Violence on the Screen, Violence in Front of the Screen: Trying to Process the Dark Knight Shooting

Updates regarding last night's shooting at the Dark Knight Rises screening in Aurora, Colorado are dominating TV stations, online news outlets and Twitter feeds — and rightly so. People are injured, people are dead due to senseless violence. The 12 people shot dead and dozens of people injured were at a sold-out showing of a gruesomely violent movie in which dozens of people are shot dead at close range and hundreds are injured. We enjoy the thrill of an intensely violent flick, but when confronted with real intense violence, like the scene in Colorado, we're horrified (and rightfully so). But the dramatic intersection of fictional bloodshed and the real thing serves to highlight the complicated relationship we have with violence.

The highly anticipated movie, which people across the country lined up for, that made millions of dollars last night alone, has a high body count. Even though the movie is not gory — there's not a ton of blood — there are many explosions. Necks are broken. It's impossible to count how many weapons are fired. There are brutal scenes of hand-to-hand combat and characters are punched, elbowed, thrown to the ground. Even though it's a superhero flick, it's filmed in a fairly realistic way, and it is dark. Bleak. Yet mere hours ago, it was considered the flick of the summer, a must-see.

But it doesn't quite feel the same now, does it? The violent entertainment now seems a little less entertaining. Funny how reality does that.

For those of us not personally involved in this tragedy — any tragedy — just sitting at our desks, or in our homes watching news coverage, there's a feeling of helplessness, hopelessness. Something horrible has happened, and there's nothing we can do. In fact, you might feel stupid, just sitting comfortably, reading about something terrible, breathing, staring out the window, rubbing your head. What am I supposed to do? What can I do? You try to learn, you search obsessively for updates, you absorb information, you let newscasters' voices wash over you, you feel ill, you feel sad, you feel numb.

Violence and death are daily occurrences on this planet. But often, the closer it hits close to home — in your hemisphere, in your country, in your time zone, at a movie you have tickets for tonight, at a movie you saw last night — the queasier we feel. Sickened. Anxious.

What is wrong with us?

And even though the violence in Dark Knight is couched in fantasy, even though superhero stories are often about hope, faith, inner strength and justice, the idea that the gunman entered the theater wearing a gas mask — while an audience watches a killer, also sporting something like a gas mask, wreak havoc on screen — certainly demonstrates the complexity of our feelings about violence. We feel both infatuation and repulsion, we find it both appealing and appalling. Context, as always, is everything. But last night — violence on the screen and violence literally in front of the screen — the lines blurred a bit.

Of course, there's a major difference between settling down in a theater seat to enjoy a violent film and trying to process a real-life violent incident: In the theater, your subconscious expects satisfaction, a happy ending. None of us get that today.