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A REAL SHOOTING IN A REAL MOVIE THEATER: ANOTHER TRUE-LIFE HORROR STORY

 
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 behind her.

     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 never apologized.

     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 shooting.

     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 care. 

     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 were subjected.

     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.
 


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