I'm not revolted when I scroll through the adoring Columbine posts. They often appear in between photos of self-harm wounds and missives about loneliness. Instead, I feel pangs of sadness, pity, and on a bad day, recognition.
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"I care more about Eric and Dylan than I do about 90% of the people around me," a seventeen year-old girl known as "reb420angel" posts on Tumblr. She's talking about Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the two teenage boys who ushered in our current era of American mass gun violence when they massacred thirteen people at Columbine High School in Colorado. It happened in 1999, the same year she was born.
Reb420angel is part of a controversial fandom community of women—some of whom describe themselves as "Columbiners"—who have connected with one another based on their shared interest in the details of the crime, and especially in Dylan and Eric. They range in age from their early teens to late twenties, and blog about the shooting from all over the world.
Dave Cullen, the author of Columbine, considered to be the definitive work on the subject, believes that Eric was likely sociopathic. Nevertheless, he was charming and well liked by many at Columbine. Cullen describes Eric as a brain, but a cool brain. He smoked, he drank, he dated. He got invited to parties. He got high. He worked his look hard: military chic hair - short and spiked with plenty of product - black shirts and baggy cargo pants. He blasted hardcore German industrial rock from his Honda. He broke the rules, tagged himself with the nickname Reb, but did his homework and earned himself As."
Whereas, Dylan, Cullen argues, was just a very lonely, depressed, and meek boy who actually wanted to do things like go to prom and college. Throughout the ten years Cullen spent writing and researching Columbine, he too found wellspring of sympathy for Dylan. In reviewing the boys' journals, Cullen writes:
Eric began his journal as a killer. He already knew where it would end. Every page pointed in the same direction. His purpose was not self-discovery but self-lionization. Dylan was just trying to grapple with existence. He had no idea where he was headed.
Columbiners have fashioned themselves as the true experts on the massacre (many deride Cullen as a competitor), pouring over the boys' journals, notebooks, and the infamous "basement tapes." Some are budding psychologists and criminologists, whose interest is primarily a forensic one—they see the shootings as a puzzle or mystery to be solved, complete with unanswered questions that verge on the conspiratorial. But others express an intense "connection" to Dylan and Eric, which range from a shared emotional experience of bullying, loneliness, and depression to a professed physical and romantic attraction. "I'm in love with a dead school shooter," posts Ada, a twenty-two year old, "what the hell did 2015 do to me."
On Tumblr, Ada and young women like her circulate photos, gifs, and drawings of Dylan and Eric, using nicknames and inside jokes, the way teenagers passing notes in class might have done before the advent of texting.
"I want to see that smile everyday," one girl writes, under an old school photo of Eric.
"Can you imagine how cute Dylan would have been on a date, like seriously I bet he would have tried really hard and got flowers and everything, the cutie," another one ponders.
They share gun pictures with captions like "ugh I want."
They analyze Dylan's poetry, love letters, and diary entries, and recommend documentaries and books they consider unbiased. No Easy Answers, by Columbine alum Brooks Brown, is a fan favorite.
They also produce a lot of original content, which includes Columbine themed quizzes, like "Which Columbine Victim are you?" and trivia, like, did you know Dylan had a pet rat named Snowflake? I didn't. Then there's the requisite literary endeavors you find in all fandoms, these include Columbine fan fiction, Columbine erotica, and Columbine smut.
While the object of the Columbiners affections can feel shocking, they are simply participating in ancient rite of girlhood: a creative cultural production that teenage girls have been using to express taboo desires for decades. Before tweeting, blogging, and fan fiction, young women made DIY zines and bedroom wall collages. Before that, they wrote letters to their favorite actors and rock stars. Technology has changed the contours of fandom and celebrity worship, but the fundamental sentiment is timeless, with clear historical precedents.
In the 1950s, throngs of zealous fans known as "bobby soxers" and "teeny boppers" swooned over Sinatra and Elvis. A decade later, adults and experts accused teenage girls of mass sexual delirium for their frenzied devotion to the Beatles. Scholars now see Beatlemania as a riot against mid-century sexual repression and the social enforcement of female purity.
Today's young women have more freedom to express themselves sexually but no real outlet for their rage and anger. Which is where Columbiners come in.
"I relate to their feelings of hopelessness, being angry and not being able to change it, and wanting to be accepted and appreciated," an eighteen-year-old named Trisha explains to me, referring to the shooters. "No one noticed they were struggling, and no one took their suffering seriously," says sixteen-year-old Emily. The most common theme among the forty Tumblr bloggers I contacted was a sense of empathy for the emotional distress that Dylan and Eric experienced before attacking their classmates.
Columbiners have found a sort of catharsis in identifying with male figures who externalized their angst and "got revenge." For young women who will not actually act on their rage a preoccupation with Eric and Dylan provides the vicarious fantasy of violence. Although, when you consider the Columbine-obsessed couple that planned a shooting spree before offing themselves in early 2015, it's easy to wish the girls had a less deranged focus of obsession.
Part of their connection to Dylan and Eric comes from the fact of these women deal with mental health problems like depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts. "If you have a mental illness, its easy to see yourself in [the shooters] or relate to them," Ada explains. The majority of bloggers often post experiences of being bullied and feeling like a loner among peers. "I don't have any close friends," sixteen-year-old Columbiner named Natalie tells me. "I know what it feels like to be an outcast," writes a twenty-year-old woman whose blog is called columbinekings. "Reading Dylan's writing was like reading things from my own head."
Another major draw for Columbiners who idolize Dylan and Eric, is that unlike Justin Beiber and One Direction, school shooters are not media manufactured and marketed objects of female desire. Young women have essentially repurposed Dylan and Eric—who lacked the fresh-faced Tiger Beat looks of your average teen heartthrob—into the crush-worthy objects of lust they never got to be while skulking around in black trench coats at Columbine High School.
"Sometimes I have this love for Dylan, where every time I think of him I get butterflies almost?" confesses Natalie. On her blog she writes, "kinda want to kiss Eric, kinda want to kiss Dylan too." Another girl shares, "Do you ever just want to go back to 99, find Dylan Klebold, and just hug him? Or tell him how precious and beautiful he is?"
Several of these bloggers muse that the bloodshed would have been preventable, if only the two boys had found "the love they deserved." In a sense, they are authors of an imaginative revisionist history, an alternative universe in which the loser gets the girl and doesn't kill anyone after all.
Believing you can change or reform a killer is a typical trait among people who have the sexual fetish known as hybristophilia, or "Bonnie and Clyde Syndrome." Hybristophiliacs are attracted to partners who have committed crimes including rape and murder, and the syndrome has been used to account for the attention that serial killers like Richard Ramirez, Charles Manson, and Ted Bundy received from fans while in prison.
Certainly, not all Columbiners fit this description—many espouse an innocent affection for Dylan and Eric devoid of sexual undertones. One fourteen-year-old girl explains, "I'm attracted to them in a way that simply akes me want to sit down with them for a long time and talk." But for others, there is an undeniable physical appeal, with the threat of violence stoking the flames. "Eric awakens the part of me that likes to be scared and I'm like yes kill me do your worst I love you!" exclaims sixteen-year-old Kelsey.
When I was sixteen, I liked "bad boys" too, and with a similar level of intensity. For a while I watched Rebel without a Cause and The Wild One over and over again, and sketched Dean and Brando in art class. Then pop culture gifted me Eminem, with his tough working-class swagger, tight angry scowl, and a self-mythologizing body of work that referenced forced sexual encounters and wife battering. I ripped out the photograph of him from a 1999 issue of Rolling Stone in which he was naked except for a strategically placed dynamite stick, and taped it over my bed. I was drawn to the rapper because I was angsty and moody, resentful of my conformist peers who emulated Britney Spears, and I felt like Slim Shady was a rebel who "got it."
I was finishing eighth grade when Columbine happened. I learned about it from teachers and from the paper. It terrified me. Nobody I knew expressed anything short of disgust for Dylan and Eric. The possibility of finding them attractive on any level would have been preposterous. Nevertheless, had I been born ten years later, I certainly fit the profile of someone who could have sympathized with the two – I was an unpopular drama nerd growing into an anxious young woman, dealing with the mess of navigating adolescence unaware I was queer but knowing I was different.
For those reasons, I'm not revolted when I scroll through the Columbine posts on Tumblr. They often appear in between photos of self-harm wounds, and missives from girls about "hating life" and "wishing I was dead." So instead, I feel pangs of sadness, pity, and on a bad day, recognition.
It is too late to hope they make it through high school unscathed. If we "failed" Dylan and Eric, we have also failed their internet admirers.
Young women are creative, but we have to work with what the culture gives us. When there were no female rock stars or rappers, we latched on to the men who were maybe doing what we wished we could do. Girls who are troubled and alienated have no real female role models to choose from (save a couple of poets who killed themselves decades ago) but plenty of angry men committing atrocious acts, and the number seems to multiply each day.
In any case, everyone I speak to is quick to point out that they do not actually condone what Dylan and Eric did. "We aren't crazy or future murderers," they insist. As one eighteen-year-old puts it, "I absolutely, 100% do not condone their unexcusable [sic] actions. I'm the most peace loving person you will ever meet." I believe it for the most part; this is a community of people searching for connection more than anything else. Before she found Tumblr, one thirteen-year-old tells me, "I always thought I was sick for being interested in killers. It was comforting to find other people who also were."
Those who find the world of Columbine fandom unusually disturbing should keep in mind that it combines two American cultural traditions: First, our fascination with true crime, driven by voyeurism, morbid curiosity, and perhaps a psychological urge to confront the most extreme, scariest parts of human behavior. And second, the public declarations of romantic obsession that have marked the Western woman's coming-of-age experience likely since the arrival of Rudolph Valentino.
For many of these girls, their fixation on Dylan and Eric will turn out to be a phase anyway. Some are already losing interest. "I'm a junior now," Emily explains, "and never even think about Columbine anymore."