[Editor’s note, May 25, 2022: This story was originally published in 2018, and the statistics included may not be the most recent available.]
The first part of “The School Shooting” is called “First hour of my last day.”
“I already knew the day would be hell,” the anonymous first-person narrator tells us. The day proceeds like a regular one until an intercom announcement sends the school into lockdown: There’s a shooter in the building. The narrator comforts his sobbing girlfriend, telling her everything will be okay as they hide in their classroom. As the faceless shooter approaches, the narrator attacks him, taking down the shooter and saving lives, but taking a stray bullet in the process:
But as he hit the ground
His gun hit the ground
Im scared the bullet rushes out
Though this story is short — just a scant four pages — it’s representative of what you find when you delve into the hundreds of school shooting stories being written on Wattpad, perhaps the most quietly influential website you’ve never heard of.
On the behemoth self-publishing platform, the most popular stories — typically romance and fanfiction — boast YouTube-level traffic, amassing hundreds of millions of views, or “reads.” Despite a huge audience reach and enjoying the patronage of Handmaid’s Tale author Margaret Atwood, Wattpad habitually flies under the mainstream radar; its most notable achievements to date are launching the One Direction fanfic turned best-seller After and galvanizing the Filipino film industry with a string of movie adaptations of Wattpad stories.
Wattpad’s relative obscurity probably has something to do with its main demographic of teens and preteens. But lately, the kids on Wattpad are contributing, in their own way, to a very mainstream national conversation — by churning out stories about school shootings.
The “hot” category of school shooting fiction on Wattpad is a mixed bag. Scroll past a host of stories related to Columbine and its shooters and you find a Voltron fanfic, a Criminal Minds fanfic, and a fic about a school shooting involving the bands Leathermouth and My Chemical Romance. There are romances built around the drama of a school shooting, as well as more traditional horror stories. And then there are other stories. One claims to be an account of a real school shooting threat; many more present terrifying fictional accounts of what a potential school shooting might be like.
There, on a site usually dedicated to painting innocent fantasies about being Harry Styles’s girlfriend, teens and preteens are living through a culture so dominated by guns that fears of their schools going on lockdown and fantasies of martyring themselves to save their friends have seeped into the stories they tell.
School shooting fiction is full of harrowing details, escape routes, and fear
The school shooting stories on Wattpad involve characters of all ages. They’re bright and bubbly sixth-graders on their first day of school. They’re seniors in high school prepping for homecoming, college, or prom.
The incidents nearly always start in one of two ways — with the popping sound of gunshots and screams coming from a hallway, or with intercom announcements putting the school on lockdown or into a Code Red: “This is not a drill.” The students nearly always wind up fending for themselves, either because the teachers are absent or because they are quickly dispatched with bullets. Inevitably, students wind up alone, unarmed and unaided.
These stories meticulously catalog potential hiding places. Bathroom stalls are the most popular by far, but there are also crannies in classrooms, storage closets, people-size lockers, kitchens. Then there are the surreptitious escape routes: second-floor windows and little-used cafeteria exits. Fear of being caught out in the open looms large: In one story, three sixth-graders get trapped in an empty classroom with no way out and no protective cover that’s able to hide all three of them. The story ends there, on an incomplete cliffhanger.
The identities of the shooters rarely matter in school shooting fiction; when the shooters are given attention, they tend to comment on the anxieties of school life and the pressure to perform. In one story, a school shooter’s attempt to explain how hard the pressure of his life has been is so compelling that after he dies, the narrator picks up the gun and continues the shooting spree himself.
In another story, a new girl turns out to be an obvious misfit who can’t make friends and takes her revenge on her classmates. Usually, however, the shooters are faceless, rarely given characterizations or even names — they’re classic horror villains, described as crazy, insane, mental, psychos, maniacs, or simply weirdos. As one story notes, “No one knew who it was. Frankly, no one cared.”
The exception to this rule is that of the Columbine fanfic. This is the most popular variant of school shooting fiction on Wattpad, to the extent that it almost functions as a separate genre. Modern teens continue to be fixated with Columbine, but most of the 800 stories associated with Columbine on Wattpad are more properly a form of what-if fanfiction that attempts to love, redeem, or empathize with the Columbine shooters. That sets Columbine fic well apart from most other Wattpad fiction, which is concerned with processing theoretical shootings that haven’t happened yet.
In most of these other fics, the emphasis is almost always on the victims and the survivors — and the horror scenarios they do and don’t survive. The main characters frequently get shot; their friends and siblings frequently end up dead or seriously injured. In one story, the captain of the cheerleading squad survives a school shooting by playing dead beneath the body of her best friend:
People screamed. I screamed. Bullets flew out of guns. Camila slumped on top of me, knocking me in to the ground. I was lying on the ground, Camila on top of me. There was a hole in her head. Her brains were on the wall behind us.
“Imagine,” reads the summary of one story. “Imagine a shooter coming to your school to kill as many people as he can before he turns the gun to himself. Imagine what horrors, what fear would arise among you. Even more frightful, imagine what it would be like for that person to be you.”
“Of course,” reads one story, told from the perspective of two sixth-grade girls. “This is how we die.”
These stories are part of a long teenage literary tradition — but the stakes are suddenly much higher
As stories of teenage angst tend to do, these stories rely on an awareness of the fragility of life. They draw on the heady emotion and melodrama of death, tragedy, and terror. In this sense, as child psychologist Ellen Braaten told me, they’re built on longstanding tropes.
Braaten, the associate director for the Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds at Massachusetts General Hospital, described the school shooting genre of fiction as being similar to the way a teen might glamorize going through the experience of having cancer, dying young, or living during war — in essence, “making something romantic out of something really scary and awful.”
Braaten speculated that these stories are “about students putting themselves in a situation they feel like they’re in ... working through their inevitable worst fears.”
It’s no secret that teens are drawn to gritty, angsty stories fraught with life-or-death scenarios. Entire genres of young adult fiction cater to this tendency, from 13 Reasons Why to The Fault in Our Stars to Ellen Hopkins’s entire best-selling oeuvre, which covers a range of dire teen issues from drugs to suicide.
It’s not really even new that kids are writing this kind of story themselves; lots of kids with access to a pen and a notebook have scribbled angsty existential missives somewhere inside them. The advent of the internet has just made sharing those feelings with other teens easier than ever. On Wattpad, which gained its massive underground success primarily as a mobile reading and publishing app, teens and preteens publish and view each other’s fiction by the millions. On Wattpad, a search for “cancer” generates more than 100,000 results; one of the most popular cancer stories has nearly 30 million views.
What does seem new, though, is that teens are working through their fears and anxieties about life and death using school shootings as the setting. In essence, teens and preteens who have grown up with the real possibility that they could live through (or die in) a school shooting have incorporated this reality into the kind of cathartic angst fiction usually reserved for more typically deleterious fare — a cancer scare, a plane crash, drug use, or suicidal ideation.
“Art is a place where we displace our worst fears and wishes,” Braaten said. “Anytime you’re putting something like this out there, it’s because you want to be heard. I think this is a wonderful outlet for students and teens to sort of work through one of their worst fears.” And Wattpad, she noted, is a place where “they can do it anonymously and quickly.”
What’s perhaps even more telling than the amount of fiction where the school shooting is the focal point of the story is the amount of fiction where it isn’t. Disturbingly, school shootings often form the mundane backdrop of stories with completely different plots. In many stories, the event of a school going on lockdown is just a boring part of a student’s everyday life. In multiple stories, there ultimately is no shooting, and the threat dissipates into a boring, wasted couple of hours for the students.
In several stories, the lockdown is used as an excuse for a romantic meet-cute. One, a fanfic about YouTubers Jake Paul and Erica Costell, uses a school shooting as the backdrop for a budding romance. Written in the wake of the Parkland shooting, it has Jake noting, “Us cuddling during the Code Red was amazing but sad at the same time.”
In these stories, the need to romanticize tragedy becomes very literal, a way of fantasizing about the heightened emotional connection felt at such moments while simultaneously grappling with the potential for loss of life, for instantaneous separation from their beloved.
Criminal psychologist Arthur Lurigio described the catharsis of this kind of fiction as similar to that of a horror film. “It’s scary but it’s not scary — it’s not real. Where you’re a little bit scared, a little bit excited, but the outcome is not going to hurt you.” Lurigio pointed out that these genres of school shooting fic are all about control for the students. “When you’re really feeling afraid, one way to gain control is to tell the ghost story yourself.”
School shooting fiction allows students to control the uncontrollable
Controlling the narrative seems to be a main point of these stories. “This writing has a sense of empowerment, of being able to control what’s uncontrollable and baffling,” Lurigio said. “Think about the degree of vulnerability these kids are feeling in general, and it’s being expressed now in a way it’s never been expressed before.”
Lurigio told me the school shooting fiction could be seen as a basic form of therapy for students. “In working with patients, we have them diary, writing about their lives and thoughts and scenarios, and using that as a tool in therapy. This may be a way to process school shootings and give kids a false sense of control. They’re the ones who are the masters of what happens and doesn’t happen.”
We can see that need for control in a very direct sense. One story is a first-person account of the 2012 shooting at Perry Hall High School in Baltimore, by a user purporting to be a student who was then in attendance. (The user did not respond to my requests for verification or comment.) “‘Please let everybody be okay’ was the only thought going through my mind,” she wrote. “I couldn’t wrap my mind around the fact that something like this could happen at my school; the school that I had always felt so safe in.”
The difference in tone and focus between this student’s mostly matter-of-fact description of living through the event and the highly fantastical, dramatized versions many of the teen writers are imagining is striking. “I thought about every ‘What If’ question possible,” she writes about her reaction after the event. Eventually, she says, “I stopped asking myself these questions,” because she realized there was no point to asking them after the fact.
In a sense, then, the emergent school shooting genre seems to have come about because students are running through all of these potential “what if” scenarios well before they play out in reality. It’s not only about control; it’s also arguably a means of preparedness.
Looking at these stories from this angle, it’s hard not to find them devastating. One story, “School Shooting,” is written by a user with the word “unicorn” in their handle, from the point of view of a sixth-grader; the author told me that they wrote the story following the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, as a way of paying homage to the bravery of the Parkland students.
It’s practically a litany of survival scenarios playing out in high-drama action-adventure form. It shows kids working together as an ensemble to thwart, undermine, and escape the shooter. After their teacher is dispatched, they grab weapons and turn them on their attackers. They run for exits only to find them locked, so they turn to windows instead. On the playground, the narrator spots “a little kid crying”:
She had a bullet shot in her leg.
“Cmon ride on my back.” I said
“I can’t. It hurts.” she said
I decided to carry her. Good thing she was light.
Wattpad skews young. The company claims 90 percent of its users are millennials and Gen Z; a majority are girls and women between the ages of 13 and 24. It’s reasonable to assume that the ages of these characters reflect the ages of their writers. And so we have 11- and 12-year-olds writing about disaster preparedness, noting fire exits, psyching themselves up to leap out of windows, and looking out for kids younger than them — all while envisioning themselves as essentially abandoned by an older generation. Remember, there are hardly ever adults in these stories, not in the moments when it counts.
“It’s as if the statement is: Adult world, you have not taken care of us, you continue to not take care of us,” Lurigio told me. “The kids are the ones who are leading, not adults, and that’s a role change.”
Lurigio explained that it’s important to consider that these stories are expressions of real trauma — not lurid, far-fetched fantasies. “[School shootings] have lasting impact, not only on the victims but on kids who see it on the media over and over again. After 9/11, we had what we described as concentric circles of trauma. They have vicarious victimization. I think seeing this on the news over and over again absolutely is a micro-trauma to the kids who are not part of it.
“So this is akin to 1950s campfire storytelling,” he said. “But this is much more serious, with life-altering consequences.”
One fic, “The Gunman,” chronicles the day of a school shooting by jumping through the points of view of multiple characters. “I would never get married, have kids,” one thinks when encountering the shooter. “I’d never buy my own house, get my own car, or even learn to drive! The husky I dreamed of getting one day would never happen.”
But not all the stories are hopeless. Many of them are about students finding their own power and changing things for the better. Jade, a.k.a. xxjademariexx, is a freshman at a New Jersey high school. Her story, “After the Shooting,” depicts a group of high school students who mount a successful gun control protest in their state after a terrifying attack on their school. “I wrote about this because gun violence is a major thing in this country that no one wants to talk and hear about,” she told me. “It also needs to be talked about more than it is.”
Jade said that few within her community support gun control. “They’re all super conservative and think more guns is the solution for a safer country. I see it in a different light that may have been portrayed by my story.”
For Jade, the important aspect of her story isn’t the school shooting — it’s the aftermath. “There’s always that fear that a shooting will happen,” she said. Writing the story allowed her to express not only that fear but also a political stance she can’t always communicate in real life.
“I want to change everything,” she writes as her story ends. “I want everyone to be safe and not fearful. I want to stop school shootings like Sandy Hook and Stoneman Douglas and all the ones in between and before. I want to stop police from killing people by the color of their skin. I want to stop the suicide rate from going up by guns. I know this country will never be perfect, but I really do want to make America great again. We will be the generation to make America great again.”