Killers' Online Fandoms: From Big Bear to Columbine

PHOTO: Images used during a press conference on the manhunt for ex-LAPD cop Christopher Dorner.

Getty/Robyn Beck

Viewers have followed the strange tale of Christopher Dorner -- the ex-LAPD officer who allegedly killed four people in his rampage against the police department -- as authorities launched a manhunt against the former officer, eventually tracking him to a cabin in Big Bear Lake, Calif.

But while most had been watching the chase and subsequent shootout unfold with the hope that Dorner would be brought to justice, others have been rooting for the alleged killer -- or, in any case, rooting against the LAPD.

For instance, Facebook groups like "We Stand With Christopher Dorner" and "We Are All Chris Dorner," feature news updates, theories and suspicions about the police department's actions, fan art, and calls to action across social media outlets like Twitter. Earlier this week, Dorner supporters Frank and Shantel Cardiel held up signs reading "Save Chris" and "Don't Kill Dorner" as the manhunt unfolded.

Even the online group Anonymous also voiced its support for Dorner, publishing an open letter to the LAPD wherein they share that they've watched as the police department has "proven once more that it is incapable of serving the public" after shooting two innocent civilians sitting in a vehicle mistaken for Dorner's.

"But do not misinterpret us for we do not condone the vicious acts that Dorner has allegedly partaken in," they write. "Instead we symphatize and resonate with his struggle."

This type of response from the web is nothing new. Soon after alleged Aurora theater shooter James Holmes' name and face were splashed online and across TV screens, he began racking up supporters of his own.

Back in July 2012, BuzzFeed's Ryan Broderick put together a guide on "Holmies" -- a group of mostly young people, mostly on Tumblr who supported and even emulated the accused killer, wearing plaid (as he apparently had been) and posing with Slurpees (an homage to an earlier video of Holmes giving a presentation at science camp).

Tumblr has also proven to be a meeting ground for "Columbiners," people who are fascinated with and/or who support the actions of Columbine High School shooters Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. They share gifs and pictures of the two teens, as well as lots and lots of fan art.

And long before that, there was Ted Bundy, who received plenty of attention and fan mail during his trail, with one admirer moving from Washington to Florida to be closer to him, testifying on his behalf, and even agreeing to be his wife after he asked her, in court and during trial, to marry him. And before that, of course, there was Charles Manson, whose influence and power over his female admirers was such that they killed for him.

There are nuances, of course. Holmes' following differs greatly from Dorner's because, for the most part, the fascination is focused squarely on Holmes himself, and not on the police's actions or possible motivation surrounding his arrest. As Gawker's Adrien Chen explained at the time, the fascination with Holmes -- whether meant to provoke others online or a sincere demonstration of concern and support -- serves as just one example of internet "fandom." "Trolls or not," writes Chen, "the existence of a James Holmes fandom has less to do with James Holmes himself than with the explosion of internet fandom."

What is apparent is that, in both cases, supporters maintain an "us-versus-them" mentality. That plays out in several ways. In Dorner's case, some felt as if the LAPD believes it is above the law, others that society at large doesn't understand or tolerate "outsiders." In an essay on "Serial Killer Groupies," (although it's worth noting that most of the people mentioned so far have been mass shooters), author and forensice psychology professor Katherine Ramsland lists several reasons for why people might find themselves drawn to murderers, including "rescue fantasies," the "need to nurture," or the "exclusivity" and sense of ownership that comes from feeling an intimate kinship with a famous killer.

The biggest shift, of course, is that online declarations of allegiance are arguably more public, helping to lend some of the killer's runoff attention and notoriety to those who purport to support him. Many of those who have voiced support or allegiance to Dorner, Holmes, or any other high-profile killer seem to view them as either a martyr to a cause or as someone who is lost, mistreated, or misunderstood, who needs help and must be bolstered and heartened by this attention from strangers.

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