How 9/11 Became Fan Fiction Canon

Every fictional character you can think of has experienced 9/11 in fanfiction.

A Clone Wars veteran with two lightsabers is on United Airlines Flight 93 and prevents it from crashing. Ron and Hermione get caught up in the chaos as the towers fall. Buffy the Vampire Slayer and her friends watch the attacks unfold on TV from Sunnydale. We have spent 20 years trying to process what happened on 9/11 and its fallout, and that messy process can be tracked through the countless, sad, disturbing, and sometimes very funny fanfiction left across the internet.

Many of the fanfics written in the weeks and months following the 9/11 attacks seemed to directly respond to the news as it happened, processing the tragedy in real-time through the eyes of characters they loved. In the absence of a canon episode where Daria Morgendorffer paid respects to those lost, writing fanfic about these characters also experiencing trauma helped fans cope.

One YuGiOh fanfic published on fanfiction.net in May 2002 could have been ripped exactly from what this writer experienced that Tuesday morning. “It started as a normal day,” user Gijinka Renamon wrote. Yugi and his friends were in school, where their teacher informed them of the attacks and sent everyone home from school.

“After reading people’s 9/11 fics, I decided to write my own, and put a certain character in it. And Yugi and his pals were my first choice,” the author’s note reads, explaining the connection they felt to United flight 93 and the World Trade Center attacks. Given that they lived in Pennsylvania, and “it’s close to New York, I felt really sad about it.”

Stitch, a fandom journalist for Teen Vogue, told Motherboard that this reaction to 9/11 is not at all uncommon in fandom.

“Fandom has always been a place that positions nothing as ‘off limits,'” she said. “Historical tragedies like the Titanic sinking and atrocities like… all of World War 2 show up regularly across the past 30 years of people creating stories and art about the characters they love. So, on some level, it makes sense that 9/11 and the following 20-year military installation in the Middle East has joined the ranks of things people in different fandoms turn into settings for their fan fiction.”

Reactions depicted in a handful of Buffy the Vampire Slayer fanfics published in the weeks after the attacks ring a little truer to the characters. “Tuesday, 11th September 2001,” written by Anna K, almost echoes the lyrics from “I’ve Got a Theory,” one of the songs in the musical episode that aired in November 2001. “We have seen the apocalypse. We have prevented it. Actually, we’ve prevented quite a few. So we know what they look like,” they write, before taking a darker turn. “They look a lot like…New York today.”

Killing demons and vampires doesn’t phase the Scooby Gang, but when preventable human death is brought into the picture, it’s gut wrenching.

“What am I supposed to do…When I can’t do anything to save the world?” Buffy cries  into Spike’s chest, watching the attacks unfold on TV in a fanfic the author described as being “about feeling numb and helpless.”

In “Blood Drive,” Kirayoshi writes about Buffy and her friends saving a van full of donated blood meant for victims of the attacks from a group of thirsty vampires. One Buffy the Vampire Slayer fic even takes a blindly patriotic turn, where noted lesbian witch Tara McClay helps Xander hang an American flag from the window of the magic shop to make Anya feel better.

Experiencing 9/11 as a young teenager was overwhelming not just because of the loss of life. Almost immediately after the event itself, it was as if the entirety of American culture re-oriented itself towards an overtly jingoistic stance. As we get distance from the attacks, seeing the tone of television and movies from the early 2000s is jarring, and some have gone viral on Twitter. In the world of pop music, mainstream musicians like the Chicks, formerly known as the Dixie Chicks, were blacklisted from the radio while Toby Keith sang about putting a boot up the ass of terrorists. On the Disney Channel, a young Shia Labeouf reading a poem he supposedly wrote about the events. The poem concludes with the line, “it’s awesome to be an American citizen.”

In a world so completely saturated with this messaging, it is not surprising that fanfic authors started including 9/11 in their work so soon after the event. Even The West Wing had a strange, out of continuity, fanfic-esque episode where the characters reacted to 9/11. In some cases, it made sense that the characters in the stories would be close to or a part of the events themselves.

“For characters like John Watson or Captain America, the idea works to an extent,” Stitch told Motherboard. “In the original Sherlock Holmes works and the 2011 BBC series, Watson had just returned from Afghanistan. For Captain America and other Marvel heroes, 9/11 was something that was addressed in-universe in The Amazing Spider-Man volume 2 #36. Technically, 9/11 is ‘canon’ to the Marvel universe.”

In “Early Warning: Terrorism,” a fanfiction for the TV show Early Edition in which a man who mysteriously receives tomorrow’s newspaper, predicting the future, avoids jingoism, but tries to precent 9/11 from happening. This fanfic remains unfinished; it’s unclear if the characters successfully prevent 9/11 in this retelling.

Largely in fanfic from the era just after 9/11, when many young authors were trying to emotionally grapple with it, the characters don’t re-write or undo the events themselves. It’s this emphasis on the reaction to tragedy that colors the fanfiction that features 9/11 going forward.

Although fanfiction authors have been writing about 9/11 consistently since soon after the event, whenever that fanfiction reaches outside of its intended audience, it looks bizarre.

A screenshot of a Naruto 9/11 fanfic on the Tumblr subreddit comes without any context, or even more than two lines and an author’s note. It’s impossible to suss out if this falls into the category of sincere fanfic without the rest of the piece or a publication date, but modern-day commenters on the Reddit thread see it as classic Tumblr trash.

Naruto fanfic

Screenshot from r/Tumblr

“Bin Laden/Dick Cheney, enemies to lovers, 10k words, slow burn,” one user joked in the replies, underscoring the weirdness of Naruto being in the Twin Towers by comparing it to a What If story about Cheney and Bin Laden slowly falling deeply in love.

It’s hard to tell how much of the 9/11 fanfic and fanart starting a few years after the attacks is sincere, and how much of it is ironic, and trying to make fun of the very concept of writing fanfiction about 9/11.

A 2007 anime music video (in which various clips, usually from anime, are cut together to music) that combines scenes from The Lion King with Linkin Park’s “Crawling” and clips from George Bush’s speeches immediately after the attacks feels like the perfect example of this. Even the commenters can’t seem to suss out if this person is a troll or not.

There’s no way that My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic 9/11 fanart could be serious, right? Especially if the description pays tribute to “some of the nation’s most memorable buildings,” and features five of the main characters as child versions of themselves. The comments again are split between users thanking the artist for a thoughtful remembrance post, and people making their own headcanon for why Twilight Sparkle is surreptitiously absent from the scene.

Twilight Sparkle died in 9/11, says deviantart commenters.

Screengrab via DeviantArt

There’s Phineas and Ferb fanfic that combines a 9/11 tribute concert with flashbacks to Ferb being rescued from the towers as a baby, written on the 10th anniversary of the attacks. It jumps from introspection to lines like, “‘Quiet Perry the Platypus. I’m trying to listen to these kids singing a 9/11 tribute.’”

The author’s notes make it more likely that they meant for this to be a tribute piece, but it doesn’t quite make sense until watching a YouTube dramatic reading of it from 2020, fully embracing the absurdity of it all.

“For me, 9/11 is synonymous with war. It completely changed the course of my life,” Dreadnought, the author of a Captain America fanfic Baghdad Waltz that sees Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes fall in love over the course of the war on terror, told Motherboard. “It’s the reason I joined the military, and I developed deep connections with people who would go on to deploy to Afghanistan and Iraq. These very much felt like my generation’s wars, perhaps because people I graduated high school with were the youngest folks eligible to serve at the time.”

Dreadnought told Motherboard that although they didn’t deploy, their career has kept 9/11 and the trauma from it in their mind. After seeing that people who fantasize about Steve and Bucky getting together seemed particularly interested in reading fanfiction that related to 9/11, they decided to try their hand at it.

“I had to do something with all of that emotionally, and I’m admittedly a bit emotionally avoidant. So I learned through fic that it’s easier for me to process those feelings and the knowledge of all the awful stuff that can happen in war if I can turn it into something creative,” Dreadnought said. “Give the feelings to fake people and then have those fake people give the feelings to readers!”

To Dreadnought, who is a queer man, the experience of researching and writing this was more cathartic than they first expected, especially as a way to navigate feelings about masculinity, military culture, and queer identity. But they said the research they did, which included watching footage of first responders at ground zero, was what helped them finally process the event itself.

“It was like a delayed horror, and it was more powerful than I expected it would be.” Dreadnought said. “When I was eighteen, I was pretty emotionally divorced from 9/11; I just knew I wanted to do something about it. So coming back to it in my 30s while writing this fic, it was a very different experience. Even the research for this story ended up being an extraordinarily valuable exercise in cognitively and emotionally processing 9/11 and all of its second and third order effects.”

Fanfiction that features 9/11 provides an outlet for people who still grapple with the trauma from that day. But Stitch warns that the dynamics of fandom and how it relates to politics can also create fiction that’s less respectful and more grotesque.

“With years of distance between the stories written and the original events of 9/11, there seems to be some sort of cushion for fans who choose to use those events as a catalyst for relationships—and Iraq and Afghanistan for settings,” Stitch said. “The cushion allows them room to fictionalize real world events that changed the shape of the world as we know it, but it also insulates them from having to think about what they may be putting into the world.”

The tendency of turning these events into settings or backgrounds for mostly white, male characters to fall in love has the unintended effect of displacing the effects that the war on terror has had on the world over. Steve and Bucky might fall in love during the war on terror, but they would also be acting as a part of the American military in a war that has been criticized since it started. Fanfic writers in other fandoms have come under fire for using real world tragedy as settings for fic before. In the aftermath of the 2010 Haiti earthquake Supernatural fanfiction about the actors Jensen Ackles and Jared Padalecki going to the island to do aid became controversial within the fandom. There have also been fics where characters grapple with the death of George Floyd that is written in a way that displaces the event from the broader cultural context of race in America.

“A Captain America story where Steve Rogers is a ‘regular’ man who joins the US Army and ‘fights for our freedom’ post-9/11 is unlikely to deal with the war’s effect on locals who are subject to US military intervention,” Stitch said. “It’s unlikely to sit with what Captain America has always meant and what a writer is doing by dropping Steve Rogers into a then-ongoing conflict in any capacity.”

After enough time, “never forget” can even morph into “but what if it never happened?” A 19k+ word Star Wars alternate universe fanfic asks this question, wondering what would have unfolded if someone with two lightsabers was on United Flight 93. This fic, part of a larger fanfic series with its own Wikia, considers what would have happened if Earth was a military front in the Clone Wars.

In this version of events, a decorated general who served in the Clone Wars is able to take back control of Flight 93 before it crashes, landing safely and preventing even more tragedy from happening that day. In the end, all of the passengers who made harrowing last calls to their loved ones before perishing in a Pennsylvania field survive thanks to the power of the Force, and are awarded medals of honor by President Bush.

Twenty years after the attacks, it’s painful to think about what would have happened if people got to work 15 minutes later, or missed their trains that morning. There weren’t Jedi masters deployed to save people in real life, but for some of the fanfic writers working today, the world of Star Wars might feel just as removed as the world before September 11, 2001.

Fiction serves as a powerful playground for processing cultural events, especially generational trauma. The act isn’t neutral though; a decade’s worth of fanfiction that takes place on or around 9/11 shows how our own understanding of a traumatic event can shift with time.

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