It was an extremely online romance, as many were in 2014: they followed each other on Tumblr, then they became Facebook friends, then they started chatting. James Gamble was 19, aimless and unemployed. Lindsay Souvannarath was 22, with a newly minted degree from a small liberal arts school in Iowa and vague plans to join the Peace Corps.
Over the next seven weeks, Lindsay and James would come to feel that their meeting was part of some great cosmic plan. They were in similar places in their lives: young adults still living with their parents, socially awkward, virgins. They did not spend much time talking about the mundane building blocks of adulthood – school, family, work – in part because those parts of life had felt hostile to both of them for a long time. Instead, they discussed the other things they had in common – how they both walked stiffly and too fast; how as soon as they entered a room, other people could sense that something about them did not quite fit. How they could tell that strangers were afraid of them. How they had grown to like it, in a way, the perverse kind of power that came from being the kind of person everyone else wanted to stay away from.
In college, Lindsay started working on a novel about a boy who falls in love with death. She sometimes sounded as if she half-believed the stories she was creating were not fictional, and that the characters were her friends. Perhaps that is because, for Lindsay, there was never a bright line between what was real and what was make-believe
The vast majority of her social life took place online; most of her boyfriends were guys halfway across the world whom she never met IRL. After her most serious online boyfriend broke up with her, Lindsay tried to kill herself. The hospital bills from that stressed her out, as did her student loans. She spent most of her time alone in her dorm room, drinking and dreaming up fictional realms. The external world increasingly felt like a difficulty, an irritation. She hated how bland, saccharine girls could get boyfriends, but she apparently “wasn’t the relationship type”. One afternoon, not long after her breakup, she saw a happy couple hugging in the school cafeteria. Something bubbled up in her – she wanted to punch them. The feeling was sudden and startling, like a panic attack. And it did not go away. For the rest of the semester, she would see a couple and think: “What if I just walked up to them, shot her in the head, and walked away?”
The idea took root. During the fall of 2014, her final semester of college, Lindsay decided that her novel should have a mass-murder subplot. Suddenly, she was spending all her time researching school shooters. She immersed herself in the school shooter/serial killer subculture that flourished on Tumblr. “It was all just academic at first,” she later told an interviewer, “but I found myself identifying more and more with the shooters.”
Ever since I was a little kid, I have been murder-minded, the kind of gloomy child who filched her mother’s People magazines to read not about the celebrities, but about the killers and kidnappers and suspicious overdoses. As I got older, my appetite for murder stories seemed to depend on how much turbulence was in my own life. The more sad or lost or angry I felt, the more I craved crime. I was a teenager storming with hormones when I pulled Helter Skelter off my parents’ shelf and gave myself Manson family nightmares, and a little older and a lot more depressed when I set out to read every single Manson girl memoir. I learned that the Columbine killers’ journals were online, and I read those, too.
When I fell into a crime funk, all I wanted was to lie in bed and read about terrible things happening to other people. To watch girls get chased on TV while I ran on the treadmill with nothing chasing me.
I am not alone in my appetite for dark stories. The vast majority of violent crimes are committed by men. Most murder victims are also male. Homicide detectives and criminal investigators: predominantly male. Attorneys in criminal cases are also mostly men. Put simply, the world of violent crime is masculine, at least statistically. But the consumers of crime stories are decidedly female. Women make up the majority of the readers of true-crime books and the listeners of true-crime podcasts. Women are not just passively consuming these stories; they are also finding ways to participate in them. Start reading through one of the many online sleuthing forums where amateurs speculate about unsolved crimes – and sometimes solve them – and you will find that most of the posters are women. More than seven in 10 students of forensic science, one of the fastest-growing college majors, are women. A few years ago, two undergraduates at the University of Pittsburgh founded a cold case club so they could spend their extracurricular hours investigating murders; the group is, unsurprisingly, dominated by women.
Sometimes, women’s attraction to crime stories is dismissed as trashy and voyeuristic (because women are vapid!). Sometimes it is unquestioningly celebrated as feminist (because if women like something, then it must be feminist!). Some people have argued that women read about serial killers to avoid becoming victims. This is the most flattering theory – and also, it seems to me, the most incomplete. By presuming that women’s dark thoughts are merely pragmatic, those thoughts are drained of their menace.
True crime is not something true crime’s female fans consume begrudgingly, for our own good. We find pleasure in these bleak accounts of kidnappings and assaults and torture chambers, and you can tell by how often we fall back on the language of appetite, of bingeing, of obsession. I tended to prefer a different, more alarming hypothesis: perhaps we like creepy stories because something creepy is in us.
It is not just individuals who find murders fascinating. Periodically, the culture at large will fixate on a certain crime or grant a murderer celebrity status. These collective obsessions are often dismissed as exploitative, sensationalistic and distasteful. But the murder stories we tell, and the ways that we tell them, have a political and social impact and are worth taking seriously. Lessons are embedded within their gory details. When read closely, they can reveal the anxieties of the moment, tell us who is allowed to be a victim and teach us what our monsters are supposed to look like. They show us the scariest, most unacceptable parts of ourselves. And through these narratives, we sometimes find a way to say things we could not otherwise admit.
Before the late 1990s, plenty of kids were furious and suicidal, but few of them dealt with their feelings by taking a gun to school. In 1977, Stephen King (writing under his pseudonym Richard Bachman) published a novel called Rage, which told the story of an angry young man who shot his algebra teacher and took his classmates hostage. Throughout the 1980s and into the 90s, a handful of school shootings roughly followed this formula – violence directed at teachers and classrooms taken hostage by teenagers, who were later discovered to be fans of the novel. After a 1997 school shooting in Paducah, Kentucky (whose perpetrator had a copy of Rage in his locker), King asked his publisher “to take the damn thing out of print”.
Intermittent eruptions of school violence merited sombre coverage on nightly newscasts for the next couple of years. A kid named Kip Kinkel murdered his parents, listened to a Wagner aria on repeat, then drove to Thurston high school with two pistols. A 13-year-old and his 11-year-old sidekick killed four classmates and one teacher in Jonesboro, Arkansas. These were isolated incidents, but there were enough of them to see the outline of a trend forming.
In Littleton, Colorado, a high school junior named Eric Harris wrote about the spate of school shooters for an English-class project. “Every day news broadcasts stories of students shooting students or going on killing sprees,” he wrote. “It is just as easy to bring a loaded handgun to school as it is to bring a calculator.” “Ouch!” his teacher commented in the margin. A year-and-a-half later, on 20 April 1999, Harris and his friend Dylan Klebold would kill 12 students, one teacher and themselves at Columbine high school. Two decades after that, they would both be unlikely internet heartthrobs.
Columbine became the archetypal school shooting for a number of reasons – most obviously because there were many more casualties: 13 dead (15, if you included the shooters themselves), 21 injured. Previous school shootings had been quick eruptions of violence that ended just as quickly, while the murders at Columbine elapsed over just 17 minutes. Viewers watched live as Swat teams charged the building, as students sprinted out with their hands on their heads, as a bloody boy scrambled out of a shattered window. Mobile phones were a relatively new phenomenon, but the Denver suburbs were full of well-off early adopters, which meant that kids trapped in the school could call news stations and be interviewed live on air.
Harris and Klebold had no intention of being ciphers; their murders were a message, and they provided ample documentation to ensure that everyone heard it. In their final days, they debated which director would film the story of their lives, Quentin Tarantino or Steven Spielberg. Both boys kept journals and Harris had a website. Most notoriously, they had spent the weeks before the massacre filming themselves with a camcorder they had borrowed from school.
By 2006, huge amounts of information had been made public, including videos the boys had made, their journals and some of their writing for school. Victims’ families had hoped that reading through the killers’ personal papers would help make sense of the tragedy. Harris and Klebold did offer one repeated explanation. They killed because they felt hate. Hate at what? The world. But it turned out that did not clarify anything at all.
Putting all that information out in the world had another, unintended consequence: it helped make the Columbine shooters into icons of rebellion. Teenagers who did not trust the oversimplified media narrative about Harris and Klebold now had lots of highly charged, intimate material to stoke their fascination, and they used it to build a counter-narrative. In this version of events, Harris and Klebold were martyred revolutionaries who dared to rebel against the repressive, jock-centric culture of their school. The most ardent fans started uploading tribute videos to YouTube. They featured flattering images of the two boys set to Marilyn Manson songs, or strident social Darwinist poetry overlaid on news footage of sobbing Columbine students. In-group references to the massacre began to emerge: NBK (Natural Born Killers), Natural Selection, Reb (Harris’s nickname), VoDKa (Klebold’s). “RIP Eric & Dylan,” read a typical comment. “They were the true victims.”
After YouTube cracked down on Columbine content, the fandom migrated to Tumblr, where it took on a different flavour. Now the community was made up primarily of young women, and instead of praising the killers as heroes, they swooned over them and pledged their love. The Columbiners’ devotion was certainly disturbing on its face, but there was more going on underneath the surface. People often make the mistake of thinking a crush is about the crush object. Rather, a crush is a way to take up space, and to make something about yourself known to the world. And it seemed that being a Columbiner was, more than anything else, about having enormous emotions. Adolescence is overwhelming for everyone, but girls are permitted a narrower range of expression. It is the time when many of us learn to be on guard against our too much-ness. Columbiners felt their crushes hugely; many also blogged about their depression and anxiety in the same grandiose terms. Experiencing bullying or social rejection made them want to die, or to kill; it was difficult to tell the difference sometimes. They wallowed in their empathy for Klebold, staying up late weeping into their pillows about how sad he had been, how much they wanted to save him – or was it about how they hoped someone would save them? For some girls with their own deep wells of pain, this famous crime was a useful metaphor – operatic in its intensity, flattened by media overrepresentation into something not precisely real. It provided a language, and a set of shared reference points, to talk about end-of-the-world feelings: apocalyptic despair, unacceptable rage.
Maybe that is what was truly frightening about the Columbiners – not their veneration of Harris and Klebold, but what they articulated about themselves through their very public devotion. What did they want the world to know about their own fury and despair? About the ugly things they could not quite own?
Lindsay and James connected through the Columbine community on Tumblr in late December, and quickly began chatting for hours every day. During the first week of their online relationship, Lindsay asked James where he liked to hang out. She knew he lived nearly 2,000 miles away and on the other side of an international border – she was in the US and he was in Canada – but it was still fun to fantasise about what it would be like if she showed up there one day, the two of them both wearing trenchcoats, exchanging sly conspiratorial glances: “People would be like OH GOD THERE’S TWO OF THEM NOW,” she wrote. “What a great way to spend a day, just terrorizing normal/inferior people.”
As the conversation continued, Lindsay sounded as if she was just riffing, but James seemed to mean it. He had everything he needed already, he said: guns, ammunition, a knife, a scary outfit. It was the most talkative he had been during the short course of their friendship.
Lindsay did not seem to notice; she chattered on about other things: Japanese candy and house music and Nordic liquor and stupid family Christmas parties and how cold it was outside. James kept bringing the conversation back to mass shootings: “I just wish I had a partner, that could take the shotgun while I take the hunting rifle. Way less chance of getting attacked/jumped if I had a partner.”
Once they had talked openly about murder, the conversations between Lindsay and James had a new intensity and also an unexpected sweetness. Gloomy, human-hating Lindsay could not stop smiling. She told other online friends that she was no longer depressed. “It feels like I’ve been dead for years and then I suddenly came back to life and I can actually feel things and it’s like WHOA,” she wrote to James.
“It’s such a special feeling isn’t it?” he said. “Knowing that there’s somebody else out there who feels just like you do.”
Many Columbine experts posit that neither Harris nor Klebold would have murdered their classmates on their own; rather, there was something fatal in their dynamic. They provided each other with a permission or an instigation. Together, they created the shared reality they called NBK, and together they inflicted it on the world.
Something similar seemed to be happening with Lindsay and James. He said he had fantasised about committing a mass shooting since middle school, but it had always remained a fantasy. His depression sank him into inaction. Lindsay was attracted to the aesthetic of spectacular violence, even as she seemed not at all interested in the practicalities of planning such an act. She did not have a gun, had never shot a gun, had no idea how to get a gun, had never tried to get a gun. But in her bedroom, drunk on fruity vodka, she could imagine herself capable of anything.
Lindsay thought she would have enough money for a plane ticket by June – six months away. It was going to be so amazing, they told each other. “I’ll feel more alive that day than I did my entire fucking life,” James said.
When I told people I was writing about women, crime and obsession, they always thought I meant women in love with murderers: serial killer groupies, prison weddings, Manson pen pals. But I never found those women as interesting as everyone else seemed to. As I saw it, they were just playing out the most reductive and depressing tropes of heterosexuality: in a world where masculinity meant power and power meant violence, some women would always opt to align themselves with that violence, and exert their own perverse power through love. It was a story as old as Beauty and the Beast: being the exception, the woman that a violent man doesn’t kill, was a way to feel special, chosen. But it was an ugly kind of special, tainted with other people’s pain.
Women who flirt with – or marry – notorious murderers are widely condemned. Yet, behind that condemnation may be a form of complicity, even understanding. Our culture is obsessed with men who kill, and what else are these groupies doing but taking that obsession to its natural conclusion? In Natural Born Celebrities: Serial Killers in American Culture, David Schmid argues that the serial murderer is “the exemplary modern celebrity, widely known and famous for being himself”. An alien landing on Earth might assume that we esteem these men, based on the number of books and movies and television shows and podcasts devoted to delving into their childhoods and musing about their motivations. Hybristophiliacs – people who are sexually attracted to violent criminals – hold a mirror up to contemporary culture; what we don’t like in them is what we don’t like in ourselves.
And then there was Lindsay. To her, the Columbiners’ romantic obsession with Klebold and Harris seemed a little ridiculous. As she wrote to James: “I’m over here like ‘why be in love with them when I can BE them?’”
During the next few weeks, the details of the plan slowly came together over Facebook chat. Lindsay would use her Christmas money and whatever other funds she could gather to buy a one-way plane ticket to Halifax, Nova Scotia. While she was in transit, James would shoot his mother in her bed, then kill his father when he came home from work. Meanwhile, Lindsay would get a ride from the airport with James’s best friend, Randy Shepherd. Sometime that evening, James would shoot Randy, who did not want to live but had never been able to finish the job himself. Then James and Lindsay would lose their virginity to each other. The next day, they would head to the mall, where they would open fire on the mindless, unsuspecting Saturday-morning shoppers.
James said he planned to target middle-aged women, his least favourite demographic: “fucking wrinkly, fat, short hair, probably believes in god. and is just the sweetest person you could ever know. I want to see them all bleed.” Lindsay would target “basic bitches” and people who looked genetically inferior.
Their massacre would be optimised for virality. James would make one of his victims hold the camera so they would be filming their own murder. If someone had a phone out and was documenting the shooting, he would spare the person so there would be more footage. He gallantly offered to die second so he could upload video of Lindsay’s suicide before he finished himself off.
On her last day in her parents’ house, Lindsay packed a small suitcase to take to Canada containing a change of clothes, the skeleton mask she planned to wear during the shooting, her makeup, her laptop, a couple of comics and Thus Spoke Zarathustra by Friedrich Nietzsche, her favourite book. She painted her nails to pass the time. She also worked on a manifesto of sorts. It talked about battles and hate and strength, about being beyond good and evil, about how being free from empathy means that “the isolated man sees the world for what it truly is”. She scheduled it to go up on Tumblr after the attacks, when she presumed she would be dead and millions of people would be searching for answers.
Sometime earlier that day, the Halifax police’s Crime Stoppers tip line received information about a local teenager, his online girlfriend and their Valentine’s Day plans. A quick internet search turned up some troubling pictures of James dressed in fatigues, fondling weapons – enough confirmation of the tip to justify an arrest. That afternoon, plainclothes officers placed James’s parents’ house under surveillance.
At 8:59pm, a Halifax police officer called James’s mobile phone. During their five-minute conversation, James was cooperative and unemotional, the officer later said. He told James that police had seen his social-media posts and wanted him to come in for questioning.
Officers were outside his home in unmarked cars; there didn’t need to be any fuss. James agreed to meet the police outside. He would be out in just a minute. But the officer watching the front door did not see any signs of movement. Moments later, the officers heard the sharp blast of a hunting rifle. James had shot himself in the head.
Lindsay’s flight landed in Halifax just before midnight. Although the border agents had been alerted to look out for her, Lindsay somehow passed through the first customs screening. But the next agent she spoke to thought she seemed strange. She had bad teeth, bad skin and an odd affect, he said later. She also had a one-way ticket bought at the last minute, little cash and a small suitcase. He wondered if she was on drugs or was transporting drugs. She told the agent she was in town to spend a “memorable” Valentine’s weekend with her boyfriend, but that she did not know what his address was. Officials soon connected her to the Crime Stoppers tip and arrested her. Randy, who was waiting for her at the international-arrivals area, was also taken into custody.
At first, Lindsay was not too worried. The day after her arrest, she bragged to another prisoner about the failed plan: “I had a skull mask I was going to wear, and he had his scream mask. We would’ve looked perfect.” The prisoner was an undercover officer and a transcript of the conversation was added to the growing trove of evidence against her.
In November 2016, Randy, James’s friend who helped keep the massacre plan a secret, was sentenced to 10 years in prison for conspiracy to commit murder; six months later, when it became clear that her chat logs would be admissable as evidence, Lindsay switched her plea from not guilty to guilty. That meant that she would forgo her right to a trial, and that her sentence – which could range anywhere from 10 years to life in prison – would be determined by a judge.
In April 2018, I flew to Canada to attend Lindsay’s sentencing hearing. I felt inexplicably nervous, as if I were the one who was about to be on trial. Perhaps part of me felt as if I should have been. I, like Lindsay, had internalised the idea that murderers were fascinating. Over the years, I have read thousands of pages about various varieties of Killer (Zodiac, Green River, BTK, Lonely Hearts) and Strangler (Hillside, Boston); don’t get me started on the time I have devoted to goofy little Charlie Manson. My brothers can have entire conversations where they are just tossing sports statistics back and forth; certain friends and I can do the same thing with serial murderers.
Most of the killer-centric media I consume at least ostensibly condemns its subject. But a clear ambivalence is at work, too. Would any of us linger so long if there weren’t? The killer, or at least the version of the killer who hogs most of the airtime, is set apart from the rest of humanity because of his bad deeds, but that apartness also marks him as special. Something of the animal is in him and also something of the artist. He is a mastermind, someone who does not play by the same rules as the rest of us. (This celebrity killer is almost always a “he”, because the vast majority of all murderers are male and because the stereotypical roles allotted to female killers – the bad mom, the jealous ex, the gender-nonconforming monster – are less easy to glamorise.)
If anyone should have known better than to fall for this trope, it was me. I am a reporter; I have met murderers. In my experience, they tend to be dull, damaged people, nothing like the cultural construction of the evil genius. I have underlined the appropriate Simone Weil quotation: “Imaginary evil is romantic and varied; real evil is gloomy, monotonous, barren, boring.” Yet if I am flipping through the channels on a motel TV and a teaser promises to give me a peek inside the mind of a murderer, I will always stay tuned – as if something incredibly complex were going on in those minds, something deserving of my time and scrutiny. I could not shake the sense that those hours I spent zoning out to true crime TV contributed, even if in the smallest way, to the mystique that swirled around people such as Harris and Klebold.
When the judge gave his sentence, he spoke about Lindsay, James and Randy – how they were each socially isolated and despondent and how they had each come to be fixated on Columbine. “As with dripping water on a stone, the repeated internet messages and imagery justifying and glorifying extreme violence left an indelible mark on each of them,” he said. He turned to Lindsay and told her she bore moral responsibility for James’s suicide. Then he sentenced her to life in prison.
A few weeks after my return home to Texas, I was still obsessing about Lindsay’s punishment. Court proceedings are supposed to provide some sense of closure, but this situation felt unfinished. I kept getting stuck on this one thing: how in imposing the strictest sentence possible, one usually reserved for the most violent criminals, the judge was validating Lindsay’s virtual self, giving too much credence to the part of her that loudly proclaimed how frightening she was, how unlike other people. She had never touched a gun; her flimsy plan had collapsed almost as soon as it was put in motion. A Canadian firearms expert publicly claimed that the massacre she had helped mastermind was virtually impossible, given her and James’s weaponry and lack of experience. I was told that, in prison, she seemed to be retreating even further into her internal world.
But then again, it wasn’t accurate to say that she had not actually done anything. Online, Lindsay was not just a Columbiner, she was also a self-described Nazi. There was a tinge of self-aware, internet-troll irony to all her posts – she described herself as “the George Costanza of online neofascists” – alongside a glorification of violence. In 2017, Lindsay’s one outspoken fan, a white nationalist who would not stop posting about her on message boards, returned to his former high school in rural New Mexico, where he shot and killed two student-athletes, then himself. That wasn’t her fault, but it wasn’t unrelated. The half-life of hate on the internet is long; it is exacerbated by a culture that teaches people to express their despair as rage. Who is to say what Lindsay would have done at the mall that afternoon?