Multiplex Mayhem


Snuggled into their seats like swaddled babes, moviegoers' safety seems implicit. It is utterly unimaginable that danger could ever be lurking in that enchanted darkness – except for the people on the screen.

I’ve always savored a movie theater’s magical cocooning-that ineffable sense of being whisked away from mundane reality into the film’s seductive realm. Snuggled into your seat like a swaddled babe, your safety seems implicit. It’s utterly unimaginable that danger could ever be lurking in that enchanted darkness – except for the people on the screen.

Sure, characters can be machine-gunned by mobsters, drowned in an upside-down ocean liner, or disintegrated by alien death-rays. But aren’t they actors, and isn’t being killed occasionally part of their job?

Movie violence has become more brutal over the last 50 years. Hitchcock’s  Psycho (1960) paved the way. The director’s grisly slaughter of a major star like Janet Leigh halfway through the story (how could it be believed?!) terrified viewers as never before. Vicarious carnage steadily escalated thereafter. As a result, we may be more disposed to writhe in our seats-but we still stay put. Our faith that we can be frightened, but never actually harmed at the Multiplex remained  inviolable.      

One would have thought this illusion of invulnerability would be exploded when a shooter invaded an Aurora, Colorado theater on July 20, 2012. The assassin emptied a powerful shotgun, then a semi-automatic into the audience waiting to watch The Dark Knight Rises. Twelve were killed, 70 others wounded.

Afterwards, media talking heads blamed vicious videogames, or barbaric movies for the slaughter. Yet neither before nor after Aurora has there been one piece of statistically valid research proving that even a single murder was incited by a violent videogame or film.

The possibility that the shooter was afflicted with mental illness that went undetected because of systemic failure was also pondered. He still keeps silent about his motives, probably on legal advice. So we cannot know at this time to what extent-or indeed if-he was deranged.

Despite another interminable round of debate about gun control, no viable legislation has yet to be passed. Indeed, gun sales have risen. Continuing gargantuan box office successes would seem to indicate that viewers still feel as safe in theaters as theaters as they do at home. One surmises they consider the bloodbath at Aurora a spectacular one-off.

The industry’s only discernible response was desultory safety training for movie personnel.

On December 12, 2013, shortly after a training session at the Grove 16 theater in Wesley Chapel, Florida, Curtis Reeves, Jr. killed Chad Oulsen with one shot from a .380 semi-automatic handgun. The shooting occurred during matinee previews. Reeves allegedly objected to Oulsen’s text-messaging. (It turned out that Oulsen was checking in with his daughter’s baby-sitter.) Reeves’ attorney invoked Florida’s infamous “Stand Your Ground” statute – claiming that his client acted in self-defense after Oulsen had bombarded him with popcorn. The court rejected this repellant balony. Reeves currently is awaiting adjudication behind bars. Reeves is a 71-year- old retiree; a former Tampa police captain; then a security chief at Busch Gardens. He is described as a devoted husband and father, and a church-going good neighbor. Oulsen was a naval veteran, a hard working husband father, generally beloved, who never owned a gun.  

The media has been odiously sharking through Reeves’ past for psychological “issues.” Apparently he was a bit authoritarian on a few occasions, but that’s neither a felony nor a misdemeanor. Nor was he a devotee of violent amusements. He allegedly denounced someone else for text messaging a week or so before the Grove 16 shooting.

Like the Aurora shooter, Reeves has disappeared into the criminal justice system, so we are unlikely to hear more about him soon. Whatever else motivated or disinhibited him, I wonder if this latest homicidal eruption in a user-friendly communal space comprises an extreme example of a gradual erosion of the social contract that has beset our nation.

In small towns and big cities alike, one encounters less of that agreeable American willingness to get along in order to get along. Too often, common courtesy is replaced by rank rudeness. Congenial resolution of individual grievances is frequently supplanted by the taking of great affront on small provocation. Not that long ago, Reeves might have expressed his disapproval about Oulsen’s texting more rationally and listened to his explanation more reasonably.  

However, the chief cause of these outrages in civic places continues to be the staggering national arsenal of guns, frequently lying close at hand. As an ex-cop and security officer, carrying a weapon may have been second nature to Reeves. But did he need to bring his revolver to the movies? Did he even have to own it after retiring? Without it, Reese might have treated Oulsen more peaceably, or merely shouted his objections.

I researched purchase of a .380 semi-automatic over the internet. One website offered it “dirt cheap.” Another chillingly analyzed its disadvantages and merits. While the .380 was judged less powerful than, say, a Colt 45, it was commended for easily being concealed. One was also assured that close up to one’s target, it would “get the job done.”

Reeves got the job done.

Movies continue to draw banner crowds. Once again, it appears that the Florida shooting is perceived as just another one-off. Ever higher ticket prices may ultimately scare off audiences. . .  but not an occasional homicide.

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