Colorado Shooting Recalls History of Theater Violence

"Batman" screening in 1989 also ended in violent death.

ByABC News
July 20, 2012, 3:33 PM

July 20, 2012— -- Sean Worrell, 20, was shot and killed when a gunman opened fire after the opening credits of a "Batman" movie on the film's opening day.

But he didn't die this morning in Colorado. He died more than two decades ago at New York City's Whitestone Cinema, where a shooting took place at a "Batman" premiere in 1989.

The shooting at "The Dark Knight Rises" midnight premiere in Aurora, Colo., today that left at least 12 people dead follows at least a dozen other movie theater shootings nationwide dating back to 1955. (See a selected list of shootings and descriptions at the end of this story.)

No one is less surprised by violence at movie screenings than Nadine Kaslow, the chief psychologist at Emory University Medical School's Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences in Atlanta.

"Think about the fact that we go to the movies, and we start crying as if it's real in our life," Kaslow said.

Movies seem real to viewers and tend to illicit abundant feelings, she said, and sometimes, certain films can "activate" an emotion or behavior from a person beyond just sympathy for the character on screen.

"When you see a lot of aggression, it gives the message that violence is OK," Kaslow said.

The 1989 "Batman" shooting began when Worrell bought the last bag of popcorn from the concession counter, according to a 2006 New York Post article. Ricardo Jimenez, who was sentenced to 22 years to life in prison in 2009 for the shooting, told Worrell he was going to get his gun from the parking lot.

When Jimenez returned to the theater, he shouted, "Hey, you're the guy with the popcorn," and fired at Worrell but missed, according to the Post. Worrell fired a missed shot as well, but Jimenez's second shot struck him in the head, killing him.

Gang-and-mob movies like "The Godfather Part III" and "Boyz n the Hood" provided the soundtrack for several movie theater shootings over the years.

At a "Godfather" showing in 1991 in Queens, N.Y., two groups of young men began arguing and opened fire from different sides of the theater as moviegoers raced for the exits, according to a New York Times article from the following May. A 15-year-old bystander was shot through the head and killed, and police later recovered 25 bullets from the rows and aisles.

But it appears that no one sat up from reading about the Corleones in Mario Puzo's 1969 novel and shot up their living-room sofa.

Kaslow said that might be because people who read novels tend to be a different group of people than those who regularly watch violent movies and play video games.

"Because you don't see it, it may not activate you as much emotionally," she said, adding that readers tend to be more reflective and less likely to engage in violent behavior.

Of course, not all people who see the next mob movie are going to act out.

"Think of all the people who went to see those movies and never did anything," Kaslow said.

Although laboratory experiments conclude that media violence increases aggression, economists in California found that aggression actually decreases on days people flock to the theater to see violent movies.

That's because aggressive individuals are more likely to see violent movies, voluntarily incapacitating themselves for the duration of the film, preventing them from engaging in hostile behavior, according to the study abstract in the Quarterly Journal of Economics, where the study appeared in 2008.

"Movies are generally pretty safe places to put young men who would otherwise be engaged in other [violent] activities," said study author Gordon Dahl, a professor at the University of California-San Diego. "Sadly, that just wasn't the case yesterday."

He clarified that he has not studied how movie content affects behavior.