In eighth grade, Mary liked Leonardo DiCaprio, Emily liked Paul McCartney, and I liked Gavin Rossdale. We probably didn’t say liked, though, or even loved. We were obsessed, we were crazy, we swooned, we fantasized. We liked the mall, and love was a word for grandmothers on the telephone: they loved us, they hoped to see us soon. The feelings we had were much more gigantic and upsetting. Crush was good. It implied force, and pain, and the possibility that we might not make it out the other side intact.
At the time, I was pretty sure I had every picture of Gavin Rossdale ever published taped up on the walls of my room. I bought every magazine, even the dumb or European ones, that had an article on him. I spent hours looking online, too. When I found a picture I didn’t have, I’d print it out on my dad’s computer, and the ink would make the printer paper heavy and wilted. I went through a lot of tape. “Well, I guess you’re definitely heterosexual,” my mom said, surveying my new decorating scheme. We tend to think of obsessive fact-collecting as the purview of men (baseball cards; car specs; the various pressings of various obscure 7-inches), but a teenage girl in the throes of a crush can hoard information along with the best of them. In eighth grade, I knew more about Gavin Rossdale than I do about many men I’ve dated since. I knew his mother’s name. I knew his dog’s birthday (March something, if I remember correctly).
The crush was a private thing that happened in my room, but it was also a shared activity between friends. It didn’t matter much that Emily’s crush was a haggard guy in his mid-50s, or that Mary’s was dying as the Titanic sank, or that my romantic rival was Gwen Stefani. Our crushes weren’t about anything as simple as attainability, or kissing. You couldn’t take Paul McCartney to the homecoming dance; the very idea was absurd, because the homecoming dance was an absurd nothing, especially when compared with the immensity and violence of our feelings.
My mom should’ve understood. At the Beatles’ 1966 concert in Chicago, she’d had to slap my Aunt Martha hard to get her to stop from screaming herself into a faint. From the teenyboppers to the Beliebers, teenage girls have been mocked for their crushes, but that scorn is just a shoddy mask for the anxiety these crushes inspire. Because a teenage girl with a crush is frightening. The Beatles were always on the run from shoving, hysterical girl-crowds, who wanted—what? To crush into them, to crush themselves, to crush against other girl-bodies that were all feeling the same feeling together, a chaos of feeling, a feeling that took your breath away. “A Beatle who ventures out unguarded into the streets runs the very real peril of being dismembered or crushed to death by his fans,” Life reported in January 1964. A girl with a crush is also capable of crushing.
A week or so after James Holmes shot up an Aurora, Colorado, movie theater, the internet was shocked (shocked) to discover that teenage girls on Tumblr were declaring their love for him. The members of this internet clique called themselves Holmies, and incessantly re-posted the same sullen pictures of Holmes with captions like “I WANT TO CUDDLE HIM UNTIL HE SUFFOCATES” and “I want to feed him a tuna fish sandwich. with. mayonnaise.” The internet treated this as though it were a new phenomenon, but the Holmies were just an offshoot of the already-existing Tumblr worlds of girls who crush, hard, on killers. Ted Bundy, Richard Ramirez, and Charles Manson all have their groupies, but the widest and most prolific group seems to be the Columbiners, who have devoted themselves to Columbine shooters Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold.
In some ways, the Columbiners are not so different from the Beliebers. The main difference, of course, is that Justin Bieber is unattainable because he’s a famous pop musician, while Harris and Klebold are famous because they are murderers, and unattainable because they are dead. But a girl with a crush has more in common with another girl with a crush than she does with a regular civilian. Both groups tend to speak in the self-consciously cute vernacular of internet teens (“*fangirling*”; “UGH every time i look at him i just flail around for a minute”), making fun of their own intensity even as they indulge it. They appreciate crooked smiles, strong forearms, and boys who write bad poetry about love (Beiber: “If I could just die in your arms/I wouldn’t mind”; Klebold: “I, who write this, love you beyond infinince”).
And both groups have flocked to Tumblr to showcase their love—not surprising, actually, since Tumblr turns out to be the perfect medium for a crush shrine, one that’s far more dynamic and interactive than a scrapbook or a bedroom wall. It allows posts and re-posts of pictures, quotes, gifs, and video clips while discouraging wider analysis or any sort of logical connection between content. Instead, the obsession acts as its own context. Every internet trinket relating to the crush object—a photograph of his parents’ house, a doodle in the margin of his math homework, a yearbook photo, a stock photo of the gun he preferred, his autopsy report—is relevant, because a girl with a crush is omnivorous, and very, very hungry.
A crush relies on projection: it’s about externalizing an aspect of your own self onto the unattainable object. (My friend Emily, who crushed on Paul McCartney, is now a professional musician.) But a crush is also about sex.
Beatlemania was revolutionary, as Barbara Ehrenreich and her co-authors Elizabeth Hess and Gloria Jacobs pointed out in this 1992 article, because it inspired an active, public assertion of sexual desire at a time when young girls were supposed to be chipper, pony-tailed, and pure at heart: “For girls, fandom offered a way not only to sublimate romantic and sexual yearnings but to carve out subversive versions of heterosexuality.” The Columbiners are even more open about their lust; their expressions of desire shades, by turns, from innocent to forthright and dark and back again. Beatlemaniacs were overwhelmed with heterosexual frenzy; Columbiner sexuality tends to be much more fluid and self-aware. Columbiners draw Eric and Dylan as wet-eyed anime girls, or they sketch the two boys sitting on an unmade bed, each holding the other’s erection. The girls post pictures of themselves dressed up like Reb or VoDKa in cargo pants, NATURAL SELECTION t-shirts, and black trench coats. “You look so cute,” everyone else comments. “I want to cuddle with you.” They unabashedly admit that guns turn them on. “I want to touch Dylan’s pee pee,” a girl confesses in a Columbiner video. “I don’t, like, label my sexuality,” another teenage Columbiner writes, “but if I did I would be pansexual. :)” The Columbiner community, which is mostly made up of girls in their mid-teens, more than a decade younger than me, taught me a new fetish word last week: hybristophilia, the sexual preference for people who have committed murder or other violent crimes.
Taken all together, it’s a messy picture of attraction: do the Columbiners want to save the boys, or make out with the boys, or watch the boys make out with each other, or make out with fellow Columbiners? Or all of the above, depending on the day? The possible contradictions don’t seem to bother them. Instead, they slide between self-consciousness and narcissism and obsession, between playfulness and darkness, between confidence and deep vulnerability.
It would be easy to read the Columbiners’ public performance of extreme sexuality as worrying, especially because the girls involved are so young. But is there really anything new going on here? Teen girl sexuality—like, well, adult human sexuality—can edge up against the dark and the illogical, even when the crush object isn’t a murderer. What’s more disconcerting, perhaps, is being confronted what teen girls, or a subset of teen girls, really want. If a focus group of middle-aged white men got together to design a teen idol, they’d most likely come up with someone who looked a lot like the glossy-haired, button-nosed Bieber. Klebold and Harris, in contrast, are as unmanufactured as you can get. They look like awkward seventeen year-olds from the 90s. Their clothes don’t fit right; they haven’t entirely grown into their faces. Crushing on them is an act of resistance that bonds the Columbiners together.
Because, in the most positive sense, what the Columbiners are doing is working through an obsession with the support of a non-judgmental community. They don’t have to explain themselves to each other, which seems to be a source of great relief. Along with their more explicit or swoony posts, the girls share their anxieties about upcoming history tests and awkward moments in class. They are vocally anti-bully. They upload pictures of themselves and ask if they’re ugly; “you don’t know you’re beautiful,” the Columbiner universe choruses back. Holmies post helpful information about psychosis in between their #dirtyholmiesconfessions, and Columbiners act as one another’s suicide watch. In living out their obsession online, the Columbiners are redefining “normal” teen girl behavior through finding safety in numbers.
Spend any time with an online fangirl community, whether the crush object is a murderer or a fictional wolf-prince or just a plain old pop star, and you’ll soon enough hear about “the feels.” (I JUST WANT TO JUMP OFF A CLIFF OR SOMETHING BECAUSE SITTING HERE WITH THESE FEELS DHFLKJDFHLDKJFH.) According to urbandictionary, “the feels” are “the feelings you get when you watch or look at some sort of picture of video, most times of a celebrity, where you cannot place what your feeling (usually feelings of the sexual variety).” The feels are sexual, but not merely or exclusively so. They are distinct from pre-internet emotions in that they are more like feelings for feelings’ sake. The internet, with its wealth of intangible content, is the feels’ native land; an internet crush is the feels personified. You can’t do anything about the feels except feel them, then maybe go look at some more pictures online. They are an appetite that does not expect to be sated, an intensity without any perceivable end.
Intensity without an outlet is a dangerous thing; it is also sometimes where revolution comes from. Beatlemaniacs sensed something not-right in their world, and reacted by freaking out, like some sort of 1960s-era maenads in knee socks. “To abandon control—to scream, faint, dash about in mobs—was, in form if not conscious intent, to protest the sexual repressiveness, the rigid double standard of female teen culture,” Ehrenreich and her co-authors write. “It was the first and most dramatic uprising of women’s sexual revolution.” Everyone else made the mistake of assuming that Beatlemania was about the Beatles. As every woman who pledged her teenage devotion to someone embarrassing (I’m sorry, Gavin) could tell you, a crush is more about the crusher than the crushee. Perhaps what’s so disturbing about the Columbiners is not who they’re crushing on, but how it’s actually not so difficult to imagine what it might be like to be one. Why not let yourself inhabit their world for a moment? What might you need to unleash? What makes you want to scream and scream until someone slaps you?
Related: Look Back in Eyeliner: Three Girls at a Duran Duran Sleepover in 1984
Rachel Monroe is a writer living in Marfa, Texas.