The Dark Knight Shootings for Mothers of Boys

During filming on The Dark Knight Rises on Wall Street.My family and I live in New York City, and we stumbled into the filming of The Dark Knight Rises last summer on Wall Street. It was a beautiful day, the four of us were out for a stroll, and had a plan to stop by my husband's office building to change a diaper when we ran across an area of several blocks cordoned off for the movie. Since my husband had ID for a building in the area of filming, we were eventually whisked past the barricades and into a magically transformed area where the ground was covered with light snow and the streets were packed with commandos in dark clothing, holding guns. Here and there, tanks blocked the road. We were warned that there would be loud explosions. Eventually, post-diaper-change, we ended up with a hoard of other people huddled in the entrance at 40 Wall Street, hoping to see something scary happen. Our kids were too small to care, but my husband and I were transfixed by how totally the movie, even off-screen, transformed the street. The actors were between takes but still in position, and seemed much more like a military force waiting to be mobilized in Gotham City than some guys at work on a Sunday. The fake snow was light, fluffy and bizarrely lovely.

The horrific and tragic shootings last week at the premier in Aurora, Colorado have brought up, again, the role of romanticized violence in our culture. Dodai Stewart, writing for Jezebel, wrote a post with a title image asking "What is wrong with us?," pointing out that "We enjoy the thrill of an intensely violent flick, but when confronted with real intense violence, like the scene in Colorado, we're horrified (and rightfully so)." Dana Stevens in Slate took a harder line in an article whose subtitle summarized: "We can't blame The Dark Knight Rises for the Aurora shooting. But we also can't ignore the parallels between Christopher Nolan's grim world and our own."

It would be overly simple to say that violence in movies causes violence. If it did, tragedies like Aurora would happen daily. And it's highly un-American to suggest that our entertainment should be censored to reflect the values of certain segments of our population (though I'll never understand why it's violence we're okay with in the movies, and comparatively harmless sex that's still taboo). Happenings like Aurora are freak accidents, the intersection of a disturbed person, easy-access to firearms, and the right fantasy coming along at the right time. It's really not the movie's fault.

The debate does bring to mind, however, the results of a study published July 17 in the journal Psychological Science that indicated that movies--movies in particular as opposed to other forms of media--influence what is known as "sensation seeking" behavior. The study focused on teenage sexual activity (and found that teens exposed to sexual content in movies at young ages start having sex younger, have more partners and are less likely to use condoms), but what was interesting and had wider implications was why. Researchers identified a personality trait known as "sensation seeking," which peaks during teenage years and tends to lead to trouble. They found that greater exposure to sexual content in movies at a young age predisposed teens to display more of the dangerous "sensation seeking" behavior.

"These movies appear to fundamentally influence their personality through changes in sensation-seeking, which has far-reaching implications for all of their risk-taking behaviors," study co-author Ross O'Hara, currently a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Missouri, told ScienceDaily.com.

Movies like The Dark Knight Rises are, for better or for worse, family entertainment in our culture--see all those poor kids out at the midnight showing with their parents. And angry, violent young men are an unfortunate fact of life as well, with sometimes terrible consequences. There's not much to be done about either one of those things. But the collective discomfort we're experiencing while we struggle with the gap between the fun, harmless fantasy on the screen in front of us and the horrific reality is instructive as well. It doesn't surprise me that the immersive and transporting world of film has deep-reaching effects on the psychology of the viewer, both good and, sometimes, very bad.