Of Masks and Smoking Screens

-By Mrinalini Shinde

 I’m only laughing on the outside

My smile is just skin deep

 If you could see inside I’m really crying

You might join me for a weep. 

-The Joker (Batman, 1989)

This piece is in reaction to the horrific incident that played out this weekend at a cinema in Aurora, Denver, where a gunman’s shooting rampage at a cinema hall at  the midnight premiere of The Dark Knight Rises,  left twelve dead  and over fifty injured. Among them a six year old girl, a US Navy seal, an aspiring sports journalist, two men who died shielding their girlfriends. The arrested gunman is a medical undergrad with a state scholarship in neuroscience. He also proclaims himself to be akin to the Joker, the villain from the Batman series.

Two ten year old boys murdered a two year old in exact imitation of a scene from Child’s Play. Several murders have copied the ones from Scream. The popular television show Dexter inspired cold blooded murders taken step-by-step from the episodes. The accused in the massive Oslo carnage that left seventy-seven people dead, was inspired by the video games Call of Duty and World  of Warcraft, by the accused’s own admission in court. A nineteen year old forced his ex-girlfriend who had spurned him, to watch her mother and new boyfriend being hacked with an axe, in order to ape American Psycho. Most famously, Stanley Kubrick was forced to take A Clockwork Orange out of circulation, because of the number of copycat murders it inspired across Britain.

These incidents are not  just highlights of  real crimes inspired by reel, but are the background for the thoughts that have hijacked my mind since I first heard of the Denver shooting. One word seems to hold fort over these thoughts.


The first reasonable explanation that comes to mind is that it is an attempt, nearly always successful to piggyback on the popularity of your obsession, by imitating the same in a manner that would be most shocking and memorable to society, by committing the grossest crime of them all. It is seeing an idol’s life, and the consequent taking of it thereof, as the only way to gain identity. The reason why an obsessive stalker fan killed television actress Rebecca Schaeffer in 1989.  The reason why a certain Mark David Chapman emptied bullets into his idol, a certain Mr. John Lennon, on 8th December, 1980.

The second explanation is that they are influenced by the portrayal of crime. However,  can a work of fiction, have a sufficiently overriding effect on the human mind to commit acts that are totally in contravention with the rules that govern civilization and the good life? Several jurists have delivered judgments regarding the role played by the media in perpetration of crime. Can it really be that simple?

Cinema has the power to drag you out of your reality, experience a world that is not your own, and look into the product of another imagination. Surely, the converse applies. The audience has the power to drag cinema into their world, and transform your perspective of reality. Which is why documentaries on human rights issues  can raise funds to help the oppressed. Which is also why there exists the concept of censorship, that prevents unlimited access to ‘unsuitable’ material. But, this influence is a largely conscious and voluntary process, not a communicable disease spread by the media. As generations before them have, today’s kids too would love their superhero movies. Every kid secretly imagines himself to be Mr. Wayne or Mr. Parker.  Except the ones who secretly imagine themselves to be The Joker or  The Green Goblin. And therein lies the rub.

“Wanna know how I got these scars?”

-The Joker

Some philosophers would have us believe that we, as entities are the summation of our experiences. Surely, certain people might identify with the Jokers and Goblins because of this very reasoning. Surely, only a small minority reacts against social order, when the majority can make rational assessments of the difference between, to put it simply- good and bad? Surely the blame cannot be placed on the influences and inspirations (media) for being the cause and instigating the concerned behaviour?  The idea of pinning blame on the movies, comes very close to blaming pornography for instances of sexual offences, and as a liberal feminist, I find the argument implausible and dangerous, capable of imposing totalitarian governance. Watching a film about a serial killer can help someone see the way a criminal mind functions out of curiosity about possibilities; it is not an instruction manual to commit the crime.

However, in a time when gun control is an extremely debated issue, when people actively want to own objects capable of taking life, (self defence, liberty, yes, yes) I think of the instances of freak shootings  and killings that seem to occur everywhere across the newspaper, and wonder if my liberal stance is at risk of being compromised. Bans are never effective control,  but really, why are guns and explosives so easily available? While making a massive generalisation of course, I  feel that we, as a society are being increasingly and alarming desensitised to violence. Violence has become  a very commonplace, consumable good. Served up in any dressing you’d prefer: video games, television, movies or literature. Irrespective of who people root for in a conflict scene, ‘action’ shootings and explosions, seem quintessential components of entertainment. But, this isn’t new! The Bond movies have been here for a while, haven’t they? And hell, the Romans liked nothing better than a gladiator romp at the Colloseum.

Honestly, I don’t know whether violence as entertainment is a systemic characteristic, or a generic fault, or a laissez faire perspective to social probabilities and realities. What I do however feel is that, as the generation which has grown up witnessing not soldiers in battle in the Great Wars, but seen thousands of unsuspecting innocents in public places across the world, be massacred by terrorism (whatever the origins of those acts may  be); as the generation that witnessed 9/11, surely there is some room for introspection as to how comfortable we really are with the glorification and glamourisation of violence. Why? It’s simple. Because, every time somebody decides to be The Joker instead of The Dark Knight, real people die.


One thought on “Of Masks and Smoking Screens

  1. I completely agree with the point about people getting inured to violence; not just because of movies but because of its graphic depiction even on news channels. We get videos of girls getting molested on youtube, it seems. But I really wonder if it is a problem with how social relationships and parental support work in grounding an individual. These are individuals who are far removed from reality, and as much as I support nihilism and the worthlessness of life, I won’t go out and commit such acts because I’m constantly reminded of the sanctions and barriers around me.

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