"Columbiners" are mostly young people who often have violent or suicidal thoughts along with a passionate interest in serial killers.
This post originally appeared on VICE Canada.
The violent and gruesome world of Columbine blogs surfaced last week following the death of 19-year-old Nova Scotian James Gamble, who police allege helped plan a foiled Valentine's Day shooting at a Halifax mall.
Gamble's Tumblr was dedicated to the two infamous shooters who killed 13 people at the Colorado high school in 1999. When a tipster told police about the plan to shoot up the Halifax Shopping Centre on Valentine's Day, Gamble reportedly committed suicide, and police charged Randall Steven Shepherd of Halifax and Lindsay Kantha Souvannarath of Illinois with conspiracy to commit murder and arson.
Police say the alleged plotters met online. Gamble and Souvannarath posted on Tumblr about their upcoming Valentine's Day plans under the "Columbine" tag, which is used by a dedicated global community of Columbine.
I was curious about this Tumblr community, so I Skyped a few of the so-called "Columbiners"—people who are obsessed with the shooting and Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the teens who did it—who followed Gamble's blog. Despite the creepy content they posted, they were fairly personable, and some were willing to talk.
I should be clear about one thing up top: Unlike Gamble, none of the three bloggers I spoke with advocate murder, though like him, they have all struggled with suicidal thoughts.
Based on the US West Coast, 26-year-old Natasha (not her real name) runs a true crime blog with 11,000 followers. Her Tumblr, True Crime Hot House, is home to her obsession with murderers, and she posts letters and art that incarcerated serial killers send her through the mail. (Though she sometimes posts about Columbine, she wouldn't call herself a full-blown Columbiner.)
Natasha and Gamble followed each other on Tumblr. When she heard about his death, Natasha posted a eulogy for the 19-year-old: "James, you ran a cool blog and will be missed."
She wrote that Tumblr users posting "rude and thoughtless" comments should think of his friends and family. She also encouraged people with suicidal thoughts to reach out to someone. "I promise I am always here to talk to anyone who feels like they've hit their rock bottom," she wrote.
Younger Columbiners often message her about suicidal thoughts they've had. Like Gamble, a lot of them post about self-harm and suicide, but she says it's hard to know when it's just internet talk and when it's serious.
Gamble's death and the alleged shooting plot took the community by surprise, Natasha says. They didn't see any warning signs. There are more extreme blogs than his, she explains.
The true crime Tumblr community is a varied group. Many bloggers are in their teens. Some are interested in the criminology surrounding serial killers and mass murderers. Others relate to the two Columbine shooters—known in the community by their first names Eric and Dylan—and want to copy them.
On February 8, four days before Gamble's death, a commenter on his blog asked, "Do you have combat boots like Dylan?" He replied, "Indeed I do," and posted a photo of himself wearing the boots and holding a long gun and hunting knife.
His blog is also full of glorified Nazi imagery. That's because the Columbine shooters were interested in the Nazis and Hitler, Natasha explains.
She doesn't post that stuff. "I see so many people doing it—not that I condone it. It's this weird trend," she says. "Strangely it's become hip."
She thinks the posters have "displaced hate."
Not everyone in the community advocates murder or posts Nazi imagery. "James didn't represent the whole true crime community, [and] I don't represent the whole true crime community," Natasha says.
Dana is a 16-year-old Australian who runs a Columbine blog with 500 followers that's dedicated to the victims of the massacre. Not many Australians are interested in Columbine, she says, so most of her followers are in the US.
Dana first learned about Columbine when she was cast as a mass shooter in a school play and started researching the role. The story grabbed her "because it was unlike any other shooting."
"It's human nature to want to know more about death," she says.
Dana says people who are depressed or suicidal can get pulled into the subculture. The two murderers were young, so people her age can relate to them.
"You've got Eric, who was the more homicidal of the pair, and Dylan who was the more suicidal of the pair," she says. "Putting those together sort of represents the way a lot of young people are feeling."
There are people in the community who want to present the facts about Columbine, and others who want to place the shooters on a pedestal, she says. A small number of people have "malicious intentions."
"The public needs to understand the majority of us are people who would never consider doing anything malicious," Dana emphasizes.
Lydia is the same age as Dana. The 16-year-old runs a Columbine blog out of Latvia with 540 followers. She didn't want us to use her real name because she worried her school would find out about her blog.
Lydia learned about the 1999 massacre about a year ago when school shootings came up in her class. She searched for more information and found one of the shooters' diaries online.
"When I first read some pages of Dylan Klebold's journal, I realized he was going through a lot of things that I was going through," she said. "Feeling lost, sad, having suicidal thoughts and other things like that really applied to me. It almost made me forget that this was written by a future mass murderer."
In the Columbine Tumblr community, she found other people like her.
She says the perception that Columbiners are violent is wrong. Many of them have helped her deal with the dark thoughts. If she's feeling down, she posts about it and her followers send her messages that make her feel better. Lydia said she is also talking to a counsellor.
Some Columbiners advocate violence, Lydia says, "but there aren't that many of them."
Dana, the Australian blogger, says people don't need to be worried about the Columbiner subculture on Tumblr, but the threats within the community shouldn't be taken lightly.
"Every threat and every suicidal claim should be taken seriously, because you never know if they're going to do it or not," she says. "And you always need to assume that they are."
If you have suicidal thoughts, you can find a list of Canadian help lines here, and crisis centers here. If you're in the US, click here for a help line that will connect you with a trained counsellor.
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