Like you, I am already very tired of any news about The Dark Knight theatre shooting and the ostensibly intelligent young man who did the evil deed
July 27th, 2012

Like you, I am already very tired of any news about The Dark Knight theatre shooting and the ostensibly intelligent young man who did the evil deed. But some of the narrative details are harder to ignore than others. Given the way the mainstream media (see, or, rather, do not see FOX News) can hysterically turn the most incidental details into the direct causes of violence, there is reason to be concerned. It’s widely known now that the bug-eyed guy who sits in jail is also a graduate student enrolled in a neuroscience PhD program at the University of Colorado at Denver. The blogosphere contains multitudes and so it is not surprising that there has been heightened chatter about the pressures on grad students to succeed and finish their degrees.

You see where this is going. Suddenly, and among the other speculations about why someone, anyone, would spray a vulnerable unsuspecting movie audience with deadly ammo, the harsh conditions of graduate education have been added to the inventory. The killings have drawn some graduate student spokespersons out of their summer research activities to comment on the high incident of depression and fatigue in graduate programs. Such a line of thinking has prompted the dean of graduate studies at Colorado to issue a statement debunking the growing speculation. Obviously, it’s an emotional time, especially at the Colorado campus, and the grad dean is likely to be feeling defensive as the focus shifts to graduate school life in general and one of his programs in particular. And that the criminal was studying neuroscience, the operations of the brain, seems to be intensifying the argument. At this writing we have no real clue what his disorder actually is—only that he surely must have one. We do know, if only through fragments of rumour, that he was or is preoccupied with video games. But, then, who of his (male) peers isn’t? It’s tempting to connect that activity with a disorder, since his behaviour points to an inability to distinguish fantasy from reality. And, surely, that’s the raison d’etre of games period.

Speaking of which–here’s a segue and so bear with me–yesterday I visited the set of our popular television series, The Republic of Doyle. The picture I took above and posted in this blogspot tells a pretty clear story about reality and fantasy. Even though in the summer months  many residents of St. John’s can have their streets occupied while exterior shooting takes place, the set and headquarters where the crew and cast toil daily to produce the shows is really where most stuff gets done. This was my first time on the set and so I was stunned to see great big photographic flats of St. John’s ringing the cavernous space where the Doyle shoot happens. I had always naively taken the familiar background shots of the city, especially familiar points of interest like Signal Hill or the red-bricked  affront known as Atlantic Place (see above) as the real thing. Sure, there are conspicuously real shots of St John’s punctuating the episodes, now famously glorious if not glorified postcard views of the town at its best. But I had no idea how much of what we actually see behind a character’s head or through a window was actually fake. Holy Truman Show! Sure, I knew the sets were constructed and that the Duke of Duckworth pub where Jake and the rest of the clan hang out every week is an exact replica. Visiting the set confirmed that commonplace. But I have also always bought the whole seamlessness of the reality/fanstasy thing. My disbelief didn’t even have a chance to be suspended. I have always taken the “outdoors” on RoD as exactly that. It’s not that easy doing good make-believe, but obviously RoD has it down.

To return to the drearier topic of the Colorado shooting spree, it is possible we will all discover that the graduate student is suffering from some serious brain malfunction, and I suppose in a way we all hope that he is. The explanation that he might have simply confused reality and fiction or ceased seeing the difference because of a dependency on video games –or popular culture, period—would be too hard to take, too incomplete or unsatisfying an explanation for such a hideous act. But today, after an entertaining visit to the RoD set, I am a little more convinced of that possibility.

Dr. Faye Murrin is Dean pro tempore of the School of Graduate Studies and Associate Professor in the Department of Biology. She completed her B.Sc. (Hons.) at Memorial University, her M.Sc. at Acadia University, and her Ph.D. at Queen's University. Her research interests have always been focused on fungi, in particular the cell biology of insect pathogenic fungi and, more recently, the ecology of mycorrhizal mushrooms in the boreal forest. Dr. Murrin has served in a number of positions on the Council of the Mycological Society of America and was awarded the title of MSA Fellow for her contributions. She was awarded the Women in Science and Engineering Lifetime Membership Award as founding co-director of the Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) Summer Program. Dr. Murrin participates in public lectures and workshops, and is a Director on the board of Newfoundland Foray, Inc.

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