Haunted Halls

What’s Next for the Aurora Theater?

Twelve people were shot dead at the Century 16 multiplex earlier this week. Can it ever go back to business as usual? Christine Pelisek and Eliza Shapiro on a town divided.

On Wednesday morning, the makeshift memorial for the victims of the Aurora shooting drew hundreds of people. Located on a dusty hill, 12 white crosses with the names of the victims stood upright, surrounded by teddy bears, balloons, candles, and poems. Next to each cross was a popcorn bag weighted down by candles. Mourners made the rounds. A sign read: “We Will Remember.”

Looming in the distance was the Century 16 Theater, the 3,400 seat multiplex where James Eagan Holmes is alleged to have shot or wounded 70 people, leaving 12 dead. The theater, once a popular venue for teens and adults,  is now a crime scene. A large green mesh chain link fence surrounds the 14-year-old theater. Police stand guard outside while crime-scene analysts recreate the bloody events inside.

While the nation wonders why a promising neuroscience Ph.D. armed himself with a cache of weapons and went on a shooting rampage, the question of what to do with the theater is a big one for Aurora residents. Should the theater be torn down and made into a memorial, or should it reopen?

When five people were killed in a Chuck E. Cheese in this same town in 1993, the business was shut down and replaced by a soup and salad restaurant. After James Huberty killed 21 people at a McDonald's near San Diego—Holmes’s hometown—in 1984, the store was razed and McDonald’s opened another location nearby. The site became part of Southwestern Community College, with a monument to the victims where the store stood.

The library at Columbine High School, where Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold gunned down 13 people before killing themselves, is now an atrium memorial to those who were killed. “They went in and remodeled it so it wouldn’t look the same,” said Aurora city councilwoman Marsha Berzins, whose district encompasses the theater.  Berzins hopes that if the theater chooses to stay open, owners “will go in and do some remodeling.”

Some residents like Kelly Calvin, who lives in nearby Highlands Ranch, believes the cinema should be torn down and made into a memorial. “It would be difficult to go in there and relax knowing what happened,” she said. “I think it will always be remembered as the place where the shooting occurred.”

“I don’t know who would want to go in there,” said Holly Parham, an anthropology student from Boulder. “As long as it stands there, I feel that is what all people are going to think about.”

Others take a different view. Bob Broom, a local councilman, said the Century 16 should remain a theater. “If not you are letting the guy who did this have some type of moral victory,” he said. “Columbine is still there. They didn’t quit and that area of town is still vibrant. I don’t think it will have a long-term impact on Aurora. It is really tragic and no one will forget it but by the same token it is not like we think it will happen again.”

Symone Montrey, a 15-year-old high school student agrees. “I think it should stay open,” she said. “We go there a lot. We don’t want it taken away from us.”

The day after the shooting, an online forum popped up on Colorado4x4.org to address the issue. One person wrote: “What’s the concern, superstition? Wash the blood off the non porous services, replace the porous ones, repair the damage, and fire up the projector.”

Another commenter predicted: “I’m expecting it to be torn down and rebuilt or at the least undergo a massive refurbishment. If it remains how it is today I expect it will be closed for so long and when it does reopen the customers won’t return in large enough numbers that it will go out of business relatively soon.”

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Cinemark, which owns the theater, released a statement on Tuesday saying, “We’re deeply saddened about this tragic incident. Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims, their families and loved ones, our employees, and the Aurora community,” but would not comment on the fate of the theater. Right now, the company could be facing more pressing issues. On Wednesday, a spokesman for one of the people who survived the shooting said he is planning on suing the theater, alleging that the exit door did not have an alarm nor was it guarded by security. (Holmes, who was sitting in the front row of the theater near the exit, allegedly exited through the door, propped it open and then returned with his arsenal of weapons.)

Despite the July 20 shooting, the much-anticipated Dark Knight Rises broke records at the box office this past weekend, grossing more than $160 million. A string of false alarms nonetheless interrupted screenings across the country. On Friday night in Arizona, a man wearing a backpack who appeared to be drunk at a showing of the movie caused a panic. Some 50 people fled and he was arrested.

A California man was arrested for allegedly saying, in the middle of the movie, “Does anyone have a gun… I should go off like in Colorado.”

The day after the shooting, Aurora amped up security at its six theaters. “We put some police officers at other theaters that were showing that Batman movie,” said Broom, who has lived in the city for 40 years. “You are always worried about copycats.”

Since the shooting, Berzins said the city has been inundated with acts of kindness. An anonymous good samaritan offered to pay for the funerals of all the victims, she said. A car dealership donated $50,000 to the victims, and a Best Western donated rooms for families coming into the city to attend funerals. It Takes A Village, Inc., a nonprofit that provides outreach and health services, has offered free acupuncture.

Sandra Richmond and Eloise Kaiser each donated two plots to families of the victims. Richmond, 72, gave up her two plots at Crown Hill Cemetery in Wheat Ridge, a few miles from Aurora. Kaiser, 68, says she was happy to give up her two cemetery plots in Aurora, considering they can cost up to $3,000. “The people who stick in my mind are the mothers still in critical condition,” she said, “and the young girl who died,” referring to victim Veronica Moser-Sullivan, who was 6 years old.