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One year after Aurora theater massacre, the show goes on

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AURORA, Colo. — Inside the renovated and renamed theater where James Holmes shot 70 people, killing 12, some patrons gaze at the 3-D violence beaming on the colossal screen, yet silently mull the true horror that erupted in that darkened room one year ago.

Several audience members needed pep talks and deep breaths, they later admit, to enter the Century Aurora cinema for an innocent matinee.

The most jumpy folks in the movie house monitor everyone who comes and goes, scanning body language and belongings.

That jittery mood spreads, however, when an usher suddenly descends the right-side stairs during the picture to check a lower-corner door — the same exit Holmes propped open before his July 20, 2012 attack.

Heads turn to follow the usher’s brief inspection, now standard theater policy. A cold flicker of reality momentarily interrupts the Hollywood fantasy.

“I was watching that guy, and then, I wasn’t watching the movie,” Jamal Hardaway, 37, said after the show earlier this week, standing in the sunny, half-full parking lot. He lives near Aurora. “Yeah, I was looking at him thinking: What’s that about?”

“I was very, very leery of coming,” added Jackie Howard, 59, who was visiting Hardaway from New Jersey when they decided Wednesday to catch a film at the Century. “I was sitting in there, very aware of things that were going on, trying not to think about it. But I got through it.”

Other visitors to the 16-screen venue say they share that surreal mix of entertainment and edginess as the Colorado venue carries forward with a dual identity: part revived business, part living memorial. And that vibe surely won’t soften Saturday — the one-year anniversary of the mass shootings that began at about 12:30 a.m. during a premiere of “The Dark Knight Rises.”

To honor the dead and wounded, the city of Aurora has carefully scripted a “Day of Remembrance” — 12 events and spanning the town, including gardening and yoga. One spot where city officials have no plans to mark the moment: the Century, said Lori MacKenzie, an Aurora spokeswoman.

No area of the Century contains a tangible memorial. That bothers some theater employees, leading one to say: "It seems like we are trying to pretend like it never happened." 

Theater shooting victim Pierce O'Farrill points to one of the scars during an interview in Denver on July 11. Ed Andrieski / AP

'We shouldn't live in fear'

That won’t stop Pierce O’Farrill from dropping by the theater Saturday with a prayer in his mind and a bullet in his left bicep from Holmes’ attack.

O’Farrill, 29, has been back once before, during the Jan. 17 reopening ceremony held for survivors and victims’ families. That night, for a screening of “The Hobbit,” he purposely sat in the same seat that he'd picked moments before Holmes, 25, began firing. He was about 30 feet from the front exit.

"I just want to pay my respects to the victims and the family members who lost people, to just be there a year later," O'Farrill said. Shotgun blasts to his chest and foot have nearly healed, as has his arm — the bone was severed by a bullet from Holmes' .40-caliber pistol.

"I was a little nervous to go back the first time. But I felt like it was something I could face. The layout was still close enough to be able to imagine everything again," O'Farrill said. "I supported the reopening. It’s important to remember what happened in there, to remember the people who didn’t make it out. Ultimately, we honor them the most by continuing to celebrate life. We shouldn’t live in fear.”

One month after the murders, Aurora surveyed its residents, seeking input on the future of the Century. It then shared those results with the theater's owner, Plano, Texas-based Cinemark USA. About 70 percent of respondents favored keeping the cinema open, MacKenzie said. 

But in a January letter to Cinemark, the families of nine people who died urged a boycott of the relaunch.

"Thank you for reminding us how your quest for profits has blinded your leadership and made you so callous as to be oblivious to our mental anguish,” the letter said.

'Hiding and reflecting'

Cinemark declined an interview with NBC News. The company issued a prepared statement, attributed to James Meredith, Cinemark's marketing chief: “We stand with the great city of Aurora especially at this time of remembrance.” The manager of the Century referred all questions to Meredith. Aurora officials declined to discuss the theater. 

One of the letter’s authors was Sandy Phillips, whose daughter, Jessica Ghawi, 24, was killed. Phillips told the Denver Post in January the reopening was "like people going back to a slaughterhouse." Phillips declined to be interviewed. In a tweet to NBC News, Phillips said she was "in Mexico ... hiding and reflecting."

Three people injured during the shootings have sued Cinemark USA, alleging the theater could have had better security to prevent the killings.

On July 11, Holmes' lawyers admitted Holmes shot and killed 12 and wounded 58 others while in the “throes of a psychotic episode.” The former neuroscience doctoral student is charged with 166 felony counts of murder, attempted murder and other felonies. He pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity.

As the criminal case unfolded, Cinemark spent nearly $1 million renovating the Century, the Aurora Sentinel reported. Gone are all of the old seats throughout the cinema. Each of the 16 theaters is now designated by letters instead of numbers.

Theater No. 9, where the killings occurred, is now theater I. The entrance is emblazoned with white, neon words: "EXTREME DIGITAL CINEMA." Its acoustic walls have been re-textured, painted in a pastel green and blue. Its floors and stairs have been re-carpeted.

The movie house is often packed on weekends. 

'We will always remember'

“Some employees don't like to talk about it. But we should at least have something small on a wall that says, 'We will always remember,' ” said an employee, who agreed to speak to NBC News on the condition that no name be used, for fear of being fired.

"Yes, it is a business. But it's not something that happens to most businesses. So you at least acknowledge it," the theater employee said. 

The daily atmosphere is a blend of mundane ticket-ripping and popcorn making along with a trace of unspoken spookiness. Children have asked if they are "safe." Adults have asked to glimpse the theater with “all the bullet holes." (They're patched). 

Several workers are assigned to check exit doors in each theater during every movie — "the customers don't like it," the employee said. "Last week, one of the employees was doing the theater checks and some guy ran down the stairs after him. There was no confrontation. He just ran up to him to see what he was doing."

Before the killings, two Aurora police officers strolled through the cinema on Friday evenings. Now, five officers patrol the Century on foot on Thursday evenings — if there is a premiere — and every Friday and Saturday night until closing time, the employee said. 

"The customers seem more reserved. There's less screaming during the movies, like you don't want to draw attention to yourself," the employee said. "It doesn't feel that weird working here anymore. But somebody dropped something metal (recently) in the kitchen. It banged. Nobody hit the floor or anything, but all of us looked at the kitchen." 

Saturday night, the scheduled movie for theater I is "Red 2," an international thriller with a fair amount of gunfire. 

"People have enjoyed that theater for years. Families have gone there," said shooting victim O'Farrill. "To take that away from the community would be essentially letting James Holmes win."

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