LOS ANGELES -- Midnight movies are supposed to be fun.
They're supposed to be giddy gatherings of the most excited fans who can't wait to have the images flicker across their faces first -- whether it's at a 12:01 a.m. showing of a wildly anticipated blockbuster or infamous schlock that's achieved a cult following and is best viewed during the weird, wee hours.
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That thrill was shattered early Friday morning when a man unleashed his arsenal upon an audience at the first showing of the hotly awaited new Batman movie, "The Dark Knight Rises," at a theater in Aurora, Colo., killing at least 12 and injuring 58 others.
It's still unclear what the motive might have been for the suspect, 24-year-old James Holmes -- whether the time or the content of the film itself might have been factors in this deadly spree. But for now, the purity of that sense of enthusiasm -- both for moviegoing in general and for midnight showings specifically -- seems to have been shaken.
And that's a shame. Because part of the enjoyment of a midnight movie is that you are at an actual movie theater with actual movie fans in the middle of the night -- not by yourself at home on the couch, not watching on your iPad on a plane. That sense of community infuses the room with a buzz. Other people -- people you've never met -- similarly have dragged themselves from their homes at this dark, quiet hour to see the same thing you want to see.
Historically, more offbeat fare has played at midnight to a partylike atmosphere: B-movies, ones that encourage interactive participation like the long-running "Rocky Horror Picture Show," which is the mother of all midnight movies, or films that work best for crowds that are up for something strange and mind-altering at that time of night, like David Lynch's "Eraserhead." One of my favorite midnight experiences was discovering Eli Roth's 2002 debut film, the graphic horror flick "Cabin Fever," during the South by Southwest film festival and squirming and laughing along with a packed house.
But more and more, theaters will offer the first chance to see a blockbuster at that hour, with fans selling out those first shows through online ticket sales and often dressing in costume as their favorite characters. (This tradition is already changing: In response to the Colorado shooting, AMC Theatres, the nation's second-largest chain with more than 300 movie houses, said it won't allow people to wear costumes or face-covering masks into its theaters.)
The most hard-core people who are the most psyched up to see a movie are the ones who come out at midnight, said Evan Husney, creative director of the Austin, Texas-based Drafthouse Films, who previously worked on the release of the low-budget cult favorite "Birdemic: Shock and Terror."
"I think the midnight movie is great. It's lasted a long time and hopefully it'll always remain. It gets people out to a theater still -- that sort of midnight movie experience is something you really can't replicate at home at all," he said. "Nothing compares to being part of a crowd of 300 people screaming and sharing the same thing."
As enjoyable as a midnight movie can be, it also requires effort. If you're not an insomniac, you probably need to fill up on coffee beforehand, or at least take a disco nap. If you have young kids, there is the problem of trying to find a baby sitter for such odd hours -- although as we saw with the Aurora shooting, there were plenty of children in the audience. Among the injured was a 4-month-old baby, who was treated at a hospital and released.
When my husband and I went to the seventh-anniversary midnight showing of the famously terrible cult favorite "The Room" a couple of years ago, we hired a baby sitter to watch our then-infant son so that we could laugh and scream and throw plastic spoons at the screen with all the other freaks. She slept on the couch, but at least she was there.
Katy Kleinhans, a 43-year-old cultural theorist, attended a midnight Friday showing of "The Dark Knight Rises" in downtown Houston and said there were children in the audience as young as 5. The mother of a teenager herself, she suspects their parents either couldn't find a sitter at that time or didn't want to pay for one.
"A lot of those kids just fell asleep," she said. "It was all about the parents wanting to be there for this singular event, this one-time thing."
Kleinhans went with a friend who'd bought tickets online for the Sundance Cinema, where various fans dressed as Batman or Catwoman and employees behind the concession counter were in costume, as well. They made a night of it, with dinner at the theater beforehand. Kleinhans even wore a button she'd kept with the logo from the Tim Burton's 1989 "Batman" movie. And while the rest of the audience sat silently in rapt anticipation, she and her buddy were cheering and high-fiving.
The whole experience reminded her of the excitement of seeing midnight movies in high school, she said: "The preparation and the excitement, that's how it used to be when you'd go to movie. You can only get that in the middle of the night. You have to be off people's regular clocks and responsibilities."