The Columbine effect

Hollywood still obsessed with school shooting 13 years later

Klebold and Harris began planning their grandiose suicide mission more than a year before the attack. Amid all the fantasizing and strategizing, it's clear they were aiming for something quite different from the late-1990s rash of school shootings in places like West Paducah, Kentucky, and Jonesboro, Arkansas.

"Do not think we're trying to copy anyone," Harris announced on one of the basement tapes. "We had the idea before the first one ever happened. Our plan is better, not like those fucks in Kentucky with camouflage and .22s. Those kids were only trying to be accepted by others."

The Columbine killers weren't interested in being accepted. In addition to a high body count, they wanted posthumous fame. And followers. They wanted to "kickstart a revolution," as Harris put it.

In Bowling for Columbine , director Michael Moore took aim at America's gun culture—and broke all box-office records for a documentary film
Mary Lynn Gillaspie
In Bowling for Columbine , director Michael Moore took aim at America's gun culture—and broke all box-office records for a documentary film
Columbine grad Sam Granillo is making a documentary about the long-term trauma inflicted by the shootings
Mary Lynn Gillaspie
Columbine grad Sam Granillo is making a documentary about the long-term trauma inflicted by the shootings

Their bombs failed to detonate. The revolution never arrived. Their few imitators tended to be mental cases like Virginia Tech's Seung-Hui Cho. But the pair did manage to achieve a degree of infamy that's eluded other school shooters.

One reason for the persistent fascination with Columbine has to do with local law enforcement's inept response to the attack. While the first Jefferson County Sheriff's Office deputies on the scene exchanged shots with Harris, they didn't follow the killers inside the school; adhering to what was then common practice, they waited for SWAT to arrive and conduct a time-consuming, room-by-room sweep. Meanwhile, the killers were free to fire at will at unarmed targets. (They killed themselves around the time the first SWAT team entered at the opposite side of the building, but police didn't discover their bodies for three hours.)

The entire sorry spectacle unfolded on national television that afternoon. News copters caught images of hundreds of cops standing around outside, seemingly helpless; throngs of terrified students fleeing with their hands in the air; a sign in a window, announcing that teacher Dave Sanders, shot while trying to shepherd students to safety, was bleeding to death in a science classroom. (He died before medical aid could be safely escorted to him.) No other school shooting had ever attracted such a massive live audience before—and new procedures adopted by police across the country in the wake of Columbine, designed to deal swiftly with an active shooter situation, make a repeat of such a prolonged siege unlikely.

The blundering continued long after the siege ended. Fearing civil suits, school and law enforcement officials lawyered up, releasing little information about the killers and even lying about a prior police investigation of Eric Harris for making threats and detonating pipe bombs. Determined to explain the "why" of the shootings, journalists fashioned motives out of rumors, cranking out stories about Harris and Klebold being persecuted goths, or members of the Trench Coat Mafia, or put-upon nerds looking for payback against bullying jocks.

The truth trickled out gradually. Under pressure from victims' families, the Jeffco sheriff's office grudgingly released some of its investigative files, while fighting for years to suppress some of the most embarrassing documents—as well as the writings and videos of the killers, claiming they would provoke copycat shootings. (The basement tapes, though viewed by some reporters and Columbine families, are still officially under wraps.) The stonewall made the materials seem far more interesting than they actually were, helping to perpetuate a mystique about Columbine that endures to this day.

The media mythology quickly became fodder for film and television dramas—everything from high-minded indie features to episodes of Law & Order, Cold Case, One Tree Hill, and even American Horror Story. The first full-length film out of the box was a low-budget splatterfest, Duck! The Carbine High Massacre, featuring two trenchcoated neo-Nazi killers, Derwin and Derick, who carry out a brutal revenge plot against the jocks at their school. Although the exploitation flick was billed as a dark comedy, its backers were trying to cash in as crassly as possible; the release date was the first-year anniversary of the attack on Columbine.

Only slightly less exploitative, in the view of some Columbine families, is Michael Moore's 2002 quasi-documentary, Bowling for Columbine. Despite the title—an erroneous reference to Harris and Klebold attending their bowling class the morning of the massacre, which didn't happen—the film has little to do with Columbine. The bulk of it is a rambling Moore polemic about America's love of firearms and its culture of fear. Yet the film makes effective use of the now-familiar surveillance footage from the Columbine Commons, as well as a sequence in which Richard Castaldo and Mark Taylor, both severely wounded by the shooters, accompany Moore to Kmart corporate headquarters to protest sales of handgun ammo. Audiences may have felt misled by the title, but they made Bowling for Columbine the highest-grossing documentary of its time—and encouraged other independent filmmakers to plunge into the topic.

The feature films that followed Moore's coup tend to fall into two camps. They either focus on the killers as some inexplicable evil force, or on the aftermath of a school shooting, in which survivors search for solace and explanations. The champ of the killer portraits is Gus Van Sant's Elephant (2003), which borrows many details from the Columbine attack and weaves them into an arty bit of nihilism, complete with long, wordless tracking shots of students trudging down gleaming hallways and gazing up at empty skies outside.

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