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Dark Knight Rises: Death and fantasy in a Colorado theater

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AURORA, COLO. — The movie house is a mystical place, a secular shrine people visit to leave reality behind.

Not a place where a man has to pile on top of his wife of two weeks to shield her from flying shards of seat backs. Not a place where a man loses sight of his 4-month-old son and flees the room wondering if his family is dead on the floor.

In a movie theater, gunshots are supposed to shock in an emotionally satisfying and exciting way; the membrane between fantasy danger and something all too real is never supposed to be porous.

Inside Theater 9 at the Century 16 multiplex in Aurora on Friday morning, people who had turned their days upside down to be part of the midnight premiere of “The Dark Knight Rises” were just 20 minutes into the new Batman movie when a man standing in front of the auditorium started throwing something their way, something they couldn’t quite identify.

In the dark, with Hollywood gunfire already saturating moviegoers’ senses, Brandon Axelrod, 30, sitting in the 10th row with his wife of two weeks and a friend, saw something arc across the theater: “It looked like someone threw a shook-up soda can,” he said, “because it had a spirally trail of whatever that came out of it.” He heard “the fizzing of it. And then just the shots.”

Five rows closer, Chris Ramos, 20, a Starbucks barista sitting with his 17-year-old sister and two friends, noticed someone tossing what looked like stuffed toy baseball bats into the crowd. Must be a promotion for the film, Ramos thought.

Axelrod never saw the gunman. He saw muzzle flashes, coming in short, discrete bursts. With the flashes, the three friends dove into a pile between rows of seats. Around them, people ran for the exits. Axelrod peered through a crack between two seats and saw bodies falling.

“There were people around us that ran, that I saw get shot,” he said. “I know that getting down saved our lives.”

His friend, Josh Nowlan, 32, was shot twice. One bullet broke his right arm, the other did tissue damage to his leg. Axelrod and his wife, Denise Traynom, 24, suffered minor injuries from flying plastic shrapnel, perhaps pieces of a seat back or armrest shattered by a bullet.

Through the minute or two of mayhem, Axelrod noticed that the “Dark Knight” movie had shifted to a violent scene. He peeked through the seats, trying to discern which shots were real. “There was gunfire while there was gunfire,” he said. “We weren’t sure neccesarily if someone was still firing or if it was just the movie.”

Batman is the most real of superheroes; he works his magic through mortal means, not through superpowers. His city of Gotham, as a Batman historian puts it, is “like Manhattan on a bad day.” But the shooter who killed 12 people and injured 58 others Friday injected an especially malicious reality into a palace of fantasy, shattering not only those 70 lives, but the sense of safety and escape that the movies represent to millions who live far from Aurora.

Even amid the shooting, Ramos noticed that his ability to figure out what was going on in the theater was sapped. “I was so out of it,” he said, “that I didn’t even know if the movie was still running.”

Corbin Dates, 23, was bored on his job at an AT&T call center Thursday afternoon. Reading online about the Batman premiere, he decided to book a ticket through Fandango on his cellphone. He went home to Aurora for dinner, hit the gym for a workout and arrived at the theater at 11:30 p.m. to find only a few empty seats.

He took one in the second row, near the right aisle. Only one person was in the front row, he said, directly in front of him in the last seat on the right. Just before the previews, the man in front answered — or pretended to answer — a cellphone call and then walked out the emergency exit, propping the door open with a stick. Dates didn’t think anything of it.

The movie started. The audience applauded. High school kids in the back were “being annoying,” Dates said, yelling and making jokes. He heard beer bottles rattle on the floor around him; that was irritating, too.

About 20 minutes into the movie, the emergency-exit door swung open. Floodlights from the parking lot cast a glow inside the theater. A man stood at the door, maybe 5 feet 10 inches, wearing a gas mask, looking like a cop in SWAT gear. Only his eyes were visible. He didn’t say anything. For a few seconds, he just stood there, like “a guy who showed up late for his own party,” Dates said.

Dates figured it was a stunt, a promotion for the movie, but then the man stepped in front of the screen, threw a canister into the center of the theater and fired a shot at the ceiling. Dates dove to the ground.

The man walked up the right aisle, shooting as he moved. Bang, pause, bang, over and over.

Dates slid under the first row of seats, lying facedown next to three or four other people. He heard the movie, still playing, and the shooting, and screaming, women mostly. Someone crawling in front of Dates screamed, and he grabbed her and told her to keep quiet.

Some people ran for the left exit but came back because they said the shooter had met them there and was shooting people who attempted to leave.

Some rows back, Jamie Rohrs heard the shots stop for a few seconds and wondered, could he run, could he escape? But first, could he find his 4-month-old son, Ethan? “My son’s on the floor,” he said in an interview with CNN. “As I turned to, like, find Ethan in the dark of the theater, with the gas, like, I’m so disoriented and I lose him, I just lose him. Then he opens fire again. So I jump, and I run.”

He searched for his girlfriend, Patricia Legarreta, his son, and her 4-year-old daughter. But he couldn’t see anything. “I don’t want to live if they all die. I’m praying, and I’m just praying. Just please let them get out alive.”

They did. They were all fine, though she suffered a small bullet wound that brought them to the hospital. There, Legarreta said, Rohrs “just looked at me and said, ‘I know this isn’t the time or the place, but will you marry me?’ ”

She said yes.

At some point, no one is quite sure when, the movie stopped. The shooting stopped. The sounds that remained came from the people, their pain and fear and panic.

Dates crawled on his arms toward the left exit, hot gun shells sliding across the floor with him. His calves were burned, his knees bruised.

“The sounds were the worst part,” he said. “You had no choice but to hear it — it was hysterical. . . . Pleas, and shrill screams, and people scrambling over seats and falling. Everyone was coughing. The woman in front of me was having a panic attack, screaming that she had asthma.”

Dates rose to his knees and saw bodies slumped over chairs, a teenage girl lying limp near the aisle. One person was hiding in the theater curtain.

Dates slid out the left exit. He said he was one of the last survivors to leave, just as policemen with guns were pushing their way in.

The suspected shooter, James Holmes, surrendered to police without a fight. He was armed for war, outfitted for terror. His hair was painted red. He told the cops, “I am the Joker.”

His past, so far, seems more a riddle. Unlike some mass shooters, Holmes, 24, does not appear to have much of an online or written trail. The world of social media is now such that anyone can find Holmes’s description of his genitalia, but no one has come forward to explain his departure from the realm of the rational.

The evidence at this point is sparse; the clues, tantalizing. Jimmy Holmes was an accomplished student, a “brainiac,” something of a loner, some said; others called him witty, even nice. For the past four months, he’d been receiving a high volume of packages at his Aurora apartment, yet no one said anything.

Over and over, people who studied, worked and lived near Holmes sheepishly acknowledged they didn’t know his interests, friendships or much at all. At his high school, his college, in Aurora and back home in San Diego, acquaintances recognized his face on TV on Friday morning, but beyond that, mostly a blank.

“He’s one of those people I had classes with him but never talked to him,” said Abel Maniquis, a high school classmate.

Darryl Guiang, a fellow 2006 graduate of Westview High School, called a classmate Friday to tell him the news about Holmes.

“My friend said, ‘Who’s that?’ ” Guiang said.

A longtime neighbor of Holmes’s parents, who live in the Torrey Highlands section of San Diego, didn’t even know the couple had a son.

Arlene Holmes is a registered nurse. Her husband, Robert, is a senior scientist at FICO, a nationally known financial services company, where he works on identify theft and online financial fraud. The father has three degrees in math and statistics.

James Holmes ran cross-country in high school, spent summers in science programs, was a counselor at a camp for poor kids in Los Angeles. He graduated with honors in 2010 from the University of California at Riverside. From his undergraduate years on, his studies focused on human behavior. This spring, he delivered a presentation in a University of Colorado graduate class on the biological basis of psychiatric and neurological disorders. Then he left school.

Mostly, he’s left questions. Was he on a psychotropic medication that he had stopped taking? Did his recent departure from a neuroscience PhD program at the University of Colorado represent the kind of sudden, traumatic break from his career’s forward motion that has been cited as a spark for violence in some previous shooting cases? Did his teenage passion for online fantasy games morph into a break from reality that culminated in him assuming the identity of the Joker, Batman’s eternal nemesis?

In the Batman comics and movies, the Joker represents not just evil “but completely unrepentant, irredeemable madness,” said Marc Tyler Nobleman, author of “Bill the Boy Wonder,” a new biography of Batman co-
creator Bill Finger. “You just don’t know what he’ll do.”

The Joker “was created to be the perfect foil for Batman. They’re both crazy, but Batman’s good crazy and the Joker’s bad crazy. Batman follows strict rules he’s set for himself: He will not kill, he will not use a gun. The Joker is, to use the cliche, the complete wild card.”

“In the Batman universe, the Joker is a persona of chaos and disorder,” said Robert Terrill, a professor of rhetorical studies at Indiana University who has written extensively on the cultural meaning of Batman. “The Joker has never been shy about killing innocent people. He is an anarchic figure, a real sower of disorder. I could see the attraction to someone seeking to be a force of disorder.”

Nobleman went to see the new Batman movie at Montgomery Mall on Friday night. “I can’t lie and say I didn’t look up at the emergency doors for a second, but then I just let myself enjoy the movie,” he said.

The violence in the new film seemed muted compared with the accounts from Colorado that had filled the news all day. When Batman explains his moral code to Catwoman — “No guns, no killing” — Nobleman could sense a collective surge of support from the audience. “This is a character who wants to stop violence,” he said. “That’s part of Batman’s core.”

The shootings pushed aside the public celebration of the new Batman movie. To calm its customers, AMC Theatres banned costumes or masks.

At the Regal Gallery Place multiplex in Washington’s Northwest, ushers searched ­moviegoers’ bags and purses as they filed in. The queue to see “The Dark Knight Rises” still stretched around the block outside the Uptown Theatre in Cleveland Park, but no costumed Batmen waited out front as they had the previous night.

“Nobody’s even wearing a Batman T-shirt,” said a woman who cuddled with her date during previews at the Avalon theater farther up Connecticut Avenue NW, in Chevy Chase. There, only 200 people came out to the 450-seat theater for the 8:15 show Friday. Three police officers stood outside, chatting and laughing, being a presence.

Just before the theater darkened, an employee walked up to each emergency exit and made certain they were locked. The security check gave some customers a sense of assurance and unnerved others, including a man who popped up and ran his hand over the fabric that hangs from theater walls, as if to assure himself that nothing was hidden beneath the folds.

But once the movie started, the audience’s nerves eased and the picture transported them from a real shooting to a fantastic one, a sudden burst of gunfire as a madman tore into a public place, a masked man walking among ordinary people, who dropped to the floor to save their lives.

The scene produced gasps in the theater, but they were happy gasps — reactions to a shock that stayed firmly in the realm of the unreal, frightening yet somehow pleasing, despite the way that same fantasy had been warped into gut-wrenching horror 1,500 miles away.

Fisher reported from Washington. David Fahrenthold, Sandra Fish and Stephen Singular in Aurora, and Joel Achenbach, Michael Cavna, Carol D. Leonnig and Sari Horwitz in Washington contributed to this report.

© The Washington Post Company