The sun rose over the city as the hazy air from nearby wildfires blanketed my hometown of Aurora, Colorado. My friends and I had planned a day of water wading, sun tanning and book reading at one of the few man-made reservoirs in the area. The radio belted out some catchy and upbeat tune in the background of my room as I readied for the day ahead.
Once the song ended, the DJs came on the air to announce something. I expected some kind of witty banter or cheesy lead-in phrase to their next topic or contest.
Instead there were concerned sighs, frustrated silences and serious tones.
Something had happened.
I switched on the TV and immediately recognized the circling aerial view of the purple and pink Century 16 Aurora movie theater just 15 minutes from my house. Words like “gun,” “movie,” “orange,” “midnight,” “Batman,” and “deaths” repeatedly flew from various reporters’ mouths as they detailed the situation.
A shiver rattled up my spine. My grandmother and I used to go there all the time — it was at that theater where I fell in love with the movie-going experience.
But now, all those memories are tainted.
On July 20 James Holmes, a former neuroscience Ph.D. student at the University of Colorado, bought a ticket for the midnight premier of “The Dark Knight Rises” and sat in the front row.
I wasn’t there, but I can imagine seeing the strange guy with the orange hair down in front and wondering what made him dye his hair so garishly.
The local news station, 9News, reported that twenty minutes after the film started, Holmes exited through an emergency exit, propped it open and rushed to his car. Dressed in black tactical gear, he re-entered the theater, threw a canister of tear gas up the aisle and proceeded to shoot his 12-gauge Remington shotgun in all directions.
“Police said he had an AR-15 assault rifle, a shotgun, and two .40-caliber Glock handguns,” according to an article from 9News.
Across the board, news outlets report 58 injured and 12 dead — the deadliest shooting in Colorado since the Columbine High School massacre.
I switched between channels five, seven and nine, all of which were broadcasting continual coverage of the theater. My hands shook and goosebumps tingled up my arms — I just couldn’t believe this happened so close to my home. I felt my eyes glaze over as I sat on the edge of my chair, watching it all unfold and soaking in as much information as I could.
The bottom line is — I was scared. But when I heard the police had arrested the only suspect, I felt slightly better and my hands stopped trembling.
When my friends and I met up later that day, we just stared at each other. None of us really knew how to react. Do we cry? Do we get angry? Do we call everyone to make sure they weren’t there? Do we still go to the movies? Our fun summer day was now laced with overtones of danger, grief and anger.
The attack hit even closer to home than I expected. Two boys with whom I had attended high school were among the 58 injured. Ryan Lumba, 17, was shot multiple times in the chest and stomach. He underwent surgery and is still working through recovery and anxiety attacks. Louis Duran, 18, was hit by bullets in the head, shoulder and hand. Duran is also recovering from surgery and working through physical therapy.
Neither Lumba nor Duran were willing to answer my questions, saying they “just want to move on.”
Continual coverage permeated the airwaves. Nearly every station on my television continually broadcasted developing coverage of the shooting and nearly every radio station discussed the impact of the tragedy. No TV stations in my area ran commercials for “The Dark Knight Rises” for two weeks.
I was almost scared to go to the beach that day. Not only did it feel disrespectful, but what if the same thing happened there?
So many “what-ifs” flew through my brain. I had an incredible urge to barricade myself in my house to avoid a world where guns and the threat of violence are omnipresent.
When people across the nation talk about the Aurora Massacre, four things happen.
First, they mention their fear of returning to movie theaters. Their shifting eyes and nervous hands show that it will take a long time to work up the courage to return to that favorite pastime of popcorn and plush seats.
Criminal justice freshman Shannon Swett says, “I’m afraid that people will hear about it and try and do the same thing, like the copycat syndrome.”
While some fear the possibility of similar attacks, others believe it was an isolated event.
“My opinion about going to the movies hasn’t changed,” says multimedia journalism graduate student Peter Haden. “It was something that couldn’t be predicted and I’m not going to let it interfere with the way I live my life.”
Branches of chain movie theaters in both Phoenix and Tempe were reluctant to comment on their companies’ response to the shooting. However, AMC Theatre’s new rules banning face coverings, costumes and fake weapons remain in effect.
While police will not comment on the situation until Holmes’s trial is complete, they encourage moviegoers to report suspicious people and behaviors to prevent similar incidents.
In fact, I didn’t even think I was afraid to return to a favorite escape of mine, until my family suggested a day at the movies.
The “what-ifs” returned. I thought about how the theater will get dark and, what if someone comes in the emergency exit door? We were seeing a very light-hearted comedy, but what if? What if it happened again? I couldn’t help thinking about that day, those people, the gunshots and the screams they must have heard.
However, I took some time on the hour-long drive to Bemidji, Minnesota to mentally rationalize my situation. Every time I go to this theater, there are about two people there, I thought. No one really knows about this town, so I was probably in no more danger than usual. It probably would have been a lot easier to avoid the theaters and stay home with DVD rentals, but it wouldn’t be the same. I would miss it too much.
Second, people praise the Twitter movement, Christian Bale’s visit with the survivors and all of the mournful yet united memorial services. I was surprised and honored by the community’s strength and solidarity after the shooting. People stood together and supported each other in a place where they sometimes didn’t even know their neighbors. I saw people gather in support nearly every day for two weeks — it was beautiful.
Next they discuss Holmes and his actions. They say he was motivated by media attention, that he was running an experiment on the brain’s deterioration into violent mental illness, that he really believed he was the Joker. While I can’t speak definitively about his motives, I don’t find it hard to believe that all those years studying the brain could lead to some kind of mental conflict. However, I do believe he knew his actions were wrong and chose to act on them despite his conscience.
And then they talk about resilience.
Colorado has endured much violence and tragedy: the Columbine High School massacre, the Platte Canyon High School hostage crisis, summer wildfires and more. Although Coloradoans such as myself are angry and upset and hurt by these tragedies, we consider them a part of us. I have heard many people from Colorado talk about how we have endured so much that when something like this happens, it is just one more hardship we need to weather. It’s not expected, but then again, it’s nothing new either. Whether these individuals were provoked into their behavior or were simply psychotic, Colorado as a state embodies the image of wounded catastrophe.
However, instead of cowering under our beds or in our closets, the community of Aurora, and Colorado as a whole, forms a solid base of strength and perseverance.
Although we are suffering, we have become experts on how to deal with the actions of insane people who see violence as a means to an end.
Months later, Aurorans and the rest of the country still grieve. We rant, we cry, we hug loved ones, we hold hands and we light candles. But our lives have gone on. We still go to movies, although we may not go to midnight premieres. This shooting was yet another test of endurance, and Aurora has triumphed.
Reach the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @mackenziemicro