When an unbalanced kid walks into a school and starts shooting, it becomes a major media event. Cable news drops ordinary programming and goes around the clock with it. The story is assigned a logo and a theme song; these two kids were packaged as the Trench Coat Mafia. The message is clear to other disturbed kids around the country: If I shoot up my school, I can be famous. The TV will talk about nothing else but me.
—Roger Ebert, in his review of the film “Elephant”
Fight the dead. Fear the living.
—”The Walking Dead” promotional copy
2022 Note: I wrote the original version of this post in late 2013. The most recent version was published in 2018. And nothing has fucking changed, has it? Nope.
On December 11 2012, 22-year-old Jacob Tyler Roberts shot up the Clackamas Town Center in Portland, Oregon; two of the shoppers he opened fired at died, and Roberts himself apparently expired by a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
On December 14 2012, 20-year-old Adam Lanza killed 26 people at a Connecticut elementary school, twenty of them children. Lanza also apparently committed suicide, as well as murdered his own mother at their home before the massacre.
Both Roberts and Lanza were dressed in military gear (Roberts also wore a hockey mask).
People talk a lot about gun control—and I certainly support tighter restrictions on purchasing firearms. But I also support taking another look at the constant messages of violence in our contemporary pop-culture.
I’m not talking about the usual boogeymen: first-person shooter games, horror movies before that, and so on.
Instead, let’s go a step beyond blood and gore, and focus on just plain disturbing, manipulative imagery and symbolism: in our entertainment, advertising, public events, etc. For it is this “everyday,” mass-market apocalyptic media that seems to have created a constant, low-level “white noise of anxiety” and despair amongst the greater populace.
I am by no means advocating censorship. But I am advocating educating the populace to Consume Content Consciously. To be aware when deep, primal symbolism is being used, whether it’s in a movie or a sneaker ad. Because there’s nothing wrong with you or I watching a violent film or playing a violent video game—if we consciously consume that content.
But how much of the masses are just soaking it all in? For how many children is TV or video games the babysitter? How many parents are involved in their children’s lives enough to keep tabs on what content they consume? What is the cumulative impact of this constant stream of content “flashed” on the more psychologically vulnerable among us?
And what is the impact on the populace of constant news stories containing unimaginable horror such as that which came from a movie theater in Aurora or Sandy Hook elementary school? What is the psychic toll?
We know that Lanza had a mom who was obsessed with “surviving” the apocalypse. From The Daily Mail:
Friends and family portrayed Adam Lanza’s mother Nancy as a paranoid ‘survivalist’ who believed the world was on the verge of violent, economic collapse. She is reported to have been struggling to hold herself together and had been stockpiling food, water and guns in the large home she shared with her 20-year-old son in Connecticut.
Mrs Lanza, 52, was a ‘prepper’—so called because they are preparing for a breakdown in civilised society—who apparently became obsessed with guns and taught Adam and his older brother, Ryan, how to shoot, even taking them to local ranges. That backfired horrifically on Friday when Adam Lanza began his killing spree by shooting his mother dead in bed.
It seemed as if our popular culture had been completely saturated with dystopian, “Doomsday” & disaster narratives and imagery. And it was not just American culture; on the same day (!) as the tragedy in Sandy Hook, a Chinese man plagued with terrors about “The End Of The World” went to a nearby elementary school in Chenpeng village in Guangshan county and stabbed 23 children.
We could easily blame that Apocalyptic paranoia on the Mayan calendar and the 2012 prophesied date looming, but pop-culture—and segments of the “New Age”/Evangelical movements—have been heavily using the “Doomsday trope” for decades.
One of the most popular shows on TV at the time of Sandy Hook was The Walking Dead, which could be seen as a metaphor for a crumbling, economically-collapsed society in which one can only defend oneself from the “zombie hordes” (choose your scapegoat: refugees, the starving masses who might want your food, looters, Socialists) by using guns and setting up “forts.”
But movies of the time period such as The Dark Knight Rises, The Hunger Games, Star Trek Into Darkness, Oblivion, Looper, Total Recall, Melancholia, 4:44 Last Day On Earth, Red Dawn, Resident Evil: Retribution, and others also featured end-of-the world scenarios and/or horrible dystopian futures and/or striking disaster imagery.
In addition, there was a stunning array of Apocalypse theories presented on blogs and YouTube that syncretized all sorts of far-flung theories from widely disparate (and often contradictory) sources: a “melting pot” of the Book of Revelation, alien invasions, the Illuminati “New World Order” plot, Mayan culture, Native American folklore, “channeled” information, and more.
But all these “Apocalypse” narratives kept the populace’s energy in a fear-state, a pliable, nervous, continual vibration of helplessness and hunger. It discouraged them from planning for the future. It discouraged them from getting involved in their government and work towards societal change—because what’s the point, we all gonna die anyway? It pushed them to get attached to various gurus and leaders and “saviors,” instead of believing in themselves; and it pushed them to buy guns.
And, of course, it kept the masses buying newspapers, tuning in, and getting glued to their computer browser.
Because by far, the biggest culprit in the “scaring to death” of the world populace is the news media itself. I point to this Roger Ebert review of the movie Elephant:
Let me tell you a story. The day after Columbine, I was interviewed for the Tom Brokaw news program. The reporter had been assigned a theory and was seeking sound bites to support it. “Wouldn’t you say,” she asked, “that killings like this are influenced by violent movies?” No, I said, I wouldn’t say that. “But what about ‘Basketball Diaries’?” she asked. “Doesn’t that have a scene of a boy walking into a school with a machine gun?” The obscure 1995 Leonardo Di Caprio movie did indeed have a brief fantasy scene of that nature, I said, but the movie failed at the box office (it grossed only $2.5 million), and it’s unlikely the Columbine killers saw it.
The reporter looked disappointed, so I offered her my theory. “Events like this,” I said, “if they are influenced by anything, are influenced by news programs like your own. When an unbalanced kid walks into a school and starts shooting, it becomes a major media event. Cable news drops ordinary programming and goes around the clock with it. The story is assigned a logo and a theme song; these two kids were packaged as the Trench Coat Mafia. The message is clear to other disturbed kids around the country: If I shoot up my school, I can be famous. The TV will talk about nothing else but me. Experts will try to figure out what I was thinking. The kids and teachers at school will see they shouldn’t have messed with me. I’ll go out in a blaze of glory.”
This is how the cycle works, using the Aurora theatre shooting as an example:
1. Person commits horrible crime.
2. The news media finds a way to “brand” that crime…to, for lack of a better word, “sexy it up a bit.” So if there was just a tenuous connection to the Batman/Joker mythos with the James Holmes mass shooting, the media “brands” it as “The Joker Killing.” Now with that “hook,” the news media gets much more hits and attention for the story.
3. Unstable people watch the “branded” news story and feel inspired to commit their own crimes. They know that if they do something sufficiently awful—and especially if they can proactively “brand” their crime—they will get a lot of media attention and “be” somebody.
4. The media then responds by magnifying the latest crimes inspired by the original crime. This will a) continue to produce a low-level of anxiety and insecurity amongst the populace, who will keep going back to check their news and b) probably inspire more violent people (a.k.a., “future stories”).
This is how it happens. It’s not the videogames, per se. It’s not the horror movies, when you finally get down to it. It’s this media cycle, right here.
And while towards the end of 2012 everybody was so distracted by the impending Mayan “Apocalypse”—they barely registered the one going right under their noses.
Some people say they felt “ripped off” by the Mayan prophecy stuff. Some people felt like nothing “happened.” That nothing changed.
But I absolutely believe that something “turned” after December 21, 2012. And, judging how batshit crazy things are right now, it’s still going on.
2018 Postscript: One big thing I would change to this article now is the “media cycle” thing at the end. Because a) there are SO many of these shootings now, at just schools alone, that b) the news cycle is really cut short on them because c) people are just exhausted to death and d) their attention spans, due to social media and that saturation, are quite low.
This, of course, becomes really problematic because…it’s “the new normal.”
Also, I actually think now that the public is now looking for more (for lack of a better term) “family friendly” entertainment. I don’t mean G-rated material or anything like that, but stuff that is less dark, less apocalyptic, less paranoid. See the surprise success of movies like “Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle” and “The Greatest Showman.”
I mean, they are also turning out for horror flicks like “Get Out” and “It” more than ever before, but I think they want a lot of that stuff strictly in the “horror” section. I think people are tired of “realistic” horror, when they have so much horror at home.
Lastly, here is a link to all the school shootings that have happened in the United States. Note how much they spiked after 2000, and then ESPECIALLY after 2012. There’s a LOT to fucking think about there! I still think that this confluence of violent media and entertainment imagery back then helped plant some of the seeds of what we see now to the present day…but that has unfortunately already happened. The question is: what do we do now, in the present day?