Rationalizing madness is a fool’s errand. There is no master narrative, no psychological Rosetta stone that can explain the madness of a James Holmes. Maybe one day experts will put a label on his madness, but that is just to call it something else, not to explain it.
As the image of Holmes at his first court appearance hit the internet, my first reaction–and I bet lots of others thought the same thing–was that he looks like a villain in a Batman movie. Wipe that dazed look off his face, and who wouldn’t believe that he was playing, in his mind, a sinister character in a Batman film? I expect that his appearance was designed to give just that impression and that the timing of his onslaught at the opening of The Dark Knight Rises was very much a part of his sick plan.
I’ve never been a believer that media and art cause (by themselves, at least) violent urges. But I think they do shape how those urges play out. Naturally, the social and cultural environment influence the manner in which the violence takes place. Gunning down innocents by a crazed madman in a theater seems, to me, culturally consistent. We are appalled at the act, yet if the same scene took place on the screen instead of in the seats, we would simply call it entertainment. And the more atrocious, the more tickets would be sold.
I doubt I will see the new Dark Knight. The last one was disgusting enough. I do not have a problem when filmmakers undertake a study of dark subject matter, including examining characters with violent mental illness. The world has a lot of darkness and film, as well as other arts, can cast light into that darkness, or at least help us see it and know it. Many stories, from the serious to the whimsical, center on a battle between good and evil. Nothing new here. But what Dark Knight did was revel in darkness. It celebrated it. That Batman is a hero set out to fight against evil is of little consequence against this backdrop.
The Dark Knight was well-crafted in every detail, including the masterful and disturbing performance of Heath Ledger. But to what end? Ultimately, people (especially testosterone-charged young men) flock to movies like this not for an escape to another world where good conquers evil, but to revel in that evil. Most American boys are spending the better part of their free time immersed in the darkness and violence of video games. They go to movies that stimulate those same pleasure centers. The Aurora tragedy was sickening, but who can really find it surprising?
The most disturbing part of the Dark Knight franchise (and the countless similar movies that pursue the same ends, just less artfully) is not that the films induce violent urges, though perhaps they may. Instead, what we should all fear is that they cause so much pleasure.
The night is dark, indeed.