The Littleton Massacre: Bang, You're Dead

Revenge fantasies are proliferating in movies and on TV. But should they be blamed for Littleton?

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The young and the older always eye one another across a gaping chasm. Gray heads shake in perplexity, even in a week of mourning, even over the mildest expressions of teen taste. Fashion, for example. Here are these nice kids from suburban Denver, heroically documenting the tragedy for TV, and they all seem to belong to the Church of Wearing Your Cap Backward. A day later, as the teens grieve en masse, oldsters ask, "When we were kids, would we have worn sweats and jeans to a memorial service for our friends?" And of course the trench-coat killers had their own distinctive clothing: Johnny Cash by way of Quentin Tarantino. Should we blame the Columbine massacre on haberdashery?

No, but many Americans want to pin the blame for this and other agonizing splatter fests on pop culture. Adults look at the revenge fantasies their kids see in the 'plexes, listen (finally) to the more extreme music, glance over their kids' shoulders at Druid websites and think, "Seems repulsive to me. Maybe pop culture pulled the trigger."

Who wouldn't want to blame self-proclaimed Antichrist superstar Marilyn Manson? Listen to Lunchbox, and get the creeps: "The big bully try to stick his finger in my chest/Try to tell me, tell me he's the best/But I don't really give a good goddamn cause/ I got my lunchbox and I'm armed real well.../Next motherf_____ gonna get my metal/...Pow pow pow." Not quite Stardust.

Sift through teen movies of the past 10 years, and you could create a hindsight game plan for Littleton. Peruse Heathers (1989), in which a charming sociopath engineers the death of jocks and princesses. Study carefully, as one of the Columbine murderers reportedly did, Natural Born Killers (1994), in which two crazy kids cut a carnage swath through the Southwest as the media ferociously dog their trail. Sample The Basketball Diaries (1995), in which druggy high schooler Leonardo DiCaprio daydreams of strutting into his homeroom in a long black coat and gunning down his hated teacher and half the kids. The Rage: Carrie 2 (now in theaters) has jocks viciously taunting outsiders until one girl kills herself by jumping off the high school roof and another wreaks righteous revenge by using her telekinetic powers to pulverize a couple dozen kids.

Grownups can act out revenge fantasies too. In Payback, Mel Gibson dishes it out (pulls a ring out of a punk's nose, shoots his rival's face off through a pillow) and takes it (gets punched, switch-bladed, shot and, ick, toe-hammered). The Matrix, the first 1999 film to hit $100 million at the box office, has more kung fu than gun fu but still brandishes an arsenal of firepower in its tale of outsiders against the Internet droids.

In Littleton's wake, the culture industry has gone cautious. CBS pulled an episode of Promised Land because of a plot about a shooting in front of a Denver school. The WB has postponed a Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode with a schoolyard-massacre motif. Movie-studio honchos, who furiously resist labeling some serious adult films FOR ADULTS ONLY, went mum last week when asked to comment on any connection between violent movies and violent teen behavior. That leaves us to explain things.

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