The Liturgy of the School Shooting

We talk a lot about the routinization of the reaction to school shootings — the “thoughts and prayers,” the denunciation of thoughts and prayers, the obligatory Onion article — but for schoolchildren themselves, it’s more than just a routine. It’s a liturgy, with set postures and responses that they take class time to practice. It is more aleatoric than most liturgies, in that you never know when or where the next nihilistic mass murderer will strike, but that’s all the more reason to make sure that the stand/sit/kneel of this particular rite of passage is deeply ingrained.

It is in this context, I think, that we need to understand the ending of the Netflix show The OA. When it first aired, I recall seeing a lot of negative reactions to their choice to stage a school shooting in the final episode — and watching it myself, I did initially find it to be a non sequitur. The rest of the plot centered on a group of people who are kidnapped by a mad scientist for their apparent knack at coming back to life after being clinically dead. Over time, he kills them again and again, and they slowly become aware of a series of movements with seemingly magical powers. These movements are arbitrary and even absurd, but they practice until they get them exactly right.

It is unclear whether the narrator (the titular OA, or Original Angel) is to be completely trusted, so the audience doubts some of the miracles attributed to the movements in her story. Within the framing narrative, the present-tense of the show, the only apparent miracle is that the OA was formerly blind and can now see. So when she and the new cohort of companions stand up and start performing the movements that the OA has trained them in, it’s not clear what’s going to happen. In practice, it winds up distracting the shooter to the point where he can be disarmed, though not before the OA herself has been shot.

The show does not presume, I think, to offer a solution to school shootings — certainly it does not indulge in the fantasy that such a problem can be solved without cost. But it does suggest that a counter-liturgy, born out of deep trauma, may be able to disrupt the liturgy of the school shooting in which we all find ourselves.