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School Climate & Safety

The Pop Culture Fascination With School Shootings

By Mark Walsh — August 28, 2018 9 min read
A scene from "columbinus," a 2005 play by Stephen Karam and PJ Paparelli that drew on testimony from survivors of the Columbine High School tragedy.

School massacres and mayhem have been a dark thread in popular culture for decades, played for fictional horror, pathos, and even black comedy stemming back to the Columbine High School massacre in Colorado in 1999 and even before.

Now, media observers are bracing for a fresh wave of works based on this year’s tragic shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., and at Santa Fe High School in Santa Fe, Texas.

Already, the producers of “Degrassi: Next Class,” a Netflix show produced in Canada and focused on high school students, say they’ve been moved by the responses of the Parkland students to push for gun control, and that will be reflected in the next season. Earlier versions of the show also had shooter episodes.

“The major motivation is that people who are creating drama in popular media such as television, film, and the novel are striving to reflect the culture we live in,” said Robert J. Thompson, a professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. “These are an attempt to create stories about who we are.”

A Long-Running Theme

Of course, books, movies, television, plays, pop songs—and even video games—that dealt with school violence existed long before Columbine, from films such as “Carrie” and “Heathers” to novelty songs such as “The Homecoming Queen’s Got a Gun!”

But Columbine was a particular cultural touchstone that prompted a raft of shooter-themed works. In fact, new works of drama and TV based in part on Columbine were making their debut even at the time of the Parkland and Santa Fe shootings in February and May, respectively.

Some creators say that by addressing the violence of school shooting incidents, fictional works not only reflect the culture, but they also help society cope and make sense of what has happened.

“One of the things the arts can do is show how what seems to be these isolated experiences of bullying and suffering are more universal than young people think,” said Jim Shepard, the author of the 2004 novel Project X, a work about two middle school outcasts who plot to shoot up their school.

Although Shepard and his publisher list the book in the general category of fiction, the work has some of the hallmarks of young-adult fiction. That category has seen a mini-boom in novels about school shooters.

Richard Russo, the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning 2001 novel Empire Falls, an epic aimed at a grown-up audience that includes a pivotal subplot involving a school shooting, based the shooting in his book on a 1997 incident at Heath High School in Paducah, Ky. But the 1999 Columbine incident unfolded just as he was writing the novel.

Russo addressed the challenge of dealing with such an incendiary topic in a July 29 essay in The New York Times Book Review, writing that society turns to novels “for a deeper understanding of life than we get from politicians and others with ideological axes to grind.”

Novelists don’t have all the answers, Russo wrote, but they have “moral imagination which, over time, can help heal wounds but also has a nasty habit of opening them, as my novel did and continues to do.”

Video Games, Movies, and TV

Not all works with themes of mass school violence are as high-minded as a Pulitizer-winning novel like Russo’s.

In May, the online retailer Steam pulled a preview version of a video game called “Active Shooter,” which allows players to be either a school or office shooter or a SWAT-team member. The game was reportedly developed by a 21-year-old Russian who was surprised at the furor it created.

Also this spring, after the Parkland and Santa Fe incidents, the Paramount Network cable channel dropped plans to air a TV-series version of the movie “Heathers,” a 1988 black comedy about a clique of snobby high school girls that features killings of students, suicides, and an attempt to blow up the school.

“This company can’t be speaking out of both sides of its mouth, saying the youth movement is important for us and we’ve done all these wonderful things to support that, and at the same time, we’re putting on a show that we’re not comfortable with,” Keith Cox, the Paramount Network’s president of development and production, told The Hollywood Reporter in June.

However, Paramount Studios, the parent of the namesake cable channel and the producer of the show, still was seeking to sell the completed series to another American TV outlet and had sold it to multiple overseas outlets.

The more typical mass-media response to school shooters has been a periodic wave of movies and TV episodes.

In 2003, director Gus Van Sant won plaudits for the haunting film “Elephant,” a depiction of a Columbine-like school shooting from several students’ points of view. Others around that time included “American Yearbook” and “Bang Bang You’re Dead,” while more recent films include 2011’s “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” adapted from the Lionel Shriver novel of the same name, and this year’s “And Then I Go,” adapted from Shepard’s Project X.

And many TV dramas, both before and after Columbine, have felt the need to devote an episode (or two) to a school shooter storyline, including “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Glee,” and “One Tree Hill.”

The latest TV show to address the topic of school shootings is “13 Reasons Why,” the Netflix production known for its controversial depiction of a high school student’s suicide.

The show’s second season—which debuted on the same day in May as the Santa Fe High School shooting—includes an integral subplot involving the evolution of a boy tormented by the campus jocks into a potential shooter, with a plot twist conspicuously occurring in the narrative on April 20, the date of the Columbine incident.

In a “Beyond the Reasons” discussion aired after the second-season finale, Brian Yorkey, the creator of the show, said that “in portraying guns in a piece of popular entertainment, I think you do really have to do some soul-searching about whether what you’re doing is glamorizing guns and gun use, and if it’s contributing to the problem or trying to contribute to the solution.”

But some critics argue that depicting school shooters on shows popular with teenagers may only propagate such incidents.

“When we publicize school shootings, through media coverage or binge-worthy television, we normalize them and we talk about them,” Joshua A. Krisch, the science editor at Fatherly, a website aimed at dads, wrote on the site in May. “And the more we talk about them, the more they happen. School shootings are contagious.”

Citing “13 Reasons Why” among other shows, Krisch said TV producers were being irresponsible by “telling the same Columbine story over and over again.”

Tom Nunan, a former network-television and studio executive who is now a lecturer at the University of California, Los Angeles, School of Theater, Film, and Television, said that school shooter storylines represent “a fraught subject, for sure.”

“I suspect that most studios and networks would probably propose to creative [professionals], ‘Is this really worth it? Isn’t it possible we will create some residual harm somewhere?’ ” he said.

But Nunan, who has worked for the ABC, Fox, NBC, and UPN television entertainment divisions, noted that pay-TV channels such as HBO and subscription services such as Netflix and Hulu are offering edgier fare.

“On these subscription shows, the content is not as controlled,” he said.

Stage Audiences Engaged

The theme has also resonated among playwrights and theater companies.

The 2005 play “columbinus” first appeared off-Broadway in 2006 and has been staged around the country since then, including at the acclaimed Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago this past spring. Written by Stephen Karam and the late PJ Papparelli, “columbinus” is set in an American high school with teenage archetypes (or stereotypes) such as the Jock, the Prep, AP, Faith, Perfect—as well as the Freak and the Loner, who take on the roles of the Columbine killers in the second act.

That’s when the play takes on a more documentary feel, with the audience listening to an actual 911 call made by a teacher from the Columbine High library as the shootings there unfolded.

A new play with a school shooter theme debuted just days after the Parkland shooting in February. “Ripe Frenzy,” by Jennifer Barclay, opened in Watertown, Mass., on Feb. 24 as part of a three-city rollout by the National New Play Network.

The work depicts a high school stage that is preparing for a production of Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town,” when students and adults become glued to their phones as word spreads of another mass shooting at a high school.

Barclay, a theater instructor at the University of Maryland College Park, said via email that she and a colleague, Jared Mezzocchi, “wondered how social media and journalism might both be perpetuating the problem of mass shootings in our country, because of the notoriety and obsession they create for the shooter.”

“Ripe Frenzy” uses “Our Town” as “a framework to examine what feels like is the new American normal: the town wrestling with the aftermath of a mass shooting,” she said. “Theatre is unique in that it demands us to find empathy if we’re going to write a good play, to perform a good play, and then to be an engaged audience member.”

While Columbine has been a key reference point for many fictional works, only a few have centered on the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in which a disturbed man killed 20 children and six adults.

One is the 2017 play “26 Pebbles” by Eric Ulloa, which tells the Newtown story in a documentary style similar to “The Laramie Project,” the play about the 1998 murder of gay college student Matthew Shepard.

Another recent work to address Newtown is the novel Only Child by Rhiannon Navin, published in February just days before the Parkland tragedy. It’s not a young-adult novel, but it recounts a Sandy Hook-like shooting from the point of view of a 6-year-old who lost his 10-year-old brother.

But Jim Shepard, who recently helped turn his novel Project X into the critically praised film “And Then I Go,” offered a surprising lesson coming from an accomplished novelist.

“If you want to have an impact” on the conversation about mass school violence, he said, “literary fiction is not the way to do it. No one is reading in great numbers.”

And movies aren’t being effective in that conversation, either, he said. Despite his participation, the film version of Project X ended up a bit “sanitized” in his view and failed to depict “the comedy of junior high.”

The Role of Art

Poets have entered the conversation as well. In December, Beacon Press published Bullets Into Bells: Poets & Citizens Respond to Gun Violence. The collection includes works by more than 50 poets, including Richard Blanco, who read at President Barack Obama’s 2012 inauguration, and former U.S. Poet Laureate Rita Dove, with responses by a range of people such as gun-control activists and parents of school shooting victims.

It’s a measure of how deeply embedded in the national consciousness school shootings have become that they are a touchstone for artists across the spectrum aiming to grapple with serious issues.

“Art doesn’t happen in isolation,” said Adriana E. Ramírez, a writer and critic at large for the Los Angeles Times, who wrote about a March reading by several of the poets who contributed to Bullets Into Bells. “The guy who makes the TV show” about a school shooter “probably read the book of poems.”

A version of this article appeared in the August 29, 2018 edition of Education Week as School Shootings Continue to Resonate as a Theme in Popular Culture

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