Jalen Fernell was settling into the opening scene of “Southpaw” when he heard the shots, so faint he thought they were part of the soundtrack.
Tanya Clark was standing in line at the concession stand, ordering slushies to drink during “Magic Mike XXL” when the screams and sirens began.
“I thought it was just a joke,” her 17-year-old son, Robert Martinez, told the New York Times. But then a woman hobbled through the cinema lobby, her leg dripping blood.
And inside ill-fated theater 14, the epicenter of the mayhem, movie-goers were 20 minutes into the romantic comedy “Trainwreck” when gunshots — louder than any sound system could produce — shook them out of their reverie and back to the real world.
“There was so much blood,” one witness said while attending to a victim shot in the leg, according to a reporter at the scene.
Thursday’s shooting in Lafayette claimed the lives of three people, including the yet to be named assailant, described as a 58-year-old white man. At least nine others were injured. Authorities say the man’s motive remains unclear.
For hundreds trapped inside Lafayette’s Grand Theater as the chaos unfolded, the shootout transformed a cherished communal experience into a night of terror.
In a cruel irony, the shooting turned the magic of the theater against itself: the dark, densely populated space that enables soaring, dreamlike experiences suddenly became something more akin to a death trap.
Movie magic became a waking nightmare.
Thursday’s shooting is not the first time that a theater has become a target.
Commentators were quick to point out the similarities to another mass shooting. On July 20, 2012, almost exactly three years earlier, James Holmes terrorized a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado.
Clad in black SWAT gear, armed with an arsenal of firearms and tossing tear gas, Holmes emerged from an emergency exit and opened fire.
As on Thursday night in Lafayette, audience members in Aurora weren’t sure what was going on at first. They had been watching an opening night screening of the Batman film “The Dark Knight Rises.” When Holmes first emerged shooting and throwing gas canisters, some in the crowd thought it was a gimmick for the film.
But Holmes’s shooting spree was very real. He killed a dozen people and injured 58 more, including several movie-goers in adjacent theaters who were struck by bullets.
Just last week, a jury convicted Holmes of murder. The same jury is currently weighing whether to recommend the death sentence.
Although it’s unclear if Holmes’s trial has anything to do with Thursday’s shooting in Lafayette, it is clear that theaters are now a target for terror.
For towns across America, theaters — both the stage and screen variety — have long been places to congregate. During summer months, they offer sweltering citizens a cool place to collectively relax.
“The movie theater is one of the last places where we can still gather and experience something together,” German film director Wolfgang Petersen once said. “I don’t think the desire for that magic will ever go away.”
It was that cinema camaraderie that Holmes sought to exploit. His decision to target his local movie theater was no coincidence. During his trial, Holmes said he chose Aurora’s Century theater because the Batman premiere insured “there’d be a lot of people there.”
The shooting sent shivers down the spines of silver-screen-loving Americans. Survivors and family members of the victims sued the movie theater, claiming the building wasn’t sufficiently secure. (Holmes left the theater, retrieved his weapons from his car, and returned through an emergency door.)
But the incident also prompted broader questions about theater safety.
“Although theaters had theretofore been spared a mass shooting incident, the patrons of a movie theater are, perhaps even more than students in a school or shoppers in a mall, ‘sitting ducks,'” U.S. District Court Judge R. Brooke Jackson wrote.
Jackson wasn’t the first to point that out. In fact, Americans are well aware of the dangers of the theater.
The country’s most infamous assassination occurred in one, of course, when John Wilkes Booth shot Abraham Lincoln at Ford’s Theater on April 14, 1865.
One of America’s most famous legal phrases — perhaps our only famous legal phrase — also stems from theater calamities.
In a 1919 opinion that established commonsense limits on the constitutional right to free speech, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote: “The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic.”
The example wasn’t strictly hypothetical. As Carlton F. W. Larson wrote in “‘Shouting Fire in a Theater': The Life and Times of Constitutional Law’s Most Enduring Analogy,” the justice was likely drawing on two notorious incidents of people falsely shouting “fire” in movie theaters: a 1911 stampede in Pennsylvania in which 26 died and a similar disaster two years later in Michigan, when 73 died, including many children.
Several other deadly incidents have shown that theaters can be places of carnage. On October 23, 2002, heavily armed Chechen rebels took over the Dubrovka Theater in downtown Moscow. They held 850 hostages for three days until Russian troops raided the theater, killing all 40 rebels. One hundred and thirty hostages also died during the siege.
Just last year, retired Tampa police officer Curtis Reeves shot and killed a man for sending a text message during a movie. Witnesses recalled panic and flying popcorn.
Time and time again, theater-lovers have been reminded that the very conditions that make the theater a special place — small, dark, hushed interiors shared with hundreds of strangers — can also make it frightening.
Yet, this string of theater disasters hasn’t dissuaded Americans from filling the aisles. After the 2012 Colorado shooting, some in the movie industry feared an “Aurora effect” in which terrified fans would stay away from theaters. Instead, “The Dark Knight Rises” quickly became one of the highest grossing films of all time.
For many, it seems, the suspension of disbelief required to watch a movie or play also applies to the safety of the experience itself.
Fernell, a 20-year-old college student, said he had seen James Holmes’s trial on the news but paid it little attention when purchasing tickets to “Southpaw” with his friends on Thursday evening. The possibility of another shooting simply didn’t cross his mind.
“That’s the last thing that you’d think would happen at a movie theater,” Fernell told The Washington Post, “especially on a Thursday night.”