I had a moment of intense panic in the middle of The Martian. This had nothing to do with the movie itself — Matt Damon's safety, while important, isn't something I lose sleep over. Rather, my anxiety stemmed from the fact that about 15 minutes before the end of the film, a man stood up in the audience, and started walking around. He paused near the door, meandered down aisles, and eventually ended up standing still right where the staircase meets the exit, staring at the audience instead of the screen.
Was he a gunman about to open fire? For a second, I was certain I was going to die. Shaking, I turned to my partner, who had also noticed this strange behavior, and whispered: "Should we get up?" And then the thought struck me that doing so would make us targets for a potential shooter, so I sat there, frozen, until finally the man just left the room.
It turned out to be nothing, and I ultimately felt stupid for having thought that this random individual had decided to come shoot up an early evening screening of The Martian. But was I really wrong to worry?
The mass shooting which took place at a country music festival opposite the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino on the Las Vegas Strip on Sunday night is one of the most deadly shootings in modern American history. But it certainly isn't the first violent act to take place in a venue where people had gathered for the purposes of entertainment. In fact, for a while in the late 19th century, people couldn't go anywhere without worrying about an anarchist bombing. In November 1893, anarchist Salvador threw two bombs into a performance of Gioachino Rossini’s William Tell at Barcelona’s Liceu Opera House, killing at least 20 people. Only a year later, in 1894, another anarchist bombing at the Gare Saint-Lazare in Paris was aimed at people listening to an orchestra performance.
In the United States, one of the first random acts of mass murder in an open venue occurred on August 1, 1966, when Charles Whitman went on a 96-minute killing spree from the top of the University of Texas Tower. His first target was an 8-month-pregnant woman named Claire Wilson. She lost her baby, and her partner, Thomas Eckman, that day.
Back then, the events were experienced as an anomaly, an aberration and tragedy that would never happen again. We now know better. It's difficult to enter a crowded arena and not have a fleeting sensation of unease.
People consume entertainment as an escape from reality, solace from every day concerns. Worrying about whether or not your life is in danger taints that experience forever.
Only four months ago, an explosion at a concert headlined by Ariana Grande in Manchester, in the United Kingdom, killed 22 people and injured 250. Forty-nine people died when a man opened fire inside Pulse nightclub in Orlando in June 2016, just over a year ago. In November 2015, three armed gunmen stormed an Eagles of Death Metal concert at the Bataclan theater in Paris and remained for almost three hours, killing 90.
And then there are the movie theater shootings, which are why I felt wary of the man at The Martian. In 2012, a gunman dressed in tactical clothing entered a screening of The Dark Knight Rises in Aurora, Colorado, killing 12 people and injuring over 70 others. Three years later, in Lafayette, Louisiana, another man fired 13 rounds from a 40-caliber handgun at a crowd gathered to watch Trainwreck. Two people died, and nine were injured, prompting Amy Schumer to hold a press conference with Senator Chuck Schumer announcing her commitment to the fight against gun control.
The Trainwreck and Dark Knight incidents are unfortunately just two of a myriad of potential examples. There have been so many incidents of gun violence in movie theaters around the United States as to warrant this very morbid list.
It has become easy to equate public violence with acts of terrorism, but it's not always so. Eleven died in 1979 when fans of The Who surged towards the doors of an oversold concert in Cincinnati. And the death of James Meredith at the Altamont Free Concert in 1969, smack in the middle of the Rolling Stones' set, was the result of a scuffle with a knife-wielding member of the Hell's Angels, who had been hired to provide security.
Shootings and bombings stand out as particularly scary because they appear random. You can put in place regulations and public policy to avoid a stampede. Modern fire codes exist to prevent incidents like the Iroquois Theatre fire of 1903, which killed 602 people in Chicago. But it's almost impossible to know what is going on inside the head of someone who decides to empty out a semi-automatic magazine at a crowd of people gathered to listen to an artist, or watch a movie they love.
"Bottom line, for someone who is angry and desires to inflict large casualties, firing with modified assault weapons from an elevated, barricaded platform is [a situation] where a great number of fatalities can result because of the boxed in nature of the stationary audience," Professor Brian Levin, director at the Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, explained during a phone call.
Entertainment venues, he explained, are appealing targets because, even beyond the sheer number of people, their significance transcends borders. "Unlike attacks against other symbolic targets, which may only have meaning within a particular subculture, entertainment venues are virtually universally seen."
Whether perpetrated in the name of political or social aims, or simply accidental, these incidents invade what should be a safe place. It feels like a violation because it is one. People consume entertainment as an escape from reality, solace from every day concerns. Worrying about whether or not your life is in danger taints that experience forever.
Michaela Gallo, a 26-year-old who survived the Las Vegas shooting, described that feeling to Refinery29. "I don't know if I'll ever feel safe again at a major event like this," she said. "I’m torn. On one hand, I’m absolutely terrified: One minute, I was going through an experience that was supposed to be fun and then the next, escaping, running for my life. But on the other hand, I don’t want to let fear win. I don’t want to let the shooter win by saying I’m not going to have fun, that I’m not going to make memories with the people that I love because he made me scared."
But what does this mean for the future of entertainment in public spaces? Will movies and concerts enjoyed with dozens, hundreds of other people go the way of public executions? It's hard to say. With so many streaming options available, it's not unimaginable that people might want to consume these things in the comfort and safety of their own homes.
Live Nation Entertainment, which organized the Las Vegas event, issued a statement vowing to help the survivors and families of the victims, which hinted at the idea that something needs to be done to prevent such events from happening again. But what?
"We are heartbroken over the tragedy that took place at the Route 91 Harvest festival," the statement reads. "To think that anyone would want to inflict harm on a gathering of music lovers is beyond our comprehension. And while we are stunned and grieving over this incomprehensible act of violence, we know that this is a moment when we must come together to prevent more tragedies like this from occurring."
Levin believes that venues will have to take stronger measures to reassure the public that their security is a priority. "You’re going to see increasing surveillance and detection technology as well as the possibility of a greater utilization of anti-sniper measures particularly for the larger events in major metropolitan areas," he said. Although, he also points out that people will almost certainly voice opposition to such measures if they start infringing on their ability to enjoy whatever they've come to see.
This is unfortunately the reality. But perhaps knowing that it's something we have dealt with before, and survived, can give us insight as to how to best deal with it in the future. In the meantime, you'll find me at the movies — a little jumpy perhaps, but still rooting for Matt Damon to survive whatever is thrown at him next.
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