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The Gathering

Aurora after the massacre.

IT'S JUST BEFORE MIDNIGHT on a warm Friday near the Town Center mall in Aurora, Colorado, a sprawling suburban city east of Denver that seems upon first acquaintance to lack a center, and the instinct is to gather. Less than 24 hours ago, at the neighboring Century 16 Theater—its trash-strewn, popcorn-covered parking lot cordoned off with yellow crime scene tape—James Holmes, 24, allegedly lobbed tear-gas canisters into the aisles and opened fire with three different weapons at a showing of The Dark Knight Rises, killing twelve people and wounding 58 others. Now, on a dusty, sloping vacant lot not far from the theater’s prow-shaped neon sign, which for some reason remains turned on, people arrive alone and in small groups to contribute to a makeshift shrine consisting of cellophane-wrapped bouquets of flowers, candles with pictures of Catholic saints printed on them, shiny heart-shaped foil balloons, and dozens of colorful stuffed animals. Some people kneel in prayer before the shrine, while others sign their names and write short messages on oversize sheets of white construction paper. It’s a strange new American ritual, all this, spontaneous yet somehow not unrehearsed, and the congregants seem to know just what to do.

A dark-haired woman named Kim Black has come to the shrine after a sleepless night and a long day spent watching TV news. It’s likely that many of the reports she saw were broadcast from a parking lot off to our left, where satellite uplink masts rise into the night and news trucks are jammed in side by side as though for a glittering Hollywood awards show. Thanks to the nature of the crime, which blended real and cinematic violence with an eerie postmodern seamlessness, Aurora is a confusing place to be tonight, at once all-too-real and weirdly stagy. Not only has its social fabric been ravaged, its very ontology has been destabilized.

Against a backdrop of milling, bowing mourners, many of whom have brought along their children, and several of whom are wearing Batman shirts emblazoned with the franchise’s familiar yellow oval logo, Black describes her acute disorientation at realizing that a cinema she frequents with her eleven-year-old son (just this week, she says, they attended Ice Age 4 and Madagascar 3) is now a monument to mayhem. “When you think about a theater, you think about a family environment where you can just relax. You never even imagine that something like that could happen,” she says. “Like why did he do it and stuff?” she adds. “At first I thought it was probably political because, you know, that seems like something a radical-thinking person would do. But now, you know, it’s hard to know.”

Or maybe it’s not hard to know. Holmes has reportedly been talking, and what he’s been saying is fairly plain: He’s a character in a movie. He’s the Joker. He’s a make-believe bad guy whose bullets took a physical toll in a space devoted to dreams. He’s a loner who went out to hunt the gatherers. What is hard to know, though, amid the candles, the teddy bears, the well-dressed reporters and the less-well-dressed reported-on, is why the gatherers keep at it. In the war between going out and staying in, between venturing forth into the commons and withdrawing inside one’s smartphone, the side of togetherness lost a battle last night.

“Eventually,” says one woman at the scene as someone beside her aims a camera at the improvised memorial, “people are not going to want to do anything at all.”

ON SATURDAY MORNING the Town Center reopens. Too soon, according to many of those who work here, who say they’ve been ordered by higher-ups not to discuss the shooting with reporters. On top of the animal apprehension provoked by the carnage at the neighboring theater, there seems to be a fear in the mall of economic contagion, of jobs and money lost to the same force that blighted the lovely place name, Columbine (around 20 miles away), and seems likely to spoil before nightfall the even lovelier Aurora.

A woman posted at a kiosk that sells electronic cigarettes practically ducks when we ask her for an interview. Another worker who’s manning a cosmetics stand points at two men in plainclothes a few yards off with walkie-talkies hanging on their belts and advises us to pretend we’re buying some lotion. “This is bullshit,” the worker says. “People should be able to say what they want.” They don’t, though. They start to speak, forgetting the stern new rules, but then, like the man in the black-and-white striped referee uniform from the shoe store near the food court, they withdraw their energy and dematerialize.

They must do this because the Town Center, despite its name, is not an actual municipality, but a self-absorbed realm of private commerce posing as an open public square and doing a lousy job of it this morning. Even the guards seem scared--scared, among other things, of the other guards, many of whom were brought on just today, we’re told. “I saw like four independent security companies here,” one says before his censor kicks in.

The mall’s customers seem skittish and self-conscious, as though they’re observing behaviors in themselves that they weren’t aware of until today and aren’t sure are normal under the altered circumstances. They don’t seem to know where to aim their eyes, for starters. At one another? That might seem hostile, suspicious. At the goods in the stores and the signs announcing sales? That might appear shallow, insensitive. It’s a problem. Everything is a problem, suddenly, particularly everything that wasn’t a problem before the shooting turned people’s attention inward in situations and settings, such as passing a morning at the mall, that didn’t used to warrant attention at all.

The customers in the food court solve the difficulty of how to act naturally deliberately, by staring up at a suspended TV screen playing a rotation of music videos and spots for a national antibullying drive, “Mean Stinks,” sponsored by Secret deodorant. The campaign’s target audience seems to be young women who, if they don’t pick on weaker souls themselves, maybe know someone who does. “Do the blue pinky swear against bullying,” suggests a pleasantlooking girl on-screen. A number of folded signs on the tables urge people to text a number and take this pledge: “I PROMISE TO BAND AGAINST BULLYING BY STANDING UP FOR THOSE WHO ARE PUSHED DOWN, SPEAKING OUT AGAINST HURTFUL BEHAVIOR AND ENCOURAGING MY FRIENDS TO DO THE SAME.”

Among the food court’s patrons are three women spooning up half-melted Dairy Queen sundaes. They tell us they’re here to pick up a wedding dress. “That was already paid for--otherwise we wouldn’t have come,” says Cathy, the future bride, who seems anxious to justify the outing. “It was the only day we could all coordinate,” she adds. Her friend Bree, whose eyes look tired and sad, plainly addresses the morning’s heavy issue. “When you’re coming to somewhere where this just happened yesterday, in a way it feels kind of ...” She collects her thoughts, apparently concerned they might offend if stated imprecisely. “Not disrespectful, but you see that life just automatically goes on, and it’s kind of weird to see that one day later, everybody’s shopping again.” It’s unclear if Bree’s “everybody” includes Bree. Also unclear is whether what’s weird to her is people’s obliviousness to tragedy or the discomfort of witnessing it.

A teenager wearing disconcerting, plastic earlobe-stretchers wanders through the food court, carrying a half-empty bottle of purple Vitamin Water and looking dazed. On his black t-shirt, beneath the words “THE BLACK DAHLIA MURDER” (a rock band), is a picture of a caped man slashing a woman’s throat. The kid, who doesn’t want his name used, is on a break from his job at a clothing store, he says. He seems both reluctant to talk and helpless not to as he goes on to tell us that he has two friends who were wounded at Century 16, one in the leg, one in the chest. He quickly assures us they’re doing “fine” now.
“I was going to the premiere, but I’m glad I didn’t,” he continues. “I was going to go with my friend, but, like, she sprained her ankle as she was getting ready, so we had to cancel. I don’t know, I wouldn’t say I’m depressed, but it just feels so weird that, like, if that hadn’t happened to her, I could have been dead.” We ask him about the red-and-gray tattoo on his upper arm and learn that it’s the symbol of something called the “Umbrella Corporation” from the video game Resident Evil.

What about those violent video games? Does he think they’re partly to blame for any of the recent bloodiness? “He just seemed like someone who was bullied,” the kid says of Holmes, admitting to feeling bad for the suspect. His tone is growing philosophical. “We have the power to correct things like this; we just need to become more caring people,” he says, which sounds like a sentiment from the “Mean Stinks” ad that’s playing on a screen about 20 feet away.

So who’s the person on his shirt, we ask?

“Jack the Ripper,” he says.

AT THE EDGE of one of the mall’s parking lots, a couple of dozen people stand on the pavement or sit on curbs gazing at the deserted theater from the nearest point that civilians can reach without crossing over into the formal crime scene. The mood is unabashedly morbid, without the solemnity of the shrine or the edginess of the authoritarian mall. People hold up their smartphones to frame and distance what a consensus among strangers, ratified by countless news professionals, has deemed to be the emblematic element--the stubbornly blazing red and purple sign. Parents wave their children into pictures that the kids are too young to put in context. There is already talk in the papers and on television of how the shooting has deprived moviegoing of a certain casual innocence, but that innocence has reconstituted itself within a stone’s throw of the sidewalk where the audience fled the killer.

Three teenagers sitting on the ground in that huddled adolescent way tell us about their connections to the massacre. “He was there,” says Kristin, a pale redhead, of one of the two boys, whose face is broad and sorrowfully sweet and who behaves like her adopted son. Another of her friends is gone, she informs us matter-of-factly. “He died here. Well, not here, but he died in the hospital.” We tell her that we’re sorry, which draws an awkward shrug, and ask her about the shirt she’s wearing. “My grandmother got it for me. I thought it was fitting ’cause it looks like blood spatters and it’s black.”

A Filipino woman standing nearby who’s here with her husband and her two-year-old boy pipes up as though unable to contain herself. “We were supposed to go,” she tells the teenagers. “This one, and my three more kids at home, wanted to see the Batman that day. We were late thirty minutes, and, if we go inside, we’re not gonna enjoy it cause it was started.”

Three boys who look to be twelve, maybe 13, roll into the parking lot on bikes. They’re here to investigate a rumor that President Obama is on his way to town for a large, official prayer vigil set for tomorrow at the Aurora Municipal Center. This tall, stone building, the expansive lawn of which is perfectly suited to mass gatherings, is visible from the theater, the mall, the shrine, and the media encampment—a marvel of compact, unified staging that a zealot might find providential but that we’ve yet to hear anyone mention aloud.

Soon, perhaps; the zealots have just arrived. They appear out of nowhere, a man and a woman, a duo, a reminder that angels and vultures both are attracted to scenes of death. They fixate on the boys on bikes, who politely hear out their long addresses to God and read their flyers with looks of scrutiny too earnest to be real. “Amen,” they conclude. “Congratulations,” the man says. “You’re in The Kingdom now.”

It’s growing dark in The Kingdom. The dusk brings out a fact about the theater—the concession lights are still turned on. Because the whole building is evidence, stuck in time, almost planetary in its poise, it emphasizes the changes all around it, including the comings and goings of the witnesses. The crowd turns over while maintaining its general character the way that movie audiences do, the way that cities and countries do over time. Maybe this is the definition of a society: a gathering of bodies that keeps its shape while losing and gaining particular members. What allows it to perform this feat? Its culture, is one theory. Its stories. Its pictures.

It’s Saturday, which means movie night for some people, though they aren’t quite as numerous as they were two days ago. The studios fear many of them won’t come back, that attendance, already falling, will fall faster. Will attendance somewhere else go up to compensate, or will the public stay home and gradually cease to be the public?

People are standing around in a dark parking lot.

THE PRAYER VIGIL crowd assembles from several directions and swells to a size that’s best estimated from aircraft or from the roofs of buildings, through binoculars. Surprisingly few people show up alone, and one senses that some who set out for it alone joined up with others they met along the way. Teenagers wearing dark, anti-social t-shirts have sorted themselves into merry bands of Goths who nod at the police lining the sidewalks and thank them for their service, a gesture that feels borrowed from somewhere. One group of young folks, maybe 20 strong, has put on endearingly uncool, red Target store shirts. Others wear military uniforms. The urge to go tribal, to affiliate, is so conspicuous, so pervasive (a posse from Denver Comic-Con, bearded men from a leather-clad motorcycle club), that it’s possible to forget this is America. It might be Oz or The Kingdom the Christians spoke of.

As Boy Scouts pass out chilled bottles of water, Governor John Hickenlooper, tired and rumpled in rolled-up shirtsleeves, speaks. He says he refuses to call the suspect by name, and the mob that’s in no way mob-like cheers wildly as though at a sporting contest or a concert. This event feels like both and neither. Its vibe is odd, in fact, off-kilter, and occasionally it pushes the bounds of taste. When Hickenlooper finishes reading the names of the moviegoers who died, there is clapping instead of silence, for example, as though the deceased were up there on the stand with him like Olympic medalists or rock stars. How do thousands of people without a script or any coherent models for their behavior end up in such ritual agreement, even when they seem to do things wrong? They must pick up cues from one another and process them faster than a supercomputer.

Some moves, some lines, are inevitable, though; they come out canned and turn the air stale and people applaud them to erase their echo.

“Let the healing process begin!” shouts the first official speaker to all Aurora.

It has been three days. No one knows what healing is yet or how they’ll recognize it once it has happened, assuming it ever does. But it won’t happen uniformly, or on command. There will also be shocks first, shocks no one can anticipate, like the small one that comes as the crowd is filing out and only moments after a middle-aged man in a Hawaiian shirt says, “All those people, no violence,” as though everyone is already back home and the cycle of gathering has concluded.

“Where was God when they was dying?” a wiry black kid suddenly screams, tearing off in a sprint through the startled, flinching crowd. The outburst feels too apt and right on schedule, but that’s how people do things lately, now that every motion is also a picture. 

Amanda Fortini is a writer living in Livingston, Montana. Walter Kirn is the national correspondent for The New Republic. 

This article appeared in the August 23, 2012, issue of the magazine