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What Was the Media's Role in the Aurora Murders?

Is there a connection to immersion in violent media imagery?

While much remains unknown about the alleged Aurora killer, James Holmes, we do know that the mass murder occurred at a premiere screening of a very violent Batman movie, The Dark Knight Rises. We have also learned that prior to his dropping out of graduate school at the University of Colorado, he was seeing a psychiatrist specializing in schizophrenia.

The news reports that, wearing a black mask and bulletproof vest, Mr. Holmes leveled automatic weapons into the audience before being disarmed. He’d dyed his hair orange and later claimed he was the Joker. When arraigned in court, he appeared dazed and confused, and his attorney swiftly entered an insanity plea.

I will hazard an educated guess that Mr. Holmes does suffer from schizophrenia, a severe mental illness that sometimes manifests itself in murder. The Virginia Tech murderer, the Arizona killer who shot Gabrielle Gifford, and the Norwegian mass murderer last summer probably also suffered from schizophrenia, though only the Norwegian murderer employed an insanity defense.

Another interesting point seems that all four were deeply immersed in violent media. Is it just a coincidence that they all lived lives so inundated with media imagery? Or is there a causal connection?

In regard to Mr. Holmes, what is the link between the media and the alleged murders? Let’s begin to answer this question by reviewing the symptoms of schizophrenia. In addition to probing potentially schizophrenic patients about hallucinations and delusions, especially paranoid ones, we psychiatrists routinely question these patients about whether they feel that TVs, radios, and other media devices are speaking directly to them. Curiously enough, many answer in the affirmative. We also ask these patients whether they believe that others, including the media, can insert thoughts into their minds: often the answer is yes.

As a child and adolescent psychiatrist, I have treated three young males who formed delusional systems around certain media creations. I met one ten-year-old boy in an inpatient unit as he was sprinting down a hallway, clawing the air. After I invited him into an interview room, he blurted out that he was Freddie Krueger from Nightmare on Elm Street. Per his history, he’d attacked and badly scratched his father. Another patient, a passive boy in his early teens, eerily believed he was Truman in The Truman Show, a bizarre film about a boy reared on the TV set of a 24-hour reality show. Like Truman, he was now confused about whether his world was fictional or real. A third boy placed in residential care after attacking his divorced mother with a hammer and screwdriver believed that he was “the One” from The Matrix films. In short, the films entered these fragile boys’ minds in such an excruciatingly intimate manner that they saw no division between themselves and the characters in the films, and at least a few were acting out the parts accordingly.

One feature distinguishing these boys from Mr. Holmes, however, is their early identification as psychotic and their receiving treatment. (Sadly, in the case of many young schizophrenics, no such early intervention occurs.) On the other hand, a stark similarity among all four seems to be the searing depth of popular films’ penetration into their unstable psyches and the fact that these films play a crucial role in the bizarre and dangerous ways they behave, as if they were mimicking media imagery.

Of course, Mr. Holmes’s illness and the availability of automatic weaponry are more pivotal ingredients to this mass murder than any film. But since such incredibly violent films like The Dark Knight Rises are so readily available to the public, we should not be surprised to see individuals with schizophrenia—an illness from which about 1 percent of the world’s population suffers—incorporating the films’ blood-splattered imagery and ruthless actions literally into their world views, and then acting upon such brutality themselves.

Read more about When the Media is the Parent at Dr. Drinka's website.