How the Columbine High School Massacre Reverberates Through Pop Culture

Twenty years on from the devastating shooting, can its cultural legacy in film and television reframe our present moment?

For much of the late 1990s, I was part of the so-called trench-coat mafia. Or so my mother worried, chided me about on a weekly basis, even though we lived 400 miles from Colorado. She couldn’t be blamed, really, when I’d walk out the door to meet my friends clad, as were they, in the subcultural uniform of the period. With our long hair, baggy trousers, Dr. Martens boots and black T-shirts (for bands like Ministry or KMFDM, with designs reminiscent of Weimar-era graphics), we set off her parental radar. That and the black trench coats: those FBI-agent staples repurposed in the era of The Matrix (1999) and Marilyn Manson as an emblem of shopping-mall-ready subversion. She worried, like most mums do about their teenage boys, of what we might become and how we might be seen by others. And she was right.

Like the 1950s before it, the 1990s was a profoundly conservative decade, buoyed by economic triumphalism but riddled with reactionary anxieties. It was the age of television V-chips and ‘Parental Warning’ stickers, of ‘superpredators’ and mass incarceration, of handwringing about the kids and their gangsta rap. Such debates were foreshadowed ten years prior in the experiences of my older brother, a Metallica fan, who was branded, like many of his ilk, as a Satanist. (To the contrary, he’s a mild-mannered poet.)

The Wachowskis, The Matrix, 1999, film still. Courtesy: Warner Bros.

The Wachowskis, The Matrix, 1999, film still. Courtesy: Warner Bros.

In this context, our sartorial and musical choices were indeed meant to signify, to rub people up the wrong way. These were small acts of dissent in the sprawling suburbs and squalid mining towns of the American west. The most trouble we got into was reading philosophy and smoking the occasional Kamel Red cigarette. Our icons were not outlaws per se but, rather, people who seemed to chafe at the strictures of bourgeois conformity: Ally Sheedy and Judd Nelson in The Breakfast Club (1985), Ani DiFranco or Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails. These were the queers and the misfits, the people who were bullied or misunderstood until they could escape to the find their tribe in the big city.

A precocious and sensitive lot, we mostly felt judged by the shinier types checking all the boxes of suburban life. Those were the folks who seemed right at ease in the gleaming public high schools, places we deemed to be emblematic of the unceasing mediocrity of what was, apparently, the good life. (Kids now would simply point, astutely, to the contradictions of neoliberalism.) Our rebellion was a chiefly symbolic and privileged one. But we made some people uneasy, albeit mostly store clerks, cafe owners and fellow shoppers.

Gus Van Sant, Elephant, 2003, film still. Courtesy: HBO Films

Gus Van Sant, Elephant, 2003, film still. Courtesy: HBO Films

At least, that was about the extent of things until 20 April 1999, when two young gunmen committed a shocking act of mass murder at the well-heeled Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. In merging the nihilistic edge of adolescent alienation with a permissive gun culture, they jolted the entire nation. It was a turning point that inaugurated two decades in which such shootings would become disturbingly normalized: ‘T & P’ (thoughts and prayers), as the cliché now goes. Soon thereafter, I switched to Oxford shirts and Belle and Sebastian; our own pantomime suddenly took on grave connotations.

Writer Stephen King had his own revelation in 1997, when he realized his novel Rage (1977) had been on the reading lists of four school shooters, prompting him to allow the book to fall out of print. All four attackers suffered mental illness and/or frayed relationships with their parents. King noted in 2013, in the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting, that culture, like his books, was not the root cause of such urges, but could nonetheless act as an accelerant. By that time, such incidents were so routine that King was also able to enumerate a 22-point list about the political and media response. Point 22: ‘It happens again and the whole thing starts over.’ There were 323 mass shootings in the US in 2018, three at schools, including Parkland, Florida. Of course, each one was driven by a singular mix of motive and cause. The mass shooting is now the tool used by violent people of many stripes: the terrorist, the homophobe, the armed robber. But criminals and ideologues are easy to understand, and to demonize. What Columbine signalled, perhaps, most of all, was that there was a pathology at root in our own ranks; that no matter how much we cloistered ourselves, nowhere, ultimately, was safe.

Brady Corbet, Vox Lux, 2018, film still. Courtesy: Neon

Brady Corbet, Vox Lux, 2018, film still. Courtesy: Neon

While Columbine was not the first high-school shooting of this nature, it functions as a kind of primal scene – an archetypical moment in which innocence is lost and neurosis begins. The events, loosely dramatized in Gus van Sant’s film Elephant (2003), at once crystallized so many of the antipathies and anxieties of the period, and created a blueprint for future copycats. Yet, the shooters were not ideological per se. They were motivated by a blend of psychopathy and hate, yes, and calculated ambition. Their target was their local school, not the city street, and their enmities were personal rather than overtly political. They ran with a social circle called, yes, the trench-coat mafia, many of whom were not, of course, violent. A New York Times report, published a few days after the attack, noted that – according to others in the shooters’ clique – the gunmen had been wary of the ‘jocks’ and the wealthier ‘popular kids’ who looked down on them. Two girls described their group as the ‘individuals […] the outsiders’ who would never wear Abercrombie & Fitch or drive luxury SUVs. In a related item, the newspaper reported feelings of dread among students 1,600 miles away in Westchester, New York, like the sense of boarding a plane after hearing of a crash. Columbine is an affluent school in Colorado: the events of 20 April 1999 sent psychic reverberations across the country.

Now that millennials have come of age, driving culture more than consuming it, those reverberations and after-effects keep turning up in film and television, framing the present anew. Brady Corbet’s Vox Lux (2018) is a slow-burning sketch of stardom, its artifice and hollowness. Its catalyzing moment is a parallel-universe Columbine, during the closing days of the millennium, not far from Westchester or Sandy Hook. One startling scene cuts through the narcotizing sameness of actual media coverage and viscerally stages the origins of Celeste (Natalie Portman) – a school-shooting survivor now in her 30s. The familiar lull of an unremarkable school day is broken by the attacker – a trench-coat type – apologizing to her, a fellow misfit, during his spree, but still leaving her shot through the neck and nearly dead, literally scarred for life. It’s unclear whether Celeste was possessed of her ruthless poise before that shooting or as a consequence of it, but she seems to find salvation through singing. She goes on to achieve stardom à la Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake, whose suburban sunshine radiated through the television screens of 1999. Celeste is, for all her success, a personal wreck. But she is also an icon for a new generation of teens who need something to put their faith in. A recurring leitmotif of Vox Lux is the anomie that pervades American life but hits adolescents the hardest. After all, as Sheedy’s character surmised in The Breakfast Club: ‘When you grow up, your heart dies.’

The OA, still from Season 2 trailer, 2019. Courtesy: Netflix

The OA, still from Season 2 trailer, 2019. Courtesy: Netflix

If there is a sense among the young – then and now – that their seniors have failed them, there are small signs of hope. Some of these are real, as in the political activism of The Parkland Teens, while some are narrative. Sixteen years old at the time of Columbine, Brit Marling stars in, co-writes and produces Netflix’s The OA (2016–ongoing). For all of the show’s genre-mashing visual flair and metaphysical ambitions, it too is a story about children doomed by their elders and searching for some meaning, any meaning.

The first season of The OA ended with a school shooting – more prosaic inevitability here than drama in its own right – and the second season, which premiered last month, opened in its aftermath. Importantly, it is also the story of two groups of teenagers representing different social scenes and walks of life. A timely update on a familiar format, The OA poignantly shifts the conceit away from jocks vs. loners. It is, instead, an encomium to solidarity in the face of perdition. Its heroes find their superpowers not from without but from their innate capacity for storytelling, intuition and collaboration. The true enemies here are apathy and incredulity: the very tools so many of us use to simply carry on, to blunt our sense of what could be, rather than what is. I’ll spare the spoilers, but it is heartening to see popular culture reckon with a 20-year history of violence, tracing both its causes and its cure.

Main image: Memorial to victims set up near Columbine High School, 23 April 1999. Courtesy: NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images; photograph: David Handschuh

Ian Bourland is a critic and an art historian at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, USA. He is a contributing editor of frieze

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