In the summer of 2012, the mug shot of the man with tangerine hair spread across the world’s televisions and computer screens. James Holmes was locked up in a Colorado jail cell on suspicion of storming a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises and spraying bullets into the crowd.* He was the most loathed man in America, but on Tumblr, a small group of women felt something more like attraction. “I need to feel his lips pressed against mine,” one woman wrote. “His eyes are penetrating the fuck out of my soul,” wrote another. And “I know people are going to think I’m fucked up, but I bet he looked really hot in that ballistic gear.”
They called themselves “Holmies,” and as they awaited the next glimpse of Holmes in court, they constructed a digital daydream of who he might be. They soaked up his tiniest biographical details (his car smelled like strawberry air freshener!), swooned over a surfaced photo of Holmes squinting and shirtless by the pool, Photoshopped his face onto pornographic GIFs, and used a photo-morphing app to conjure baby pics of the future children they would have with him. They weaved friendship bracelets out of orange string and dressed up in plaid homages to Holmes’ arrest outfit. And they traded theories on how the dorky neuroscience student of their dreams had been brainwashed or drugged or framed by the government for the murder. As one Holmie put it nine days after Holmes confessed at the scene of the crime: “THERE IS NO ACTUAL EVIDENCE JAMES HOLMES WAS THE MURDERER.”
Last Friday, members of a Colorado jury found Holmes guilty of murdering 12 people and gravely injuring dozens more. Soon, they’ll weigh whether Holmes should be locked up for life or sentenced to death. During the trial, prosecutors argued that Holmes had committed the murders for the fame—and pointed to Holmies as evidence that he had gotten just what he wanted. On Monday, one longtime Holmes fan hit Tumblr and finally renounced the “Holmie” label, but not because she’s dropped her support of James Holmes: She’s just begun to see herself more as “an advocate for mental health” who is “strongly against the death penalty.” Across Holmie fandom, photos that were once used to stoke wild sexual fantasies are now showcasing solemn slogans like “severely mentally ill people need treatment, not execution.” Holmies have printed Holmes’ face on T-shirts that say “mental health matters” and suggested rebranding plaid as a symbol of mental health advocacy, like how “people wear pink to fight breast cancer.” Some are ready to take it off Tumblr—they want to write to the governor, launch a nonprofit, reach out to Holmes’ mom.
In 2012, outsiders peeked into the world of the Holmies and, through their nausea, managed to diagnose them as a herd of sick sad teen girls or maybe even a cell of clever trolls. Vice predicted they’d soon fade into Tumblr’s archives, never to repulse us again. But instead of growing out of their obsession, some of these women (and a few brave men) are growing up inside of it. The modern Holmie seems more interested in Holmes’ mind than his body. This isn’t just a crush anymore: It’s a movement. And it’s helped inspire a whole new genre of online fandom, one that’s gaining steam with every mass murder that makes the news.
The Holmies were always more diverse than the media coverage suggested: Unlike old-school fan clubs with applications and membership cards, modern fandoms are loosely defined through tags on Tumblr and Instagram. A girl can tag herself a Holmie one day and then sort herself into a new obsession the next. In the beginning, fangirls, true crime nerds, conspiracy theorists, armchair psychologists, and offensive Photoshoppers were all drawn to Holmes’ tags. One reason some dismissed Holmies as trolls is that the casual pranksters and the sincerely committed often spoke the same meme-y language.
But as the casual Holmies fell away, a clearer picture of the community emerged. The turning point hit a couple of months after the shooting, when a much-awaited second jailhouse shot of Holmes hit Tumblr. This one featured a buzz cut and a deranged stare. Some Holmies pretended he didn’t look so bad. Others observed “a moment of silence” for Holmes’ orange curls. Many endorsed the theory that the government had deliberately released an unflattering photo in a bid to turn fans away. At Holmes’ next public hearing, one Holmie headed to the courthouse to see him with her own eyes, and returned with a verdict: “He is not attractive at all,” she wrote. “I did see him do that wide-eyed look a few times. It’s not as cute in person, though … That was not the same person we’ve been swooning over in his cute little science presentation and how sad and pitiful he looked in his first courtroom appearance.” Holmies were forced to either move on or get real. “I know some of you have this fantasy built up in your head that James was this hot little psycho boy,” one levelheaded Holmes blogger cautioned at the time. “James is sick. Very, very sick. He is mentally ill. He is not OK. I wonder if people truly understand what that means.”
An imaginative fan can stretch her idol’s image to fit her fantasies: One Direction boys can be gay for each other, and James Holmes’ face can be Photoshopped onto a house husband’s body. But even the most creative fandoms need sufficient raw material to keep the fires burning. Soon after Dzhokhar (also spelled Jahar) Tsarnaev was sentenced to death for the Boston Marathon bombing and disappeared back behind prison doors, his devoted “Jaharians” moved on. One closed her blog with a picture of the Earth from space superimposed over Tsarnaev’s face and the note: “Jahar’s story has come to an end,” as if she’d just watched the mediocre finale of a once-beloved TV show. As for the Holmies, after they worked all the way through the digital trail Holmes left prior to his arrest, fresh insights into Holmes came mostly in the form of occasional news reports on Holmes’ troubling behavior in jail (licking the walls, smearing feces) and updates in his legal case, which became squarely focused on mental illness after Holmes pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity in May 2013. At trial, doctors who had treated and examined Holmes disagreed on whether he could discern the difference between right and wrong at the time of the attack, but all believed that he was severely mentally ill; 20 doctors agreed on a diagnosis of schizophrenia.
The Holmies who stuck around were the ones who managed to locate some personal interest in Holmes’ evolving narrative. It’s an intimate crew: A couple dozen women and a few men who convene on Tumblr (which skews younger), and Facebook (where there’s a more maternal vibe). Some modern Holmies relate to Holmes’ struggles with mental health, blogging about their own experiences with bipolar disorder or dealing with side effects from Zoloft. Others had been invested in mental health advocacy for years before they found the Holmies. In some cases, though, the mental health stuff is a strategy to deepen the fantasy relationship with Holmes. It’s less about criminal justice reform than a pledge of commitment in sickness and in health, or else a daydream about nursing him back to adorkable. Posts read like social justice fan fiction: It’s styled like a movement, but it’s really all about you.
Holmies weren’t the first to explore their morbid passion for famous murderers online. In 1996, “Unabuffs” confusingly took to the Internet to express their identification with Luddite bomber Ted Kaczynski. Kip Kinkel, an Oregon high school student who murdered his parents before shooting up his school in 1998, amassed an early following on LiveJournal. “Columbiners” started Tumbling snippets from the shooters’ diaries and pics of the their ’90s haircuts years ago. And pre-Internet serial killer fandoms—of which there were many—have been revived on Tumblr, where Ted Bundy’s cardigans and Richard Ramirez’s cheekbones reach a new audience. But Holmies were the first significant fan group to live-blog their passion while the crime scene was still active. Other high-profile tragedies had time to acquire some cultural significance before fans decided they empathized with the killers in some way. Columbiners, who converged into a sizable fandom more than a decade after the event, are responding more to the mythology than to the killing itself: The widespread media panic stigmatized every teenager who wore black or listened to Marilyn Manson, so modern outcasts are now finding points of identification with Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold.
When the Holmies debuted, the genre exploded. Finding the next hot murderer before he got played out became almost like a competition. Jake Evans, a teenager who killed his mother and sister in October 2012, was the first to turn heads post-Aurora. In March 2013, Ohio school shooter T.J. Lane wore a shirt marked “KILLER” to his sentencing hearing and told the families of his victims that he masturbates to the memory of killing them; “Laneiacs” ate it up. The next month, Jaharians emerged from the horror of the Boston bombing. Even Sandy Hook shooter Adam Lanza has a modest following of “Lanzies” or “Fanzas,” though they view him more as a cute little brother than a romantic interest. Any white boy with a haircut is eligible: One Holmie suggests that Jared Loughner could have amassed online groupies of his own had he just locked down his “moisturizer and hair” game before posing for police cameras after his 2011 attack on Tucson.
These fandoms are starting to seem less like organic gatherings of people who happen to harbor the same weird, offensive crush and more like automatically generated message boards that appear whenever another white boy kills, and then wait for people to click. (There are no bustling Tumblr communities dedicated to the Native American school shooter Jaylen Fryberg or the Virginia Tech killer Seung-Hui Cho.) The latest Tumblr idol is Dylann Roof. Where most Americans see a white supremacist awaiting trial for the murder of nine black churchgoers, a tiny slice of Tumblr just sees his lickable lips, his ”sitable” lap, and his boyish bowl cut. Roof’s young fans seem neither bothered nor enticed by his racism. Some of them decorate their blogs in swastikas, but they don’t have anything to say about Hitler. (Don’t feel bad—he’s got fangirls too.) They Photoshop Roof into Lana Del Rey flower crowns and Ariana Grande cat ears, poke fun at his white power poses (“i know ur trying to be serious but its coming off as cute sry”), and ignore his white supremacist manifesto in favor of more important conversations like “WHY DOES HE LOWKEY LOOK LIKE THIS OTTER.” Even fans of other killers are starting to get offended by the indiscriminate fangirling. “It pisses me off to no end when people compare Charleston to Columbine,” one Columbiner shot at Roof’s fans. “Harris and Klebold were both CLEARLY mentally ill. It’s obvious to anyone who reads up on them at ALL. Roof is strictly racist.”
Killer fans who get disillusioned with the genre can always hop over to Tumblr’s bustling backlash movement. “James Holmes is guilty and I spent nearly 3 years fangirling over his sorry ass,” one former Holmie lamented when she finally closed her blog. Now she uses her Photoshop skills to take idolized killers down a notch. (She recently digitally dressed Dylann Roof in a Confederate flag thong.) The former Holmie gets to indulge all her old obsessions, scan the same photos, and blog on the same tags, just now with a little less shame. “It’s a horrible guilty pleasure,” she writes, “and a great outlet.”
*Correction, July 23, 2015: This article originally misidentified the film The Dark Knight Rises as The Dark Night Rises.