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TEEN ANGST column
A still from Bo Burnham’s Eighth GradeIllustration by Marianne Wilson

A teenager on what films and TV get wrong about school shootings

Looking at scenes from Eighth Grade, American Horror Story, and 13 Reasons Why from the perspective of a survivor

In our new column TEEN ANGST, a different teenager makes their views heard on Dazed each month. Here, 18-year-old Mollie Davis writes about the importance of how school shooting trauma is depicted onscreen.

In April 2013, I was almost 13 years old, and it had been four months since the Sandy Hook shooting that took the lives of 20 children. Hundreds of miles away, in a different state, I was obsessed with Glee. On April 11, the episode “Shooting Star”, depicting a school massacre scare caused by an accidental gun firing, aired. I posted something about how sad it made me on my Instagram, and went to bed, forgetting all about it. The seventh grader who closed her eyes to go to sleep that night had no idea that in April five years later, she would be working through the trauma of being in a shooting in her own school.

On March 20 2018, a 17-year-old walked into my high school with a gun and murdered 16 year old Jaelynn Willey, whom he had a previous relationship with. A 14 year old boy, Desmond Barnes, was struck in the leg in the crossfire. The shooter advanced down the hallway, only to be confronted by our armed school resource officer, and take his own life. I was in my math class, the closest classroom to the main lobby staircase, and I heard the screaming and commotion caused by the first shot. At first, I thought it was just a fight – but within seconds, friends were texting me to get in a classroom because someone had a gun.

Given the depressing fact that school shootings are now relatively common in the US, it follows that these traumatic events are often depicted on screen in shows and movies aimed at teens, alongside storylines about coming out and eating disorders. Here are the three notable examples – including one that, I believe, is a perfect guide to how the subject of school shootings can be tackled sensitively on screen. Revisiting these scenes was hard to do. But I feel that people with real life experience of tragedies like these can and should speak about how Hollywood can do better.

GLEE, SEASON FOUR, EPISODE 18

Glee is the poster child for trying to cram every social issue possible into the lives of fictional students. The episode with a plot driven by an accidental school shooting came just four months after the Sandy Hook massacre; some parents of Sandy Hook survivors criticised it as being too soon. But at the age of 12, I adored those characters, and was only concerned about them. Seeing Brittany trapped in the bathroom during the lockdown, while all her friends were in the choir room broke my heart.

While I think the romantic storyline in the episode felt forced, I give Glee credit for not sugar-coating how it feels to wait for confirmation that your friends are alive. One particular gut-wrenching scene depicts the character Sam panicking and trying to escape the choir room to find his friend Brittany. Rewatching this scene was hard, because while I couldn’t relate to him in middle school, I can now. Sitting in my math class refreshing my phone as fast as I could, waiting for all my friends to check in, was the most scared I’ve ever been.

AMERICAN HORROR STORY, SEASON ONE EPISODE SIX

Flash forward from seventh grade to eighth. One of my new friends was obsessed with American Horror Story, and in an effort to impress her, I started watching it too. The school shooting in the show is horror movie-like. We see the main character, Tate, shooting his peers that he later claims to have liked, and we see the graphic aftermath of them being shot later in the episode, as five of the people he killed come back to haunt him, gunshot wound injuries and all.

This depiction of a school shooting in a fictional world is a glaring example of how not to do it. School shootings are a real issue, that thousands of people across the country have been personally impacted by. Portraying them in a universe that has cursed houses and ghosts living as normal alongside humans makes the idea that someone could walk into school and shoot their classmates seem like a far away concept – when actually, it’s a very real prospect.

13 REASONS WHY, SEASON TWO EPISODE 13

Loved dearly by its fans and admonished by its critics, Netflix series 13 Reasons Why is unafraid to put real issues facing teenagers – like suicide and sexual assault – on screen. The season finale, released with the rest of the season on Netflix in May 2018, came in the first six months after the Parkland shooting. This cast a shadow on the season’s melodramatic, warped depiction of an almost-shooting.

During the finale, lead character Clay finds out that Tyler, a bullied student, is planning to shoot up the school dance he is at, and runs outside to confront his old friend, who points a gun at him. He is able to talk him down and get him to change his mind. The scene is both unrealistic and harmful – it’s designed in a way that tells us to feel bad for Tyler because of the circumstances that led up to him wanting to shoot up the dance. In turn, it takes the blame off Tyler for considering orchestrating a shooting. In an alternate universe, where Tyler followed through with his plan and shot up the dance, it wouldn’t have been the fault of the victims for not preventing bullying they didn’t know about.

EIGHTH GRADE

YouTube comedian Bo Burnham’s 2018 movie Eighth Grade, which chronicles the life of an eighth grade girl, was a hit among all age groups and earned a 98% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Viewers felt the movie was realistic to the life of middle schoolers in 2018 in many ways, but especially when it came to one scene in particular. There wasn’t a school shooting in the scene – instead, the filmmakers opted to show a school lockdown drill. By doing so, they set an example of how to sensitively portray this issue plaguing our country.

What makes the lockdown drill scene so powerful is how it is treated by the characters as just a normal part of the day. The officer leading the drill, pretending to shoot student actors, totes a prop rifle, nonchalantly uttering “bang” to get them to drop dead. The main character of the movie, Kayla, focuses less on the drill, and more on flirting with her crush. The scene ends, and the characters move on with their lives.

This scene offers a unique view into the lives of young American teens who have been brought up in a post-Columbine world, where school shooting drills are just a facet of life. If viewers feel uncomfortable when they watch it, they absolutely should. The idea of school shootings shouldn’t be portrayed as an abstract concept fit for horror movies. It should be portrayed as uncomfortably realistic – and Eighth Grade pulls that off perfectly.