Columbine. The word itself conjures up shudder inducing images of kids running from the school with their hands up, newsreels of Pat Ireland falling out of a second story window, and blurry security footage an empty, abandoned cafeteria. The 1999 Littleton school shooting shook America to its core, prompting an ongoing wave of public demand to ensure tragedies like that were never repeated.
A quick Google search of the word brings up the history and facts: politicians debating gun control and unfortunate recent copycat killings. However, for a small sub community of internet, self named the ‘Columbiners’, the killers are empathised with, obsessed over, and in many cases, adored. Starting with a small number of Tumblr fan pages, the fandom has stretched to all corners of the internet from reddit to CNN. This online world of girls crushing on killers has sparked concern as some blame the media for painting Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold as vigilantes rather criminals.
This concerning community also demonstrates new societal trends, as while young women are more free to express themselves sexually, emotions like rage and feelings of isolation are not accepted. Outdated gender stereotypes have long dictated that anger is a typically male emotion and sadness a female one. This leads to some to question ‘what is the smoking gun’, the portrayal of Harris and Klebold in the fallout of Columbine, or society itself?
“I care more about Eric and Dylan than I do about 90% of the people around me,”
“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”. Such a post on Tumblr would normally come off as naively sweet, a teenager gushing over a school crush, if it had not accompanied by admiring drawings, comics, and gifs of Harris and Klebold. Another, a seventeen year old, wrote “I care more about Eric and Dylan than I do about 90% of the people around me,”. These excerpts obtained by Sascha Cohen in 2016 Vice article shed a disturbing light on the online community and the thought processes of these young girls. The term for this form of attraction, hybristophilia, or a sexual preference for people who have committed murder, is thought to be simply that. A preference.
However, as Cohen discovered, many of these girls feel an attraction toward Harris and Klebold past their crimes. “I relate to their feelings of hopelessness, being angry and not being able to change it, and wanting to be accepted and appreciated,” says one ‘Columbiner’ to Cohen. In today’s modern age of abundant mental health awareness, it seems far fetched that a subsection of teenagers feel the only people who can relate to their struggle are mass murderers, but with a lack of female role models demonstrating emotion past the ‘feminine’ sadness and anxiety, it appears they instead choose to idolise the abundance of men who haven’t hesitated to act out their violent impulses. Messages enforced from birth enforce these gender stereotypes as a power dynamic is built. For men, anger is acceptable. For women, rage must be controlled. This short falling in understanding and support appears to be the reason behind why so many young women have been pulled into the sub culture.
However, some believe that the media is the catalyst for this warped perception of Harris and Klebold. Dave Cullen, author of ‘Columbine’, believes that after a tragedy like Columbine, the media rushes to determine the motive in order to placate the public as soon as possible. “After Columbine, three days later, we had it figured out. We, the media, public, everyone understand key things. …We knew that they were outcast, loner goths from the trench coat mafia who had been brutally bullied by jocks and were doing this as a revenge act to get back at the jocks for doing it,” Cullen stated in an interview with CBS, but then continued with “Everything I just said is wrong. Not one single element of that is true”. In fact, further research into the boys’ personal lives found that while they weren’t exactly on top of the high school food chain, they certainly weren’t outcasts. Described as a ‘cool brain’ who ‘got chicks’, Harris had a reputation for ‘outscoring most of the football team when it came to charm and coolness”. Dylan, reportedly “obsessed with baseball”, had inspired envy among his peers by easily acquiring a date to the senior prom. Without context, they would sound like two well adjusted teenagers. Although this clearly being far from the truth, the media, Cullen included, scrambled to quell the fears of the public. No one wanted to acknowledge that there could be other internal causes for their actions rather than the standard trigger of bullying. Thus, the facade of two lonely outcasts was born, creating the platform to which the online community of ‘Columbiners’ would come to relate with.
Similar to how neither nature nor nurture is solely responsible in psychology, the outset of this harrowing online community has no singular root cause. The concerning trend of young girls idolizing killers has thought to be spurred by a number of factors including peer pressure and unsupervised use of technology. However, the two clearest beginnings of false media perception and lack of healthy role models clearly shows the direction in which change can be made. By opening the door to the discussion of mental health issues past stereotypical gendered emotions, outlets can be provided for youth to vent and work through their issues in a healthy, productive manner. Through this, online communities like the ‘Columbiners’ can cease to exist, as well as future school shootings could possibly be prevented.