Was the Aurora Theater Shooting Inspired by Batman?

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It’s now been 18 months since accused mass shooter James Holmes opened fire at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., killing 12 people and injuring dozens more. After over a year of delays — mostly involving evaluations about Holmes’ mental competency — his trial is scheduled to begin Feb. 3.

In the wake of the attack, the film’s opening was delayed, Batman actor Christian Bale visited the shooting victims and the tragedy even overshadowed political rivalries as both presidential hopefuls Barack Obama and Mitt Romney called a (temporary) political truce while communities mourned.

The question immediately turned to motive. What would make a former university student commit such a horrific crime? The answer seemed obvious to many, and in the hours and weeks following the massacre, the news media was abuzz with speculation that the dazed-looking Holmes had been inspired to kill by the Batman film where he executed his rampage, “The Dark Knight Rises.”

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Many in the public, including journalists, pundits and even some police officials assumed that there was a clear connection to either the Batman film or its characters. Media critics in particular used the shooting as an opportunity to criticize violent entertainment: Did fictional shootings, killing and mayhem lead to real-life tragedy?

In the months that followed, that widely accepted belief turned out to be more fantasy than fact. News reports over the past year have gradually dropped the suggestion that Holmes was inspired by Batman. And though that claim may yet resurface during his trial later this year, it seems more likely that it was all a media-created myth with no basis in reality. Here’s an in-depth look at what happened.

Was Holmes Inspired by Batman?

The rampant speculation focused on several key pieces of evidence. It’s easy to see why people would jump to the conclusion that the film and the massacre were related, but it’s clear that the film itself did not inspire Holmes.

The attack had been planned for months, starting before the film was released. The audience he fired upon was seeing a midnight screening — the film’s first showing — so “The Dark Knight Rises” couldn’t have inspired the violence, since Holmes hadn’t even seen it.

The initial suggestion was that Holmes was inspired by the villain in the Batman film, Bane. Holmes was dressed in a bulletproof vest and a riot helmet, along with a gas mask. Bane also wears bulletproof armor and breathes through a mask — though it’s not a gas mask.

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It could be a case of a real-life fan dressing like a movie villain — this is nothing new, as legions of “Star Wars” and “Harry Potter” fans know — or it might merely be a case of dressing for the attack: If a person is planning to be in a shootout and use a gas or smoke grenade, then a bulletproof vest and a gas mask are logical equipment.

Soon, however, the news media focused on a different, and seemingly much more likely, Batman villain: The Joker.

The speculation that Holmes was inspired to kill in imitation of the famous murderous clown rested on two pieces of evidence: Holmes had dyed his hair orange and a claim was made that just before he opened fire Holmes shouted something like “I am the Joker!”

New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly stated at a press conference that “It clearly looks like a deranged individual. He had his hair painted red, he said he was ‘The Joker,’ obviously the enemy of Batman.”

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Such commentary launched a media frenzy. “The New York Daily News” reported that “The flame-haired freak accused of staging the ‘Dark Knight’ movie massacre may have drawn inspiration from a twisted and even darker cinematic take on the classic Batman story. The 24-year-old accused mass murderer dyed his hair and declared he was the Joker — Batman’s arch-enemy — when was arrested shortly after the massacre.”

An ABC News story noted:

“While there has been no indication as to the motives of James Holmes … new evidence suggests that he was inspired by the Batman series of comic books and/or movies. Law enforcement sources confirmed to ABC News that Holmes said ‘I am the Joker’ when apprehended by authorities. His hair was painted red (and) Holmes also booby-trapped his apartment, a favorite technique of the Joker.”

Who’s the Joker?

What at first glance seems like a clear-cut case turned out to be less than impressive. The claim that Holmes was inspired by the Joker would be much stronger if, for example, he had worn a Joker costume  — which are relatively inexpensive and easily available — or if he had been in clown makeup.

But what about Holmes’ dyed hair? Isn’t that clearly an imitation of the Joker?

What the experts and news media missed is that the Joker doesn’t have red hair in any of the Batman films — or anywhere else, for that matter. Neither Joker in the films — played by Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger — had red or orange hair.

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The Joker’s hair is — and always has been — green. If Holmes were imitating the Joker, he seems to have done a very poor job of it, neglecting to adopt the character’s makeup, hair color, costume or any other characteristic of the iconic villain. Holmes didn’t use any part of the Joker’s image in the attack.

But what about the countless reports stating that Holmes explicitly claimed to be the Joker? As John Miller reported on the CBS show “Face the Nation,” that initial claim “turned out not to be true.”

In fact, Miller noted, “Every single witness that (the police) have spoken to, and that we (CBS News) have spoken to, has said that he did not say a word, he just opened fire. And in fact he was wearing a gas mask with a movie going on in the background so had he actually elected to say anything, no one would have heard him anyway.”

There actually was a gunman who claimed to have shouted, “I am the Joker! I’m gonna load my guns and blow everybody up” in late July 2012. But it was not James Holmes. It was a man named Neil Prescott, who threatened to shoot his coworkers in a mass attack at Pitney Bowes plant in Washington D.C. one week after the Aurora theater attack, on July 27.

Ironically, this bit of information linking a Batman villain to a threat of mass killings also turned out to be a reporting error. News reports later clarified that Prescott referred to himself as “a joker” — not The Joker. He was not dressed like the villain, nor was there any connection to Batman.

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Violence and shootings have occurred in countless theaters across the country over the years. If this shooting had occurred somewhere else — say, for example, at a nightclub or a college — few would be asking questions about whether there was some particular identifiable social or cultural media trigger.

When the public searches for answers in the wake of tragedies like this, it’s easy to blame violent movies or video games. But mentally ill people who seek to do violence and damage will always be able to find crowds and opportunities for their evil. Batman shares no blame.

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