An armed Eric Harris (left) and Dylan Klebold (right) captured by Columbine High School’s cafeteria’s surveillance camera (Source: GQ.com).

TAINTED LOVE: A Brief Look at Hybristophilia and Columbiner Culture

For some odd reason, there has been a recent surge in social media posts and articles related to “Columbiners”. The comments are usually full of people asking what exactly a Columbiner is, and I hope that my analysis will help to clear that up.

However, I am a Criminal Justice student, not a licensed psychologist or Columbine expert. The extent of my knowledge is only what I have learned in classes and researched myself. I hope that my attempt at an analysis of Columbiner culture will answer questions, but by no means is this an attempt at any professional psychological diagnosis. This was originally a paper I had written for a class, but I’ve decided to expand on it and post it here for anyone curious. My original citations have all been kept, and I put some reading recommendations at the bottom for those interested in learning more. All images were found by Google searches, so I gave credit to the website hosting the images. I decided not to post screenshots of Columbiner posts, but a simple Google Image search for the term will produce examples.


On the night of Friday, February 13, 2015, nineteen year-old James Gamble, a Canadian from Timberlea, Halifax, fatally shot himself as armed forces surrounded his parents’ two-story home. The teenager was one of three conspirators, all friends, who had planned on opening fire on a local mall, Halifax Shopping Centre. James was active on social media, and a look at his account on Tumblr, a site primarily used for blogging and re-blogging photos, reveals him to have been part of a subculture known as Columbiners, a morbid sort of fandom devoted to the perpetrators of the 1999 Columbine school shooting. Comments received by James before his suicide include desires for sexual encounters with him intertwined with a sensual fascination to the perpetrators of violent acts, such as “I low-key wanna suck your cock while watching a Columbine documentary”. Had James’ and his friends’ plot to commit mass murder unfolded, he would very likely have had his own following. Gamblers, maybe? Beyond the cutesy self-declared label, there is another label for these people: hybristophiliacs.

Hybristophilia, from which hybristophiliacs suffer, is the sexual arousal to someone known to have committed a heinous wrongdoing, such as rape or murder (Griffiths, 2013). The name comes from a combination of the Greek words meaning “to commit an outrage against someone” and “having a strong affinity/preference for” (Hickey, 2006). The phenomenon has not been the subject of much study, but it has been noted in the aftermath of many extreme crimes, serial killers and mass murderers in particular, and unlike most paraphilias, which have no bias when it comes to gender, hybristophilia is far more prevalent in women than in men (Griffiths, 2013).

“’I low-key wanna suck your cock while watching a Columbine documentary’”
The mentioned Rolling Stone cover of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev

One of the most recent cases of hybristophilia involves the youngest of the Boston Bombers, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. The college student assisted his older brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, in carrying out a terrorist attack on the Boston Marathon, killing three people and injuring many more. The eldest Tsarnaev brother was killed in a post-bombing gunfight, but Dzhokhar was taken alive after surrendering. When images of the youngest brother were broadcast, he gained scores of fans, even landing a romantic cover-image on The Rolling Stones magazine (Volpp, 2014). Although this incident of hybristophilia is fairly recent, perhaps the most notable cases of hybristophilia deal with the fan followings that formed around serial killers Ted Bundy and Richard Ramirez.

In April of 1986, Bundy confessed to murder of thirty women that spanned through the Seventies, though the actual number victims could be much higher. His vicious murders were taken a step further, however, by his violation of the corpses of his victims. Despite this, Ted Bundy received floods of “fan mail” from women. Carole Ann Boone, Bundy’s wife and the mother of his child, accepted his marriage proposal in the courtroom, during his trial. Ted Bundy was considered by his fans to be handsome and charming, but their attraction to him could have been much deeper. Richard Ramirez, the self-proclaimed Satanist who murdered fourteen people, married the woman who wrote him over seventy-five letters after hearing of his crimes. Women sent both of these men hundreds of letters and gathered in courtrooms to get a glimpse at the objects of their affections: cold-blooded killers.

Left: Ted Bundy (source: murderpedia.org); Right: A response letter penned by Richard Ramirez to a piece of fan mail (source: http://pogosplayhouse.blogg.se).

So what is it about Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold that attracts these young women (as far as I can tell, every single Columbiner I’ve come across online seems to be teenaged or young adult females- though it is likely more male Columbiners such as James Gamble exist somewhere out there, hybristophiliacs are overwhelmingly women, as mentioned above)? Well, to know exactly why and how would require actually being in the mind of one of these individuals, but it is safe to theorize.

One key aspect of Columbiner culture is the anti-hero narrative of the Columbine Mass Shooting, the idea that the two perpetrators were bullied loners out to get revenge on their tormentors. These women often post or re blog photo edits related to suicide and depression. They echo the Columbine shooters’ quotes on the meaninglessness of life and the intellectual superiority they believe themselves to have over what they perceive as an imbecilic general population. The biggest problem with this is that the the motive of the outcasts’ revenge was the result of media confusion.

Columbine High, like any high school, had a problem with bullying before, during, and after April 1999. An injured survivor’s mother even testified so after the massacre. However, bullying was not the cause of the shooting. Eric Harris was a psychopath whose delusions of grandeur and fantasizes of humanity’s extinction charged his attempt at enacting natural selection (Eric’s shirt worn during the shooting had “NATURAL SELECTION” written on it, and his journal makes him out to be quite a fan of the concept). Dylan Klebold (whose shirt simply said “WRATH”) was a suicidal, depressive young man whose life was hijacked by the influence of what legacy Eric was intending to leave on this planet. In their journals, the shooters even boast about the bullying they perpetuated. Were they on the receiving end of some put-downs? Absolutely. Were these instances so significant as to engineer one of the most tragic moments in American history? No. This is very apparent by the scanned journal pages available online. The only motives April 20, 1999 were a desire to play God (Harris) and a desire to go out with a purpose in a seemingly meaningless life (Klebold). All present (bullied students and jocks alike) were intended to be a victim- the only target April 20, 1999 was everyone.

Crime scene photo from Columbine’s cafeteria (source: documentingreality.com)

So is it just this false image of Eric and Dylan as the patron saints of depressed high school loners that has created this internet subculture? Well, Columbiners don’t idolize Emma Watson or Lady Gaga, successful women who experienced bullying in school; they choose two individuals who murdered thirteen people and attempted to murder hundreds more, including their own friends. To get down to it, Emma Watson and Lady Gaga didn’t team up to commit a mass shooting. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold did, and that makes all the difference. Going beyond the disproven story of two loners’ retribution, there is a sexual attraction to these two murderers. Columbiners are hybristophiliacs.

Now, this is not to say that anyone sharing information on social media about the shooting is part of some weird group. Plenty of people, myself included, have a genuine interest in true crime and criminology. I am not talking about a simple interest in the facts of a crime- I am talking about people who fantasize about spending long, romantic nights with the people known to have committed a crime. As unbelievable as it is, a real, living actual human being wrote a piece of Columbine erotic fan-fiction (yes, it exists). A person as real as you and me spent time out of their one and only life editing their illustration of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold embracing for a passionate kiss. These are not done for comedic irony; these creations are an expression of a dark attraction. Peppered between posts such as “What it would be like to cuddle with Eric Harris?” will be the phrase “I do not condone.” However, it is hard to believe these people do not condone the actions of Eric and Dylan when they reblog countless pseudo-intellectual quotes from them and edit yearbook photos of the two with hearts and sparkles. Hate be cliche, but just imagine you see someone share a romantic image of Osama bin Laden on Facebook with the caption “…there’s a fucking hole in my chest where a friend should be. I mourn him every year. Every Day.” or “cute but psycho <333"? How about “I low-key wanna suck your cock while watching a 9/11 documentary”? You’d rightfully be creeped out, and if this person tried arguing that they didn’t condone Osama bin Laden’s actions, they could just relate to his struggle of, say, losing a brother, the point would remain that your hypothetical Facebook friend is not sharing a picture of someone known for overcoming their struggle of losing a brother, they’re sharing an image romanticizing the perpetrator of the worst terrorist attack on the United States. For some reason, Columbiners believe slapping “I do not condone” on a post about having sex with a dead murderer somehow justifies everything. Whether they accept it or not, at the core of their sexual attraction to these two is not the inaccurate story of two loners exacting retribution, but the fact lives were lost at their hands.

Survivor Patrick Ireland falls as he pulled from the window of Columbine’s library (source: USA Today, original footage appears to be from CNN coverage of the event)

An exact cause for hybristophilia is unknown. Some psychologist say it could be the thought of knowing an incarcerated partner is least likely to commit infidelity, or perhaps a personal objective to change person so viscous as a serial killer (Ramsland, 2012). However, the most prominent theory is linked to the study of evolutionary psychology by the basic concept of alpha males, linking the paraphilia to a common psychological motive in murder: a desire for dominance (Nee, Ward, 2015). The theory goes, as explained by clinical psychologist Dr. Leon Seltzer, that women are attracted to killers because it shows the men are physically capable, at least enough so to take the life of another (Seltzer, 2012). I mostly agree with this theory, but with slight variation. I do believe the attraction is rooted in survival instincts. The perpetrator is seen as someone capable of protecting the person attracted. The person attracted, if a woman, sees the perpetrator as strong and dominant, and (this is where I deviate) she subconsciously hopes the offspring of the perpetrator will inherit the father’s perceived strength and dominance, ensuring the survival of the mother’s passed genes. This theory offers a simple explanation that shines a light on a rather primal instinct: the instinct of genetic survival.

Television shows, movies, bands — they all have followings devoted to the many sources of entertainments within each category. It’s hard to believe, but murderers are just the same. Serial killers, mass murderers, terrorists — they, too, have their own followings- their own fandoms romanticizing and mythologizing their lives and, most importantly, their crimes. From the Charles Manson groupies to the Columbiners, hybristophiliacs are aroused by the dominant and violent nature of the perpetrators of crime. As time goes on, more and more people will be put into the public spotlight for their crimes against others. The media needs its violent headlines, after all, and the world is in no short supply of carnage. Most of society will scrutinize these criminals. Hybristophiliacs, for reasons possibly related to the evolutionary process, will desire them. For Columbiners, that event occurred in Colorado April 20, 1999. All left to do is desire those responsible.


Sources:

Claire Nee, Tony Ward, Review of expertise and its general implications for correctional psychology and criminology, Aggression and Violent Behavior, Volume 20, January–February 2015, Pages 1–9, ISSN 1359–1789, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.avb.2014.12.002.

Griffiths, M. (2013, October 18). Passion Victim. Retrieved March 15, 2015, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/in-excess/201310/passion-victim

Hickey, Eric W. (2006). Sex crimes and paraphilia. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Pearson Education. pp. 197–9. ISBN 9780131703506

Ramsland, K. (2012, April 20). Women Who Love Serial Killers. Retrieved March 15, 2015, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/shadow-boxing/201204/women-who-love-serial-killers

Seltzer, L. (2012, April 24). Why Do Women Fall for Serial Killers? Retrieved March 15, 2015, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/evolution-the-self/201204/why-do-women-fall-serial-killers

Volpp, L. (2014). The Boston Bombers. Fordham Law Review, 82.

Recommended further reading:

  • Columbine by Dave Cullen
  • Without Conscience by Dr. Robert D. Hare
  • The Anatomy of Violence: The Biological Roots of Crime by Adrian Raine
  • The Night Stalker: The Life and Crimes of Richard Ramirez by Philip Carlo