A Brief History of Violence in American Movie Theaters

Last night, at a Lafayette, Louisiana screening of Trainwreck, a 59-year-old man took out a gun and unloaded into the empty theater, killing two and injuring ten before turning the gun on himself. According to CNN, the alleged shooter had mental health issues and a denied concealed carry permit on his record; this is, it seems, another random movie theater shooting, the byproduct of a stalemate between immovable forces in the discussion and legislation of guns in our culture. But the history of violence in American movie theaters pinpoints something more frightening in the current patterns.

February 1979: In its second week of release, Walter Hill’s The Warriors — a stylish and violent story of warring NYC street gangs — was involved in three separate deaths. On February 12, 19-year-old gang member Marvin Kenneth Eller was shot and killed by members of a rival gang at a drive-in screening in Palm Springs, California. The next night, 18-year-old Timothy Gitchel was stabbed in a lobby melee following an Oxnard, California showing of the film. (Two nights later, another act of Warriors-related violence occurred outside a theater, when a member of a Dorchester, Massachusetts gang who had just seen the film shouted a line of its dialogue and stabbed 16-year-old Marty Yakubowicz to death.) In response to the violence, Paramount scaled back its ad campaign and offered theaters the chance to cancel their engagements; those that didn’t beefed up security considerably.

April 1988: A total of 13 people were arrested in Los Angeles in three incidents of violence on opening night of Dennis Hopper’s Colors, a dramatization of LA’s gang scene.

February 1990: A brawl broke out, involving as many as 100 reported gang members, at a suburban Los Angeles drive-in screening of Angel Town, a low-budget kickboxing movie with a gang-centered plot. The rumble involved “at least three gangs” and left one participant in stable condition after a gunshot would to the chest. The theater canceled all scheduled screenings.

December 1990: A Christmas Day screening of The Godfather Part III in Long Island was interrupted by a gang shooting that left one moviegoer dead and three wounded. Neither 15-year-old Tremain Hall nor the three wounded moviegoers were members of the warring parties, who opened fire following an argument an hour into the film. Four men were subsequently charged with the crime.

March 1991: An argument between two groups of youths outside a Brooklyn theater on the opening night of Mario Van Peebles’ New Jack City led to heavy gunfire (over 100 shots fired, according to the New York Times) and the death of 19-year-old Gabriel Williams. The same night, an overselling of tickets at a New Jack City screening in Westwood led to a two-hour riot, with a reported 1500 people involved and nine arrests. After a Chicago screening, a passerby was caught in the crossfire of a gang shootout, while a man was stabbed outside another theater showing the film. In Sayreville, New Jersey, a lobby fight resulted in four arrests and four injuries. “Ninety-nine percent of the American theaters had no problems whatsoever,” a Warner Brothers spokesman said. “Unfortunately, where youths get together there are often problems.” The studio paid for additional security at theaters showing the film.

July 1991: Four months later, similar incidents occurred during the opening weekend of Boyz n the Hood, John Singleton’s earnest plea to “increase the peace” on the streets of gang-torn South Central Los Angeles. At least 25 incidents of violence were reported, including one death in Chicago and gunfire and injuries in and around theaters in California, Minnesota, Alabama, and Massachusetts. “In several instances, audiences never had a chance to consider the film’s message,” reported the Los Angeles Times. “At the 18-screen Cineplex Odeon in Universal City, members of the audience were settling into their seats when three shots rang out and chaos ensued.”

January 1992: The following year, another story of the dangers of gang life led to exactly the kind of violence depicted onscreen. A shootout outside a Chicago theater showing Ernest Dickerson’s Juice took the life of 16-year-old Tydsa Cherry, while a Philadelphia man was left paralyzed by a stray bullet caught while exiting a theater. Gunfights, stabbings, and fistfights were reported at theaters in Lansing, North Little Rock, Boston, Omaha, Anchorage, and New York City.

January 1994: 40-year-old Helen Campbell was shot in the back during a screening of Schindler’s List by a man who said “he wanted to ‘test God’ and protect Jews,” according to the Los Angeles Times; the shot was fired during “a scene in the movie in which Nazis tracking down Jews in the ghetto of Krakow, Poland, opened fire on their victims.” The gunman was sentenced to six years in prison.

December 2004: 20-year-old Davey Adames just gave the wrong look to a group of teenagers at the concession stand before a screening of Meet the Fockers at a Queens, New York movie theater on Christmas Eve. The three teens then waited until the movie ended and assaulted Adames and his friends outside the theatre, stabbing and killing Adames and seriously injuring two others. The teen holding the knife was convicted of murder and sentenced as a juvenile to 15 years to life in prison.

November 2005: Sheldon Flowers, 30, was shot and killed after a Philadelphia-area screening of Get Rich or Die Tryin’, in a group fight that began in the restrooms and spilled into the concession area. The film was pulled from the theater’s screens.

June 2006: At a sparsely populated Baltimore screening of X-Men: The Last Stand, 62-year-old Paul Schrum was shot and killed by a 25-year-old medical student, who apparently selected Schrum at random, sat behind him, and shot him in the head a half hour into the movie. He ordered the four other moviegoers to the floor, strode out to the lobby, placed his gun on the counter, and instructed a manager to call police because he had just killed a man. The shooter told police, “I killed someone because I was mad… because of the way things are going in my life.” He was later convicted of first-degree murder, but found not criminally responsible due to mental illness.

February 2008: At a screening of the independent horror film The Signal, a California man stabbed strangers Julio Sanchez, 38, and Eloy Uresti, 65. (In an odd footnote, the screening was resumed after police arrived on the scene — just in time for a scene of a stabbing.) Both victims survived, though with serious injuries; the perpetrator was sentenced to 22 years in prison.

December 2008: A dispute over talking at a Christmas Day screening of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button resulted in the shooting of Woffard Lomax Jr. — in front of his family — in a Philadelphia movie theater. The gunman reportedly sat down and continued watching the movie until police arrived. Lomax survived the shooting; the shooter, an Iraq War vet, subsequently pled guilty to lesser charges of aggravated assault and weapon possession.

January 2009: 700 people — including the movie’s star, Jamal Woolard — were evacuated from a Greensboro, North Carolina theater on opening night of the Notorious B.I.G. biopic Notorious following the lobby shooting of 32-year-old Clive O’Connor. O’Connor survived the shooting, but the gunman was never found.

January 2009: An unidentified 16-year-old was stabbed by a theater security guard after refusing to leave a Long Island theater lobby following a screening of the slasher movie My Bloody Valentine 3D. The moviegoer wanted to wait inside for his ride home; the guard insisted he exit the theater, and the argument escalated into a physical confrontation. The teen survived with stitches; the guard was charged with second-degree assault (and, presumably, lost his job).

April 2009: An unidentified 24-year-old man shot and killed himself during a weeknight, midnight screening of Watchmen in Eugene, Orgeon. No one else was injured.

February 2010: A moviegoer asked a woman to stop talking on her cell phone during a screening of Shutter Island at a suburban Los Angeles theater. The woman and her date left following the complaint; the man returned with a meat thermometer, and stabbed the complaining audience member in the neck with it. The victim, and two other moviegoers who tried to help and were injured in the process, survived; the perpetrator was convicted of attempted murder and sentenced to 40 years in prison.

July 2012: Twelve moviegoers were killed and 70 more were injured in a targeted attack during an opening-night screening of The Dark Knight Rises in Aurora, Colorado. The gunman was found guilty of first-degree murder last week; his sentence is still being decided.

January 2014: 43-year-old Chad Oulsen got into an argument with a retired police officer over texting during previews before a Lone Survivor screening at a Florida movie theater, which escalated to the throwing of popcorn, and then the firing of a handgun. The former cop shot Oulsen dead in his seat (in front of his wife) and is currently awaiting trial for second-degree murder.

These stories are terrible, depressing, upsetting. But there’s also a clear shift, right before that 2006 murder. Most of the previous acts of violence were, for lack of a better word, gang-related; films about (though, it should be noted, not customarily pro-) gang violence whose audience included members of gangs. (The outliers are the Fockers shooting, where the movie was unrelated to an act of gang violence, and Schindler’s, which was nonetheless a shooting somewhat related to the film at hand.)

But since the X-Men murder, the film has become incidental — more often than not, these are examples of disturbed, gun-toting individuals choosing movie theaters as places to harm others and/or themselves. Movies are where we go to be part of a communal experience, even if we’re seeing them alone in the dark; we go to be entertained and transported, to escape from our troubles. Going to the movies shouldn’t put one’s life in danger. But increasingly, for the sickest among us — those upset by “the way things are going” — they are a place to be set off, to wreak havoc, and to create a communal experience far darker than we’d anticipated.