A REAL SHOOTING IN A REAL MOVIE THEATER: ANOTHER TRUE-LIFE
The date was January 6, 1994 and the
movie was a matinee screening of SCHINDLER’S LIST in the San Diego, Ca. Horton
Plaza multiplex. Attached to a “trendy” outdoor mall with three levels and
walkways so narrow they barely qualify as such, the theater had eight or nine
screens, most of them shoebox-sized; SCHINDLER’S LIST was playing in the biggest
auditorium in the place, which was nearly filled to capacity that morning.
As I remember, the movie was about halfway over. I’d
already seen it once, so I knew what coming (or so I thought!). The
onscreen Nazis were liquidating the Jewish ghetto, and there was lots of
shooting: Pop! Pop! Pop-pop! Pop! A kid wearing a thick
coat was about to get it in the back (remember, I knew what was going to
happen): a Nazi trained a machine gun on the kid…pop!
Suddenly, coming less than a second after the
onscreen shooting, a much louder POP!!! But in the theater this
time, accompanied by a bright flash and cloud of smoke emanating from the
leftmost aisle, just a few seats down from where I was sitting with my
grandmother (my immediate reaction: was that a firecracker?).
There occurred one of those moments you read about in books, where time “seems
to stand still.” Everyone instantly forgot the onscreen action--indeed, my
memory has the next few seconds occurring in complete silence (even though I
know the movie and its accompanying soundtrack were still running). Our
attention was riveted on the source of the disturbance: a fat dude from which
the flash and still visible cloud of smoke emanated, and the woman seated in
front of him, screaming like…well, like she’d been shot.
It was then
that the pieces began to fit themselves together in my head (I was young, and my
crisis reactions weren’t particularly well developed): the Pop!, the
flash, the smoke and the unfortunate woman who’d just been shot by the guy
That moment was worthy of Pirandello or Philip K.
Dick. Poorly developed though my crisis reactions might have been, I believe
even the hardiest of my fellow patrons were reacting in a similar manner to the
sheer surreality of what had just occurred: reel and real life had
literally switched places.
As I said, the “time standing still” period lasted mere
seconds…and then the place erupted. The resulting melee was impressive, though
not like you’d expect. There was no screaming, shoving, trampling, etc. Dozens
of fellow patrons wordlessly stood up en masse and, in a sight nearly as scary
as the shooting itself, commenced running toward the rear exits. Seeing as how
I was seated near the back of the theater, it almost looked as if they were all
running toward me. I myself stood up, but, remembering I wasn’t alone,
immediately sat back down.
My seventy-ish grandmother was in no condition to join
the rush, meaning we had to stay where we were and duck down. It wasn’t a
pleasant experience kneeling on that cold, sticky floor while a gun-wielding
madman was loose amidst a veritable stampede of terrified people. Sounds of
machine gun fire echoed overhead—sounds from the movie, of course, but I didn’t
know that at the time—amidst repeated cries of “I’ve been shot!” At some point
the lights came on, the movie stopped and security guards rushed down the aisle
past us, which I took as my cue to help my grandmother up and exit the theater
at last. The shooter was nowhere to be seen, but that didn’t render the walk
out any less perilous (Is that him standing over there? Could he be hiding
around a corner? Maybe he’s behind us…).
The following hour or so I remember in bits and pieces: emerging into the
sunlight, expecting to see dead bodies and cops everywhere, only to be
confronted by people calmly going about their everyday business, totally unaware
of what had just taken place…trading anecdotes with fellow moviegoers
(unsurprisingly, confusion was the most common emotion)…watching the wounded
woman wheeled out on a stretcher manned by a couple of wisecracking college
girls…collecting readmission tickets from the box office.
Back at my
grandmother’s place (where I was staying on my winter break) we watched the
local news. It turned out the shooter had been apprehended, pulled over about
an hour after the incident for driving erratically. The man was 45-year-old
James Kirby, an unmarried security guard living with his mother (who accompanied
him to the movie, and whom he abandoned immediately after committing his crime;
the unnerving similarity of our situations--him escorting his elderly mother
just as I had accompanied my aging grandmother--was not lost on me).
Kirby promptly confessed to the crime, claiming
initially that he was simply shifting around and accidentally set his gun off.
Later, though, under more intense questioning, he confessed his true motives: a
recent convert to Judaism, Kirby carried a handgun in the hope of “testing
God.” By shooting through the seat in front of him at the same time a Jewish
kid was gunned down onscreen, he believed he’d finally gotten his chance, and
was somehow “protecting the Jews” in the process (Mr. Kirby also claimed he
didn’t actually think the gun would go off—figure that one out).
His victim was 40-year-old Helen Campbell, the wife of
an off-duty police officer. She survived the shooting, but expects “to
experience pain for the rest of my life.” It didn’t help, I’m sure, that Kirby
The upshot: James Kirby was given six years in prison
for his crime and that, as they say, was that. As for myself, I don’t know that
the experience has scarred me for life, but it has soured me somewhat on
SCHINDLER’S LIST, a film I quite liked prior to that fateful day in January of
’94. To this day I have NO desire to view it again, nor have I ever revisited
the San Diego multiplex where the event occurred.
What concerns me most, however, is that Kirby’s six
year prison term has elapsed, meaning the chances are good that this nut is back
out there walking the streets…and possibly even haunting a movie house near
you. This explains why I’ve been reluctant to see the latest holocaust
extravaganza THE PIANIST…and why I’m always careful to check the seat behind me
in movie theaters for suspicious looking fat guys with old ladies at their sides
and bulges in their pockets.
The 1994 SCHINDLER’S LIST shooting described above
didn’t exactly set the media afire. Sure, it made headlines in San Diego, where
the event occurred, but got little press anywhere else, including the L.A.
Times (where it was summarized in a few tiny, single paragraph summaries
whose authors, in defiance of the facts, were careful to decry any connection
between the shooting and the film itself).
Disinterest in the case was so widespread that when
Oliver Stone stated in an interview that Mrs. Campbell was “shot in the back of
the head,” and “died instantly,” nobody thought to take him to task for such
erroneous remarks. I imagine that if I hadn’t actually been in the theater that
day I probably wouldn’t even know about the incident.
It seems odd that a group of Oakland youths on a
December ’93 field trip provoked a visit to their school by Steven Spielberg and
received nationwide coverage simply because they laughed at SCHINDLER’S
LIST, yet few bothered to even lift an eyebrow when a woman was shot during a
screening of the film. As far as I know, Spielberg has never acknowledged the
If the incident had occurred just a few years earlier,
the reaction might have been different. Movie shootings were “in” back in the
early nineties, during screenings of the inner city dramas NEW JACK CITY and
BOYZ N THE HOOD. Those crimes were accorded widespread media attention, which
put Hollywood on high alert. In a multiplex where I worked back in ’91, armed
security guards were hired by the distributors of the urban thriller JUICE to
stand in the back of the theater and monitor the actions of that film’s patrons.
By 1994, however, interest in movie shootings had
dissipated among the media and Hollywood…Mr. James Kirby, alas, didn’t seem to
Later came the media witch-hunts following (then)
Senator Bob Dole’s 1995 condemnation of Hollywood’s “nightmares of depravity”
and the 1999 Columbine High School massacre. The focus: violent films that
apparently inspired real-life mayhem…correction: “irresponsible” violent films.
NATURAL BORN KILLERS and PULP FICTION apparently fell into this category, while
SAVING PRIVATE RYAN and SCHINDLER’S LIST were deemed “responsible” portrayals of
violence and thus exempt from the finger pointing to which those other movies
But hold on…the SCHINDLER’S LIST shooting offers
irrefutable proof, indeed perhaps the ONLY such hard evidence, that onscreen
mayhem can influence real life violence…which in this case seemed to literally
erupt off the screen and into the theater. It’s probable that James Kirby might
have found another occasion to “test God” had he not attended that fateful
screening of SCHINDLER’S LIST, but the fact remains that he committed his crime
in direct connection with the actions of the film.
In contrast, “evidence” supporting the alleged
connection with NATURAL BORN KILLERS et al and the off screen killing
sprees those films supposedly inspired tends to be pretty flimsy (i.e. an
offhand comment by a teen killer that she was a “natural born killer”). It
seems that to perpetrators of violent crime, a movie’s “responsibility” quotient
doesn’t mean much.
In any event, the SCHINDLER’S LIST shooting has been all but completely
forgotten today. While it was quite an experience for those of us in the
theater that day, it pales in light of the subsequent Columbine massacre and
seems positively microscopic compared to the widespread carnage of September 11,
2001. Nevertheless, the underlying “message” inherent in all three events, I
believe, is essentially the same: violence is an ever-present threat that,
regardless of our futile attempts at controlling our surroundings, can erupt
anywhere, at any time, onscreen or off.