Friday, 8 September 2017

“Don’t get stuck there…”: Finding ‘meaning’ in school and school shootings in Buffy: The Vampire Slayer and AHS: Murder House



Concluding our Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season Three posts is another blog by Kathleen Hudson, this time exploring 'Earshot' and American Horror Story: Murder House and the depiction of School shootings. Don't forget to check out all our Season Three posts (including: Claire Healey's post on Faith, identity and choice, which you can find here; Dana Alex's post on reading Jekyll and Hyde in Buffy Season Three, which you can read here; and also the first of Ash Darrow's posts exploring Giles' character arc, which you find here). As always, to share posts and your thoughts on this or any of the blogs from our Buffy Blog Series, use the hashtag #BuffySlays20. 

Written and produced before the Columbine High School shooting in Colorado on April 20, 1999, the release of Buffy The Vampire Slayer’s Season Three Episode 'Earshot' was delayed due to its depiction of aborted violence on school grounds. Years later, its depiction of an almost-shooting is an early entry in an on-going attempt in popular culture to identify the root causes of school shootings and formulate preventative measures, yet retroactive viewing also illuminates some of the tensions and ambiguities which continue to dominate discourses on American identity and mass violence. 

(Buffy discovering Jonathan in the clock tower)

'Earshot' begins with Buffy defeating a demonic enemy and temporarily gaining the demon’s ability to hear the thoughts of those around her. Though she initially uses this to her advantage, her newfound ability soon alienates her from her friends and family as she is forced to negotiate their innermost insecurities. The issue reaches its crisis point in the school cafeteria when, crippled by the chaotic thunder of thoughts, she manages to pick up a single threatening one – 'This time tomorrow, I'll kill you all' – before collapsing in pain. This insight leads Buffy to believe that a mass shooting will occur at her high school, though she is unable to pinpoint who is planning the shooting or why. The rest of the episode is spent with Buffy, now cured of her ability, frantically trying to find out who is threatening her school and how to stop him. 


In Buffy, hearing and empathizing with the perpetrator enables the hero to circumvent tragedy. The would-be shooter Jonathan’s loneliness and lack of meaningful socialization is labelled as the primary cause of his alienation, as is his underlying bitterness towards those whom he considers popular. Buffy herself admits that 'I don’t think about you much at all… you have all this pain and all these feelings and nobody’s really paying attention,' yet these feelings are then used by Buffy to link both Jonathan and Buffy, who, despite being a cheerleader, is ‘othered’ by her Slayer identity, with their peers. From the clock tower, a reference to the University of Texas shooting in 1966, Buffy looks down on her fellow students and invests them with similar feelings of pain and loneliness, implying that these factors always exist underneath the surface of adolescent life.

(Buffy and Jonathan looking down from the clock tower)


Buffy is allowed into the thoughts of her teachers and fellow students, blessed with an ability which those still reeling from a tragedy would naturally covet. The impulse to apply meaning, and therefore order and control, to a chaotic event such as a high school shooting is a natural byproduct of grief, so tapping into a cross-section of diverse motivations seems valuable. Indeed, after the Columbine shooting a moral and political panic over gun laws, school safety, goth culture, bullying, drugs and even video games and music reshaped the cultural landscape, while the myriad of singular ‘causes’ failed to satisfactorily provide a narrative conclusion and indeed prevent future school-based violence. In ‘Earshot.’ Buffy is increasingly unable to manage the voices she hears, just as those around her are unable to control even admittedly irrational trains of thought. Knowing the thoughts of others does not solve problems or, truly, prevent catastrophe, but rather only causes more chaos. What’s more, what Buffy hears is not in fact accurate – Jonathan plans to kill only himself, though this still reflects a troubling consequence of social alienation. 


The episode ostensibly ends happily – the actual threat comes from a terrifying lunch lady rather than a student, and both tragedies are successfully prevented. However, an unsettling anxiety is still present, and over a decade later and after a numerous national attempts in America to contextualize cultural grief and identify causes for school shootings, this tension is examined further in American Horror Story: Murder House (2011), the first season of an anthology-esque horror TV show. This season features an on-going subplot in which Tate Langdon, a teenaged ghost haunting the ‘Murder House,’ and those around him attempt to come to terms with his role as perpetrator of a mass school shooting. Tate’s family, girlfriend (the Murder House’s living resident, Violet, who meets Tate years after his death), and victims are defined by two major impulses – the ongoing attempt to get Tate to acknowledge what he did (he claims to not remember what happened) and to understand his motivations. 

(Tate)

Both shows examine the impulse to impose meaning onto a fundamentally destabilizing trauma. Whereas Buffy optimistically circumvents tragedy through empathy, however, American Horror Story posits that the answers either do not exist or are impossible to discover. Indeed, even Buffy hints at this fear. Jonathan remains a marginalized character throughout the series – first appearing in Season Two, his self-esteem is repeatedly damaged by his fellow students. If Buffy’s discovery of his almost-suicide in this episode is meant to illuminate the consequences of bullying, this goal is undercut by Buffy’s identification with the universality of suffering, which de-individualizes Jonathan’s impulses, as well as her repeated dismissal of him at the end of the episode (she is not 'saint Buffy' and is not going to go to prom with a guy who is 'like, three feet tall') and throughout the series. 


In American Horror Story Tate is more overtly evil, his personal narrative a manipulative attempt to avoid responsibility for his actions. As he walks through the hallways of his school he is depicted with a monstrous, skeletal face which marks him as ‘other,’ yet he is otherwise a master of ‘passing.’ Both Jonathan and Tate’s characterizations invalidate easy explanations for mass violence in schools and deny victims and bystanders closure. In a monologue Tate admits to Violet that: 'I hated high school' but does not provide any solid explanation for this – he is an ‘other’ but he targets all social groups; he is interested in certain kinds of music and clothes but not obsessively so; he is corrupted by the ‘Murder House’ but also operates independently of it. High school itself lacks permanence for Tate: he recalls telling himself that 'you can do anything, you can be anything, screw high school…that’s just a blip in your timeline, don’t get stuck there…' Of course, Tate, the students he as murdered, the survivors of the shooting, and those dragged into the narrative years after the fact remain, ironically, 'stuck there,' unable to move on. Tate and his victims never escape their high school bodies, a now-paralyzed high school teacher lumps Violet in with the other emotional tourists who cycle through, and numerous innocents, Violet’s family included, fall victim to Tate’s continuing penchant for violence. This trauma has a far-reaching ripple effect – yet where does the ripple really start? How can it be contextualized? 

(Tate and Violent, confronted by Tate's victims)
In the episode 'Halloween: Part Two' the ghosts of Tate’s victims, temporarily mobilized, attempt to confront Tate with his crimes. Their situation bespeaks the stasis Tate himself fears, the tragedy inherent to school shootings in particular: 'I was never going to save the world' one of Tate’s victims tells him, 'but Amir (a fellow victim) could have.' Denied a future, the ghosts attempt to gain some form of closure – asking Tate why he murdered them and begging him to 'Just admit what you did.' They echo those who have lost friends and family in school shootings and who seek to create a suitable narrative response to acts of seemingly random violence. Tate, however, insists on his ignorance and fails to explain himself even when he eventually admits to the murders in the final episode of the season. Similarly, while Jonathan ultimately states in the final season of Buffy that he has gotten past much of the alienation that defined him in high school, he remains a figure whose passivity is weaponized as a tool for evil. 


Attempts to assign blame to an outer trigger such as violent video games or music, or to identify a more pervasive social alienation underscore both plotlines, yet are also rendered null by the sheer impossibility of finding or creating satisfactory answers. Tate targets a range of students from all levels of the high school hierarchy and continues to kill and torture after his death – Violet eventually rejects him because is 'the darkness' rather than a victim of it. After years of post-Columbine ‘hindsight,’ American Horror Story acknowledges that as a society we are no closer to eradicating the root causes of mass violence, and particularly violence perpetrated by that ever-unstable teenaged demographic, then we were in the days immediately following Columbine. And, although 'Earshot' was written before the Columbine shooting, the act of suicide, whether it be an isolated act by a disturbed student or the end to a mass murder where the shooter either kills himself or is killed by the police, inspires the same anxieties – they are acts of (self) destruction in which informs national and generational identities even as a satisfactory explanation is left unspoken. 


Dr. Kathleen "Queen of the Goths" Hudson is an eternal member of Sheffield Gothic: while she lives the American Dream, Sheffield Gothic continues to worship her from across the pond. To the best of our knowledge, she does not live imprisoned in an underground church leading a cult of vampires, nor does she teach in a school situated above a Hellmouth.

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