Colorado is a state full of passionate and enthusiastic geeks. I know, because I live here.
I've always viewed our community with some chagrin. Whatever gaming store or nerd event I went to, I knew everyone there. Even if there was a new face in the crowd, they knew my sister, her boyfriend or was a friend of a friend I went to college with, so they ended up being a familiar soul after all. Sometimes, I found this dispiriting.
This morning, I found it very frightening.
As you know by now, last night saw a gunman open fire in a theater in Aurora, Colorado during a midnight showing of “The Dark Knight Rises.” The theater was full of happy and excited people. 12 of those people are now dead; many more are wounded.
My phone was going off early this morning. People wanted to know if I had been there. I wasn't at a screening, but my sister had arranged a midnight get-together for the film, and I had no idea which theater she was at. I texted her, and waited. I popped onto Facebook and began hunting down my friends, certain that someone in our hodgepodge geek conclave was there. How could they not be? At every zombie crawl, at every convention, at every movie screening, I knew a geek, or two, or twenty.
Thankfully, my sister is fine. Miraculously, at the time of writing this, everyone we know is safe and unharmed. Of course, this doesn't make the loss of the eager moviegoers any easier to bear. They have family and friends who were undoubtedly trying to track them down, and found out the worst. Our hearts go out to them.
Colorado has already seen this kind of violence, and the similarities to Columbine have already been drawn, and perhaps no more grimly than in the immediate insistence that the tragedy was the result of pop culture, and more specifically, the fault of Christopher Nolan's "Batman" trilogy.
It's too early to speculate on why this madman committed such a heinous act. All we know is that he planned it horrifyingly well, and was bent on destroying not only innocent people in a movie theater, but the neighbors and law enforcement officials who might run into his booby-trapped apartment. I'm grateful that law enforcement have detained him, so that we might know the answers to our questions, instead of forever wondering, speculating and blaming as we have with so many other tragedies.
Also check out: A History of Violence in Movie Theaters
But as the shock wears away, there are ugly and troubling questions that immediately spring to mind. Why did he choose “The Dark Knight Rises”? The answer is probably quite simple: He knew that movie would be packed, and he wanted to kill a lot of people. Logic (and he clearly had that) would dictate that if you want to find a crowd to inflict hurt onto, a midnight screening of “Rises” would offer the perfect opportunity.
However, we geeks and movie fans have to be prepared for some dark revelations. This couldn't have happened at a worse time. "Fans" have been sending death threats to anyone who dared give "Rises" a less than stellar review. Websites and comment fields have been shut down. There was already a discussion forming about civility, rationality and fandom. The fact that "Rises" has now been released not to excitement, but to death, injury and sorrow, is going to fuel that discussion even more.
After Columbine, focus turned on Marilyn Manson, “The Matrix,” video games, and trenchcoats. I lived in the same neighborhood as Columbine High School, and can attest to the paranoia and anger that swirled for months after the event. If you wore a long black coat (and you dared to pair that black coat with boots or sunglasses), you were looked at with fury, silently condemned as someone who celebrated murderers. One felt guilt at enjoying "The Matrix," even though it was proved to have no inspiration or connection to the teenage gunmen. It didn't matter. Everyone needed something visual to blame and rage at.
The same is about to happen to movie enthusiasts and comic geeks. This is the price of going mainstream. Eventually, the world knocks on the door, and demands to see our “weirdos.” Rumors persist that the accused was in “costume,” which will undoubtedly put a focus on cosplayers. The worst of our culture will be emphasized and we'll likely see costumes banned at midnight screenings from this point on, regardless of what evidence about the assailant is revealed. Perhaps midnight screenings will end as well. Geeks, their gatherings and their costumes are going to be seen as a powder keg.
It may very well be that this man was obsessed with DC Comics, Christopher Nolan and Batman. He may be one of the very people who was sending death threats to critics. He may have been too into Nolan's world, a sick mind who fancied himself a supervillain, and wanted to make his mark on a piece of pop culture in a louder way than in a comment field. We've seen the positive sides of fandom – fan-made posters, trailers, web comics, costumes, charity events – and it's constantly thriving and shaped by people who want to be a part, on some level, of a property. Where there's good and honest people who just want to join with others, celebrate and even leave the world better than they found it, there are people who want to hurt, maim, and ruin in the name of obsession.
We have to recognize this. We have to be prepared, and we have to be ready to defend the integrity of fandom we've all seen and experienced. Again, there may be no direct correlation, but we have to brace ourselves that the claims – which are already being made – could turn out to be true.
Even if there is a connection, we have to remember that he didn't kill because of the content of "The Dark Knight Rises." Nolan hasn't created a trilogy that's twisted or mean, sells violence, and celebrates the worst of mankind. One only needs to look at the end of "The Dark Knight" to know that Nolan believes (or hopes) people will do right in the end. This can't be put on him, or the movies, or the culture of comic books, blockbusters, and CG explosions. He sold the right message. Artists can't be responsible for where – and how – it lands.
This crime can, however, be put on an individual who, like many others this week, hasn't valued or respected the lives of his fellow humans. There is something desperately broken in our fan culture that a movie – a movie we're all excited about seeing – would create an atmosphere of bitterness and hate to the point that people were threatening one another over it.
Do I think this man was one of those sending death threats? No, not necessarily. But I do wonder about those who glibly made them, and whether they've gone cold at what the reality of words like "kill," "murder" and "death" looks like. They aren't ones we should throw around so lightly, or wish to have happen. There are a lot of shattered families today that can attest how final their definitions are.