Wicked Deeds

Examining criminal motives and behavior

James Holmes and the Bloody “Dark Knight” Massacre

Is the self-proclaimed Joker insane?

James Holmes
James Holmes

The movie theater massacre perpetrated by James Holmes, then age 24, in Aurora, Colorado, on July 20, 2012, rocked the nation. Using multiple weapons, Holmes, a graduate student in neuroscience obsessed with the Joker character in The Dark Knight, killed 12 people and injured 70 others in his massive attack. 

Holmes was hospitalized after attempting suicide several times while in jail in November 2012. After much deliberation, psychiatric evaluation, and the prosecutors’ announcement that they would seek the death penalty, Holmes pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity on June 4, 2013. 

Judge Carlos Samour recently ruled that Holmes must undergo a second sanity evaluation by the state mental hospital because the first was "incomplete and inadequate.” The verdict on insanity is up to the jury but the conclusion of the state hospital's evaluation is critical evidence in that decision.

This ruling by the judge means that the trial will be delayed by several more months while Holmes is reevaluated. No start date for the trial has been announced. 

In some ways, Holmes is very typical of other mass murderers, and in some ways he definitely is not. For example, his killing rampage on opening night of the film The Dark Knight Rises is a signature example of mass murder in terms of its design and execution. Mass murder is a one-time event that involves the killing of multiple people at one location.  

In a mass murder, the victims may be either randomly selected or targeted for a specific reason, such as retaliation, by the killer. A mass murder normally occurs when the perpetrator, who is often deeply troubled, suffers a psychotic break from reality and strikes out at his/her perceived tormentors in a blitz-like attack. James Holmes certainly fits that profile. 

However, mass murderers are frequently, but not always, killed at the scene of the crime. This is where James Holmes is an aberration among mass murderers. Typically, mass murderers are either shot by law enforcement officers called to the crime scene or they take their own lives in a final act of suicide.  

From a psychological standpoint, mass murder is a premeditated act of vengeance against society by a desperate and fatalistic individual who typically has no intention of going away quietly.  

The classic example of mass murder in recent years is the Virginia Tech massacre—a catastrophic school shooting—which took place on April 16, 2007, on the campus of Virginia Polytechnic Institute in Blacksburg, Virginia. In this terrible event, a very troubled student named Seung-Hui Cho shot and killed 32 people and wounded 17 others in two separate blitz attacks which occurred approximately two hours apart on the Virginia Tech campus.  

Cho ended his murderous rampage by turning his gun on himself and committing suicide. In addition to the 17 wounded, another six people were injured while escaping from classroom windows during the attacks. The Virginia Tech massacre is the deadliest shooting incident by a single gunman in U.S. history.

It is apparent that James Holmes is very different from the late Seung-Hui Cho. Holmes does not appear to be fatalistic and he clearly did not want to die at the scene of his murderous rampage. In fact, I suspect that he is actually enjoying his new found infamy behind bars. 

Health Ledger as The Joker in The Dark Knight
When he mildly surrendered to law enforcement officials, Holmes reportedly said, “I am the Joker.” If you recall, in the film The Dark Knight, the late Heath Ledger as the Joker said, “I am an agent of chaos.” I believe that Holmes, too, fancies himself an agent of chaos.  

We know that his academic performance in the neuroscience graduate program at the University of Colorado was in decline prior to him dropping out completely in June 2012—that is, exactly one month prior to his murderous attack. Moreover, he was being treated by a university psychiatrist in the months before the massacre.      

I believe that Holmes was motivated to kill by grandiosity and a paranoid belief that society did not appreciate his self-perceived genius. He most likely became enraged when the University of Colorado downgraded his academic performance and he decided to strike back in retaliation. Consumed by resentment, Holmes became determined to exercise his vengeance. His identification with the Joker character (a homicidal psychopath) demonstrates his profound paranoia and narcissism

Simply put, a deranged Holmes felt unappreciated by the world and was determined to make an unforgettable impression on the public consciousness.  

Just like the Joker in The Dark Knight, James Holmes is reportedly defiant and unremorseful behind bars. His trial is guaranteed to be a high-profile media event, so the world will be exposed to him for some time to come. Holmes will be given a spotlight that I believe he relishes. 

Even if he is found not guilty by reason of insanity, however, one thing is certain. Holmes’ days of striking fear in society are over because this terribly disturbed killer will never, ever walk freely again. A victory in court will only lead to a hospital room for the criminally insane.       

I offer many other shocking insights into the minds and actions of deranged predators in my book “Why We Love Serial Killers” which will be released by Skyhorse Press in October 2014. 

Dr. Scott Bonn is professor of sociology and criminology at Drew University. He is available for consultation and media commentary. Follow him @DocBonn on Twitter and visit his website DocBonn.Com

Scott Bonn, Ph.D., a professor of criminology at Drew University, is an expert on criminal behavior and motivations.

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