Twelve people have died and at least 50 are injured, including children, after a masked gunman opened fire in a suburban US cinema where movie-goers were watching the latest Batman movie.
A man wearing black body armour and a gas mask opened fire after he tossed a tear gas canister into the midnight showing of The Dark Knight Rises, in Aurora, Denver, Colorado.
Police arrested a 24-year-old man, named locally as James Holmes, in a nearby car park, in possession of a rifle, handgun and a knife, with another gun recovered from the theatre.
US President Barack Obama has spoken of his shock at the incident, which began at about 00.30 local time (06:30 GMT) at the Century cinema complex.
In a statement, President Obama said he and First Lady Michelle Obama were “shocked and saddened by the horrific and tragic shooting in Colorado.”
Ten people died at the scene and two others died later in hospital of their wounds, with local media reports saying the massacre’s youngest victim is a three-month-old baby.
No motive for the horrific shooting spree – which is reported to be the worst mass shooting in the US since the 2007 attack on the Virginia Tech campus – has yet been established, but the FBI, which is working with the police says there is no obvious terrorism link.
One theory which investigators will be looking at is whether the shooting could potentially be linked to the plot of The Dark Knight Rises.
According to witnesses, the gunman opened fire during the movie’s first action scene. Cinema-goers had spotted the man believed to be responsible for the massacre before the showing, but didn’t think anything was out of the ordinary as lots of people were dressed up to watch the movie.
Tragically, the on-screen violence appears to have been mirrored in real-life horror. Christopher Nolan’s film, the final part of the trilogy, follows The Dark Knight, in which Batman was blamed for the crimes of district attorney Harvey Dent.
With Batman now in hiding, Gotham is suffering a vigilante-like enforcement of the law, putting the city on a collision course with terrorist Bane, played by Brit Tom Hardy.
The parallels of the plot-line with the terrible events in Denver are hard to ignore, with Bane wearing a mask to be able to breathe while gunning down innocent victims at will.
One eyewitness said the gunman burst in like the “Terminator” and started “shooting, shooting, shooting”. At first people thought it was all part of the special effects featured in the movie until the horrific realisation that fellow movie-goers were being hurt dawned and terrified families started crawling between the seats in a desperate bid to reach safety.
Before the screening, the film had become the centre of fierce political debate, with suggestions that the villain’s name, Bane, was an attack on presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s former venture capital firm Bain, while others debated the ideological leanings of its characters and its populism-versus-anarchy undertones. There have also been death threats against critics that have given the film a negative review.
So far, though, there are no signs that the shooting was political in nature. All police spokesman Frank Fania has said about the motive is that it is so far unknown “other than it was the latest Batman movie and there was a lot of people”.
Sadly, Colorado is no stranger to tragedies of this nature with the Columbine High School Massacre taking place in 1999, when two senior students Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold murdered 12 students and one teacher before taking their own lives.
At the time analysts argued that part of the killers’ motive may have been due to desensitization because of constant exposure to violent imagery in video games. The pair were also fans of the violent movie Natural Born Killers.
Clearly it will be some time before the motive for this latest horror emerges but it is sure to reopen two debates: whether on-screen violence leads to gruesome events off-screen, and whether gun laws need to be re-examined.
Already, the Parisian premiere of The Dark Knight rises has been cancelled as a result of the massacre but when audiences do see the final chapter in this trilogy, it will be with the terrible realisation that the gulf between fact and fiction is not always as wide as we would like.