human behavior?  Otherwise, you’re stuck with the problem of explaining why, on one hand, bad behavior can’t be a consequence of movies, TV, etc. but, on the other, good behavior somehow can be.  Since CFI rejects any and all forms of magical thinking, I’ll assume you’re not making such a claim.

Can’t say I agree that TV, movies, etc. have no effect on human behavior, and I think that, if I felt otherwise, I would have something weightier than a pop documentary to cite as my main authority.

#8 dolores (Guest) on Tuesday July 24, 2012 at 12:02am

James Holmes could very well have been delusional, in that for months he apparently imagined himself as part of the Batman plot.  Fact that the movie was to be aired in a movie close to his apartment was the perfect opportunity for him to further his delusion. He had time to prepare himself with four guns and all of the other paraphanalia.  Like all other delusionals, this fantasy took over his life, he was using drugs to keep him on course, he gave us a brilliant academic career to pursue this private dream.  Certainly the fact that everyone knew this movie would be coming to his city on a particular date excited him to drop out of school and prepare for a part of what he had probably been reading about for years.  Why do we expect our kids to see violence on the screen, the TV, comic books, etc., and are surprised if they react to it?

#9 gray1 on Tuesday July 24, 2012 at 5:33am

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.

#10 Benjamin Radford on Tuesday August 07, 2012 at 9:53pm

Thanks to everyone for their comments on this! I’m actually going to write a follow-up to this, now that a bit more information is out.

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