When a deranged killer sits in a courtroom, arraigned on the charges that have made him an overnight media icon of evil, all the clichés about his previous non-behavior — he was “quiet,” he was “a loner,” there was “nothing remarkable” about him — tend to be incarnated in the disaffected blankness of his stare. Looking at the newspaper, or the TV or computer screen, we scrutinize his weirdly bland, impassive image, searching for a clue to the disorder of his mind, and almost inevitably (even in the case of, say, Jeffrey Dahmer) we see nothing. 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.
That Halloween-costume Joker hair made it all the harder to escape the fact that Holmes, in some twisted chamber of his brain, really did think that he was playing a role, that his identity had somehow merged with that of the cackling killer so memorably embodied by Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight. (Even his insanely booby-trapped apartment was a Joker stunt: Holmes probably imagined it blowing up into a giant fireball just like the hospital that the Joker blew up and walked away from.) Let me be one hundred percent clear: I am not saying that The 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.
In the last 30 years or so, everyone in our culture, notably children, has spent more and more of their daily hours staring at screens: the movie screen, the television screen (the amount of time that most of us spend watching TV goes up every decade), the computer screen, and the videogame screen (which, of course, is also a computer, but with a wholly different vibe). A lot of what we watch is images of other people, and one is tempted to say that only someone who is certifiably nuts would confuse the people you see on a screen with the flesh-and-blood humans in front of you. Yet for a lot of people, it’s not that screen images become “real” — it’s that if you spend enough time, with enough emotional investment, watching people on screens, then the residual effect can be to make you feel as if real live human beings are just extensions of the screen images that you’re addicted to. It can make you feel as if humans aren’t beings that you have to interact with. They’re not real, they don’t have feelings, they don’t matter.
And that’s the flattened POV that first-person-shooter videogames encourage. You’re at the controls, “holding” a gun that’s pointed at the “people” in front of you, and then you pull the trigger and — blam! blam! blam! — you kill them. Do these games “cause” murder? No, they do not. But what they do offer, in the violent excitement of their concentrated you are the killer! vantage, is a first rehearsal of the shedding of any vestiges of compassion. A first-person-shooter videogame isn’t life, but it can become a kind of enticement to view life as if it were a videogame. Looking at a real person and seeing, in essence, the flesh-and-blood version of a digitized “target” may be one of the key mental/metaphorical leaps of our age. And that’s why I believe that writing off a tragedy like the Dark Knight massacre as an instance of simple “insanity,” while technically correct, may miss one dimension of what’s really going on. For what has gradually decayed, in our society of screens, isn’t sanity. It’s empathy. And if we want to know why, we can look more closely at what pop culture really means to the people who would use it as a bible of murder.
It really does go back, in a way, to The Catcher in the Rye, and to the astounding theory that playwright John Guare put forth about it in Six Degrees of Separation. Speaking through his brilliant con-man protagonist, he basically said that the reason that Holden Caulfield, the book’s alienated teenage hero, became an inspiration to John Lennon’s killer is that Holden, in his red hunting hat, with his hatred of “phonies,” his disaffected voice of cut-through-the-bull sarcastic knowingness, was basically, in spirit, an assassin himself. And what’s extraordinary about that insight is that Holden Caulfield, a character launched into the world in 1951, may well be the most influential character in any American novel since Huck Finn. He was the early spirit of the ’60s generation (the kids who wanted to assassinate their parents’ values). And what he embodied, amid a great many other things, was the belief that he was separate from other people — and that, by implication, we are all separate from each other. With The Catcher in the Rye, the attitude was born that said: If it feels good, do it, and if it doesn’t feel good, then f— off.
I’m not bashing the 1960s, a decade as redemptive as it was destructive. Yet there’s no denying that the ’60s is when all this outsize murder really started to happen: the serial killers who — Jack the Ripper aside — were first planted in the popular imagination with the arrest, in 1966, of Richard Speck, who brutalized and killed eight student nurses in Chicago (a darkening of the zeitgeist vividly captured in the recent season of Mad Men); the infinitely shocking and tragic political assassinations (of John F. Kennedy, Malcolm X, Robert F. Kennedy, and Martin Luther King Jr.); and the horrific mass shooters — a phenomenon that we associate with more recent times, though the first one occurred in 1966, when Charles Whitman, a student at the University of Texas, climbed to the 28th floor of the campus administration building and killed 16 people with a rifle. I’m willing to believe that all these killers were on some level “crazy,” but not that the fairly sudden and concentrated epidemic of public homicide, kicked off near the dawn of the media age, was a coincidence. A new spirit was out there. And in 1969, with the Manson murders, that spirit began to be fused with pop culture.
What Manson demonstrated, and what more or less every movie and videogame-inspired killer has demonstrated ever since then, is that it’s possible to become way too obsessed with pop culture — and, more than that, that when you do become too obsessed, the obsession becomes a way of severing yourself from empathy. For most of the movies that these killers have fixated on, from Taxi Driver to Natural Born Killers to The Dark Knight, haven’t been exploitation films. They’ve been powerful works of art. Yet a major part of what makes them powerful is that they tap into the deep dark waters of our hidden nihilistic sides. The neon-garish, midnight-street-steam audacity of Taxi Driver is that it’s a movie that dares to put you in the shoes of an urban sociopath. The line between identifying with Travis Bickle and stepping back to see that he’s gone off the deep end is thin indeed. And part of the allure of Heath Ledger’s performance in The Dark Knight is that he makes the Joker a freaky-cool psycho outcast, a rock star of mayhem. In a way, to want to fuse with the antic spirit of Ledger’s acting is part of what the movie teases out in us.
But when that dynamic takes over, then we’ve come out the other side of our humanity. We’re not just watching a movie anymore, or even loving a movie. We’re becoming the movie. And where that gets a little scary is that the desire to become what we see on screen, to let it not so much nourish us as replace our identity, is now, more and more, the unstated impulse behind fanboy culture. In a widely reported incident a few days before the Dark Knight shooting, a comment board on the Rotten Tomatoes website was shut down because a number of commenters had made death threats against the handful of film critics who had given The Dark Knight Rises a negative review. These noxious commenters were at once the ultimate fanboys and the ultimate trolls, spewing their rebel fascism — all hail The Dark Knight Rises! Death to anyone who disagrees! — from behind the standard lame curtain of Internet anonymity. Most of them, of course, hadn’t even seen the movie, and they were flicking the usual brain-dead spitballs, only this time the spitballs were dipped in poison. To denounce these people with a lot of moralistic huffing and puffing would be to risk taking them too seriously.
Except that I’m pretty certain we would never have seen death threats over a movie review just a decade ago. What these commenters graphically illustrated, in their hyperbolic hate spew, is that it is now possible to “love” movies like the Dark Knight trilogy far too much, to love them in a way that is disconnected from the very humanity that the movies are making a plea for. Fanboy culture now risks turning into a kind of fundamentalism for fantasy geeks, with movies turned into an absolute: a reason for living that replaces living. That’s why it’s so threatening if even one critic doesn’t like the movie that you’ve been pining for, ruining its chances for a Rotten Tomatoes rating of 100% fresh, the magical evaluation that would mean that everyone likes it, and that you could therefore join that club safe in the knowledge that you, too, will be liked by everyone.
Of course, I’m not suggesting that the death-threat commenters on Rotten Tomatoes, most of whom were probably ignorant teenage louts, have any real link to a genuine bringer of death like James Holmes. In the real world (or so I’m guessing), they are harmless. I’m not going to get all dramatic and say that in a few years, one of them could grow up to be him. Yet what they and Holmes have in common is the compulsion to worship pop culture with such fanatical identification that a movie could be transformed from a darkly ingenious, and uniting, piece of popular art into a weapon that can be used against anyone who isn’t pure enough to love that same movie the way that you do. When you think about it, it makes perfect sense that James Holmes, in his grotesque obsessed-fan Joker costume, chose the very first midnight show of The Dark Knight Rises to uncork his arsenal of madness. He opened fire on a roomful of Batman fans, and he wanted to kill every last one of them. Maybe his real fantasy was to be the only fan left.
Follow Owen on Twitter: @OwenGleiberman