With the increase in school shootings in the United States, movies and other forms of media have begun to include such events in their plots more frequently. As we struggle to understand how school shootings became a regular part of our lives, movies, and news cycles, we face many complex feelings on the subject.

While processing historical events and national tragedies in film can be therapeutic, the issue of school shootings in films is far more complex than events from the distant past. With this topic, we must also consider children, teachers, and parents who actively face this threat on an ongoing basis. The layers of trauma are deep, and they are unfortunately becoming more common. Such narratives force us to question what can be done to prevent further real-world tragedies.

On August 3, 2019, a mass shooter killed 22 people and injured 26 at a Walmart in El Paso, TX. Many of them were completing back-to-school shopping. We are beyond the point of being able to ignore school-related mass shootings.

But are depictions of such violent events respectful to those involved? Or are they exploiting such events? Let’s take a deeper look into the issue:

Movies About School Shootings: Uncommon Occurrences

Many filmmakers seem to be aware that creating movies about school shootings is taboo. When it is done in film or TV, the creators are almost always called to question. Considering mass shootings have occurred in movie theaters, the responsibility is heavy. 

Two Netflix shows have confronted this topic in the last few years: The OA (recently canceled after two seasons) and 13 Reasons Why. The OA features a cafeteria shooting at the end of its first season, and 13 Reasons Why features a character who considers performing a mass shooting at a school dance. (13 Reasons Why features further in-depth looks at teenage boys and gun violence throughout the series.)

In both instances, the school communities and individual students involved were dealing with other upsets and losses. There were subtle indications of problems, but in many instances, few moved to act to prevent the mass shooting. When discussing school violence, the creators of both shows repeatedly mentioned prevention as a reason for featuring the mass shootings; it’s an essential discussion point at home and in schools. 

Showtime’s documentary, Active Shooter, also tackles this topic, but it’s also only viewable on demand rather than shown in the theater.

Critical Movies Addressing School Shootings

It’s one thing to think about gun violence in the safety of our homes while watching Netflix; it’s another while you’re in a dark room and not expecting it. Box office results indicate that people generally aren’t ready to face gun violence in that context. Films We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011) and Elephant (2003) performed poorly at the box office, supporting this argument.

We Need to Talk About Kevin follows the story of a travel writer (portrayed by Tilda Swinton) who visits her son in prison after he’s killed people in a massacre. Swinton’s character recalls various moments that, in retrospect, provide warning signs about her son’s behavior. Critics generally agree that We Need to Talk About Kevin is a movie that prompts discussion about school shootings and gun violence.

Elephant is a drama about a fictional school based on the 1999 Columbine massacre. This film touches on the impact of bullying, gun ownership, and school shootings, encouraging audiences to think about school shootings in a new light: They’re not isolated incidents.

The Seattle Times, however, confirmed that a Minnesota teen involved in the Red Lake shooting had watched Elephant and that the shooting bore many similarities to the one depicted in the film. This demonstrates another layer of sensitivity required for films about mass shootings: Do they encourage real discussion that prevents more violence, or are they how-to guides for future school shooters?

Movies and TV shows, of course, make up only one segment of the media we consume and potentially blame for mass shootings.

The Blame Game: Video Games and Mass Shootings

There’s a long history of the White House blaming video games for violent behavior. It’s a common refrain from President Donald Trump, but it’s hardly a partisan issue: the Clinton administration expressed many of the same concerns and even pushed a video game rating system to prevent children’s exposure to violent materials.

Psychology Professor Chris Ferguson describes the bipartisan history of blaming video games for violence but notes a recent shift in the conversation, saying, "It seems in some ways to be a more deliberate effort to shift the conversation maybe away from gun control onto video games."

While many studies have shown that video games and gamification of positive habits can have lasting motivational impact on children, the same is also true for negative behaviors in some instances. Depending on a child’s personality, video games can influence them to do violence. The children negatively influenced by video games tend to display specific traits

  • Highly neurotic: At-risk kids are very moody and emotional.

  • Low empathy: It doesn’t come naturally to at-risk children to see themselves in others’ bad situations or to feel sad when someone is injured.

  • Not conscientious: Disregarding rules is a key trait of children at risk of being influenced by violence in video games. 

In other words, whether video games create violent behavior in children is very dependent on the child in question. An abused or emotionally distant child is more likely to be influenced by violence in video games than one who has support and positive influences in his or her life.

Exposure to Mass Shooting Media Following a Real Life Event

In video games, it’s often obvious whether there is gun violence present in the game. In a Netflix show, it’s easy to look up trigger warnings or turn off the TV in the home. In the movie theater, that just isn’t so, and risky subject matter can have a harmful impact on victims and witnesses of real-life mass shootings.

Gun violence in schools is pervasive. Therefore, the risk of triggering someone with a surprise school shooting scene in a movie is pretty high. The facts about school shootings speak for themselves:

  • Fatalities in school shootings spike and increase over time, with 2018 holding an unfortunate record of 56 deaths. Everyone in these affected communities and surrounding municipalities is affected by a school shooting — not just people who knew someone who died. With active shooter training a reality, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in school shooting survivors and their families is common.

  • PTSD manifests in affected children differently than in adults. It can include drug and alcohol use, aggression, isolation, a drop in self-esteem, and evidence of self-harm. Viewing mass shooting trauma, especially when unprepared, can trigger children and adults alike.

  • As schools are unprepared to deal with the fallout, trauma, and communication challenges associated with school shootings, it’s vital that films and other media handle school shootings sensitively and respectfully, should creators choose to address the issue.

Whenever a mass shooting happens, people connect to it. They say things on Facebook like, “I was just there last month,” or “My friend’s child goes to that school.” They might also connect it to another incident or piece of media, as some did following the Red Lake shooting and the movie Elephant. 

Such events, even fictional ones portrayed on the big screen, can put dangerous ideas into the minds of vulnerable young people. Students in desperate situations and lacking support may become “copycat” shooters, emulating events portrayed in movies. As an increasing number of U.S. children acquire passports, this cultural contagion may cross into other countries.

Ultimately, filmmakers will always attempt to capture the zeitgeist, and that includes fear of school shootings. However, the topic is so pervasive and sensitive that doing so requires care. Specifically, production companies can include content warnings, trigger warnings, and pre-movie messages clarifying that the movie shows graphic school shooting violence. For victims of violence, asking for and seeing trigger warnings can even help in the recovery process.

For now, films about school shootings are rare, but as we as a culture consider if and how we wish to deal with this subject using the arts, it’s still new territory. As such, we should proceed with caution.

Image Source: Pixabay