'Dark Knight Rises' attack injects real violence into palace of the unreal

Published July 21, 2012

There's something exceedingly strange and also very familiar about the setting of America's most recent massacre. The movie theater, scene of a thousand crimes, that temple of fiction where the very act of participation — from the ticket counter to the popcorn stand to the silencing of cell phones — is a muscle-memory pattern toward the acceptance and enjoyment of the unreal.

It's a place where we unburden ourselves of reality, of the humdrum of everyday life, and accept the existence of aliens and monsters and superheroes and unlimited possibility. And we're enthralled by our Hollywood-made fiction, on the edge of our seats, even if we know that in the end everything will work out.

The sap will get the girl. The asteroid will miss Planet Earth. In the nick of time, Batman will foil the Joker's plan.

That's what's peculiar about the scene of Friday's crime: Reality barged in. Real-world violence, which is chastised and shamed and unacceptable in civilized society, intruded on fictionalized violence, which is celebrated and endorsed and consumed in great quantity by the same civilized society.

The result was mass confusion.

Hear a gunshot in a church or school or place of business and the sound is foreign. A gunshot is right at home in a movie theater.

Hayden Miller, a witness to the shooting, told a local TV news station that the scene was "something like you would see in a movie."

By early Friday, the pundits had already begun speculating about the link between the fiction and non. Was the shooter's gas mask and helmet chosen to mimic the Batman villain? Had the killer — identified as James Holmes, a 24-year-old former grad student — seen the movie? Can movies make us carry out evil?

Even those discussions are tinged with nostalgia, something the industry has been pumping lately. It brings to mind Columbine, and the parsing of the shooters' media habits. The mind drifts to John Wilkes Booth, who entered a theater to shoot Abraham Lincoln, whom Hollywood recently raised from the dead to fight vampires, as though a gunman was not scary enough.

It may be a while before we know what brought a heavily armed gunman through the emergency exit and into the darkness of The Dark Knight Rises. What we know is that the bullets were real, that it was not dyed corn syrup pouring from the wounds, that those who died were not extras.

We know that solo superheroes will not protect us in a real and dangerous world. In reality, the best we can hope for is that a line of unsexy, unrecognized heroes save the day — the parent who relays her concern to the authorities, the mentor who takes an interest, the mental health professional who correctly diagnoses, the police and security guards who stand alert.

Keep up with Tampa Bay’s top headlines

Keep up with Tampa Bay’s top headlines

Subscribe to our free DayStarter newsletter

We’ll deliver the latest news and information you need to know every morning.

You’re all signed up!

Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.

Explore all your options

The next villain is waiting in the wings.

Information from Times wires was used in this report. Ben Montgomery can be reached at or (727) 893-8650.