The GeeksverseLeaving Proof 135 | Making Sense of the Aurora Shooting

Leaving Proof 135 | Making Sense of the Aurora Shooting
Published on Sunday, July 22, 2012 by

On Friday, 20 July 2012, at approximately 12:30 a.m. local time, a man clad in body armor and fitted with a gas mask entered the emergency exit of Theater 9 of the Century 16 cinema complex in Aurora, Colorado, twenty minutes into the midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises. Viewers paid him little mind. Some other members of the audience had come to the premiere of the final installment in director Christopher Nolan’s Batman Trilogy wearing costumes, and the man’s outfit and dyed-red hair were clearly supposed to mark him as a comic book villain of some sort. When the individual threw two smoke canisters into the aisles, many people in the audience reacted with a mixture of annoyance and bemusement, thinking that it was part of a staged special-effects publicity stunt put on by the theater staff.

Annoyance and bemusement quickly gave way to panic and chaos once the man started calmly discharging a firearm into the crowd of seated moviegoers. By the time emergency responders and law enforcement personnel arrived at the scene 90 seconds after the first 911 calls were made, twelve people lay dead or dying from gunshot wounds and 58 people sported various injuries. At the time of this writing, 30 people remain in hospital with injuries, with eleven of the injured listed in critical condition.

Shooting suspect James Holmes

The suspect, a 24-year old neuroscience graduate student named James Eagan Holmes—described by a childhood acquaintance as “extremely quiet, ‘really sweet, shy'”—was found by police at a nearby car park in possession of a 12-gauge shotgun, a semiautomatic assault rifle, a semiautomatic handgun, and a knife. In his white Hyundai parked nearby, officers found another semiautomatic sidearm. Holmes did not resist capture, and reportedly told arresting officers that he was “the Joker, enemy of Batman”.

As a stunned continent tries to come to grips with the scope of this brutal and senseless slaughter, those of us who have spent a large portion of our lives reading comics and thrilling to the never-ending exploits of superheroes can’t help but wonder what role, if any, Nolan’s series of Batman films and recent Batman comics may have played in this tragedy.

The early evidence seems to indicate that Holmes’ choice of The Dark Knight Rises screening as his target was not a random selection. The highly-anticipated midnight screening was sure to be packed, and the assemblage of people in superhero- and supervillain-themed garb at the theater would facilitate his entry into the building wearing tactical body armor that included a ballistic helmet, shin guards, and a ballistic vest with attached throat and groin protectors. His comments during his arrest certainly show an awareness of the context and significance of the choice of his target film screening. Already, a number of news outlets and blogs are pointing out superficial and circumstantial similarities between Holmes’ shooting spree and a scene penned and illustrated by Frank Miller in the second issue of 1986’s “grim-and-gritty” Batman mini-series, The Dark Knight Returns, a landmark comic that informs many of the themes tackled in The Dark Knight Rises. (click on image below to view in larger size)

Further fueling speculation that the content of Nolan’s Batman films inspire irrational and potentially violent behavior among certain viewers was the ugly controversy that plagued movie review score aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes earlier this week, where fans of Nolan’s films lobbed “death threats” at film critics who gave The Dark Knight Rises less-than-sterling endorsements, necessitating the unprecedented move by Rotten Tomatoes editor-in-chief Matt Achity to shut down the comments section for The Dark Knight Rises page.

Belgian "Joker killer" Kim De Gelder

But while the abhorrent anti-social behavior of posters on a movie review site comment section can easily be explained as nothing more than the online disinhibition effect (a.k.a. “John Gabriel’s Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory”) run rampant, the seeming similarities of the Aurora shooting with the the 2009 Dendermonde nursery attack, a mass stabbing perpetrated at a daycare in Belgium that left two infants and a crèche employee dead and twelve people—including ten children under the age of three—mutilated and scarred are genuinely disturbing. In that incident, the killer, 20-year old Kim De Gelder, made himself up to look like the Joker from Christopher Nolan’s 2008 film The Dark Knight while committing the crime and he supposedly repeated dialogue from the film upon his capture, misquoting a line popularized by the late Heath Ledger in his portrayal of the Batman villain in said film. Like Holmes, De Gelder had been previously described by those who knew him as a quiet and somewhat withdrawn young man.

It is tempting to draw some sort of conclusion based on the Holmes and De Gelder cases, a pat explanation that can help us make sense of the combination of upbringing, exposure to violent media, undiagnosed mental illness, and ready access to lethal weapons that results in these murderous one-man rampages. But the truth of the matter is, despite all the press coverage mass murders get, crimes that involve the killing of five or more individuals (one accepted definition of “mass killing”) are extremely rare. Less than 1% of all recorded homicides are mass killings according to a 2007 report in Time magazine, and trying to tease out consistent trends out of that limited data set is difficult, if not impossible. Florida State University professor of criminology Gary Kleck, in a recent interview with CNN Radio, stated that

It’s kind of absurd to talk about trends in events that occur maybe two or three times on average a year. So, there really isn’t a particular, stable pattern to the frequency of mass killings.

And while the rationale and motivation behind mass killings can occasionally be explained ex post facto, establishing consistent offender profiling criteria for mass murderers is troublesome. Gender seems to be the only stable factor, with 95% of all mass killers being male. Ninety-eight percent of all mass killers are either white or black, but that seems as much a function of demographics as it is a reliable indicator of correlation or causation, since the combined white and black sub-populations make up about 87% of the total American population. Psychosis, clinical narcissism, depression, substance abuse, childhood trauma, and a history of physical or sexual abuse have all been posited as playing a role in the development of mass killers but one of the major conclusions in an influential 2002 United States Secret Service report extensively analyzing 37 mass school shootings was that (emphasis added)

There is no accurate or useful profile of students who engaged in targeted school violence.


The demographic, personality, school history, and social characteristics of the attackers varied substantially. Knowing that a particular student shares characteristics, behaviors, features or traits with prior school shooters does not help in determining whether that student is thinking about or planning for a violent act. The use of profiles in this way likewise is not an effective approach to identifying students who may pose a risk for targeted school violence at school or for assessing the risk that a particular student may pose for a school-based attack, once a particular student has been identified. Reliance on profiles to predict future school attacks carries two substantial risks: (1) the great majority of students who fit any given profile of a “school shooter” will not actually pose a risk of targeted violence; and, (2) using profiles will fail to identify some students who in fact pose a risk of violence but share few if any characteristics with prior attackers.

Rather than trying to determine the “type” of student who may engage in targeted school violence, an inquiry should focus instead on a student’s behaviors and communications to determine if that student appears to be planning or preparing for an attack. Rather than asking whether a particular student “looks like” those who have launched school-based attacks before, it is more productive to ask whether the student is engaging in behaviors that suggest preparations for an attack, if so how fast the student is moving toward attack, and where intervention may be possible.

The Aurora shooting wasn’t a mass school shooting, but the key findings in the Secret Service report have important implications nonetheless for any analysis of the Holmes case, and the federal report’s conclusions were echoed by renowned forensic psychiatrist Dr. Park Dietz in a 2009 interview regarding workplace mass shootings (emphasis added)

There are always countless warning signs observed by nearly everyone who has had contact with the person [getting ready to commit a mass murder]. Unfortunately, those warning signs are not very specific and so they apply to many people who will never be violent toward anyone but themselves and they apply to many people for short term reasons that will go away.

So did Nolan’s Batman films play a role in Friday’s awful tragedy? Any informed observer would be deliberately obtuse to insist that Holmes’ choice to attack the The Dark Knight Rises midnight screening is coincidental. He obviously planned his attack to take into account the film’s popularity, the timing of its premiere, and the ease with which he could blend in with the movie’s costume-wearing audience in order to maximize the mayhem he could unleash. But beyond that, any extended speculation as to whether or not Nolan’s films or Miller’s comics somehow influenced Holmes’ behavior is irrelevant from the twin perspectives of crime prediction and crime prevention, given the current state of our knowledge of the psychopathology of mass murderers and the known limitations of traditional offender profiling in similar cases.

What we do know, and what criminology and forensic psychiatry experts agree on without equivocation, is that many potential mass killers actually send out direct and indirect early warning signals that they might be on the verge of lashing out—whether it’s in the form of exhibiting signs of extreme duress from academic and workplace pressures, sudden social withdrawal, stockpiling weapons and ammunition, actually sharing their plans with friends, family, or neighbors, and other cues. From the reports coming out of Colorado, certain people around Holmes, including work colleagues and neighbors, clearly noted that he was depressed, dropping out, and arming up, but no one thought to put two and two together and get him professional help or alert the authorities to the potential danger he might pose to himself and others. Could the Aurora shooting have been prevented had the people around Holmes paid more attention to his behavior over the past several months and acted on their observations appropriately? Perhaps. Will raising awareness of the issues that surround mass killings help reduce their incidence? It seems plausible, at the very least. But retired FBI profiler Jim Clemente, talking on CNN Radio in the wake of Friday’s mass shooting, cautioned realism

The more we are sort of careful with other people’s feelings, the more we are sort of inclusive as a society, it’s going to help avoid some of these situations. But some of them, I think, are bound to happen anyway just because people are going to fall through the cracks.

Discuss this article below or contact the author via e-mail
7 Responses
    • Good discussion Z.  Without a doubt, Holmes chose the Dark Knight Rises because of it’s popularity, people wearing costumes, etc..   It’s just bad luck that DKR was the movie playing at the time as any comic movie would have sufficed for Holmes attack.  Even if he was influenced by the comics, it doesn’t make comics bad as many people will try to say.

      • This is in no way to suggest that Holmes had diminished responsibility in committing the crime, but the more investigators learn about the guy, the more I’m reminded of Seung-Hi Cho (the “Virginia Tech Massacre” shooter): a guy whose behavior would have probably qualified him for a mental health referral and possible institutionalization months before becoming a mass murderer  but instead, in former FBI profiler Jim Clemente’s words, “fell through the cracks” due to a combination of indifference, inadequate mental health screening resources, and other factors. 

        I mean, when an apparently brilliant young man suddenly starts doing poorly in school (eventually dropping out of an elite PhD program), disengages socially, moves to a different apartment, starts stockpiling flammable chemicals, and buys an assault rifle, a shotgun, two Glocks, several high-capacity magazines (including a bunch of 100 round Beta C-Mags), a whole mess of tear gas grenades, and several thousand rounds of ammunition all over the course of several months, how many more warning signs do his neighbors, co-workers, grad school supervisors, classmates, and family need before they refer him to some professional help or the cops?     

        •  Also of note was his mother’s reaction when she was contacted – she didn’t seem surprised, and said something to the affect of “yeah, you have the right guy, I have to fly to Colorado.” That makes me think there was much more to all of this, and as time passes, we’ll discover a great many more compelling issues than “he read comic books.”

          • I think it’s inevitable that the media will focus on violent comics and superhero movies as the trial goes along and people start looking for things to blame (you know which news outlets and pundits I’m talking about). It makes for “sexier” and more sensationalist ledes than the theory that suggests that a failure in mental health screening and an indifferent social circle played a role in Holmes’ descent into mass murder.

            How the superhero comics industry will respond to this (if at all) will be interesting to see in the coming weeks and months. A temporary editorial proscription against the gratuitous portrayal of gun violence, perhaps? Some (more) heavy-handed, moralizing stories?

            •  I hope they do nothing.  That would be a statement that says “we know we’re not responsible”.  Make a statement about the tragedy but leave it at that.  The comics code, now since largely abandoned, was a reaction to those “witch trials” back in the day, I don’t think the industry wants/needs to respond to this in the same way.

            • Yeah, I’d rather the Big Two not make any sort of big media announcements related to the shooting. Not only would it come off as somewhat exploitative of the whole situation, it could also be interpreted by some as a sort of admission that there’s a significant correlation between violent comics/superheroes and the crime.

              But in these days of preemptive, CYA (cover your ass)-style PR, I can see them actually doing something like that. 

            •  Yeah.  I think, obviously, you tell the writers to cut down on gun violence for the next couple of months in the titles, and you just leave it like that.

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