by Edward O’Neil
Save my City Aurora —Message written on a t-shirt, worn at a vigil for the victims of a mass shooting at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado.
Let me bring you up to speed. My name is Wayne Campbell. I live in Aurora, Illinois, which is a suburb of Chicago. Excellent. —Wayne’s World (1992).
According to the U.S. Geological Survey, there are 29 towns named “Aurora” in the United States. Before Friday, July 20th, 2012, most Americans of a certain age and cultural persuasion had heard of one, the home of Wayne Campbell and Garth Algar, two twenty-somethings who host a public access show out of Wayne’s basement. The movie Wayne’s World, released in 1992, was based on a popular Saturday Night Live sketch of the same name starring Mike Myers as Wayne and Dana Carvey as Garth. “Aurora” is a kind of Anytown, representative of boring, straight, stiff, white American life. It’s the perfect setting for Wayne and Garth’s bizarre antics, including a “Bohemian Rhapsody” sing-along, Garth’s homemade Taser, and sticking it to “the man,” figured as a rich old dressed-up dude whom Wayne accosts at a traffic light with a request for “Grey Poupon.” Although Aurora is a boring-as-hell middle-American pit, in Wayne’s World, it becomes surreal, a place where the laws of probability devolve and absurdity feels just par for the course. The great joke of Wayne’s World plays out in the tension between Aurora’s obvious banality and Wayne and Garth’s peculiar fantasies. Wayne and Garth radiate an electromagnetic field that distorts Aurora’s diners and guitar shops into a theme park populated by post-adolescent grotesques.
My favorite scene takes place in Stan Mikita’s Donuts, an “excellent munch post.” The manager, Glen, works 24 hours a day, or so Wayne says. Glen is a heavy-set, Cro-Magnon fellow, pink shirt, white pants, face perpetually twisted into a comical frown. “I’d never done a crazy thing in my life before that night. Why is it, if a man kills another man in battle it’s called heroic, yet if he kills a man in the heat of passion, it’s called murder?” He delivers these lines to the camera with the utmost seriousness, a lunatic fever almost boiling over in his voice. Necessarily, Wayne’s World immediately rejects Glen’s extrapolation of military logic—an ideology that rationalizes murder—into everyday, domestic life. Wayne grabs the camera back, as though to imply that such an extrapolation is, indeed, insane. Yet, moments later, Wayne and company are seated at a table drinking coffee and eating crullers when Wayne accidentally catches the attention of his ex-girlfriend, Stacy. Like Glen, Stacy is a caricature of suburban insanity. Instead of the neighborhood psychopath—the quiet guy next door who “goes postal”—Stacy stands-in for a deranged, rejected lover. “Happy Anniversary, Wayne,” Stacy says as she totters over on high heels, lugging a pink gift-wrapped box. “Stacy, we broke up two months ago,” Wayne replies. “Don’t you want to open your present?” “If it’s a severed head, I’m going to be very upset.” But Wayne acquiesces and tears off the wrapping, revealing some strange wooden shelving. “What is it?” “It’s a gun rack.” “A gun rack. I don’t even own a gun, let alone many guns that would necessitate an entire rack. What am I going to do with a gun rack?” The empty gun rack expresses Stacy’s masochistic desire for an absent sexual violence. Although that reading makes sense in the context of Wayne’s World’s half-kidding misogyny—Wayne’s refrain, “she will be mine”—it fails to account for a proximal, associative relationship with Glen’s psychopathy. If the connection between Glen and Stacy resists direct analysis, it suggests that militarized, “warrior” violence is continuously repressed in domestic settings. Following the implicit logic of Wayne’s World, while the expression of violence in suburbia is socially unacceptable, illegal, and immoral, it cannot be avoided. The rehearsal of military activity, of professionalized violence, by civilians, in an everyday milieu, is inevitable.
Therefore, the mass shooting in Aurora, Colorado, a Denver suburb, has more in common with 1992 blockbuster comedy hit Wayne’s World than just its setting. I do not intend to trivialize the tragedy. But I do think that the juxtaposition of the real, tragic events of one Aurora with the fictional, comic events of another prompts two related questions: how does the media treat “tragedy” and violence; and why are we fascinated by the spectacle of suburban violence? Bringing Aurora, Colorado and the Aurora, Illinois of Wayne’s World into proximity will make some complacent thinkers uncomfortable, because it automatically indicts a variety of disaster pornography that exploits the suffering of others for our pleasure. Reading discretion is advised.
On July 20th, 2012, James Holmes put on a bulletproof, Kevlar vest and combat gear, armed himself with an AR-15 rifle—capable of firing two to three rounds a second from a 100-round drum magazine—an 870 Remington 12-gauge shotgun, a .40-caliber Glock handgun, and two canisters of tear gas, and entered a movie theater showing the midnight premiere of The Dark Knight Rises, the latest installment in the Batman series. Holmes purchased his vest, pistol magazine, magazine pouch, and a knife from, a company that services military and police officers, as well as civilians. When Holmes entered the theater, moviegoers initially thought that he was part of the show. Then, he set off his tear gas and opened fire, killing 12 people and wounding 58. Much digital newsprint has been spilled speculating on the relationship between the violent Batman movie and the attack, and on the effect of the shooting on gun control laws. Convention dictates that these two speculations accompany media coverage: because there must be something wrong with both our culture and our government to have catalyzed and permitted such an atrocity. From my brief and regrettably incomplete outline of the events, a case could be made for a Waynesworldian displacement of military violence into everyday life. But that argument would engage in the same ideology as other media coverage that turned the tragedy into a spectacle.
The volume of media coverage surrounding the attack was overwhelming. A Google News search for “Aurora” between July 20th and July 21st returns 107,000 results, and “Aurora shooting” returns 15,900. Expand that volume exponentially to account for unauthorized commentary on Twitter and Facebook. It seemed as though every other shout-out into social media space concerned the shootings. Between traditional and new media, the story has been investigated from every fathomable position. To feed the frenzy for information, editors—and the lay public—have been generating redundant content that, while sensitive to the demands of journalistic ethics, is nevertheless overwhelming. Even if the substance of one article is not sensational, in aggregate, 15,900 articles sensationalize the incident. The amount of content transforms the reader into a spectator who gazes on Aurora from a distance, reviewing the events as they are refracted through multiple media lenses. The shooting and its aftermath—the press conferences and vigils and pundits—appear nothing more than performances for a studio audience. In effect, the news spectacularizes and becomes spectacular as a consequence of its urgent, hysterical personality. Aurora is one spectacle; the news about Aurora is another.
Although the media is merely satisfying the demands of a hungry audience, to some extent, the media creates demand via the expectation of voluminous content. The public can never be sated, not because its appetite is infinite, but because it sees an infinite smorgasbord before it. Overconsumption of news media follows from overexposure. The problem is thus distributed between producers and consumers of content. We fixate on Aurora because it gives us a perverse pleasure: it satisfies our need to know. The sense of an enigma—and the promise that it will be resolved in that next article, just one more article!—replicates the structure of the TV drama or the pulp paperback. In the case of Aurora, or any similar tragedy, we face an uncontrollable cliffhanger, the wild, unregulated production of suspense. Reading about the shooting, we get the same thrill as watching a good movie or reading a comic book. We relish in coming to know the suffering of others. And we understand the very intense wrongness of that impulse, and we protect ourselves from coming to know our own enigma: why we care about the suffering of 70-some-odd people somewhere else. We do not care because we have an excellent capacity for empathy, though we might feel awful for the victims and scared for ourselves. We care because it is a really good story. The news coverage of Aurora is the sadistic counterpart to Stacy’s masochism; insofar as the suffering of others is the story of Aurora, we take our daily pleasure from pain. Whether watching a natural disaster unfold on network television or reading about James Holmes’s high school days, we are helpless before the allure of the spectacular tragedy.
The shooting in Aurora is like Wayne’s World gone bad. Wayne’s World expresses James Holmes’s psychotic desires without acting them out: we hear the horrifying dreams of “mental” characters with a punctual regularity, even though none of those dreams come true. Like American Beauty, which explores the schizophrenic rupture of violence in a suburban setting, Wayne’s World pressures the suburb to give up its nightmarish cravings, its violent potential. Rather than reify that potential, however, Wayne’s World lances the pustule with dark humor: psychopathic violence translates into a joke. The assumption that ‘the suburbs contain an intrinsic capacity for violence that must and will be released’ is the implicit theme of the tragedy in Aurora, too. The New York Times even published an article headlined, “Aurora, an ‘All-America City,’ Left to Search for Answers.” According to these schematics, there is something inherently wrong with suburbia, something repressed in the idea of ‘All-American-ness,’ that produces violence. Perhaps, from a sociological standpoint, that proposition is partially true. But the narrative of the “dark suburbs” is, like the spectacular tragedy, a self-fulfilling prophecy. To believe in the psychopathy of the suburbs is to will that psychopathy into existence. And we suburbanites commit that crime on a daily basis, because the boredom of suburban life forecloses enigma. The tragedy of the suburbs is that there is no tragedy. So we must write it ourselves, in our retrospective interpretations of suburban tragedy, and in the generation of those tragedies by psychopathic, aberrant, individual action.
Can you imagine a Wayne’s World in which Glen’s fantasy comes to life, or in which Garth’s story about a Twilight Zone episode (“Ever see the Twilight Zone where the guy signed a contract and they cut out his tongue and it wouldn’t die”) is acted out? A Wayne’s World in which Aurora, Illinois and Aurora, Colorado converge? Not such a party after all. But, at the very least, it would be spectacular.
I’ve had plenty of Joe jobs. Nothing I’d call a career. Let me put it this way. I have an extensive collection of nametags and hairnets. Okay, I still live with my parents, which I admit is both bogus and sad. But at least I’ve got an amazing cable access show. And I still know how to party.