Cults for Criminals - Cult Week


By Chelsea Pineda

Photo courtesy of Seatonsnet.

A group of approximately a dozen Dzhokhar Tsarnaev supporters gathered outside of Moakley Federal Courthouse in South Boston on July 10 to show support for the Boston Marathon bombing suspect.

One of the demonstrators, 23-year-old Lacey Buckley from Wenatchee, Wash., told CBS Boston she believes Tsarnaev is innocent. “I just think so many of his rights were violated. They almost murdered an unarmed kid in a boat,” she told the news affiliate.

While the demonstrators chanted, “Justice for Jahar” while donning signs claiming Tsarnaev’s innocence, the virtual aspect of the “Free Jahar” movement, as it has been termed by supporters themselves, has become a major factor in voicing not just support, but affection, for Tsarnaev.

Among other tweets regarding the Boston bombing suspect, the #FreeJahar and #Justice4Jahar hashtags on Twitter, have become a mix of users tweeting words of encouragement for Tsarnaev, conspiracy theories in support of his innocence, and expressions of how attractive they find him to be.

The online presence surrounding this following of young female Tsarnaev fans is somewhat similar to that of those enjoyed by many celebrity actors and musicians, with the creations of Tumblr pages, Twitter accounts, and regularly re-shared photo collages.

What differentiates Tsarnaev’s cult following from other online teenage fan communities for Justin Bieber or One Direction are the part conspiracy theory-inspired, part politically concerned followers who try to separate themselves from the “Jahar fangirl” percentage of Tsarnaev supporters.

Many young women repeatedly voice that Tsarnaev is innocent until proven guilty while others also question what the media is reporting regarding the bombing.

Sheila Isenberg, author of Women Who Love Men Who Kill, which will be published as an e-book this fall, interviewed women who entered relationships with murderers after they were convicted, but still thought them to be innocent.

“They’re denying the crime as a way of allowing themselves to get involved,” Isenberg hypothesizes. “You have to make up some story in your head that says that he didn’t do it or he didn’t really mean to do it.”

Isenberg tells BTR young women may try to rationalize Tsarnaev’s actions by telling themselves that the bombings occurred because he was young and impressionable. While there may be women who truly are concerned with the legal and political aspects of the case, it may still be difficult to decipher if their reasoning for supporting Tsarnaev goes deeper into their developing psyche.

Clinical psychologist and author of Teenage as a Second Language: A Parent’s Guide to Becoming Bilingual, Dr. Jennifer Powell-Lunder, explains that teenagers (who can now even be defined as individuals that are up to the age of 25) are egocentric by nature due to brain development. The first of the two beliefs Dr. Powell-Lunder mentions that go hand-in-hand with this strain of teenage egocentrism is that nobody has ever felt or thought the way they feel and think.

The second concept is that teenagers feel as if people are always watching them, which makes them feel edgy when it comes to being infatuated with somebody that is controversial, says Dr. Powell-Lunder.

“It goes along with the egocentrism of ‘I know better than you do and there is something that I am linking in to that you will never understand,’” says Dr. Powell-Lunder. “That allows these young women to totally dismiss all of the facts.”

Another infamous accused killer who recently gained an online following from young girls is James Holmes, the suspected shooter at the midnight showing of The Dark Knight Rises in Aurora, Colo., where 12 people were killed.

Teenage Tumblr users, mostly teenage girls, have posted pictures of themselves wearing plaid clothing and drinking Slurpees, all in tribute to Holmes. According to The New York Daily News, Holmes was reportedly wearing plaid flannel underneath his body armor that he had on while opening fire in the Aurora movie theater. The Slurpees reference a video of Holmes addressing a science camp when he was 18-years-old, where he says that one of his dreams is to one day own a Slurpee machine.

These teenage James Holmes fans, who call themselves “Holmies” mostly express their admiration through Tumblr, where they share fan art, re-blog pictures of themselves sporting plaid flannel, and post instructions on how to send Holmes mail.

“Holmies” are just one example of an online fan following that, although judged by others for their object of fixation, is also invested in its sense of community. Such interest “… in many ways now spends as much time talking about itself as it does talking about TV shows and movies and comics,” scholar Rebecca Lucy Busker wrote in 2008.

Busker’s explanation correlates with Dr. Powell-Lunder’s of how teenagers fixate on these suspected criminals because of a lack of feeling accepted.

“When we look at these girls from an outside point of view, what we notice is that a lot of these girls who have these types of infatuations tend to be the people who are kind of on the outside looking in,” says Dr. Powell-Lunder. “They’re getting a thrill out of the attention they’re getting from being edgy.”

Isenberg believes that the bigger issue surrounding this topic is that women use this as a way to get their 15 minutes of fame.

“What all these young women have in common is they want to be famous briefly because they live in a society that obsesses and worships celebrities,” says Isenberg.

The cult following of women devoted to the Olympic South African sprinter Oscar Pistorius, who allegedly murdered his model girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp, have proven to be just as defensive in their online presence. These ‘#Pistorians,’ as they call themselves on Twitter, hail from different parts of the world ranging from the UK, South Africa, Germany and Borneo, according to

Pistorius claimed he shot at and accidentally killed 29-year-old Steenkamp because he mistook her for an intruder. Online Pistorians, such as Twitter user @feismumdebi voiced her disapproval towards Steenkamp’s career, tweeting, “errrr like she was a bikini model. ‘Sex sells’!!!! I would be really upset if my daughter posed like that!!!!”

Another Pistorian, @LiliTyger, whose Twitter account is no longer active, posted, “Oh, I’m ugly too, that’s why I’m jealous of Reeva, apparently.”

The Pistorius family even issued a statement in response to this online commentary, saying, “The disregard that is being shown by some – specifically those commenting via social media – for the profound pain that Reeva’s family and friends are going through is very troubling.”

Social media has helped to bring together these online cult followings that label themselves as “Holmies,” “Pistorians,” “Columbiners,” and the “Free Jahar” movement.

Dr. Powell-Lunder tells BTR that social media provides the platform for isolated people who are infatuated with criminals and it becomes an empowering experience for them.

While the fans of Ted Bundy and Charles Manson were known for having the same feelings as today’s Tsarnaev and Holmes followers, platforms such as Instagram and Tumblr have allowed those who have off kilter ideas to join forces to make one front, and open up a new era of criminal cult followings.