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The Movie-Theater Murder You Haven’t Heard About

The Movie-Theater Murder You Haven't Heard About

Have you heard about the man who was murdered after a movie-theater dispute? No, not that one. This one.

While the precise details are sketchy, the upshot is that three friends in Tomball, Texas got into a debate about whether the ending of “300: Rise of an Empire” left the door open for a sequel. Two other men who overheard the conversation in the movie theater’s bathroom got involved, and the discussion escalated into a confrontation which ended when the latter two ran over 23-year-old Michael Emerson with their pickup truck, killing him. Here’s how Houston TV station KHOU covered the story. (The second clip contains security-camera images of the perpetrators, who are still at large):

Unlike the January murder of Chad Oulson, Emerson’s death hasn’t become national news; I only know about it thanks to a friend who lives in Austin. The difference, of course, is that Emerson’s death doesn’t have a catchy hook. It can’t be tied into a larger debate about gun safety or texting in theaters — even though the latter had almost nothing to do with Oulson’s death in the first place. It’s just about a group of five men who butted heads over an unimportant issue (one that could have been resolved by a glance at the movie’s Wikipedia page), a dispute that escalated with a crack about Emerson’s disfigured arm, and one man, the pickup’s driver, forgetting or not caring that the person behind his rear bumper was real and not CGI.

So why write about it? In part because my essay on Oulson’s death remains the most-read piece I’ve written for this site, and because the comments beneath it, added to as recently as yesterday, remain a perennial reminder of how easy it is to forget another person’s humanity. Here are a few of the things people have said about Chad Oulson:

“The ‘victim’ participated in his own shooting by simply refusing to be courteous…. He would still be alive if he had simply been polite.”

“Why should the person who wasn’t doing anything wrong, Curtis, have to move because of some d-bag, Chad, texting in a theater when he shouldn’t be. It’s about time someone stood up for what is right and shot this m-f thinking he can do whatever he wanted when ever he wanted to. I for one am glad he is dead.”

“It’s not a wholly tragic event – now there’s one less texter to bother movie goers.”

There are also plenty of thoughtful comments, as well as not a few saying the article sucks, that I sound like an asshole, and so forth. But these are the ones that haunt me. I know these are people using fake names on the Internet, talking about other people they’ve never met and know next to nothing about. But it’s a little bit terrifying how easily people deploy the rhetorical “He should be shot” in a situation where someone was actually killed with a gun. Even more, I’m bothered by the ease with which some people slip into a sense of familiarity, talking about “Curtis” and “Chad” as if they’re people they know and have every right to pass judgement on.

Perhaps my favorite comment — and here I mean it in a non-ironic sense — is from “FP,” who pointed out: “I agree that this ceased being a story about texting when a man got shot and died, but the texting is an example of the slow burn towards a total abandonment of the social contract.” That’s where I think the fact that these murders took place in, or near, a movie theater actually is relevant. Theaters were once a place of communal entertainment, where people came to be part of a collective experience, but more and more, we expect them to be mirrors of our own living rooms, whether that means feeling entitled to text and talk as if no one else was around or shushing every last crinkle of a popcorn bag. 

It ought to be a given that you can talk to your friends after a movie — in the bathroom, no less — without strangers butting into the conversation; that even if that conversation gets heated, it’s not acceptable to insult someone else’s physical disformity; and that if that person understandably takes offense, the proper response is not to run them over with your truck. But in this case, none of those things could be taken for granted, and as a result, a young man is dead. The movie’s not to blame, of course, although if this story ever does go national you can bet some pundit will raise the possibility that the men involved were still flush with the adrenaline rush of a violent movie, and under the influence of its stylized, weightless killing. But movies reflect the culture in which they’re made, and that goes for the way we watch them as well.

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