April 20, 1999: Columbine High School shooters Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold walk into their school wearing t-shirts emblazoned with the phrases “Natural Selection” and “Wrath,” respectively; by 11:35 AM, they’ve killed thirteen people, and at 12:08 PM, they commit suicide in the school library.
Countless replicas of their shirts can be found online, either in photos of Tumblr users or on Zazzle, a site that allows one to customize products and put the designs up for sale.
July 20, 2012: James Holmes is arrested behind the Century 16 theater in Aurora, Colorado, minutes after a mass shooting during a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises. According to reports, he is wearing a plaid shirt at the time of his arrest.
Tumblr erupts with an outpouring of support from plaid shirt-clad Holmes fans.
March 19, 2013: Chardon High School shooter T.J. Lane enters his sentencing hearing, removing his pale blue dress shirt to reveal a white t-shirt with the word “Killer” handwritten across the front. The statement he gives after hearing that he will serve three life sentences without parole is “This hand that pulled the trigger that killed your sons now masturbates to the memory. Fuck all of you.”
Immediately after the hearing, T.J.’s popularity skyrockets among the gaggle of mass murderer fangirls on Tumblr. It doesn’t take long for bloggers to post images of themselves in their own homemade “Killer” shirts.
T.J.’s fans call themselves laneatics; Eric and Dylan’s are columbiners. Batman shooter James Holmes’s fans are called holmies.
Certain distinctions must be made among the three fandoms. The T.J. Lane fandom, at least in its newborn state, consists mostly of teenage girls who find Lane attractive. There is little to no pretense that they are interested in him for any other reason, which makes sense; the fandom seemingly appeared out of nowhere after Lane’s sentencing hearing. They are attracted to his looks and what they perceive to be a bad boy panache. They want to write him, date him, fuck him.
Many holmies, however, focus on his mental state. They view his case as a tragic example of what comes from a flawed mental health system, and empathize with him. Despite the plaid shirts and the Slurpees and the gifs and the edits and the inside jokes, holmies are good at maintaining a dialogue about Holmes’s case, the person he used to be, who he became, and what might become of him.
Columbiners are the most confusing group. They can perhaps be defined by conflict. Multiple users complain about how the tag has changed; it started as a small community of Columbine researchers. Now, the columbine tag does not see much research at all, and gifs and photo edits are the extent of the original content posted there. Often, the tag is inundated with lengthy treatises on why people should be left to do what they want to do and how no one can change them. Someone inevitably posts about how the tag should be about Columbine, and there is an illusion of everything getting back on topic. It rarely does.
Thoughtlessclown, 15, is a columbiner and laneatic who also keeps up on the James Holmes case. She claims to be the person who decided on the name ‘laneatics.’ “I thought the group needed a name, and someone suggested ‘laneatics.’ So I actually was the one that decided that name.” It is a portmanteau of ‘Lane’ and ‘lunatics.’
“I don’t have any Columbine or James Holmes related clothing,” she says. “The closest I have to that is a Nine Inch Nails shirt Dylan wore, and I have a KMFDM shirt. I do actually like those bands; I’m not just copying them. I would like to get a Wrath and Natural Selection shirt someday. I think some of the columbiners wear them because it shows our support of Eric and Dylan, and because the boys mean a lot to us.”
Seventeen year old rattinthehat doesn’t currently own any Columbine related clothing either, but understands why other columbiners do. “It’s not because we condone the murders, because I have yet to meet one of us who does, but it’s because Eric and Dylan are dead and we don’t have very many ways left to connect with them.”
“We can read their journals and watch their videos over and over again, but after awhile it becomes not enough. Wearing their clothing isn’t meant to belittle the victims or glorify the murders, but it’s because it makes us feel closer to Eric and Dylan. This is a big deal to a lot of us. It’s for this same reason that we want to visit Columbine and Rampart Range and Blackjack Pizza and everywhere else at which Eric and Dylan spent any time. I think that the thought of Eric and Dylan helps a lot of columbiners get through tough times in their lives, and wearing their clothing is similar to someone who wears clothing representing a favorite band or TV show character—it creates more of a connection with the person you’re trying to emulate.”
Holmie-obscure, 27, has “a few plaid items that I had obtained once it was collectively established as a mark of solidarity of sorts. I also have a James Holmes pin of his first mugshot. I used an online shop to have it custom made.”
There’s nothing new about teens and young adults using outward appearance as a way to categorize themselves, but the act of literally labeling oneself sends a potent message. In the same way that wearing all black and hanging out with kids dressed exactly like them asserts individuality, wearing the t-shirt that Eric Harris wore when he blew his brains out in the library may set them apart as bullied, hurt and angry.
The accepting nature of these communities is one of the main things that keeps people posting. For columbiner TooLoud13, 13, it seems to be the main draw.
“I had started researching Columbine a little bit before I found Tumblr, and it basically consumed me. I felt wrong for being interested in it and horribly wrong for feeling attracted to Eric. After I joined Tumblr, I soon found the Columbine tag and found I wasn’t alone. Finding people like me really seemed to take a weight off my shoulders. I had finally found a place where I could actually talk about it openly. I loved the openness of the tag. We’re pretty much all accepted there.”
Thoughtlessclown feels the same way: “I think everyone relates to each other through Eric and Dylan because we are a lot like them in a way, and we also relate to each other because we all like something and someone that society doesn’t see as morally right, and so we really only have each other to talk to about it with.”
Holmie-obscure describes the aspect of taboo that leads so many to join these communities. “I think many of us would agree that the first time we typed ‘holmies’ into the search bar was like an initiation. You had these feelings that you knew weren’t like everyone else’s, and you discovered all of these beautiful people who felt the same way as you.”
“I think part of it is a subconscious recognition of a primal instinct being unleashed that I connect with. It’s something every human being is capable of, but is substained.”
In these fandoms, sexual attraction is often the silent factor looming over every interaction whether it is mentioned or not. Many posters claim to be hybristophiliacs, but it’s easy to tell who is throwing the term around.
Sixteen year old columbiner and “partial laneatic” murdahoess feels a “romantic attraction” to Eric Harris.
“He was adorable! If you showed his picture to a lot of teen girls without telling them what he was infamous for, I bet at least 75% would agree that he is cute,” she says.
“I think that it would have been nice for Eric to have had a girlfriend. He was so lonely and insecure, and believe it or not relationships can help those things, which in turn I believe would have at least lowered his depression. I mean, I’m not saying having a girlfriend and sex would make his life perfect, but it would take away some of the loneliness, insecurities, sexual frustration and depression. I think the right girl could have made an impact on him.”
She feels that she relates to Eric’s loneliness, humor and “how he doesn’t just take things at face value and he tries to look a little deeper into things.”
Dylan also has his admirers, thanks mostly to his journal, filled with writings about love and his distinctive hand-drawn hearts, which some columbiners have had tattooed on their bodies.
“I do feel romantically attracted to Dylan,” says thoughtlessclown. “I just feel like we would have been right for each other, and he was a lot like me. I feel like he would have been the perfect boyfriend.”
“I relate to Dylan a lot,” she continues. “He was shy and he said he was nervous to go to school and he always felt like everyone hated him. That’s exactly how I am.”
A vocal group of columbiners hates to see Eric and Dylan’s suicide photos. They ask people not to post them in the tag because they find them painful to look at. Is it painful because the photos of the boys’ limp bodies spread out on the floor of the library—Eric’s face blown off and his brain splashed onto the spines of books, a puddle of Dylan’s blood spreading and seeping through the carpet—rob the killers of their vengeful power? What does Eric Harris’s natural selection mean if, in the end, he turned the gun on himself? If some columbiners see the boys as symbolic of themselves, as their compatriots or as their fantasy boyfriends, how much weaker must they feel when they see the true result of Reb and VoDKa’s final stand?
“I really don’t like seeing those photos,” says thoughtlessclown. “I don’t even like how they were released and none of the victims’ photos were. It makes me sad when I see them because I feel like I know Dylan and Eric, and I wish people would stop posting them in the tag.”
Justanothercolumbiner, 18, ‘doesn’t really mind’ seeing the photos, but understands their implications. “I don’t know, maybe people have more of a connection to them than I do, and get more emotional about it. What the suicide picture really screams is: ‘real.’ That’s the real thing. The real consequence of their actions. That’s them. Really gone. It’s just… real. It puts things into perspective. You begin to realize, ‘these aren’t just two teenage boys who shot up Columbine High School. These are two people who took their own lives. And they are never coming back.’”
Each of these murderers is inaccessible, whether in jail like Lane and Holmes, or dead like Harris and Klebold. They all present the perfect combination of mystery and relatability. There is enough pure source material—journals, photos, videos—to feel that one really knows them, and enough gaps in the right places for one to create them with one’s own rib. The bonus with Harris and Klebold is the fact that they’re dead, and “never coming back.” There will be little new information about them. They won’t speak ever again. They won’t grow or change. Those facts hurt many columbiners, but may also keep them sated. Maybe it is that makeshift grasp on a fictional eternity—on a perfect fantasy of someone who will never change and therefore never hurt or disappoint—that keeps some in love.
Unsurprisingly, shocked and outraged Tumblr users post in murderers’ tags to berate fans.
“I mostly just try to brush them off,” murdahoess says, “because I know that I am not crazy. I do feel a little guilt for liking people who have done such horrible things. Yet for example, we are no different than the people who supported president Truman. He killed thousands of innocent civilians with the atom bomb. Thousands of innocent people died because of our country and president. This is nothing new—people killing and having supporters. Some of the people we should trust—such as a president—kill innocents every day. So I don’t feel very guilty about it.”
Thoughtlessclown thinks that people are just doing it for attention. “They can’t change us. Columbiners and holmies are the some of the least disgusting and evil people I know. I see it as we have a lot more compassion than most people to be able to still love someone after they did something like that, and look past it to see that they are human beings too.”
The most common misconceptions that interviewees address are that they worship killers, want to recreate their crimes, and do not care about the victims. “We aren’t some crazy psychos that want to shoot up our schools,” she continues. “We are very compassionate and understanding people. We see killers as human beings, rather than monsters like the media wants us to see. We love them for who they were before.”
“My morbid interests don’t harm anyone. They do not define me,” says slowdownlittlelady, an 18 year old who does not consider herself a columbiner, holmie or laneatic but is “interested and invested” in all three cases.
What most detractors do not realize is that the opposition reinforces fans’ feelings and beliefs. They continue the behavior with a strengthened confidence, because the fact that they are ostracized is the point. In other words, they’re used to it.