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Theaters of Death

In August 2006, in a movie theater in Owings Mills, just outside Baltimore, a man stood up in the middle of X-Men: The Last Stand, turned and opened fire into the audience, killing a 62-year-old husband and father in the back row. It’s true that Baltimore—where I was living at the time—has a high rate of violence, but this particular incident seemed totally unmotivated. I’d seen movies in that theater, the Loew’s Valley Center, and I knew it as a well-lit, air-conditioned multiplex. It was a curious place, I thought, for someone to go postal.

Then in February 2008, a black-clad stranger stabbed two people in a movie theater in Fullerton, California during a screening of The Signal, a horror movie about a mysterious transmission that turns those it infects into cold-blooded killers. The following December, during The Curious Case of Benjamin Button at the Riverview Movie Theater in Philadelphia, a 29-year old man grew so enraged by the chatty family in front of him that he shot the father in the arm then sat back to enjoy the film while everyone else fled from the theater.

The following January, a 32-year old man was shot twice in the abdomen in North Carolina at the Greensboro Grand 18 premiere of Notorious (not the Hitchcock movie, but a film about the rapper Biggie Smalls). Although there was a full house—700 audience members were apparently given their money back—the crime remains unsolved. Most recently, in November 2009, a man was shot in the hand after a struggle in a movie theater in Danville, Indiana during a screening of The Twilight Saga: New Moon.

As a place where members of the public come together, anonymously, in the dark, movie theaters have always encouraged certain kinds of illicit activity. In the past, however, most of the “incidents” reported in cinemas occurred in “adult” venues, notorious for Paul Rubens-style solitary vice, as well as such shared pleasures as the “lewd act” for which three men—one of them a law enforcement officer—were arrested in a San Antonio adult movie theater on October 27 of this year. It was, in part, the notorious seediness of such theaters that led to their rapid decline with the advent of home video.

Even in “adult” theaters, though, the threats, such as they were, did not come from the audience but from the power of the film itself, with its mythic potential to work on viewers’ emotions. When we still respected and feared the power of movies—before they became just another item on the shelves of the grocery store—rumors would sometimes spread about what “they” were secretly doing to “us”—addling our brains through subliminal ads, or mortifying us with genuine demonic voices. In those days, it was the films themselves we were afraid of. They had the power, we feared, to drive us crazy with terror or wild with lust. Today, when all sorts of porn and gore are available to everyone online, it is hard to imagine anyone being afraid of the power of a movie, or worried about what it might “do” to them.

In movies themselves, of course, the cinema itself has long been the site of chaos and death. From William Castle’s 1959 schlock-fest The Tingler to Bigas Luna’s 1987 horror-show Anguish, scary movies have regularly taken advantage of the double thrill to be had in watching a horror film about people being attacked while watching a horror film. The scares were effective as long as theater audiences felt safe, and could relax enough to willingly suspend their disbelief. Such films would probably not appeal to the multiplex audience of today, sitting clutching their purses, eying their neighbors anxiously.

Still, it took a while for this stage to be reached. In the 1990s, two widely circulated e-mail warnings about movie-theater threats proved ungrounded, although they did make people start to think twice. One involved a stranger who shoved innocent young girls over movie theater balconies, the other involved AIDS-infected needles concealed in cinema seats. Descriptions of the random, senseless deaths of innocent victims killed at the site of some pleasurable activity (amusement park, disco, beach or nightclub) have long been a staple of scare-lore, and these stories fit neatly into the category of urban legend. Obviously, they are no longer current—AIDS threats are passé, and how many movie theaters have balconies these days?

Today, the perpetrators of movie-related violence are not the sinister masterminds behind the movies; neither are they random slashers and slayers. Today, the biggest threat at the movies comes from us, the theater audience. In recent years, theaters owners all over the U.S. have reported increases in theft, vandalism, assaults, drug use, drinking, disorderly conduct, movie piracy—and, in January 2008, the North Hills Movie Theater in Raleigh, NC, suspected terrorism: A group of women dressed in “middle-eastern garb” were reported to be “clutching briefcases on their laps and texting” (police spokesman Jim Suhgrue later determined that the incident was overblown).

When I was a kid in the 1970s, going to see a movie was a once-a-year birthday treat, the equivalent of a party or a trip to the zoo. These days, we watch most of our films at home with friends and family, or—more and more frequently—alone, on our laptops or handheld devices. Instead of giving ourselves over to the movie, we make the movie obey our commands—we pause, replay, freeze-frame, and fast-forward, eating, chatting and multitasking as we do so. As a result, many people go to a movie theater only when they’ve got nothing better to do—or when they just can’t wait two months to download the pic, or watch it on pay-per-view. Audiences today are no longer hushed and awed by the very prospect of being in the cinema. They are often restless. They will often chat, text, check their e-mail and phone messages, place and answer phone calls, move around, change seats, and blithely kick the chairs in front of them. This kind of behavior can be extremely frustrating for those who do want to watch the film, sparking arguments and violence, which is sometimes lethal.

It should also be noted, however, that at least two of the attacks in the last two years were random incidents, totally unprovoked. This suggests that the movie theater is functioning simply as a public place where emotionally volatile people can be sure of calling attention to themselves—the modern equivalent of the marketplace, church, or post office, perhaps. This may also help to explain why another kind of violence is on the rise in movie theaters. This year, two young men committed suicide during movie screenings by shooting themselves in the head. In April, in Eugene, Oregon, a 24-year-old committed suicide during The Watchman, and in Muncie, Indiana in October, a 21-year-old did the same thing during a screening of Zombieland. Both were incidents that would no doubt have happened anyway—the 21-year old was a soldier just back from Afghanistan and facing redeployment—but the choice of venue seems grimly significant.

MIKITA BROTTMAN is a psychoanalyst and chair of the program in humanities & depth psychology at Pacifica Graduate Institute. She can be reached at  mbrottman@pacifica.edu

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