Unlike other mass murderers — Dylann Roof, Anders Behring Breivik, or even the Unabomber — the suspect in the Toronto van attack that killed ten and wounded 15 others earlier this week didn’t leave behind a manifesto.
Instead, he dropped a brief status update on Facebook: “The Incel Rebellion has already begun! We will overthrow all the Chads and Stacys! All hail the Supreme Gentleman Elliot Rodger!” To some observers, this must have seemed as cryptic as the Zodiac killer’s coded messages. But to those familiar with the misogynist “incel subculture” the message Alek Minassian was trying to send was crystal clear: his alleged act of terrorism was intended as a tribute of sorts to Elliot Rodger — mass murderer and patron saint of the internet’s “involuntary celibates.”
It’s been nearly four years since Rodger killed six (and then himself) in a rampage in Isla Vista, California — an act that he saw as an act of “retribution” against the women of the world, those “mean, cruel and heartless creatures” who had collectively rejected him, according to his lengthy manifesto, My Twisted World. But the cult of “Saint Elliot” — as his more fervent fans like to call him — is still going strong.
Elliot Rodgers, also known simply as ER by his admirers, has emerged as the patron saint of online misogynists. His likeness has inspired countless memes that straddle the line between lulzy irony and utter sincerity (one widely circulated picture depicts him as a literal saint, his face Photoshopped into a religious painting). ER’s admirers on 4chan and Reddit also celebrate “Saint Elliot Day” on May 23, the anniversary of his murder spree. Others write strange tribute songs to honor their murderous hero. There are Elliot Rodger T-shirts, and Elliot Rodger T-shirt unboxing videos.
The canonization of Elliot Rodger has a certain twisted logic to it. Misogynists, like conservatives more generally, are fans of hierarchy — and tend to believe that those at the top of the heap deserve to be there. This can easily lead to hero worship that strikes everyone else as vaguely absurd: the semi-ironic talk from men of the alt-right about “God Emperor” Trump, or Milo Yiannopoulos’s cringy habit of calling Trump “daddy.” And so it shouldn’t come as a shock that incels feel the same sort of reverence toward Rodger — a guy who went out and did what most incels only dream of doing.
Now, with less than a month to go before this year’s Saint Elliot Day, incels are embracing Minassian as the newest addition to the sainthood. On Tuesday, a commenter on Incels.me posted a picture of a makeshift shrine to the suspected terrorist, complete with a votive candle, hailing him as “our new saint.” “A warrior of incelibacy,” added another commenter, “peace be upon his soul.”
Elsewhere on Incels.me, Minassian’s newly minted fans hailed the newly minted saint for bringing so much media attention to their movement and thereby bringing their darkly misogynist “blackpill” truths to the masses. “Saint Alek’s bravery might have just woken up 1,000’s upon 1,000’s of incels,” one commenter happily proclaimed. “Welcome, men.”
But it’s hard to imagine this new saint taking over Saint Elliot’s top spot. At a time when so much of internet culture is drenched in multiple layers of irony, it’s surprising how dreadfully earnest and dedicated Rodger’s fanboys — and even a few fangirls — tend to be.
In a post from 4chan now circulating as a screenshot, one anonymous channer offered a surprisingly heartfelt tribute to “the Patron Saint of r9k,” a message board on 4chan popular with incels. “Rest in Peace Elliot Rodger,” it began. “Your Day of Retribution was more than a service to society; it was a gift to men like us men who, despite the supposed equality of America, were left to suffer as virgins. The only painful aspect of this otherwise joyous occasion is the knowledge that you’ll never know the extent of the psychological damage you caused. … maybe we can join each other in [the] afterlife and then we’ll have an eternity to spend together discussing the putrid nature of the sluts we so despise.”
The author ended with a poem:
If I should die, think only this of me
That there’s some obscure corner of the internet
That is forever dedicated to Elliot
Rodger’s fans show up in the strangest of places. In the Singles & Dating section of Yahoo! Answers, a young man identifying himself only as Topher wonders aloud if it is somehow wrong that he admires Rodger as much as he does.
“I’ll be 20 years old in November and ever since I was in 6th grade I’ve had trouble getting a girlfriend,” he writes. “It seems that around the time we all hit puberty girls have become picky with the type of guys they’ll go out with. I’m relatively attractive, I have a perfect facial structure with light brown hair that I style with expensive hair products. I have the newest iPhone, I have an Apple Watch, I have a BMW, I have nice clothes and a good amount of money to compliment a girls expensive tastes. Yet for some reason girls are always dating losers who are broke and treat them poorly. … I see happy couples at my college and I want to kill them. … I want to ruin their happiness and kill them all. I know how Elliot felt and I … admire him so much. Is this a bad thing?”
But the creepiest paeans to Rodger are found not on 4chan, not lurking in “some obscure corner of the internet” but rather hiding in plain sight on YouTube, where Elliot Rodger tribute videos have become almost a genre unto themselves. In one such video, Wiz Khalifa’s sentimental “See You Again” from the Furious 7 soundtrack plays over family photos of Rodger, clips from Rodger’s own videos — and surveillance footage of convenience-store customers fleeing in terror as Rodger shot up the store. A YouTuber calling himself Baby Elliot — and using a childhood photo of Rodger as his avatar — has put up no less than three lovingly crafted if decidedly amateur musical tributes to his hero.
In an even more unsettling tribute video, one young Christian explains how much he admires Rodger and understands the murderous impulses that led him to kill — though the video maker assures us that since he has found Christ he won’t himself “go around killing people for fun.”
There are an assortment of original tribute songs — some jokes, some utterly sincere, and still others that could well be either. In one, a man singing so softly he might as well be whispering performs a musical number called “My Twisted World: Official Elliot Rodger Song,” which seems to consist mostly of the phrase “my day of retribution” chanted over and over again. The video from 2015 had garnered 115 views and a single comment: “How stoned were you?”
Rodger is hardly the first murderer with a cult following. He’s not even the first misogynist killer to have been proclaimed a “saint” — that honor goes to “Saint” Marc Lépine, who murdered 14 women in cold blood at Montreal’s École Polytechnique in 1989. But Lépine was never embraced as a “saint” by anyone other than a small handful of extremist Men’s Rights Activists looking to offend as many feminists as possible. Rodger’s fanbase, for better and for worse, is much broader and much less ideological; many of his admirers seem to identify with him much more fully.
This could be in part because he showed us so much of himself in his videos and in his manifesto. When I first saw his videos four years ago in the wake of his attack, he came across as a deeply troubled young man whose manner was a mixture of awkward and arrogant. Watching his videos again today, I can see glimpses of the strange charisma. His awkwardness, to his fans at least, comes across as an appealing sort of vulnerability; his sneering arrogance, no matter how contrived it often seems in these videos, comes across as confidence.
It’s hard to imagine Minassian developing a similarly devoted following. So far he seems a cipher. He left behind no videos that might humanize him to potential fans. His “manifesto” was a short, impersonal paragraph, little more than a mash-up of incel clichés.
Philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach famously argued that religion was in essence a projection of our hopes and desires: “what man wishes to be, he makes his God.” It seems clear that Elliot Rodger’s fans are guilty of a similar sort of projection: in many ways they want to be Elliot, so they have made him their “saint.”