The Columbine Effect: Why Five Supposedly Sinister Teen Pastimes Are Actually Kind Of Healthy

The metal-loving author of a new book explains how the media -- and many parents -- have gotten it wrong when it comes to 'dark' teen dabblings like gaming, Slayer, and Satanism.

Dec 1, 2013 at 11:00am | Leave a comment

I don't care how those prissy blond J.Crew-rollneck-wearing sweater girls remember it; high school just sucked. I'm pretty sure it sucked for everyone, too, no matter how close you sat to the cool kids at lunch, or what size bra you wore, or how much (or how little) adoration your parents heaped upon you at home.

Adolescence is a profoundly confusing time -- it was for me, anyway. Life felt like a big swirling minefield of despair dotted with heavy existential questions that no one could satisfactorily answer.

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'The Columbine Effect' by Beth Winegarner


For some teens, all that identity confusion -- "who the hell am I, and who the hell do I want to be?" manifests in supposedly scandalous new pastimes, like wearing all black and listening to nothing but Bauhaus, or dabbling in new religions (oh hey, Wicca and Satanism!), or losing themselves in the world of online gaming.

For a few severely disturbed teenagers -- like Dylan Klebold at Columbine High School or Adam Lanza at Sandy Hook -- an obsession with real-life violence takes over. But, despite how our media likes to spin it, those instances are incredibly rare. Most teenagers -- even the "spooky" ones -- don't shoot up their schools; most don't even think about it. Those few-and-far-between incidents of senseless brutality are awful, of course. But we can't keep letting them taint our entire view of adolescents -- especially the "weird" adolescents, who sometimes feel extra-alienated to begin with. We can't keep blaming death metal for mass murders. Does not compute.

Today, to coincide with the approaching Dec. 14 anniversary of the Sandy Hook massacre in Connecticut, author Beth Winegarner is releasing a new book, The Columbine Effect, about all this and more. Winegarner argues that some of the most commonly maligned, misunderstood teen passions are actually helping alienated kids connect, find meaning, and feel less alone. As Winegarner writes on her website, "As police and journalists have rushed to explain other unthinkable massacres, heavy metal music, paganism, Satanism, occult practices and role-playing games have unfairly gotten caught in the crossfire." I asked Winegarner a few questions about her new book.

xoJane: How and why did you decide to take on this subject?

Beth Winegarner: I grew up in the 1980s, and I became a music fan (and news junkie) pretty early. I was furious when Tipper Gore created the Parents Music Resource Center and singled out certain songs as offensive or inappropriate for children. I had a similar reaction to Pat Robertson’s screeds against astrology and Tarot; I had a passing interest in those things and they seemed pretty benign to me.

Then the heavy metal/Satanic Panic hit its full stride; Geraldo Rivera and others began connecting heavy metal, Satanism, and violence, and it didn’t make any sense to me that the “cure” to that violence was to take music away from kids. It seemed like a cruel response to a situation that was cruel enough to begin with. It felt like parents were being told to deprive their kids of something beneficial, rather than to discuss situations with their kids. That’s still going on to some extent, particularly now with video games, and I wanted to provide an antidote to all that fear-mongering and sensationalism.

What does "The Columbine Effect" mean to you?

It’s the process by which misreported information goes on to hurt others who are essentially innocent bystanders. After the Columbine High School massacre, some kids told reporters that Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were goth gamers who liked Marilyn Manson. The press ran with it, but it later came out that some of those kids didn’t know either of the shooters, at least one of them didn’t attend the school, and that most of the information was wrong. By then, other goth kids and video-game fans were targeted by their schools and treated as though they might suddenly become violent. They were deprived of their ability to participate in their chosen culture, and to dress in a way that was comfortable and protective for them.

That kind of reporting can leave a hangover that lasts for decades. Heavy metal and its fans are still coping with the stigma of those backward-message court cases accusing Ozzy Osbourne and Judas Priest of encouraging fans to commit suicide, even though those lawsuits came out in the bands’ favor. Some adults think kids who play video games or role playing games are more likely to lose touch with reality, when there’s no evidence for that. More often, it seems like it’s the adults who can’t find the line between fiction and reality. The kids, including those I interviewed in my book, know right where it is.

What were your own teen years like? Do you have any personal history or affinity for the 5 teen pastimes referenced in your book's title?

I fell in love with heavy metal when I was about 16. And I was struck, for example, by how a fast thrash song like Metallica’s “Damage, Inc.” would make me feel giddy and bouncy, instead of surly and angry -- as metal’s critics suggested it would. I’ve listened to metal consistently since I was a teenager and it almost never fails to make me feel good, but until I read academic research on the genre, particularly Jeffrey Jensen Arnett’s “Metalheads,” I figured I was an outlier. It turns out that most fans of metal say that it calms them down, picks them up, and makes them feel better. That discovery was one of many that sparked my interest in writing this book. I wanted to show that the reality of these pastimes is vastly different from what we hear about in the news.

Could you give us a brief history of teen culture, and why our relationship with adolescents has been so fraught with tension and misunderstanding for so long?

Socially, we didn’t see adolescence as a separate stage of life until relatively recently -- the 1950s, according to my research. But the term “juvenile delinquent” was also popularized at the same time. The mere act of recognizing the teen years as a developmental category seemed to create -- or at least emphasize -- this “generation gap” that exists between parents and adolescents.

That, in turn, magnified teens’ self-discovery process and their drive to separate from the parent-child bond that is so strong in early childhood. Some teens do this by actively rebelling, by choosing music and culture that might shock their parents. Other teens naturally gravitate toward challenging pastimes, as I did with metal, but it’s because they love aggressive music or first-person shooters, for example, and not because they’re out to offend someone.

How has teen culture grown more transgressive over time?

I can’t speak to culture prior to the 20th century, but this process by which teens -- or at least some teens -- explore fringe cultural ideas, whether it’s rock and roll in the 1950s, psychedelic music and drugs in the 1960s, hard rock in the 1970s, or metal and shock-rock in the 1980s and 1990s, seems to have a liberalizing effect that lasts into adulthood. So if they wind up having kids who are prone to rebellion, those teens will have to find something even more fringe and “out there” to create that separation and sense of independence I described earlier. Some of the folks I interviewed for the book were adults looking back on their teen years, and they wondered how their kids would find ways to shock them!

What do you think the media is missing or overlooking when it comes to teenagers' role in tragedies like Sandy Hook and Columbine?

I don’t necessarily think it’s the media’s place, at least in the days and hours after such an event, to try to explain why something like this happens. As a journalist myself, I recognize that we are taught to report who, what, where, when and why. But “why” isn’t often established until months or years later. Meanwhile, the instant a perpetrator’s name is revealed, reporters descend on that person’s family, friends and Facebook page. When we find out that a shooter liked Grand Theft Auto or Slayer, the urge to connect those interests to the crime is almost Pavlovian. But there’s always something deeper going on. Always. Years later, Columbine author Dave Cullen discovered that Eric Harris was almost certainly a sociopath, but was undiagnosed because he was so young. With Adam Lanza, it’s been a year and we still don’t know. It’s important that reporters not provide wrong answers, even when they don’t have the right ones. Attracting clicks is not a good excuse.

Any words of wisdom for young people who feel alienated or misunderstood by parents, teachers, or other adults in their lives?

Although I wrote The Columbine Effect so that parents and other adults could hear the voices of teens who might be similar to their own, I think it may also help adolescents find some validation for their interests and some language for discussing them. They may know they feel better while studying Wicca, playing Call of Duty or listening to Watain, but may think they’re alone, like I did. Having that understanding -- on both sides -- can alleviate fear and open the door to dialogue. I’d also encourage teens on the fringes to stay true to themselves. If a pastime feels truly helpful and enriching, trust that. Don’t give up just because someone is telling you it’s harmful. They may simply not know any better.

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How did you guys make it through adolescence? What do you think about the connection between "darker" teen hobbies and violence?

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