AURORA, COLO. — The movie house is a mystical place, a secular shrine people visit to leave reality behind.
Not a place where a man has to pile on top of his wife of two weeks to shield her from flying shards of seat backs. Not a place where a man loses sight of his 4-month-old son and flees the room wondering if his family is dead on the floor.
In a movie theater, gunshots are supposed to shock in an emotionally satisfying and exciting way; the membrane between fantasy danger and something all too real is never supposed to be porous.
Inside Theater 9 at the Century 16 multiplex in Aurora on Friday morning, people who had turned their days upside down to be part of the midnight premiere of “The Dark Knight Rises” were just 20 minutes into the new Batman movie when a man standing in front of the auditorium started throwing something their way, something they couldn’t quite identify.
In the dark, with Hollywood gunfire already saturating moviegoers’ senses, Brandon Axelrod, 30, sitting in the 10th row with his wife of two weeks and a friend, saw something arc across the theater: “It looked like someone threw a shook-up soda can,” he said, “because it had a spirally trail of whatever that came out of it.” He heard “the fizzing of it. And then just the shots.”
Five rows closer, Chris Ramos, 20, a Starbucks barista sitting with his 17-year-old sister and two friends, noticed someone tossing what looked like stuffed toy baseball bats into the crowd. Must be a promotion for the film, Ramos thought.
Axelrod never saw the gunman. He saw muzzle flashes, coming in short, discrete bursts. With the flashes, the three friends dove into a pile between rows of seats. Around them, people ran for the exits. Axelrod peered through a crack between two seats and saw bodies falling.
“There were people around us that ran, that I saw get shot,” he said. “I know that getting down saved our lives.”
His friend, Josh Nowlan, 32, was shot twice. One bullet broke his right arm, the other did tissue damage to his leg. Axelrod and his wife, Denise Traynom, 24, suffered minor injuries from flying plastic shrapnel, perhaps pieces of a seat back or armrest shattered by a bullet.
Through the minute or two of mayhem, Axelrod noticed that the “Dark Knight” movie had shifted to a violent scene. He peeked through the seats, trying to discern which shots were real. “There was gunfire while there was gunfire,” he said. “We weren’t sure neccesarily if someone was still firing or if it was just the movie.”
Batman is the most real of superheroes; he works his magic through mortal means, not through superpowers. His city of Gotham, as a Batman historian puts it, is “like Manhattan on a bad day.” But the shooter who killed 12 people and injured 58 others Friday injected an especially malicious reality into a palace of fantasy, shattering not only those 70 lives, but the sense of safety and escape that the movies represent to millions who live far from Aurora.
Even amid the shooting, Ramos noticed that his ability to figure out what was going on in the theater was sapped. “I was so out of it,” he said, “that I didn’t even know if the movie was still running.”
Corbin Dates, 23, was bored on his job at an AT&T call center Thursday afternoon. Reading online about the Batman premiere, he decided to book a ticket through Fandango on his cellphone. He went home to Aurora for dinner, hit the gym for a workout and arrived at the theater at 11:30 p.m. to find only a few empty seats.
He took one in the second row, near the right aisle. Only one person was in the front row, he said, directly in front of him in the last seat on the right. Just before the previews, the man in front answered — or pretended to answer — a cellphone call and then walked out the emergency exit, propping the door open with a stick. Dates didn’t think anything of it.
The movie started. The audience applauded. High school kids in the back were “being annoying,” Dates said, yelling and making jokes. He heard beer bottles rattle on the floor around him; that was irritating, too.
About 20 minutes into the movie, the emergency-exit door swung open. Floodlights from the parking lot cast a glow inside the theater. A man stood at the door, maybe 5 feet 10 inches, wearing a gas mask, looking like a cop in SWAT gear. Only his eyes were visible. He didn’t say anything. For a few seconds, he just stood there, like “a guy who showed up late for his own party,” Dates said.
Dates figured it was a stunt, a promotion for the movie, but then the man stepped in front of the screen, threw a canister into the center of the theater and fired a shot at the ceiling. Dates dove to the ground.
The man walked up the right aisle, shooting as he moved. Bang, pause, bang, over and over.