Columbine shooters Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were hardly the bullied outcasts bent on revenge that they were made out to be — they wanted to see the world burn.
On April 20, 1999, the Columbine High School Massacre in Littleton, Colorado brought a violent end to a time of relative innocence in American society and culture. Gone were the carefree days of the Clinton era — here was the dawn of active shooter drills and daily fears for our children’s safety.
And it was all thanks to two troubled teens: Columbine shooters Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold.
The initial shock of the massacre quickly turned to total confusion: Parents, teachers, police officers, and journalists were all mystified as to how two teenagers could so easily and seemingly joyfully murder a dozen classmates and a teacher.
The baffling question never really went away. Just as recently as 2017, the biggest mass shooting in U.S. history left Las Vegas in terror — and served as a stark reminder that Columbine shooters Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold may have been only the beginning of a troubling trend that persists to this day.
In 1999, however, Columbine shooters Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold became the nation’s first poster boys for the phenomenon — and the first to be widely misunderstood. While the myth that they had been bullied and ostracized by the proverbial jocks and popular kids quickly filled the airwaves, that was an entirely unfounded narrative.
The truth was more complicated, and thus, harder to digest. In order to crack the surface of why the Columbine shooters went to slaughter that day in April, we have to take a close and objective look at Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold — beneath the headlines and beyond the mythologized facade.
Eric Harris was born on April 9, 1981, in Wichita, Kansas, which is where he spent his early childhood. His family then moved to Colorado once he became a teenager. As the son of an Air Force pilot, Harris had moved around fairly often as a boy.
Ultimately, the family put down roots in Littleton, Colorado when Harris’ father retired in 1993.
Though Harris’ temperament and behavior were seemingly as “normal” as anyone else’s at his age, he did appear to have trouble finding his place in Littleton. Harris wore preppy clothes, played soccer well, and developed an interest in computers. But he was also harboring a deep hatred for the world.
“I want to tear a throat out with my own teeth like a pop can,” he once wrote in his journal. “I want to grab some weak little freshman and just tear them apart like a fucking wolf. Strangle them, squish their head, rip off their jaw, break their arms in half, show them who is God.”
He was more than angry, it seemed from his own words, but genuinely of the belief that he was bigger and more powerful than the rest of the world — which he desperately wanted to quash. Meanwhile, Harris met Dylan Klebold, a fellow student who shared some of these dark ideas.
While Eric Harris was an unpredictable ball of volatile energy, Dylan Klebold appeared more introverted, vulnerable, and quietly disillusioned. The two teens bonded over their shared dissatisfaction with school but varied significantly in their personality traits and dispositions.
Born on Sept. 11, 1981 in Lakewood, Colorado, Dylan Klebold was considered gifted as early as grammar school.
As the son of a geophysicist father and a mother who worked with the disabled, his upper-middle-class upbringing and well-meaning family didn’t seem like contributing factors to his eventual killing spree. On the contrary, Klebold’s parents even combined their efforts by forming their own real estate company — substantially increasing the family’s income and providing a comfortable home environment for Klebold.
A pretty standard childhood of baseball, video games, and studious learning comprised Klebold’s early years. He enjoyed bowling, was a devoted fan of the Boston Red Sox, and even did audio-visual work for school productions. It was only once Eric Harris And Dylan Klebold joined forces that their shared dissatisfaction began to morph into something more tangible.
Eric Harris And Dylan Klebold Join Forces
United in their cynical view of the world, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold spent their time playing violent video games, dressing in black, and eventually, diving deeply into their mutual curiosity and affection for guns and explosives — or more generally, destruction.
This union, of course, didn’t turn into the blueprint for a school shooting overnight. It was a slow, steady relationship that seemed largely based around a mutual hatred and disgust for their surroundings. In the beginning, Harris and Klebold were just angsty teens working at a local pizza place together.
While the claim that Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were part of the Trenchcoat Mafia was yet another myth, they certainly dressed like the group — a school clique of self-described loners and rebels who dressed in all-black garb.
The duo’s waning interest in academics was soon reflected in Klebold’s grades. His depression and rage simmered and showed themselves in his work, once even causing him to hand in an essay so gruesome his teacher later remarked that it was “the most vicious story she’d ever read.”
Klebold and Harris delved deeper into their online interests as well. On their website, the soon-to-be Columbine shooters openly plotted destruction and violence against their community and even called out specific people by name. In 1998, junior Brooks Brown discovered his name on that very website and that Harris had threatened to murder him.
“When I first saw the Web pages, I was utterly blown away,” said Brown. “He’s not saying that he’s gonna beat me up, he’s saying he wants to blow me up and he’s talking about how he’s making the pipe bombs to do it with.”
Klebold and Harris’s enthusiasm for violent video games was often cited as a direct link to and cause of the Columbine shooting. Of course, Klebold was also severely depressed and both he and Harris developed an obsession with Adolf Hitler shortly before the events of April 20, 1999, but video games were merely a more digestible target for the media to latch onto.
Indeed, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold fostered an unhealthy interest in Hitler, Nazi iconography, and the violence of the Third Reich. They slowly drifted to the peripheries of their community, actively giving each other a Hitler salute as a greeting or while bowling together.
What’s more, Harris and Klebold were meanwhile amassing a small arsenal of weapons. Klebold and Harris were no longer mere fans of violent video games like Doom but had obtained three weapons that would later be used in the shooting from a female friend who was old enough to purchase guns in the state of Colorado. They acquired a fourth weapon, a bomb, from a coworker at the pizza place.
Klebold and Harris went so far as to record videos of themselves at target practice with their weapons, discussing the fame they would receive after their massacre. “I hope we kill 250 of you,” Klebold said in a video. The footage is a part of a series the pair recorded called Hitmen for Hire.
The Chicago Tribune reported that in the videos, Harris and Klebold “had their friends pretend to be jocks, and they pretended to be gunmen shooting them.” The production included practical effects for gunshot wounds.
Columbine junior Chris Reilly said the two future Columbine shooters “were a little upset they couldn’t show their video to the whole school. But there were guns in every scene of the video, so you can’t show that.”
The boys even submitted creative writing essays that highlighted their bloodlust and aggression. A teacher commented on one such essay of Klebold’s by saying “Yours is a unique approach and your writing works in a gruesome way — good details and mood setting.”
It was in 1998, the year before the shooting, that the two boys were first arrested. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were charged with theft, criminal mischief, and criminal trespassing for breaking into a van and stealing belongings therein.
Though they were merely placed into a diversion program consisting of community service and counseling, the two were released a month early. Klebold was called “a bright young man who has a great deal of potential.”
That was in Feb. 1999. Two months later, the massacre took place.
The Columbine Massacre
Though April 20 was Adolf Hitler’s birthday, it was actually only a coincidence that Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold carried out their attack on that particular date. The boys had actually intended to bomb the school the day before, which was the anniversary of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. But the local drug dealer who was supposed to provide Harris and Klebold with their ammunition was late.
While the school shooting is largely remembered by most to have gone as the pair planned, this couldn’t be further from the truth.
The Columbine shooters were obsessed with the mayhem Timothy McVeigh had wrought in Oklahoma City a few years earlier, and were desperate to outdo him, CNN reported.
This required more than mere firepower and so Harris and Klebold built pipe bombs over the course of several months before the attack. While they’d successfully managed to build them, the two then also decided to escalate things even further and consequently made two 20-pound propane bombs for the big event.
Harris and Klebold weren’t just playing video games like Doom in their spare time, but also used the Internet’s DIY resources, including The Anarchist Cookbook, The Guardian reported, to learn about sophisticated bomb making. Of course, the day of the shooting proved they hadn’t learned quite as much as they’d thought.
Initially, the idea was to set off bombs in the school cafeteria. This would induce mass panic, and force the entire school to flood outside into the parking lot — only for Harris and Klebold to spray rounds of bullets into every single person they could.
When emergency services arrived, the pair planned, they would detonate bombs attached to Klebold’s car and demolish any rescue efforts. All of this might’ve occurred if the bombs actually worked — which they didn’t.
With the bombs failing to go off, Harris and Klebold changed their plans and entered the school at about 11 a.m., after they’d killed three students outside the school and wounding several others. From there, they began to shoot anyone they encountered and deigned worth their time. For slightly under an hour, the pair killed a dozen of their peers, one teacher, and wounded 20 more people.
Before they eventually turned the guns on themselves, the two shooters reportedly taunted their victims with a glee so disturbing it could understandably sound fictional.
Sadistic, Gleeful Killing
The majority of the fatalities during the Columbine High School massacre occurred in the library: 10 students would never make it out of the room that day. Klebold allegedly shouted “We’re going to kill every one of you,” and the Columbine shooters began shooting at people indiscriminately and tossing pipe bombs around without any notion of who exactly would be killed.
However, the sadism on display was extreme, with anyone who was injured or crying out of sheer terror immediately becoming a priority for the shooters.
“They were laughing after they shot,” said Aaron Cohn, a survivor. “It was like they were having the time of their life.”
Student Byron Kirkland likewise remembered those moments as a joyous time for Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold.
“There was a girl crouched beneath a desk in the library, and the guy came over and said, ‘Peek a boo,’ and shot her in the neck,” said Kirkland, recalling Klebold’s vicious killing of Cassie Bernall. “They were hooting and hollering and getting a big joy out of this.”
Before the SWAT team finally entered the building at 1:38 p.m., Columbine shooters Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold had carried out a vicious massacre with seemingly no shred of pity for any of their victims.
One girl was shot in the chest nine times. In the window of one classroom, a student put up a piece of paper that read, “Help me, I’m bleeding.” Others tried to get out through heating vents or used anything at their disposal — desks and chairs — to barricade themselves. There was blood everywhere and sprinkler systems set off by the pipe bombs only added to the chaos.
One student saw either Harris or Klebold (the account remains unclear) shoot a kid at point-blank range, in the back of the head. “He was just casually walking,” said Wade Frank, a senior at the time. “He wasn’t in any hurry.”
By the time law enforcement decided to storm the building, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold’s rampage was long over. After slightly under an hour of terrorizing and traumatizing some 1,800 students in ways that would haunt them for the rest of their lives, the two shooters had committed suicide in the library.
In the meantime, parents were ushered into a nearby elementary school to provide authorities with their children’s names so they could match survivors and victims to their corresponding families. For one parent, Pam Grams, waiting to hear her 17-year-old son be pronounced as safe was indescribable.
“It was the most anxious hour of my life,” she said. “There’s nothing worse.”
For dozens of other parents, of course, it was worse. For more than 10 hours they waited for information about their children, only to be told, in some cases, that they had been killed. It was a Tuesday — one nobody in Littleton, Colorado would ever forget.
Could The Columbine Shooters Have Been Stopped Beforehand?
One of the biggest myths ever spread about the massacre was that it came out of nowhere and that Columbine shooters Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were two regular kids who never displayed any outward signs that they may have been alarmingly troubled.
Columbine author Dave Cullen’s conversations with survivors, psychiatrists, and law enforcement revealed a whole roster of ominous signposts along the way — including Klebold’s thoroughly evolved depression and Harris’ coldblooded psychopathy.
Through Klebold’s personal writings discovered after the shooting, it became clear that he had been suicidal for a while. He also expressed sincere sadness that he wasn’t dating anyone and that anger was potentially boiling beneath the surface at all times, according to CNN.
“The man unloaded one of the pistols across the fronts of four innocents. The streetlights caused a visible reflection off of the droplets of blood…I understood his actions.”
Unfortunately, none of this was discovered or taken seriously before it was too late for the Columbine shooters. The report summarizing Harris’ mental state and development during the temporary probationary period a year prior even ended on a positive note.
“Eric is a very bright young man who is likely to succeed in life,” it read. “He is intelligent enough to achieve lofty goals as long as he stays on task and remains motivated.”
Perhaps that’s because no one wanted to believe hope could be lost on two young men like Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. No one wanted to confront the worst case scenario, no matter how increasingly obvious it was becoming. Indeed, even two decades later, people are still attempting to reconcile how two children could’ve engaged in such immense violence.
The truth is, there was a massive amount of psychological turmoil and potential chemical imbalances that when combined with social stagnancy caused them to lash out in ways that no one wanted to imagine. Hopefully, Columbine’s legacy is one we will learn from rather than be doomed to continue to repeat.
After reading about Columbine shooters Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, learn about the Trenchcoat Mafia and other Columbine myths that spread widely after the massacre. Then, read about Brenda Ann Spencer, the woman who shot up a school because she didn’t like Mondays.