James Holmes and The Dark Knight Massacre: What Motivates Mass Murder?


The Batman inspired movie theater massacre perpetrated by James Holmes is the latest incident of mass murder to rock U.S. society.  In some ways, Holmes is very typical of other mass murderers, and in some ways he definitely is not.  As a criminologist who studies the minds of killers, I offer my initial insights into the twisted “Joker” James Holmes.

Dr. Scott Bonn’s recent appearance on Crime Wire discussing the Colorado shooter, James Holmes: CLICK HERE

Holmes’ killing rampage on opening night of the film The Dark Knight Rises was a signature example of mass murder in terms of its design and execution.  Mass murder is a one-time event that involves the killing of multiple people at one location.  In a mass murder, the victims may be either randomly selected or targeted for a specific reason, such as retaliation, by the killer.  A mass murder normally occurs when the perpetrator, who is often deeply troubled, suffers a psychotic break from reality and strikes out at his/her perceived tormentors in a blitz-like attack.  James Holmes certainly fits that profile.

However, mass murderers are frequently, but not always, killed at the scene of the crime. This is where James Holmes is an aberration among mass murderers.  Typically, mass murderers are either shot by law enforcement officers called to the crime scene or they take their own lives in a final act of suicide.  From a psychological standpoint, mass murder is a premeditated act of vengeance against society by a desperate and fatalistic individual who typically has no intention of going away quietly.

The classic, tragic example of mass murder in recent years is the Virginia Tech massacre—a catastrophic school shooting—which took place on April 16, 2007, on the campus of Virginia Polytechnic Institute in Blacksburg, Virginia.  In this terrible event, a very troubled student named Seung-Hui Cho shot and killed 32 people and wounded 17 others in two separate blitz attacks which occurred approximately two hours apart on the Virginia Tech campus.  Cho ended his murderous rampage by turning his gun on himself and committing suicide.  In addition to the 17 wounded, another six people were injured while escaping from classroom windows during the attacks.  The Virginia Tech massacre is the deadliest shooting incident by a single gunman in U.S. history.

It is apparent that James Holmes is very different from the late Seung-Hui Cho. Holmes does not appear to be fatalistic and he clearly did not want to die at the scene of his carnage.  In fact, I suspect that he is actually enjoying his new-found infamy.  When he surrendered to law enforcement officials, Holmes reportedly said, “I am the Joker.”  If you recall, in the film The Dark Knight, the late Heath Ledger as the Joker said, “I am an agent of chaos.”

Although it is possible that Holmes is faking his bizarre jailhouse and courtroom behavior since being apprehended, it is unlikely.  He would have to be an incredible actor.  On the contrary, I believe that he did suffer a psychotic break from reality—albeit in the form of a slow unraveling—in the months leading up to his rampage.  We know that his performance in the neuroscience graduate program at the University of Colorado was in decline prior to dropping out completely in June.  Moreover, he was being treated by a psychiatrist.

I believe that just like the Joker in The Dark Knight, James Holmes fancies himself an agent of chaos.  In custody, he is reportedly defiant and unremorseful.  I believe that Holmes was motivated to kill by a grandiose belief that society does not appreciate his self perceived genius.  He most likely became enraged when the University of Colorado downgraded his performance.       Consumed by resentment, he became determined to exercise his vengeance on society.  His selection of the Joker as his public persona indicates both paranoia and profound narcissism on his part.  Holmes felt unappreciated by the world and was determined to leave an indelible impression on the public consciousness.

It appears that the public will indeed be exposed to James Holmes for some time to come—fortunately in prison shackles.  Whether or not he will be deemed mentally competent to stand trial is yet to be determined.  One thing is certain, however.  His days of striking fear in society are over because this terribly disturbed and ruthless killer will never, ever walk freely again.

Dr. Scott Bonn is Professor of Sociology and Criminology at Drew University in Madison, NJ.  He is the author of the critically acclaimed book “Mass Deception: Moral Panic and the U.S. War on Iraq”and is currently writing a book about the public’s fascination with psychopathic serial killers in reality and fiction. He is @DocBonn on Twitter.


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Posted on August 2, 2012, in In the News and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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