Gallery: School Violence in Books, Movies, TV, and More
School massacres and mayhem have been a dark thread in popular culture for decades, played for fictional horror, pathos, and even black comedy. Although examples trace back as far as the 1970s, the Columbine High School massacre in Colorado in 1999 was a particular cultural touchstone that prompted a raft of shooter-themed works. Below is a collection of moments when school violence made its way into popular culture.
Gus Van Sant’s “Elephant,” a 2004 film largely styled along the lines of the 1999 Columbine High School shootings, is considered by some critics to be the most powerful film about such incidents, with its interweaving scenes, long silences, and chilling violence, depicted without preachy lessons.
Other works: “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” the 2011 film based on the book of the same title by Lionel Shriver, featuring the perspective of a mother who examines her son’s descent into violence; “Bowling for Columbine,” Michael Moore’s documentary about gun violence in society; and “And Then I Go,” a 2018 adaptation of the Jim Shepard novel Project X about 8th graders who plot a school shooting.
Project X, a 2004 book by Jim Shepard, focuses on a sullen and tormented middle school student, who plots with his only close friend to shoot up their school. The film adaptation, “And Then I Go,” was released this spring.
Young Adult Fiction: Give a Boy a Gun, by Todd Strasser (2002); Hate List, by Jennifer Brown (2009); This Is Where It Ends, by Marieke Nejkamp (2016); and Shooter, by Caroline Pignat (2017); Violent Ends, a 2015 collaboration by 17 young adult authors, edited by Shaun David Hutchinson.
Fiction: Empire Falls, by Richard Russo (2001), which includes a pivotal subplot that involves a school shooting; Only Child, by Rhiannon Navin (2018), is one of the rare works to present an incident akin to the killings of young children at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.; Jodi Picoult’s Nineteen Minutes (2007), which focuses on the aftermath of a school shooting.
Poetry: Bullets into Bells, a 2017 anthology that addresses not only school shootings but other acts of mass violence, with contributions by such renowned poets as Richard Blanco and Rita Dove.
Dozens of TV shows have done episodes about school shooters over the last 25 years, including series as diverse as “Joan of Arcadia,” “American Horror Story,” and “Glee.”
Most recently, Netflix’s "13 Reasons Why" included a school shooter subplot in its second season. A student named Tyler, who faced bullying and began amassing a weapons arsenal in the first season, is tormented by several jocks, leading him to show up at a school dance prepared to carry out a mass shooting. The show’s creators say that ignoring the reality of school shooters in popular entertainment is not going to make them go away.
Other Works: “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” (a 1999 episode); “One Tree Hill” (2006); “Degrassi: The Next Generation” (2004) and “Degrassi: Next Class” (2016).
“I Don’t Like Mondays,” a 1979 hit by the Irish band The Boomtown Rats, evoked a shooting at a San Diego elementary school from earlier that year and the dispirited explanation by the 16-year-old perpetrator.
Other songs range from the satirical “The Homecoming Queen’s Got a Gun,” (1983) by Julie Brown to “The Nobodies,” the 2001 song by the dark industrial rock band Marilyn Manson that alludes to the Columbine shootings.
While the debate continues about whether violent videogames contribute to school violence, there have been at least two videogames that actually depict school shootings.
“Super Columbine Massacre RPG!,” released in 2006, is specifically based on information known about the Columbine High killers, though the game’s cartoonish graphics are a far cry from the realism of more recent violent games.
Earlier this year, a game called “Active Shooter,” which was designed to let users play the role of the school or office shooter, was briefly made available in preview form on a popular online store before being pulled.
For “26 Pebbles,” playwright Eric Ulloa interviewed some 60 community members with connections to the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. The 2017 play features six actors playing 22 characters in the documentary style of “The Laramie Project,” about the murder of a gay college student.
OTHER WORKS: “columbinus,” a 2005 play by Stephen Karam and PJ Paparelli that drew on testimony from survivors of the Columbine High School tragedy; “The Library,” a 2014 work by Scott Z. Burns that focuses on the question of who controls the narrative after a mass school shooting, and “Ripe Frenzy,” a 2018 work by Jennifer Barclay featuring a mass school shooting occurring in juxtaposition to a high school production of “Our Town.”
Reporter: Mark Walsh
Visualization: Francis Sheehan & Mike Bock