WASHINGTON – We go to the movies to dream.
When the audience filed into Theater 9 at the Century 16 multiplex in Aurora, Colorado, the early morning of July 20, they were there to experience that state of consciousness that only movies can provide. Somewhere between waking life and hypnotic trance, the act of watching a movie is one of voluntary surrender, of letting go of our daily psychological defenses and allowing our imaginations to be colonized by the enveloping sounds and images on the screen.
That unique state of consciousness was surely all the more intense on July 20, when the crowd of parents, children, friends and families piled into the theater to watch “The Dark Knight Rises,” the last of Christopher Nolan’s Batman films and one that epitomizes the director’s distinctively immersive style.
When alleged gunman James Holmes entered the theater, reportedly about a half-hour into the show, the audience was no doubt fully engaged with the dark, densely detailed escapist fantasy — which reportedly had reached one of several violent shootout and bombing scenes —when the real attack began.
It’s no wonder that when the shooter — dressed in a bulletproof vest and a gas mask — began firing a gun into the air, some spectators thought it was part of the show, either a promotional gimmick or an over-zealous theater employee trying to ramp up an already intense cinematic experience.
When the gunman embarked on his rampage — which resulted in at least 12 deaths and dozens of injuries — he not only invaded a safe physical space and a seasonal communal rite as cherished as baseball games or late-night stories around the campfire; he invaded a deeply personal psychic space that, because of the overwhelming power of identification and suggestion that movies possess, is all the more fragile when it’s violated.
We’re sadly familiar with horrific violence unleashed in what should be inviolate places, from schools and churches to college campuses and supermarkets. But the movie audience in Aurora was victimized while in a singular psychological state, one that made them even more vulnerable.
Uri Hasson, an assistant professor of psychology at Princeton University, has studied MRI images of people watching film footage. He describes moviegoing as a powerful experience that makes people “very attentive and very absorbed and very engaged.” Hasson and his colleagues have discovered that the brain responses of people watching the same film are startlingly similar.
“Something happens to the brains [where] they all become in sync and aligned,” he said. “You can see the brain responses of everyone becoming very similar and melting into the movie and being coupled.”
“Melting into the movie” is an apt description of watching “The Dark Knight Rises,” which Nolan has staged and filmed to be almost overpowering.
Seeing it at the IMAX theater in the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History the week before last, I was entranced with what was transpiring on the screen. As a longtime film critic who has developed a knack for glancing at my watch precisely at the one-hour mark of any movie, “The Dark Knight Rises” held me in its thrall.
The cinematic experience is so potent that it’s no surprise that it took some Aurora filmgoers a few seconds to absorb what was happening.
“My head and body weren’t connecting,” one audience member in an adjacent theater said Friday, recalling why she didn’t immediately run out. Other viewers described similar feelings of needing time to shake off the reverie they had so willingly — even eagerly — entered when they lined up to see the movie at its midnight showing.
The possibility that there was a lag time until people realized that the bullets in Theater 9 were real is consistent with research on how our brains process film, says cognitive psychologist Dan Levin of Vanderbilt University. Whereas the dominant theory of film perception once assumed that the cinematic experience tapped into a unique set of skills, many researchers now believe we use the same skills to understand both film and reality.
Reorienting our brain’s cognitive tools from the screen to a real-life activity occurring in the same room “can take a moment,” Levin says. “It may not be a totally easy decision to make when we’re trying to figure out the difference between a film we’re perceiving and a reality that may be going on in the theater outside of the film … especially if we are not prepared in advance to make that decision.”
Levin added that watching an escapist fantasy as sophisticated and compelling as “The Dark Knight Rises” might make that lag time even longer. And even if it’s true that our brains on movies are essentially the same as our brains on reality, there’s no doubt that, as philosophy professor Colin McGinn wrote in “The Power of Movies,” “we are all familiar with that sense of entrancement that accompanies sitting quietly in the pierced darkness of the movie theatre. The mind seems to step into another sphere of engagement as the images on the screen flood into our receptive consciousness. We are gripped.”
And we love being gripped. As filmgoers have demanded ever more enveloping and intense experiences, filmmakers, studios and theaters have responded, upping the sensory ante with surround sound and IMAX (the format Nolan used to film “The Dark Knight Rises”). One can only speculate how much more disorienting it would have been to differentiate between on-screen bullets and real ones if “The Dark Knight Rises” had been presented in 3-D.
The movies and reality have chimed in unnerving ways already this year, from a real-life case of vigilantism in Florida to the bizarre instance of a man eating another man’s flesh, zombie-style.
The fantasy of movie characters suddenly bursting into real life is a cherished cinematic trope, most lyrically explored by Woody Allen in “The Purple Rose of Cairo.”
But the events in Colorado aren’t just another case of how life imitates art, or how movies influence behavior, or even how moviegoing lulls us into suspended states of sensory overload and passivity. In fact, brain science suggests that we’re anything but passive when we’re watching.
Even in a state of cinematic escape, we’re in a near-constant process of discerning fiction from truth — an endeavor made far more difficult and nuanced when truth invades fictional space with such sudden, murderous force.
Ann Hornaday is The Washington Post’s chief film critic.