In this year alone, we've had two prominent incidences take place in movie theaters that ended in gunfire. Most recently a man in Nashville, Tennessee entered a screening of Mad Max: Fury Road and began assaulting patrons with pepper spray, a hatchet, and brandishing an airsoft gun. Though he killed no one and caused only one minor injury, police shot the attacker mistaking his airsoft gun for a pistol.
Their jumpiness is understandable. Earlier in the summer, another man in Lafayette, Louisiana launched a more fatal rampage when he opened fire with a handgun 20 minutes into a showing of Trainwreck. The killer, reportedly motivated partially by anti-feminism and anti-Semitism, claimed two lives and injured nine people before turning the gun on himself.
Three summers ago, there was another shooting at a midnight premiere of The Dark Knight Rises in Aurora, Colorado. The killer survived to be taken into custody, but not before ending the lives of 12 people and injuring 70.
These are all films I wanted to go see, and now I'm literally terrified of going to the movies. When I recently took my daughter to a matinee of Home, I carefully checked and catalogued every single person that entered the theater. When any of the assorted grandmothers take her to the movies, I wait anxiously to hear from them.
This is utter insanity to both my wife and I. We were raised in movie theaters. My parents began dropping my brother and I off at the local four-screen for the afternoon before we were even out of elementary school. Later, we would just hike the three miles there ourselves. I went on to work as a projectionist in that same movie theater, and continued working as one in various others for roughly four years.
When I was in high school, I began attending regular midnight screenings of the Rocky Horror Picture Show. I went every Saturday for the better part of a decade, often coming home just as the sun rose over East Houston. I was 15-years-old. My dad was fine with it. Why?
Because I was in a movie theater. What could possibly happen in a movie theater?
The only thing that my dad ever worried about was that I would get tired on the drive back and fall asleep at the wheel. Even the fact that I was hanging out in a bastion of alternative sexuality in Texas when sodomy was still illegal and might somehow end up gaining the attention of violent homophobes and bigots never really worried my family. When some drunk hurled a broken bottle at us while waiting to get into the theater it was rare enough that it was talked about for months.
I wasn't out clubbing or at concerts with a ton of unknown people. I wasn't doing drugs or trying to hook up with strangers. I was going to the movies late at night with friends, having dinner at Denny's afterwards, and then coming straight home. Minus the crossdressing, it was actually a very boring, safe life.
I'm too old for garter belts these days but even if that wasn't the case I'm not sure that I would ever start going to Rocky again even if I wanted to. Fifteen years ago, the idea that a person would even want to enter a movie theater with the desire to hurt or kill as many patrons as they could just didn't seem possible. Now, it happens often enough I need to Google details because they've all blurred together.
Yes, when I was a projectionist there we had occasional methed-out nutjobs who would get violent or casual armed dummies that would shoot at the screen, but they didn't have an agenda or a plan, just poor impulse control.
The films that hosted these attacks bother me most of all. Mad Max is widely seen as the most feminist action film since Kill Bill, and Trainwreck is the story of a woman with a heavy sexual appetite that doesn't cater to traditional social norms. The Dark Knight Rises release was intertwined with similar themes connected to Occupy Wall Street. All these films have common tropes of rebellion against established, largely conservative and traditional, ideals. It's these movies from which seemingly angry, disturbed people are apparently choosing their pool of victims.
The overall cultural story arc of the last several years has been a tremendous shift towards more progressive values. However, it's also peppered with violent and harmful pushback. Last year, a man in Isla Vista, California launched an attack on a college campus that killed six and injured 14 before he committed suicide. The manifesto that he published before his spree was a bizarre screed against feminism and the sex he felt he was being denied because of it.
That same year an appearance by feminist video game critic Anita Sarkeesian at Utah State University was cancelled after a threat of a mass shooting was sent in if she was allowed to speak. This was part of wave of harassment leveled against feminist in gaming that had been going on since at least 2012 and continues to this day.
Media is a mirror of how we see the world, and increasingly venues for experiencing that media seem to be the targets of individuals who would wage the culture war in a more literal fashion. It makes me afraid. If I take my daughter to see Frozen 2 and Queen Elsa turns out to be gay as some rumors indicate, am I putting her life in danger because someone with a fixation of taking back his country from queers chooses that exact time to express himself in bullets? I don't know, but I sure do sit with my back against a wall more than I used to do.