Hollywood Made Him Do It: Two More Theories On The Aurora Shooter

from the there-is-no-evil;-only-bad-influences dept

As is the case with any inexplicable tragedy, a million pundits and armchair psychoanalysts have emerged to “explain” what would turn a person into someone who would enter a darkened theater and methodically open fire on a crowd. Tim Geigner ran down a few of these earlier, and so far the blame lies at the combined feet of opponents of bullying, opponents of Judeo-Christian lifestyles, Star Trek, video games, Occupy Wall Street, and the easy availability of weapons and ammo.

Two editorials have been added to the mix, pointing the finger at violent movies in general, and even more peculiarly, at Warner Brothers Studios itself. Michael Cieply’s editorial for the New York Times never comes out and states explicitly that Warner Brothers is responsible for the Aurora shooter’s actions, but its opening anecdote seems to think that such a connection should be made.

For decades Warner’s films have frequently put the studio in the middle of a perpetual and unresolved debate over violence in the cinema and in real life. That debate has been revived after the deadly shootings last Friday in an Aurora, Colo., movie theater at an opening night showing of “The Dark Knight Rises,” from Warner.

While the box-office success of “Dark Knight” seems assured — the opening weekend produced $160 million in North American sales — Warner executives have decided to delay the planned Sept. 7 release of another film, “Gangster Squad,” according to a person who was briefed on the studio’s plans on Tuesday and spoke anonymously because the change has not been officially announced. The film is a hard-edged cinematic portrayal of the police war on mobsters in mid-20th-century Los Angeles.

Trailers for the movie, which showed gunmen firing into a movie theater, were pulled after the shooting last week. Executives have further debated whether to go so far as to reshoot portions of “Gangster Squad,” according to published reports. Warner executives declined through a spokeswoman to discuss their plan or the studio’s posture in general toward screen violence.

To go forward with “Gangster Squad” as is might trigger revulsion at scenes that seem to recall the movie-theater slaughter in Colorado. But to change it substantially or delay it for long (no new date has been set) might seem to acknowledge an otherwise debatable link between movie violence and real events, breathing life into a discussion that is perhaps more familiar at Warner than at any of Hollywood’s major studios.

It’s quite a stretch to contend that an unreleased movie somehow “acknowledges” the “link” between movie violence and actual violence. Unless James Holmes was part of the “Gangster Squad” crew, this is simply unfortunate timing, much like the terrorism scenes that caused several films to be delayed following the 9/11 attacks.

Branching out from this dubious start, Cieply retells the story of Warner Brothers’ fascination with violent movies, stopping to discuss copycat rapists/killers “inspired” by “A Clockwork Orange,” “Natural Born Killers” spawning imitation acts of violence and a few others before winding up at “The Matrix,” tenuously tied to defendants trying to cop an insanity plea by claiming they were trying to “escape from the matrix.”

A few “copycat killers” may emerge for the Aurora shooting or from the movies themselves, an unpreventable byproduct of evil people with limited imagination. In many cases, the copycat aspect is simply a convenient scapegoat for the killers to use themselves: “The devil made me do it.”

After this history lesson, Cieply just lets himself out the back door without drawing any real conclusion:

Three decades earlier, however, a Newsweek writer, in a review that derided the “lethal ugliness” of “Dirty Harry,” also registered the futility of worrying about the bad effects of a movie. Good-hearted pictures, the magazine reasoned, rarely seemed to do much good. “There is little chance that this right-wing fantasy will change things where decades of humanist films have failed,” the review said.

True enough. If positive, non-violent films aren’t resulting in copycat altruism, it’s just as likely that even the most dark-hearted film won’t have much of an impact.

Peter Bogdanovich, director of “The Last Picture Show” and “Paper Moon,” has an op-ed of sorts as well over at The Hollywood Reporter laying the blame for the Aurora shooting at the feet of violent films. Bogdanovich probably has a more relevant take on the shootings considering his film, “Targets,” ends with a sniper attack at a drive-in, as well as having lived through a very violent experience when Dorothy Stratten was killed by her estranged husband.

Unfortunately, this piece (credited with “As told to Gregg Kilday) isn’t it. He sounds completely dismayed and genuinely angered by the shooting, but emotional reactions rarely make for the best logical arguments.

Violence on the screen has increased tenfold. It’s almost pornographic. In fact, it is pornographic. Video games are violent, too. It’s all out of control. I can see where it would drive somebody crazy.

I’m in the minority, but I don’t like comic book movies. They’re not my cup of tea. What happened to pictures like How Green Was My Valley or even From Here to Eternity? They’re not making those kind of movies anymore. They are either making tentpole pictures based on comic books or specialty pictures that you pray someone will go see.

The fact that these tentpole movies are all violent comic book movies doesn’t speak well for our society.

Today, there’ a general numbing of the audience. There’s too much murder and killing. You make people insensitive by showing it all the time. The body count in pictures is huge. It numbs the audience into thinking it’s not so terrible. Back in the ’70s, I asked Orson Welles what he thought was happening to pictures, and he said, “We’re brutalizing the audience. We’re going to end up like the Roman circus, live at the Coliseum.” The respect for human life seems to be eroding.

Orson Welles make a good, if inadvertent point: compared to the actual violence that was used for entertainment in the past, today’s movie violence is a very pale imitation. And the level of violence in major motion pictures is nothing compared to the violence displayed in theaters elsewhere in the world. If movie violence were truly driving people to this sort of behavior, one would expect Japan and Korea to be epicenters of mass killing. What Cieply lists (and Bogdanovich echoes) is truly kids’ stuff compared to the imagery conjured up by Takashi Miike and Park Chan-Wook.

The problem with all of these theories is that the variables are common to the entirety of the US population. If these are all creating killers, we should be suffering from an epidemic of violence rather than dealing with isolated tragedies. And the issue with violent movies is nothing new either. Concern about the level of violence and portrayal of villains and anti-heroes goes all the way to the Hays Code. Read this stipulation from the Code and see if you don’t find that echoed by the implicit statements in Cieply’s and Bodanovich’s editorials:

Theft, robbery, safe-cracking, and dynamiting of trains, mines, buildings, etc. (having in mind the effect which a too-detailed description of these may have upon the moron)

These editorials argue that homogenization or repression (or at least a return to the “good old days”) is preferable to the current cinema’s taste for violence in light of the Aurora shooting. The deplorable actions of a single individual somehow makes the case that the general public should be denied access to portrayals of violence, because “there but for the grace of God, go…” well, not these authors anyway, but certainly everyone else. Whether its movies, video games or music, the “answer” to violent tragedies is always the same: the public cannot be trusted with questionable material. This sort of punditry is the worst kind. It willingly throws personal responsibility out the window in favor of mass scale condescension.

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Comments on “Hollywood Made Him Do It: Two More Theories On The Aurora Shooter”

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Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

“He’s a fucking nutjob and it’s all his own damn fault.”

Ever since the 1950s and the whole “Seduction of the Innocent” witch hunt, psychotic and criminal behavior has been blamed on everything from comic books to tv to movies to video games and now back to movies.
His parents screwed up, pure and simple.
Take responsibility for your kid, you idiots.

:Lobo Santo (profile) says:

Well now

As the “other” conspiracy theorist here (Dark Helmet, why aren’t you on it?) I must point out:

Nobody actually saw the guy they’ve pinned it on do anything.

They saw Mr red-hair leave the theater by the back door, and then they saw Mr gas-mask and body-armor walk into the theater with smoke grenades and assault weapons.

Now, oddly enough, the guy they’ve pinned this on is the son of a mathematician who’s become politically active in a few areas the Feds might find “sensitive”… though the father has become real quiet lately.

Also, since controlling guns seems moot, the mass media has focussed on the “hundreds of rounds” (day at the range can use over 1000) of ammo the guy had and the legislators are now looking at restricting ammo sales.

…false flag, anyone?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Personal Responsability

We live in a probabalistic world, the availability of guns made it more likely that this guy (or someone like him) would buy them. Yes, that’s true.

Moreover, think about the probability or likelihood of a disturbed person with guns pulling the trigger.

I know, I know, personal responsibility trumps all…but put even the best of people into bad situations and the results are likely to be bad.

PRMan (profile) says:

I disagree

Movies absolutely influence people. That’s the purpose of movies. I heard about people “Paying it Forward” for YEARS after that movie came out. People tearfully converted to Christianity in the front row of theaters merely by watching “The Passion of the Christ”.

So to say it has no impact is intellectually dishonest, because if it weren’t true, he wouldn’t have dressed up as the Joker.

The real question is not whether the movie has an impact (it does), but rather in a free society do we allow people to speak freely even if it might cause a nutjob to freak out. At what point do we ban any and all speech in order to be safe? I would say that I would rather live with some potential lack of safety in order to be free.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: I disagree

“So to say it has no impact is intellectually dishonest, because if it weren’t true, he wouldn’t have dressed up as the Joker.”

The Joker is green-haired, not red-haired.
The Joker doesn’t wear body armor.
The Joker doesn’t wear black.
The Joker doesn’t use normal guns, except in rare exceptions to kill an individual here or there. His choice of weapon for mass killing is gas.
You’re being “intellectually dishonest”, boy.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: I disagree

Man, that has to be the ultimate insult.

If you’re gonna murder people while taking the name of a character from something they enjoy at least et the details right.

I mean, if I went to a pogymans event and a duo calling themselves jessie and james show up I expect them to steal all the pickchu toys and do the intro before pulling out the guns.

SleepyJohn (profile) says:

Re: I disagree (Is the game worth the candle?)

Yes. It is ludicrous to claim that movies do not affect people – ask any advertising agency. It should be equally obvious that while an endless barrage of gratuitous violence might only irritate normal folk, it could very easily cause an unbalanced person to behave the way this one did. So of course the movie makers had a part in it; they make money by cynically pandering to people’s fascination with extreme violence, ignoring the effect they know it could have on some inadequates; including ones who undoubtedly act it out far from the public gaze, or simply become generally desensitized to the horror of it. The society in which it happened has to decide whether this particular game is worth the candle.

jupiterkansas (profile) says:

For starters, From Here to Eternity ends with the attack on Pearl Harbor. That’s about as violent as violent gets. Maybe the movie doesn’t show much – it doesn’t have to (and that wasn’t its purpose). People all over the world back then had lived through the most horrific real violence imaginable.

And Warner’s history with violence goes back to the 1930s, when they were the studio known for gritty, realistic crime dramas and film noir. Basically, they put the very real rise of organized crime on the screen.

It was also the horrors of Vietnam that made the film gore of the 70s more acceptable.

And don’t forget the original Spiderman had him slinging a web between the Twin Towers, a scene that was changed after 9/11. Those kind of things happen all the time – not because the movies are violent, but because real life is violent and always has been.

But I’d agree that the more violent the real world is, the more sensitive we are to it as a population. American’s haven’t really dealt with much real violence in the last 40 years.

Some Other Guy (profile) says:

Stupid theories...

As a theory, ‘Violent films made him do it’ because he was exposed to violent films, is only slightly less stupid than ‘Oxygen made him do it’ because he breathed oxygen – and that theory has the benefit that everyone who ever killed anyone breathed oxygen, even the ones before violent films.

If you want a theory about why one person out of millions did something, your amazing distinguishing feature (has seen violent films) had better not apply to nearly every single person on Earth!

What we need is something like ‘the killer has a distinctive growth in his brain, seen only in violent people’ or something. That’d be much better.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Stupid theories...

Been there and done that…in the late 19th century, Italy and some other places.

Of course, the research turned out to be bogus and biological explanations for crime and violence were abandoned.

Over the course of the next 50+ years, more social explanations were developed and generally found to be sound.

Bio/psychological explanations don’t generally find much evidence because predicting individual human behavior is very difficult.

Predicting behavior in the aggregate is much easier.

To think that a society will not grow more violent as its culture (e.g., movies, tv, other entertainment) become more violent is indeed puzzling. That statement is correlational, of course – whether a violent society breeds a violent culture or a violent culture breeds a violent society is, I suppose, the question. I would suggest it works both ways, but that’s just my opinion.

I think that much of the criticism of explanations of crime and deviant behavior in the public fails to adequately understand the distinction between predicting individual behavior and predicting the level at which violence/deviance/crime will occur in a society.

Anonymous Coward says:

Price of Freedom

There are certain prices you pay for freedom. see tragedy in the US, politicians want to try and find the cause and fix it. They usually just blame something they were against anyway. However, nobody ever seems to say that there is a price for freedom.

Our free society allows things like 9/11, Oklahoma City, and Aurora to occur. These are things that can only be prevented if we restrict freedoms (maybe not even then).

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Price of Freedom

“Our free society allows things like 9/11, Oklahoma City, and Aurora to occur. These are things that can only be prevented if we restrict freedoms (maybe not even then).”

And a non-free society allows things like the Holocaust, the Katyn Massacre, and the Great Leap Forward to happen.

sorrykb says:

The "good old days"

I for one was terribly offended by the violence and body count in “How Green Was My Valley”. Who knows how many more mining disasters could have been averted had the filmmakers bothered to consider the consequences of their actions.
And don’t even get me started on the one-sided liberal lamestream media’s depiction of the great and beneficint job-creating industry of coal mining…

Jason (profile) says:


So I’m supposed to feel sorry for an industry that is being persecuted for their influence over people and defend them because they have a right to free speech and expression?

Yet that same industry wants to have everything I say and do on-line monitored to make absolutely sure I don’t steal any of their movies or creations.

Hey Hollywood, I’ll stand up and defend your rights to free speech as soon as you stop demanding that you should be allowed to trample all over mine!!

IronM@sk (profile) says:


It’s quite a stretch to contend that an unreleased movie somehow “acknowledges” the “link” between movie violence and actual violence.

That’s not quite how the quote in the article reads. The quote calls into question not the supposed link itself, but whether the action of the studio thinking about delaying, or re-shooting parts of the film, in light of recent events, is a defacto admission by the studios that such a link may exist.

In other words, the author of the quote sounds not like he is using the studio’s actions as proof of connection, rather questioning whether the studio themselves think there’s a link.

Anonymous Coward says:

My Little Pony Movies...

The pink ponies truly enrage me. They’re so horribly bad that they are going to make me snap, drive me to violence. Thus I calmly request that all My Little Pony material whether it be from the past, present or future, be banned, destroyed, or otherwise dealt with. After all, it will keep us safe from my psychotic break that has not happened as of yet!

So, how stupid do we have to become before we as a people put a stop to the idiocy? Attempting to draw a line of correlation between movies and violence is a quick scapegoat conclusion meant to focus our attention on THE problem. So that we can fix it. The fact is that its an enormous problem; violence. Reality is that its not nearly so simple and clean as “movies are violent” = “people are violent” and attempting to argue that point is silly!

In the US I am taught that as long as I’m not caught then its okay to cheat the system. I’m taught that I’m more important than you are. I’m taught that I should get as much as I can and that will make me happy. I’m taught that getting ahead at others expense is completely acceptable and more than that, expected. I’m taught that lying is fine as long as I don’t get caught or they’re “small” lies. I’m taught that the more wealthy and powerful I become the less the law really applies to me and the more I can simply do whatever I like.

As a human being when I strip away what everything around me is attempting to grind into my heart and head I discover quite simply that all of this is wrong, exactly the opposite of what things SHOULD be. Go figure. *shrug*

Wally (profile) says:

New York Times

I need to point out that the authors of the New York Times are either politically biased, or have nobody on staff that does any accurate reporting.

As for the Aurora shooting, 99.9% of the things you’ve heard from news agencies outside of court released documents (as in why he did it) is pure speculation. You need a criminal psychologist to determine the mental condition of the shooter.

Tim, I want you and the rest of the TechDirt staff (especially those not from the US) that the New York Times is 100% speculation and editorial. They had reported that the average tenured Public School teacher in Ohio made $50,000 US per year….the reality is roughly half of that. I don’t mind a bit of debate or speculation on your part, but you need to stop using the New York Times as a source of facts.

Steve says:

Real life violence....

If fingers are going to be pointed at aspects of life encouraging violence why is no-one mentioning the quite obvious fact that institutionalised violence may be the cause i.e. the normalisation of every day killing on our behalf by governments (no finger pointing here, they’re all at it) in the name of the war on terror and the mass rejoicing in the killing of human beings.
We, of course, know it is much more complicated than that, but maybe another case of what’s good for the goose…

Ninja (profile) says:

This sort of punditry is the worst kind. It willingly throws personal responsibility out the window in favor of mass scale condescension.

Oh but the moral police is wanting to use ANY excuse to control what and what’s not right and ppl can or can’t do. My sister loves the Saw movies, absolutely loves, she’s amazed at the plot and how the villain carefully chooses the trials. In the twisted and sick minds of these psychopaths she’s bound to do the same with some1 so she must be denied this type of movie.

I’ve said before, censors in general are the sociopaths in the first place. They feel entitled to say what others can or cannot do, say, watch etc.

Gene Cavanaugh (profile) says:

Aurora killing

I realize you have no interest in the other side of the discussion, preferring to say “violence in media isn’t
responsible”, but when you analyze something someone says, be fair about that!

“It’s quite a stretch to contend that an unreleased movie somehow “acknowledges” the “link” between movie violence and actual violence. Unless James Holmes was part of the “Gangster Squad” crew, this is simply unfortunate timing, much like the terrorism scenes that caused several films to be delayed following the 9/11 attacks.”

He didn’t say that the “Gangster Squad” was in issue!

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