Dark night: The dangers of movie violence

No one foresaw that a more sinister evil than the fictional Bane would appear at a screening of the latest Batman movie, “The Dark Knight Rises.”

But, in fact, the violent entertainment became a violent event when, on July 20, a masked marauder entered a movie theater and sprayed bullets into an Aurora, Colo., crowd, leaving 12 dead and 58 wounded. In the aftermath of the midnight movie massacre, many have wondered about Hollywood’s culpability: Does violent entertainment inspire violent behavior? Or was it mere coincidence that what police say was a very methodical crime took place during a showing of the dark “Dark Knight Rises”?

The alleged killer, 24-year-old James Holmes, once a promising neuroscience student, primped for the slaughter by dying his hair red and, upon arrest, reportedly told authorities he was “The Joker.” Next came reports that when police searched his booby-trapped apartment, they found a Batman poster. There was also the reminder that Frank Miller’s 1986 “The Dark Knight Returns” shows a lone gunman rise from his seat during a Batman-inspired porn film and open fire on the crowd.

So is Batman partly to blame for Holmes’ bat-crazy behavior?

Although always hotly debated, the link between media violence and aggressive behavior is nothing new. And after any public shooting, debates about gun control, mental illness and proper parenting are reified. Still, the parallels seem peculiarly strong between Holmes’ deadly shooting spree and director Christopher Nolan’s nihilistic knight trilogy, in which good and evil duke it out, and neither is conclusively victorious. 

In his 2007 study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, cited by the U.S. National Library of Medicine, University of Michigan psychology professor L. Rowell Huesmann determined that adolescent exposure to media violence significantly increases the risk of both short-term and long-term aggressive behavior. But beyond his controlled experimental group, Huesmann acknowledged: “One valid remaining question is whether the size of this effect is large enough that one should consider it to be a public health threat: The answer seems to be ‘yes.’ ”

Huesmann added, “The only effect slightly larger than the effect of media violence on aggression is that of cigarette smoking on lung cancer.”

In 2004, Janet Maslin wrote in The New York Times, “From the acts of racial violence spawned by ‘The Birth of a Nation’ to the mere audio-induced panic linked to Orson Welles’s radio broadcast ‘War of the Worlds’ to John Hinckley’s re-enactment of ‘Taxi Driver’ with President Ronald Reagan as his victim, cause-and-effect links to the movies exist.”

But to what extent? Not all minds are equally impressionable. Just because Holmes’ alleged acts may have been triggered by Heath Ledger’s “psychopathic, mass-murdering, schizophrenic clown with zero empathy” —as the late actor described his own turn as The Joker —it does not mean others who view “The Dark Knight” will respond in kind. In fact, Huesmann’s study makes clear that there can be moderating factors, such as the circumstances in which one views violence, or personal predispositions, that impact the extent to which a person is moved by movie mayhem.

Film critics and scholars have been careful to guard the sanctity of artistic freedom. They were quick to dispel blame and stave off talk of censorship by suggesting Holmes was seeking publicity and the Batman finale “event” provided him the stage he sought. Film pundits were quick to absolve the movies as any kind of accomplice, aligning themselves instead with W.H. Auden, who famously wrote: “Poetry makes nothing happen.’’

Movie-watching, it is generally said, is a passive experience. Certainly by Hollywood standards, it is meant to entertain, perhaps to enlighten or stimulate the senses, not to motivate misfortune. It offers, at best, a vicarious experience that can bring relief from the constant, grating pressure wrought by the real world to respond. For many of us, a dark movie theater is the only place to escape and feel safe in surrender.

But events like last week’s shooting, which violated an ordinary setting and turned it into “a death trap,” demand rethinking what we can no longer take for granted: that movie-watching and movie-going should beget psychological pleasure and not horrific physical pain. Sometimes, as author Jonathan Lethem once wrote, “[A] popular myth or symbol as resilient and yet as opaque as Batman has a tendency to collect and recapitulate meaning beyond a creator’s intentions.”

To suggest that movies are merely passive is to sell them short and to deprive popular culture of one of its most prized vehicles for beauty and inspiration. If an art form — any art form — is understood as only for consumption, without the potential to provoke action or incite change, then art itself is rendered rather meaningless. And worse, it becomes emphatically un-Jewish.

What we adore about movies is that they excite and inspire us. The good ones can teach us about love, how to move in for that kiss, what to wear when we’re leaving Casablanca and, when we’re speechless, just what to say. Movies are the dream dust that empowers us to be more than we are.

So, can we deny their intense power, as well, to influence those who are inclined to do harm?