Within the realm of true crime blogging lies an interesting fringe group. The call themselves “Columbiners” and devote themselves to all things related to the April 20, 1999 Littleton, CO Columbine High School massacre. The first time I became aware of this group was through a small blog I run on Tumblr, but it’s been said that this subculture of the true crime community has existed for much longer.
Browsing through the Columbiner hashtag on social media sites such as Tumblr will give you a strange mashup of pure research material, cutesy Photoshop edits of the two teenage killers, and what some may say are “fans” of the Columbine shooters – portraying them as patron saints for the angsty and disenfranchised youth of the world. The blog owners who do portray themselves as more of a fandom than true crime research are often filled with violent and graphic images, with some “fans” even dressing themselves as the two Columbine shooters. This imagery is in no doubt shocking, but the real question is, Are these people a threat?
That was the question I asked myself as I conducted research into a thwarted plot by several members of this Columbiner community on Tumblr. Since the community played an integral role on how these individuals met and would eventually go on to plan a massacre at a Halifax, NS mall together, it would seem that you cannot truly understand this case without first examining the Columbiner community as a whole.
Brooks Brown, an acquaintance of the the two shooters who knew Dylan Klebold since kindergarten, hosted an AMA post on Reddit. One user asked what his experience with the Columbine fandom was like in regards to some of the messages he has received from them throughout the years. He responded with, “enough to make 4chan think they’re disturbed.” Brown’s opinion on Columbiners, particularly the ones who profess to being fans of one or both of the shooters, being misguided also comes up in questions he received on a Tumblr blog he once ran. In one post a user asks, “Is it weird for you to see all these girls obsess over Dylan? I mean you grew up with the guy so it must be odd to see all these little ‘crushes’ people have on him, 14 years later, after all this time.” Brown responds with, “Very. Dude was not what they think.” Later elaborating, “He wasn’t cool, he wasn’t smooth. He was awkward. Insecure. Not adorably – like badly. Not funny, just playing at it. Both of them. And angry. Neither were Tarantino characters except in their head. Instead, they were more like Napoleon dynamite. Without the dancing. Or humor.”
Tom Mauser, father of Columbine victim Daniel Mauser, also felt the need to post a YouTube video in response to dozens of messages he received from Columbiners. While he dismisses many of these messages as internet trolls looking to get a rise out of him, others came off as legitimate sympathizers for Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold – the two boys responsible for the attack on Columbine High School. He says a bulk of these messages address the fact that the two Columbine shooters were victims of bullying and their attack was a response to the anger they felt towards other students, including Tom Mauser’s son. Mauser claims that it wasn’t his son responsible for the bullying, in fact we may never know why the shooters killed some victims while sparing others. It would seem that, while some of this fandom is based on legitimate concerns on what may have pushed the two shooters to turn to such drastic measures, instead those concerns have been misplaced and have turned some of these Columbiners into bullies themselves, targeting anyone who dares to address anything concerning the events at Columbine that may go against their fantasies of Eric Harris or Dylan Klebold.
Some of this harassment can be attributed to a social media user known as Lynn Ann. While the verdict is still out on whether this user is an elaborate troll or a mentally ill woman with an obsession for the Columbine massacre, even most self-professed Columbiners find her views and opinions extreme. She can be found commenting on any Columbine-related video uploaded to YouTube with gems of wisdom such as, “I’m glad the 13 are dead” and, “Eric is my man WHOOOOO <3.”
So who are these Columbiners? And were they all obsessed and deranged fangirls like Lynn Ann, or were they dedicated researchers who slowly slipped down a strange rabbit hole?
Inside The Church of Columbine
I created a call to action on my own Tumblr blog expressing an interest in the Columbiner community and asking for people who consider themselves to be Columbiners to reach out to me. I didn’t want to go into this article labeling them all as mentally ill with the potential for homicidal tendencies, as some media outlets were quick to do, without at least hearing them out first. I wanted to understand what this community was from their prospective and what connection they felt to the Columbine massacre, particularly the two shooters.
A handful of self-professed Columbiners did respond to my post, but only one actually responded to my list of questions. I did my best to construct these questions as respectfully as possible, making it clear that I wanted nothing more than an understanding. Whether it was subconscious bias seeping out – since I was in high school during the Columbine massacre and it undoubtedly left an emotional impression upon me – or a sense of fear within the community as being labeled “murderous misfits” as the individuals allegedly involved in the Halifax plot had been, I cannot say for certain. Most of the individuals who initially agreed to the interview later backed out.
One Columbiner, a Dutch woman in her late 20’s who runs a Columbine blog on Tumblr, did agree to be interviewed. Eva’s blog is strictly research-based and doesn’t seem to be filled with some of the strange Photoshop edits, photos of herself dressed as one of the two killers, or some of the violent imagery commonly found on many of the blogs within the Columbiner community. Never-the-less she was able to give me some insight on these “fandom” blogs and why someone may seem to glorify something as heinous as mass murder.
As a true crime writer and researcher, I expressed to Eva that I understood how certain cases, particularly cases as big as Columbine, may stand out and interest us more than others. I wanted to first begin to understand why, at least for herself, why someone may be interested in the Columbine massacre. She said that it’s been a case she’s been interested at different points of her life for different reasons. She goes on to say, “My own personal issues have led me to comprehend Columbine from the perspective of a perpetrator. My time in high school was horrendous and eventually resulted in an early drop-out as well as a deep-seated anger at the education system. I struggled with depression intensely and found it hard to see a way out of the vicious cycle I found myself in. The shout of ‘I hate the fucking world!’, as is Eric’s journal opener, could have very well been my own teenage anthem. I always say that Columbine is my ‘could-have-been’: I was at a stage where a very small thing could have been the tipping point that would lead to me hurting myself and hurting others. I was lucky to get the help I needed to get past this, but it has left me with a huge understanding of the feelings and thoughts that both Eric and Dylan also describe and express.”
It would seem that Eva’s explanation for her interest in Columbine wasn’t much different from other bloggers’. Though I didn’t have a chance to interview them personally, many Columbiners speak publicly of their battles with depression and self-harm, along with a general discontent with the world and problems at school. Perhaps most of these bloggers look to the Columbine shooters as people they could have related to on some level. The media painted these two kids as monsters, but with the release of the journals of the two shooters and, most recently, Sue Klebold’s decision to go public with her story of the son who would go on to become one of the world’s most heinous killers, we can see that deep down they were nothing more than a couple of troubled teenagers who got caught up in a violent fantasy and ultimately took things too far, with their cries for help prior to the event going largely ignored or misinterpreted by those they were closest to.
Though unlike some Columbiners, Eva doesn’t make any apologies for the killers. She says her only interest in the Columbine shooting is to understand why it happened and how it could have been prevented, as I seek to understand what drives certain individuals to view the Columbine shooters as martyrs for bullied teens. She says “…I speak out firmly against following in the footsteps of Eric and Dylan and will continue to do so for as long as I live. Not a hair on my head would consider voicing support of their actions or affirming their godlike delusions. They need to topple from their pedestal and be seen for who they were: scared, angry, insecure, awkward, petulant children. Not heroes. Not monsters. Just human beings.”
Eva also expands upon this idea when I ask her what she thinks about bloggers who choose to sexualize the two teen shooters and see them almost as celebrity heartthrobs. “The boys are so accessible in a way through their videos and their words that it feels like you have gotten to know them as though they were friends of yours. I can imagine that young people within the community find themselves so drawn to that sense of connection that they express that attraction and longing for them the way they do. I think sometimes it must feel to them like Eric and Dylan are the people who’d understand whatever troubles they are personally going through. Other times, I get the sense that it’s very much about ‘wanting to save’ (one of) the two. Wanting to have been the one to extend to them the love that they seemed to long for and need.”
Though no other Columbiners answered my formal interview questions, I was able to speak with a woman who was in Columbine High School’s library the day shots rang out through the hallowed halls and students scattered under tables in order to conceal themselves from the two shooters. Her name is Amanda Duran and I was curious if her experiences with Columbiners had been similar to those of both Brooks Brown’s and Tom Mauser’s. Our conversation was brief, but she did tell me that generally she had no issues with the Columbiner community and had even been involved in a Columbine message board for people interested in the case. She goes on to say that most of her troubles, in regards to her decision to speak out on social media about the events that occurred at Columbine High School, have come by way of conspiracy theorists insisting that she was not only a crisis actor, but a man, on a series of YouTube videos she had recorded describing the day’s events.
Are Columbiners A Threat?
I think what drives a majority of these self-professed Columbiners’, as well as the general public’s, interest in the case is what has been called “the perfect storm” of internal and external variables that drove these young men to commit this terrible atrocity. What factors had to come together to create this “perfect storm” and how do we recognize it?
The FBI addressed this in a reported titled The School Shooter: An Assessment Perspective. Three of the personality and behavioral traits described by the criminal profilers responsible for the report include: Unusual interest in sensationalized violence (school shootings particularly), fascination with violence-filled movies (most Columbiners do enjoy violent movies, most notably Natural Born Killers and Die Hard, said to be Eric Harris’ favorite movie), and negative role models (Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, primarily, though some factions of the community also express an interest in Nazis and Adolph Hitler).
This report also emphasizes the fact that these are only some of the factors that may help to culminate “the perfect storm” for school shooters and should be seen as only a small snapshot of the number of other mitigating factors when drawing the conclusion of whether or not a person is at risk for becoming a school shooter themselves.
Going back to my original question on whether or not Columbiners are a threat, given what information I was able to obtain from speaking to a Columbine survivor who occasionally participates in the Columbine research community, a self-professed Columbiner, reading through countless blogs ranging from pure research to full blown fandom, reading the FBI’s school shooter risk assessment report, and taking into account the opinions of both Tom Mauser and Brooks Brown on their encounters with the Columbiners community, I can only arrive at the conclusion that generally Columbiners are not a threat, except for when they are.
I’ll elaborate on this more in part two of Inside the Church of Columbine, where I discuss a thwarted plot to stage a Columbine-style attack at a Halifax, NS mall and how the Tumblr Columbiner community reacted to finding out that the alleged perpetrators where some of their own.