As desolate guitar notes hung in the air, a few dozen teenagers in Suzano, a small city in the far industrial reaches of São Paulo, gripped hands to form a circle. All dressed in white, they sang and prayed at the school gates through which, exactly a year earlier, many had run for their lives. The walls had since been painted, but old graffiti were still visible beneath the whitewash. “I’ll never understand,” read one. “These bullets hit us all,” declared another.

Here in Suzano, the stains left by Brazil’s second major school shooting cannot be washed clean. At 9:43 a.m. on March 13, 2019, two former students — young men who found their inspiration in one of the darkest corners of the internet — rampaged through Professor Raul Brasil high school, killing seven pupils, one teacher, and one groundskeeper and injuring 11. After carrying out the massacre, Guilherme Taucci Monteiro, 17, fatally shot his partner in crime, Luiz Henrique de Castro, 25, then committed suicide.

On this sunny morning, a lone voice began singing, and survivors and relatives started to chant, with many breaking down in tears. One young woman in the circle held hands and sang along but did not cry. Wearing jeans and a white T-shirt flecked with scarlet and indigo, Raquel Dias, 22, mingled easily with the mourning teenagers. Her face blends strong cheekbones with delicate lines; and that day something about her suggested an uneasiness. She was in Suzano to satisfy an overwhelming curiosity: to finally get close to the people whose tragedy she has been obsessed with since it first appeared on television.

She might have been the only interloper at the memorial, but she was one of thousands who pored over the crime from the safety of their computers. For months, she had soaked up every detail of the story, and at the memorial, she recognized the parents and friends of many of the deceased. For Raquel, it was the climax of a journey into a disturbing digital netherworld.

Guilherme Taucci’s journey toward orchestrating the Suzano shooting began on the internet. After a friend told him about the 1999 attack on Columbine High School in Colorado, Taucci was inspired to plan his own. He was active in the deep web and was a regular contributor to Dogolachan, an anonymous far-right forum notorious for its celebration of violent acts. In the weeks leading up to the Suzano shooting, he sought advice there about obtaining weapons and expressed hope that his ambush would overshadow the infamous Colorado massacre. In Taucci’s real life, things were falling apart. He was being bullied at school, and his maternal grandmother, who had taken him in after his parents abandoned him, had recently died. Then came the day that Taucci and Castro went to school armed with a .38 caliber pistol, a crossbow, knives, a bow and arrow, and Molotov cocktails.

As news of the massacre began to emerge, Raquel was on her lunch break at her telemarketing job in São Paulo. Catching a glimpse on television, she resolved not to pay attention. But after a minute, she could not help watching. As the workday went on, she became more intrigued. Having grown up in a poor city near São Paulo with a high crime rate, she was accustomed to violence, but this was different.

As the weeks passed, Raquel’s curiosity grew. She searched for Taucci’s original Twitter handle but instead found only hundreds of anonymous accounts in his honor. Raquel kept digging and discovered that, while alive, Taucci was known on Twitter by his own numerical code name. That realization opened the door to a whole cluster of different handles and even deeper levels of intrigue.

This was Raquel’s introduction to the true-crime community, a patchwork of content creators across various digital platforms who share a fascination with high-profile crimes, such as school shootings and serial murders. True-crime subgroups exist on Instagram, TikTok, and Facebook, but Twitter is the most popular platform, as it lets users link to outside sources, integrate ASCII art, and write long threads for other members to debate. Such threads include, for example, lengthy speculation about Columbine killers’ Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold’s sexuality and whether Castro, Taucci’s accomplice, suffered from a psychiatric disorder. Members create and share edits of media footage, forensic details of crimes, and their own amateur investigations. Even the smallest pieces of information are echoed and amplified with little or no accountability.

The trend of creating and promoting digital true-crime content in English emerged on YouTube in 2008 and then moved to Tumblr, where the community gained a reputation for idolizing mass shooters. Participants became known as “Columbine stans” or “Columbiners” after the 1999 mass murder. After Suzano, a Brazilian variant began to spread across social media and dedicated fan sites. On a normal day on the fan-fiction site Wattpad, a girl describes how she fell in love with Taucci after his spirit appeared to her. On YouTube, a recently uploaded 24-second video commemorates the anniversary of the Suzano shooting with a montage of images set to melancholy music. On Facebook, in a group dedicated to Taucci, Harris, and Klebold, a young Brazilian girl has posted that she misses Taucci. “He will be my eternally dear psychopath,” she writes.

In Brazil, the true-crime community is made up mostly of members who worship the perpetrators: Harris and Klebold, Dylann Roof from Charleston, and, above all, Taucci. Although engagement fluctuates — and reliably spikes after new shootings — the community has hundreds of active members in Brazil and thousands of onlookers. They are mostly teenage girls and young women, many of whom, like Raquel, come from troubled backgrounds or precarious domestic situations.

Once Raquel understood how this fringe society worked, joining was easy. She set up her Twitter handle for it in May 2019. “Pay attention to people around you,” she wrote, ambiguously, in her first tweet. “There might be a Taucci near you, maybe even at your house, and you have not noticed.”

After a few weeks in the community, Raquel began joining the private WhatsApp groups where dozens of hardcore members gather. Ground rules and topics vary. Some forbid members from making explicit threats; in others, anything goes. “People share very violent footage of killers shooting victims with electronic music in the background,” she says. Still others contain child abuse content, glowing praise of infamous serial killers, and suicide manuals. But what all these disparate groups have in common, Raquel says, is a shared interest in school shootings.

Vitor Oliveira traces his journey into the community back to the day in 2014 when his mother passed away from an undiagnosed stomach tumor. His already fragile relationship with his abusive and alcoholic father continued to deteriorate, and he was being bullied at school. At one point, Vitor attempted suicide. He was always interested in true crime, and as he got older, that only intensified. Late last year, while browsing Instagram, the 22-year-old found a Google Maps page for Columbine High School and saw pictures tagged by members of the true-crime community. He became obsessed. Vitor followed several Columbine students on Instagram but was blocked after posting images of Harris and Klebold. “I was curious about both victims and killers,” Vitor says.

Shy and monosyllabic with an irreverent sense of humor, Vitor spends up to 15 hours a day online streaming video games, chatting with other true-crime aficionados, and posting violent content, like videos of car accidents and suicides, on his Twitter feed. He is fascinated by the psychology of school shooters, by how bold and ruthless they had to be to carry out their plans, and by the kinds of lives they might have lived had they not done so. But his feelings are also conflicted. “Both the guys at Columbine and Suzano were smart, but they only wanted to incite fear,” Vitor reflected. “I would never have had that courage.” Vitor doesn’t have a full-time job, but when he’s away from his computer, he works part-time for a food-delivery app. A few days a week, he’ll bike through poor suburbs of São Paulo with bags of Burger King takeout before returning to the home he still shares with his father.

Sociologists describe behavior like Vitor’s as an effort at empowerment, an attempt to feel in control of one’s own life. Luciana Xavier, a psychologist who researches school violence at the Catholic University of Petrópolis, says that the appeal of true-crime platforms lies in the fact that they’re spaces where young people can test out personas and experiment with risk. “It’s like they are asking themselves how much further they can go,” Xavier says. French-American sociologist Nathalie Paton, the author of a book on school shootings, agrees that this kind of “digital sociability” is a means of figuring out and forming an identity. Teens in these circles will often emulate traits they admire in school shooters, whom they idolize as figures of strength. This is particularly important, Paton says, because many members have been victimized. Having a history of violence, she says, is “one of the main doorways to this kind of community.”

Bullying is a serious problem in Brazil. According to a 2019 report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and an agency connected to the Brazilian ministry of education, 28% of school officials in Brazil reported witnessing bullying or intimidation among students. That’s twice the average of many other countries. 

Aggression is central to the online community’s culture. There is plenty of infighting, especially when no new content is being created or shared. Because there’s no centralized leadership to regulate discussion, members are vulnerable to harassment and shaming. After her identity was exposed, one woman reported that a profile had been created in her name on an adult website and photos of her uploaded onto it. Occasionally, outsiders will also organize attacks on true-crime communities to reveal members’ identities. Known as doxxing, such attacks, along with cyberbullying and hate messages, have driven many to leave the community — sometimes forever and sometimes only to return when a new shooting takes place. Twitter profiles known as “confessions” are used to spread rumors, disseminate memes, and even direct hate at other community members. For a while, the best-known members refrained from targeting each other, but ultimately, many gave in.

In explaining her interest in the true-crime community, Raquel puts a somewhat positive spin on its fascination with violence. Many participants feel “insecure, unprotected, and rejected in their daily lives,” she says, and don’t have many people to reach out to. This drives them to seek out camaraderie online and to find spaces where they can be themselves. “The communities are a magnet because no one has to use a mask,” she says. Over the years, Raquel’s relationship with the community has evolved. After learning about Taucci’s life story, she came to feel a strong sense of empathy for him and is now pursuing a degree in psychology with a focus on bullying. Vitor has a more pessimistic view of the community’s effects. “When a massacre happens,” he reflected, “it is a sign. Today, the students at Professor Raul Brasil have much-needed psychological support, for example, but that only happened after the killings.”

For some, what begins as curiosity can grow into a perverse fascination. In July, two teenage girls celebrated Taucci’s 18th birthday at his graveside in Suzano, bringing Coca-Cola, party hats, and a birthday cake with them. They later posted photos of the event on Twitter. Since then, the Suzano Municipal Cemetery has refused to direct visitors to Taucci’s grave unless the person can prove they are a relative. Survivors of the Suzano attack say that girls periodically turn up at Taucci’s home to ask his family for souvenirs.

At worst, the true-crime community can harbor individuals plotting their own crimes. On March 11, police detained three minors in Avaré, a small city 170 miles west of São Paulo, who were suspected of planning an attack on a school. Rest of World confirmed with one of the suspect’s friends that he was influenced by Columbine and Suzano and that he edited videos about school shootings for the community. While experts say most members pose little threat, evidence suggests that some do plan to live out their violent fantasies.

Raquel left this corner of the internet for a while, but she’s now back posting threads, this time focusing more on issues like bullying and school violence. On her new profile, she pinned a tweet with an image of a white rose behind bars in the foreground and the Professor Raul Brasil school logo in the background. Among a little constellation of stars, she added, “Suzano.”

She is fascinated by how killers like Taucci are created and the underlying causes that drive them. Despite her own hardship, she has made three pilgrimages to Suzano, where she befriended Taucci’s paternal grandfather and even gave him money. “I have empathy for the killers’ stories, for how they felt and were treated,” she says. “I can see beyond the killer and understand why he became one.”

As the memorial in Suzano drew to a close, that spring afternoon, she could no longer hold back her tears. While she openly wept, a bystander offered her a flower. Raquel recognized the father of one of the victims, also crying, and broke down in a fit of panic. “He has suffered so much, and I can’t do anything about it,” she said.