Since their inception, movies have offered an escape from the toil and tribulation of everyday life.
When the darkness engulfs us and the screen lights up, good movies draw us in, surround us, enfold us and immerse us in their reality. And bad movies at least get us in out of the heat, and the popcorn’s not bad, either.
Through some of the nation’s most trying times, Americans have sought solace and a bit of escape in movie theaters.
Through the Great Depression, people whiled away idle hours with a double feature, and for a time they were no longer poor, no longer hungry. Through the two world wars, movies offered inspiration as well as escapism.
Increasingly, the phenomenon of entertainment shared at the altar of Hollywood magic is decreasing in popularity, with more and more people shunning the theater in favor of watching movies on television, laptops, tablets or smartphones.
But there is something about watching a movie in a theater, as part of a crowd, on the big screen, despite the occasional annoyances of fussy children, chatty patrons, ringing cell phones, overpriced concessions and overblown air conditioning, that makes it special.
We love the hero and heroine, of course, we marvel at their poise and perfection, even under the most trying of circumstances. But usually the one that really sticks in our memory is the villain.
There have been many great villains, like Hannibal Lecter, Darth Vader, Nurse Ratched, Freddy Krueger, Goldfinger and Norman Bates, just to name a few.
They make us squirm, they make us fume, but the nice thing about movie villains is that once the lights go up they fade from everything but our memories, and perhaps later that night, our nightmares.
But a real-life villain wandered into a crowded Aurora, Colo., movie theater in the early morning hours Friday, and his weapons were not movie props, his evil motives not spelled out for him by the pen of a screen writer.
James Holmes, a 24-year-old Ph.D. student at the University of Colorado, entered the theater through an emergency exit wearing the screen, several minutes into a midnight showing of “The Dark Knight Rises,” wearing a gas mask and a flak jacket.
He dropped a canister of tear gas, then began firing a shotgun at movie patrons. When the shotgun was out of ammunition, he unslung a rifle he carried on his back and continued shooting, randomly choosing his victims with no more thought than if he had been aiming at a line of tin cans.
When the bloodbath was over he walked out of the theater, where he was arrested in a rear parking lot. He did not resist.
As of this writing, Holmes’ shooting spree has left 12 people dead and dozens injured.
No sooner had the shooting stopped than the questions began, beginning with why.
Why would a young man described by a neighbor in his childhood home of San Diego as, “a normal kid,” commit this horrible act?
That is obviously an inaccurate portrayal. Nobody normal randomly kills and wounds innocent people. Nobody normal inflicts pain, suffering and grief on strangers.
Nobody normal puts their name in the ranks of crazed shooters like Nidal Malik Hassan, who killed 13 people and wounded more than 30 others in 2009 at Fort Hood, Texas; Seung-Hui Cho, who killed 32 and wounded 17 in 2007 at Virginia Tech; and Colorado’s own Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, who killed 12 students and one teacher, and wounded 21 others, in 1999 at Columbine High School, about a half-hour drive from Aurora.
There are no answers to why incidents like these occur, none that make any sense, anyway.
The perpetrators have their own reasons, cloaked in and shaded by their own twisted world view, but the rest of us are left shaking our heads at the senselessness of it all.
The victims didn’t even know, at first, that there was anything wrong. They thought the masked gunman was part of some sort of theater promotion for the opening of the summer’s most-anticipated action film.
By the time they realized this was no ersatz villain, but a real one, and the weapons he was firing were real, it was too late.
The victims went to the movies to be entertained, seeking escape. But in the end there was no escape from this real-life monster.
Hug your loved ones a little tighter today, and don’t take a single day on this earth for granted, since you never know when it could all be snatched from you.
Mullin is senior writer of the News & Eagle. Email him at email@example.com.