When a tragedy hits, everyone scrambles around to find a reason. It’s uniquely and sweetly in our nature to do this. Our big brains cannot comprehend the chaos and madness that occurs in our world on a daily basis so there has to be a reason. Terrorism is a thing we can understand. Serial killing, to a degree, is something we can wrap our minds around because the motive is usually clear: they are sexual deviants. Random gun crime is also something we get — angry boyfriend, drive-by gang shooting, robbery. Even accidental crimes we get. But mass shootings, where some angry dude opens fire on unsuspecting people? This is something we really don’t yet understand, at least to the point where we can find a way to unplug the phenomenon.
A few film critics want so badly for it to be films and video games. Even Owen Gleiberman at Entertainment Weekly, in his very thoughtful piece The End of Empathy on the shootings, mentioned how Jim Holmes thought he was the Joker and failed to mention, yet again, that the Joker had green hair:
But when James Holmes, the 24-year-old lone gunman of the Dark Knight massacre, sat down in court on Monday, he didn’t recede into “anonymous” blankness, and that, of course, is because he was still wearing the chilling emblem of his madness: the hair that he had dyed bright orange, in a Day-Glo simulation of the Joker’s loony-tunes coif. Seeing that hair was more than just creepy and disturbing as hell. It made me angry, as if Holmes was mocking his victims, saying, in essence: I’m still the Joker -— and you’d better believe I’d do it again.
The media needed an easy tagline explanation. Holmes handed it to them on a platter.
He grabbed the thing that was closest to him. Maybe he borrowed a little of the Joker’s swagger (but I’m gonna bet he never even saw The Dark Knight). The truth about him as far as we know, though, is that he began planning his crime the day he failed his college exams. He wasn’t a Dark Knight fanatic, in case we have to mention that again, in fact his red hair kind of proves that. As he was stockpiling his weapons and working out his plot he was not thinking about Batman. It just so happened that the hype for that movie was everywhere. It was on the news constantly. Sure, he might have identified with Heath Ledger — he was easy to identify with. But that doesn’t answer the why. The why seems simple enough to me: because he fucking wanted to. He wanted to do something unequivocal. An act of shock and awe that would make people remember him so that he was no longer the failed science student but a famous mass murderer. And yeah, when security falls apart for a sick individual it probably feels good to share the misery, unleash that fury, and destroy the security of others.
But that isn’t going to be good enough because we desperately need something grounded to tie this wild phenomenon down:
Let me be one hundred percent clear: I am not saying thatThe Dark Knight, or any other movie, “caused” James Holmes to go out and commit mass murder. That would be a notion every bit as insane as he is. Yet for too long now -— for years, decades -— our society has been haunted by killers who have taken a piece of their demented inspiration from popular culture. Charles Manson, the sicko hippie mastermind who never personally killed anyone (he got others to do it for him), was only convicted because the ingenious prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi laid out, in painstaking detail, how Manson had “taken his cues” from messages he believed the Beatles were sending him. At the time, this was so out there it seemed a bulletin of pure dark schizophrenia, and in all likelihood it was.
And yet, 43 years after the Manson murders, the phenomenon of killers who commit unspeakable acts because they think that they’re imitating, or taking orders from, or acting out of slavish loyalty to characters from pop culture has become an entrenched —- and, in many ways, expected -— dimension of the world of hellacious crime. John Hinckley Jr., the would-be assassin of President Reagan, modeled himself on Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver. Mark David Chapman, who tore a hole in the world the night that he killed John Lennon, did so out of a demented homage to the book that he regarded as his “statement” (and that he was reading at the crime scene when the police came to arrest him), J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. And in 1999, the way that the Columbine killers, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, conceived that nightmare school shooting, it was all tangled up with their sinister pop daydreams. Out of a shared obsession with Natural Born Killers, they used the initials NBK as advance code for the massacre -— but what’s less well known is that Klebold played out an unrequited high school romance through his absolute fixation on William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet, the Leonardo DiCaprio movie that converted heartbreak into bullet-spray. Of course, the Columbine killers were also videogame fanatics, and while blaming their crimes on videogames may seem as simplistic and off-base as blaming the Manson murders on “Helter Skelter,” it’s videogames that supply a key clue to cracking open all of these killer’ minds.
Yes. A small percentage of killers, let’s call them the more high profile killers, have blamed some kind of pop culture thing with their crime. Art moves us. It moves us to tears, to fuck, to dance around — it can serve as our muse and our inspiration. And it can salve our wounds after a terrible breakup.
If I murdered my ex-boyfriend who treated me and my daughter terribly after listening to Alanis Morisette’s You Oughtta Know repeatedly I’m sure that would be racked up with the other identifications, like the wonderful Beatles having to have Charles Manson trail after them forever. Or The Catcher in the Rye, which was a book about a guy who sees the helplessness of children and wants to rescue them before something bad happens to them.
The need to be rescued is almost always proclaimed as a female thing. But for lost souls it is a male thing too. Perhaps what they need, what they want (not Charles Manson of course) is for someone to rescue them out of their misery. In the case of Columbine, if those kids had been embraced by their schoolmates instead of rejected, who knows how it would have turned out. Empathy, yes, for the, as Dylan would say, “for the aching ones whose wounds cannot be nursed.
For the countless confused, accused, misused, strung-out ones and worse.” As it happened, Alanis Morisette rescued me from my pain, which is the power of art, the power of cinema and maybe the power of video games. It is only the ones who aren’t able to get what they need that way who have to then lash out at the world that has forsaken them.
Moreover, if you look at the timeline of mass murders in the US you’ll see that there were plenty of murderers who were never attached to any pop culture reference. And perhaps the ones who do have some connection make a better story for the press. Maybe that’s why Gleiberman and others don’t realize how many killers there are out there with a big giant question mark over their head.
Let’s do this one more time with mass murderers — a timeline:
1949 – 49-year-old World War II vet opens fire and kills 13. He is found insane and locked up for life.
1966- 25-year-old climbs a tower and kills 16. Injures 30.
1976 – 37-year-old man killed 7 people in a library at Cal State Fullerton with a semi-auto he bought at K-Mart.
1982 – 40-year-old prison guard kills 13, including 5 of his children.
1984 – 41-year-old man kills 21 adults and children at a McDonalds. He’s shot on the scene.
1986 – Postal worker opens fire in his workplace killing 14 and wounding 6.
1990 – 42-year-old man opens fire at General Motors, kills 9, wounds 4 then kills self.
1991 – 36-year-old man opens fire in cafeteria in Texas, kills 23, wounds 20, then kills self.
1998- 15-year-old boy kills his parents then shoots up the school, kills 2, injures 22, is serving a life sentence with no possibility of parole. Life over, dude. Pop culture reference Romeo + Juliet, video games, Marilyn Manson.
1999-Columbine. 13 die. 23 wounded. Perps kill themselves. Pop culture connection: Natural Born Killers, Romeo+Juliet, Marilyn Manson, video games
2007 – Virginia Tech. 23 year-old kills 32 people, injures countless others, kills self. Pop culture reference: Old Boy, video games.
2008 – Grad student opens fire on University of Illinois, killing 5, wounding 16. Pop culture references: Marilyn Manson, watched horror movies with mother, “horror movies and the Bible” was how he grew up. He was also obsessed with the Columbine killings.
2009 – 28 year-old kills sixteen people and then himself in Geneva County, Alabama.
2009 – 41 year-old man kills 13 then self. in Binghamton, NY.
2009 – 39 year-old man kills 13, injures 32. Is awaiting trial.
2012: Shooter enters a dark movie theater, kills 12, wounds 58, supposedly says “I am the Joker” but it isn’t confirmed. Pop culture references: other than the Dark Knight, none. No violent video games, no Marilyn Manson, no obsession with Columbine, not even “horror movies and the Bible.”
You can look for mass shootings over the last 30 years, inexplicable as they are, all over the world and you’ll only find a handful of them have any notable pop culture reference whatsoever. They fall into two categories. The first is mental illness. Onset paranoid schizophrenia is the most common. The second is that they feel they have been wronged or rejected by society. They are ANGRY and depressed. The end is near. They go out with a bang, so to speak. In most cases, they kill themselves.
Is it their obsession with pop culture or ours that has us returning again and again to this mcguffin? Is it our obsession with them that becomes a snake eating its own tail that inevitably inspires other killers to want the same acclaim as the Columbine killers?
If it were only in America, it might be easier to pin down. While mass shootings here have absolutely increased, they’ve also increased in Norway and Germany. Maybe you can look to pop culture for a few of them. But what of the rest?