It’s no wonder that when the shooter — dressed in a bulletproof vest and a gas mask — began firing a gun into the air, some spectators thought it was part of the show, either a promotional gimmick or an over-zealous theater employee trying to ramp up an already intense cinematic experience.
When the gunman embarked on his rampage — which resulted in at least 12 deaths and dozens of injuries — he not only invaded a safe physical space and a seasonal communal rite as cherished as baseball games or late-night stories around the campfire; he invaded a deeply personal psychic space that, because of the overwhelming power of identification and suggestion that movies possess, is all the more fragile when it’s violated. We’re sadly familiar with horrific violence unleashed in what should be inviolate places, from schools and churches to college campuses and supermarkets. But the movie audience in Aurora was victimized while in a singular psychological state, one that made them even more vulnerable.
Uri Hasson, an assistant professor of psychology at Princeton University, has studied MRI images of people watching film footage. He describes moviegoing as a powerful experience that makes people “very attentive and very absorbed and very engaged.” Hasson and his colleagues have discovered that the brain responses of people watching the same film are startlingly similar. “Something happens to the brains [where] they all become in sync and aligned,” he said. “You can see the brain responses of everyone becoming very similar and melting into the movie and being coupled.”
“Melting into the movie” is an apt description of watching “The Dark Knight Rises,” which Nolan has staged and filmed to be almost overpowering. Seeing it at the IMAX theater in the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History last week, I was entranced with what was transpiring on the screen. As a longtime film critic who has developed a knack for glancing at my watch precisely at the one-hour mark of any movie, “The Dark Knight Rises” held me in its thrall.
The cinematic experience is so potent that it’s no surprise that it took some Aurora filmgoers a few seconds to absorb what was happening. “My head and body weren’t connecting,” one audience member in an adjacent theater said Friday, recalling why she didn’t immediately run out. Other viewers described similar feelings of needing time to shake off the reverie they had so willingly — even eagerly — entered when they lined up to see the movie at its first midnight showing.