Saturday, July 21, 2012

Dark Knight Rises: Death and fantasy in a Colorado theater - Washington Post

AURORA, COLO. â€" 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.


Eyewitness Ben Fernandez describes the “panic” and “chaos” in the Aurora, Colorado movie theater after a gunman opened fire during a midnight showing of the Batman movie “The Dark Knight Rises.”

Eyewitness Ben Fernandez describes the “panic” and “chaos” in the Aurora, Colorado movie theater after a gunman opened fire during a midnight showing of the Batman movie “The Dark Knight Rises.”

More on this story

Full coverage

At least 12 died, and dozens were injured; get updates on the mass shooting at a Colorado movie theater.

Where it happened

MAP | A look at the Century 16 movie theater in Aurora, Colo., and what we know about what occurred.


See information on some of the world’s deadliest mass shootings.

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.”

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