Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy has proven to be a death-stalked series. Heath Ledger died under mysterious circumstances mere months before the release of The Dark Knight in 2008, lending his now-legendary performance as The Joker both a transcendent sense of menace and a certain ghostly (and ghastly) allure.
As frightful a character as Ledger’s villain was, the fact that audiences were in effect witnessing the performance of a dead man rendered the experience of watching this disfigured, obscenely-painted clown wreak murderous havoc all the more captivating. Indeed, The Joker’s power seemed to originate from some preternatural source that death itself could not kill.
Fast forward to July 2012. In a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, on the opening night of The Dark Knight Rises, the long-awaited final film of the series, it seems that the anarchic and infernally terrifying spirit of The Joker strikes yet again from beyond the grave, this time in the shape of an altogether nondescript and unprepossessing twenty-four year old neurobiology grad school dropout named James Holmes.
Just before midnight, Holmes drives to the theater alone, stands in line, buys a ticket, takes a seat and waits through the previews, before abruptly leaving through the emergency exit when the movie begins. He props the door open (a blatant breach of moviegoing protocol that no one seems to notice, so caught up are they in the cinematic excitement of the film’s opening moments) and returns moments later wearing combat gear and a gas mask, automatic rifle in hand.
After tossing a gas canister to the floor, producing billowing fumes of smoke, Holmes begins firing with promiscuous randomness into the packed theater, charging up and down the aisles, scattering terrified patrons even as the movie continues to play on the screen, its soundtrack punctuating the real-life gunshots and the screams of horror in a confusing, frenetic miscegenation of fact and fiction. Twelve people are killed instantly, and some 50 or more are injured, many critically, by the hellish hail of gunfire unleashed by this masked man.
Shortly afterwards, local cops called to the scene find Holmes at his car, and he gives himself up peacefully, offering no resistance. Smirkingly, he tells them that he’s The Joker.
* * *
Holmes has since clammed up, apparently, since reports are that he has been “uncooperative” with the Aurora police. He did, however, announce that his apartment was booby-trapped with tripwires and explosives, which led to the building’s evacuation and the televised spectacle on 24-hour news channels of a bomb squad attempting to defuse some homemade device or other while perched on a crane outside of the third floor window of Holmes’s flat. Within, police have reportedly discovered oodles of Batman paraphernalia, suggesting the locus of this man’s obsessiveness does indeed pertain to the caped comic book character whose cinematic party he crashed in such spectacularly gruesome fashion early Friday morning.
Very little else is known about Holmes at this point. He has produced a very light cyber-footprint, which is unusual for someone his age, living in these times. Reporters have, however, discovered his name and face on a certain dating site (since taken down), on which he tagged himself “Classic Jimbo” and posed with dyed-orange hair and his characteristic Joker-like smirk, along with an ominous tag line, “Will you visit me in prison?”
Friends, classmates, and neighbors have described Holmes as generally quiet, smart, and well-mannered; all have expressed shock at his murderous opening-night depredations. His mother, Arlene Holmes, flew out to Colorado from her San Diego home to accompany her son–his hair still dyed but his smirk now gone–to his court hearing on Monday. Mrs. Holmes is also declining comment, but a family lawyer has said that she and the rest of the family “stand by” Holmes, while also expressing sorrow for the victims and their families.
Other than rather bland and general details about being a science scholar and a computer game enthusiast, not much has been revealed yet about young James’s personality, character, or interests. A video taken of speech he delivered six years ago at a science fair reveals a serious, shy, self-conscious, but completely harmless-seeming teenage boy discoursing nerdily on “temporal illusions.”
The fact that his rampage came out of the blue with no prior violent or criminal behavior has caused many to somewhat predictably allege that here must be a Manchurian Candidate, or an MK-Ultra mind-control victim of whose preprogrammed spasm of gun violence was designed by the ZOG-ish powers-that-be to make it easier to institute sweeping weapon-grabbing edicts across America, install martial law, and generally escalate the momentum of the ongoing genocide of the White man. Some hay has even been made over the fact that Holmes once worked as a counselor at a Jewish summer camp in Los Angeles. (Holmes in fact is not a Jew.) Commenters have maintained that the fact that Holmes has kept so light a presence on the interwebs (no Twitter, Facebook, or Myspace page; no videos on Youtube.; no online journal or manifesto à la Anders Behring Brievik or George Sodini) means he must be some “Bourne Identity” type of plant, unleashed to further the nefarious agenda of our sinister Illuminati rulers. And on it goes.
As is no doubt clear from my snarky tone in the above paragraph, I don’t hold much brief for such theories. What strikes me as more likely is that James Holmes is a mentally unstable individual who at some point came to gravitate towards Heath Ledger’s Joker as his authentic alter-ego and inner liberator. As with Jared Lee Loughner, Holmes’s derangement probably struck slowly (there is every evidence that both Holmes and Loughner were exceedingly “normal” as boys before their respective illnesses set in during late adolescence) and metastasized over time.
While speculations regarding specifics are probably not advisable, I will hazard a guess that, as this young man grew to feel more and more helpless under the oppressive weight of his growing legion of inner demons, and became ever more overwhelmed by his own sense of puny insignificance in a fierce and hostile world, he began to hunger insatiably for psychic security; this need, in turn, drew him to relate to an appealing character who possessed undeniable strength of mind and true self-possession. Holmes no doubt watched The Dark Knight repeatedly, and grew more and more bedazzled by the wiles of the late Mr. Ledger’s malevolent, supremely powerful clown who craftily and determinedly puts Gotham City at his utter mercy.
After all, part of what makes The Joker so attractive is—as Trevor Lynch so aptly points out—the fact that he is truly free. Like the Devil himself, this Satanic jester simply will not serve. What makes his performance so disturbingly entrancing is that he makes us enjoy watching him breed chaos, even as the better part of us wants—or at least knows that we ought to want–to see his designs foiled. The viewer knows that The Joker is a wicked, repellant, and loathsome monster, yet the beast still manages to seduce us into liking him. Even trivial acts of nastiness like his “disappearing pencil trick” cause us to grin while we gasp.
In truth, we would all like to be The Joker at times—it really feels good to cease giving a flying fuck, to say and do what we please, and to laugh in the faces of those authority figures when they try to shame us into submission or conformity. There is a primordial appeal to such behavior which resonates with all men who have a trace of that fighting, flailing, snarling spirit, the sort of spirit which in truth is best kept under wraps most of the time, but which, conversely, is sorely needed when the chips are down. In this sense, Holmes really isn’t that different from us “normals.” What sets him apart—that is to say, what makes him insane—is his inability to keep such fantasies firmly in check.
Art is an inherently dangerous proposition. It will influence people in ways the artist himself may never expect, or hope, or wish to do. The most compelling portraits of unhinged evil are sometimes the most risky, since they invite imitation. One stares into the abyss, and the abyss stares back. Sometimes the aesthetic chaos meant to stay contained on a given canvas spills over and intrudes into the real world. Cinematic villains take actual form, and fake blood turns real.