A Preservationist’s Response to the Aurora Theater Shooting: When Violence Stains the Power of Place

In 2002, I was a junior in high school in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, DC, when the sniper took out ten people from the vantage point of his white van. There was a once-famous photo from Newsweek of a Shell gas station that covered its front with a blue tarp so the sniper couldn’t aim at its patrons – that was my gas station. Our parents barely let us leave the house, and for once, it was due to a real threat. But what I remember the most was that the sniper caused us to push back our homecoming dance several weeks, much to the chagrin of those who had asked their dates in a last-minute panic.

Four years later, I was in my third year at University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia, when the shootings at Virginia Tech happened. Over 35 people from my high school graduating class went to Tech, including one of my best friends. A kid from my high school was in one of the rooms and escaped out a window. Everyone had a story from that day. It was a truly horrific event, but yet, I regret to say I don’t think I even cried.

And now, four more years later, I live here in Denver. A smaller city than you might imagine if you’ve never been, Denver is the kind of place where you will always run into someone you know. So I would like to think that the reason last week’s tragedy is affecting me so deeply, and so much greater than the other horrifying shootings that have happened in my life, is because it occurred in my own community, a mere 20 minutes from my house – but I think it’s more than that.

Did you ever see “The Purple Rose of Cairo“? It was my first Woody Allen encounter. It’s the Great Depression and, down on her luck, Mia Farrow’s character goes to the movies – like so many of us do – to escape the realities of her life, to get lost in a film. Only this time, she literally gets lost in a film – she gets physically pulled into the movie and must decide whether or not to return to her 1930s reality.

I remember knowing as the credits rolled that I would be forever a Woody Allen fan (despite the protests of my mother, who had been boycotting since the Soon-Yi scandal) because “Purple Rose” is a movie for movie people; it is indulgently fantastical and puts on screen what so many of us have always wanted – to flee this reality for a simpler, flatter existence, so that the haunting anguish, turmoil, and stress of our own lives might evaporate. We, unable to metaphysically cross the barrier, don’t have the luxury of delaying our realities for any longer than the 90 minutes we sit in the theater, but we still get that time to dream, to listen, to watch – to imagine our life has disappeared and the only realm that exists is that which scrolls before us.

As a Preservationist, I have always felt “Purple Rose” was the perfect display of what we learn and seek. A building, however vernacular in its existence, can transport us to another life and provide us haven.  We are taught specifically to examine buildings not just as bricks and mortar, but as a comprehensive part of living; they are vessels for our habits and rituals.

Indeed, I dare make the comparison that a movie theater functions nearly as a church, particularly for those of us who identify with Atheism or Agnosticism – it is where we go (often on Sundays, even) to be social, to learn, to relax, to feel inspired. When the world is beating us up, tearing us down, and taking from us the things we desperately need, going to the movies offers us a chance to reset ourselves – it bestows us a meditative state that actively and necessarily excludes emails, phone calls, texts, and even talking. It demands that we forget what is outside.

Perhaps this is why the shooting in Aurora last week has hit me so dramatically.

As obviously harrowing as it is for this man to take from those theater-goers their lives, I can’t stop thinking of the survivors. Not only did he force upon them an experience that will haunt them for the rest of their lives, but he also robbed them of an experience that has become vital to so many. What was once a place they found joy and relaxation in is now a place of terror and unpredictability.

He took from them the comfort of the place, the power of the darkened theater, the truly magnetic, even profound, bond that can sometimes occur between the viewer and the story.

When I think of how devastating a loss like that would be for me personally, my heart aches for those who no longer have that place. I can only hope that the strength and support of the community will somehow restore those survivors’ faith that they will one day be able to return to a theater to watch a film safely, with no threat of violence. This and their own capacity for understanding their attacker as a deranged, egomaniac with no sense of humanity – a rarity in this world, I believe – will be the greatest factors in their eventual quest to move forward from grief.

I am grateful there are so many other places in this, and all, communities that can provide respite for victims – and that we live in a time when having a creative and powerful connection with a movie can be done at home so easily and frequently.  But I will forever hold abysmal anger for the man who stole the theater from them, and I will carry their agony each time I buy a ticket and take my seat.

Claire L. Lanier is a native east coaster and studied Historic Preservation at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, VA. Last year she moved to Denver on a whim with some friends and can’t get over just how incredible the Rockies are. One day she hopes to restore and operate a historic movie theater where she can show Indiana Jones marathons and finally have her own Add-Your-Own-Butter machine.

Double Feature
Read about the historic movie houses of Athens, Georgia that played host to some notable 90s band, including REM, and still showcase rising talent. Click: Automatic for the People – Historic Music Venues in Athens by Emily Laborde.

About the author: Claire Lanier

Avatar of Claire Lanier

Claire, a native east coaster, studied Historic Preservation at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, VA. Last year she moved to Denver on a whim with some friends and can’t get over just how incredible the Rockies are. One day she hopes to restore and operate a historic movie theater where she can show Indiana Jones marathons and finally have her own Add-Your-Own-Butter machine.

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