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“There are moments in this film where I just find him absolutely hateful and terrifying in a way that movie antagonists very rarely are,” Nolan said in a July 7 interview. “They’re usually very much more sold out to the attractive qualities of villainy, and there are moments in here where you hate him the way you’d hate someone in real life if they were doing these things.”

Yet in the safe environment of a theater, with the action happening to fictional figures on screen, fans can revel in such violence, watch the world as they know it destroyed in such movies as “The Day After Tomorrow” or “2012,” and see supernatural creatures spreading terror in vampire and zombie flicks. Afterward, fans head home unscathed, marveling at what they’ve seen and unconsciously, maybe, having worked through some primal issues.

It’s a cathartic experience that dates back to the earliest storytelling, said Tom Pollard, professor of social sciences at National University in San Jose, Calif., and author of “Hollywood 9/11: Superheroes, Supervillains, and Super Disasters,” a study of big-screen action and violence since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

“You go back to Sophocles with Oedipus wandering around with his eyes gouged out by himself because he’s been having sex with his mother. `Hamlet,’ where the whole stage is awash with blood and suicide,” Pollard said. “It’s a part of our culture. It does express these monsters from the id, the dark side of our psychology. These films symbolize deep fears, and it can be a kind of therapy to see them.”

Fans seeing “The Dark Knight Rises” around the country expressed horror over the shootings, but many said they felt it was an isolated incident that would not keep them from going to the movies.

Still, the violence was bound to weigh on their minds as a terrible incursion on what is meant to be escapist fun, the simple joy of watching a whole other world unfold before your eyes without consequence to the audience.

“You go into this movie, you watch it, you get engrossed into this story and you don’t think about the outside world for two, three hours,” said Samantha Hines, who saw the movie in Boston. “So it is jarring to have such a harsh reality just slammed upon everybody like that.”

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Associated Press reporters Sandy Cohen in Los Angeles and Rodrique Ngowi in Boston contributed to this report.