By Aja Romano
Wattpad is a popular writing platform for teen self-expression. Now it’s full of stories about the terror of school shootings.
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 long — 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.
A behemoth self-publishing platform, Wattpad’s 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-bestseller 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-sized 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.
Read more here: The kids are writing school shooting fiction