On Instagram, Madison Mogen showed us a certain kind of perfect life. Whatever struggles she may have endured before falling victim to a killer one night in Moscow, Idaho, on November 13, on Instagram she is always smiling. Her account is like a prototype for what social-media culture demands of young women and girls: that they look happy, sexy, occasionally pensive, and, above all, enviable.

Mogen, 21, shows us the life of a pretty, blonde American college girl, a popular sorority girl (she was a member of Pi Beta Phi). She poses in formals and bikinis and “the cutest outfits,” as she describes them, often popping her foot or bending down playfully, touching her knees. She strides gaily into a building at the University of Idaho, in a post she captioned, “heaven is a place on earth.” She visits Cabo and Jamaica with friends, many of them blonde young women who resemble her.

“Lucky meee I have the best friends ever :),” Mogen captioned a picture of herself going Jet-Skiing with two other blondes. “Beautiful,” “cute,” “stunning,” “gorg,” her friends commented on her posts, fulfilling their duty per social-media conventions to comment enthusiastically and with many emojis.

It’s chilling, now, to think that Bryan Kohberger could have been watching all this, seeing Mogen, with her sweet smile and twinkling eyes, living her seemingly perfect life. You wonder if it made him angry, jealous. Was Instagram, for him, like a gallery of women to date, or, perhaps, target for violence?

Kohberger, 28, formerly a graduate student at Washington State University, has been accused of killing Mogen and her roommates, Kaylee Goncalves, 21, and Xana Kernodle, 20, as well as Kernodle’s boyfriend, Ethan Chapin, 20, entering the girls’ house around four A.M. and stabbing them to death in their beds—a story that AIR MAIL contributor Howard Blum detailed in this publication.

In January, People reported that Kohberger had followed the three female victims on Instagram and, about two weeks before the murders, messaged one of them repeatedly. “‘He was definitely persistent,’ said an investigative source on the case. ‘He slid into one of the girls’ DMs several times but she didn’t respond. Basically, it was just him saying, ‘Hey, how are you?’ But he did it again and again.’”

It’s chilling, now, to think that Bryan Kohberger could have been seeing Madison Mogen, with her sweet smile and twinkling eyes, living her seemingly perfect life.

Having a random guy slide into their D.M.’s (direct messages) wouldn’t cause most women alarm. However creepy, it’s now viewed as a regular feature of modern dating, with magazines and YouTube videos advising men on what types of messages to send in order to get a response. Most women will simply ignore the guy, which is what Mogen reportedly did. You wonder if being ignored made Kohberger irate.

Was Instagram, for the murderer, like a gallery of women to date, or, perhaps, target for violence?

The police haven’t told us the motive in this case, but it seems like everybody has a theory. Women I’ve spoken to have said since the story broke that they believe the Idaho student murders were committed by someone who hates women. Which unfortunately wouldn’t be surprising. Femicide is an under-discussed problem in the United States, where nearly three women are murdered every day, most often by current or former intimate partners. In the Idaho case, it was the look of the victims that first raised suspicions that this was a hate crime.

Dylan Mortensen, Xana Kernodle, Bethany Funke, Kaylee Goncalves, and Madison Mogen. Of the five roommates at the 1122 King Road house, in Moscow, Idaho, only Mortensen and Funke were spared.

There was the fact that this happened in a house full of attractive girls (Chapin was just visiting). And the nature of the killings—by knife, as the victims lay in bed—seemed like a horrifying substitute for rape. A former F.B.I. agent, Jennifer Coffindaffer, told Newsweek days before Kohberger was arrested that she believed the murderer was “an individual with absolutely horrible, murderous desires against these women” and “perverted thoughts and anger toward women [in general].... They’re known as incels.”

Down the Incel Rabbit Hole

Since Kohberger’s arrest, there has been mounting speculation about whether he qualifies as an incel. Incels, short for “involuntary celibates,” are heterosexual men who blame women for their lack of romantic success. On hundreds of online forums, Web sites, and blogs in the so-called manosphere, they promote women-hating and anti-feminism. They also tend to subscribe to white supremacy, and their rhetoric is often violent.

Over the last decade, incels have been tied to dozens of assaults and murders, as well as a couple of mass murders, including the 2018 attack by Alek Minassian, then 25, who plowed a van into a group of pedestrians in Toronto, killing 11 people and injuring 15, predominantly women. “The Incel Rebellion has already begun!,” Minassian wrote in a Facebook post prior to his attack. “We will overthrow all the Chads and Stacys!”

In the lexicon of incels, Stacys are beautiful, typically blonde girls who deny incels sex. Incels believe it is their right to have sex with Stacys (forget about what Stacys want) and hate them because they can’t have them. They see Stacys as stupid and shallow because they prefer men whom incels refer to as “Chads”: square-jawed jocks who enjoy great success with women, due only (incels say) to their handsomeness.

Kernodle with her boyfriend, Ethan Chapin, both 20 when they were murdered.

You can see how an incel might have regarded the house where the Idaho victims lived as a veritable nest of Stacys. (The surviving roommates were also pretty blondes.) This was the house Kohberger drove past at least 12 times, as if doing surveillance, which police say they know from his cell-phone records. What was he looking for when he repeatedly rolled past? Was he already planning an attack? Or was he looking for a glimpse into what he saw as a golden world full of beautiful blondes and their popular clique?

Kohberger’s apparent obsession with girls deemed out of his league goes back to an early rejection. In middle school, in Brodheadsville, Pennsylvania, his heart was reportedly broken by Kim Kenely, a future high-school cheerleader. By all accounts an overweight, awkward boy, Kohberger “would become relentless in his pursuit, repeatedly leaving love letters in [Kenely’s] locker and telling her he liked her,” reported the Daily Mail. “She’d say, ‘Oh my God, leave me alone,’” Kenely’s mother, Sandra, told the paper.

Kohberger’s apparent obsession with girls deemed out of his league goes back to an early rejection.

In interviews, former classmates say that Kohberger was “bullied” by the popular girls in school. “They literally tortured him,” said an unnamed source. In his senior year of high school, he lost about 100 pounds, apparently in an attempt to fit in, turning himself into a frightening-looking version of Daniel Day-Lewis in The Age of Innocence. But this extreme physical transformation couldn’t change Kohberger’s personality—which reportedly still felt “off” and now was becoming “aggressive” and “mean-spirited,” according to former classmates.

In high school, Kohberger reportedly started taking heroin to dull the pain of his existence (he later went to rehab and got sober). “I feel like an organic sack of meat with no self worth,” he wrote on an online forum when he was 16, in 2011. He developed a rare condition, visual snow (spots before the eyes), which he said coincided with an increasing “absence of emotion.”

And yet, through his trials and tribulations, Kohberger was apparently still harassing his female classmates. “If he liked or was interested in a girl and she wasn’t, he didn’t understand why or just didn’t accept her saying no and move on,” Dominique Clark, who attended elementary and high school with Kohberger, told the New York Post.

Later, Kohberger’s reported misogyny extended to locker-room talk. “There was a comment that he made, and it was kind of a flippant guy talk thing,” Benjamin Roberts, a fellow grad student at Washington State University, told CBS News. “At one point, he just idly mentioned, you know, ‘I can go down to a bar or a club and pretty much have any lady I want.’”

“If he liked or was interested in a girl and she wasn’t, he didn’t understand why or just didn’t accept her saying no and move on.”

From everything we know about Kohberger, this sounds doubtful, the bravado of a man who would like to be a player but drives a white Hyundai Elantra. At Washington State, where he was pursuing a Ph.D. in criminology, Kohberger reportedly turned off his female classmates by mansplaining to them. “His peers said he rankled some people with a habit of overexplaining, and sounded particularly condescending when he spoke to his female classmates,” The New York Times reported.

Mogen on a boat day with friends, which she documented on her Instagram.

In the manosphere, incels like to talk about how they suffer from women’s disregard, never taking responsibility for how their own misogynistic attitudes and behavior might be what’s pushing women away. Another window into Kohberger’s apparent failure to connect with women is in the story of Hayley Willette, 26, who in January posted a TikTok about her Tinder date with Kohberger seven years ago, when she was an undergrad at Penn State Hazleton and he was probably living with his parents in nearby Albrightsville.

Willette said Kohberger “kept trying to touch” her, making her uncomfortable, until she finally got him to leave, after which he messaged her, saying she had “good birthing hips”—a small detail which suggests that Kohberger may have spent time in the manosphere. Incels believe that women “exist purely for their reproductive and sexual capabilities,” according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

One can see now how an incel might have regarded the house where the four Idaho victims lived as a veritable nest of “Stacys”—beautiful, typically blonde girls who, in the lexicon of incels, deny them sex.

Eleven days before the Idaho murders, according to The New York Times, Kohberger had a meeting with faculty members at Washington State University, which had been investigating his professionalism and “his conduct around women” in his role as a teaching assistant. “Some female students reported that Mr. Kohberger had made them feel uncomfortable,” including by allegedly “following a female student to her car.” He was fired in December.

“Incels like to be known for when they kill people, or when they have a conquest like this,” Dr. Carole Lieberman, a forensic psychiatrist, said on Court TV. On the night of the murders, the killer left his knife sheath on the bed where Mogen and Goncalves had been sleeping. That knife sheath bears Kohberger’s DNA, according to police. But if Kohberger was indeed the killer, you wonder how a grad student in criminology managed to forget this vital piece of evidence. Did he leave it there accidentally? Or was it a way of marking his kill? If the killings were sexually motivated, then the sheath was akin to a discarded condom—proof that its owner was the one who had been there, violating those popular, good-looking young people.

Before Kohberger was arrested, a Facebook group devoted to discussing the murders was visited by a user who called himself “Pappa Rodger.” Some group members later noticed that the person with this username had guessed rather too accurately about the knife sheath being left at the scene: “Of the evidence released,” Pappa Rodger commented, weeks before police released this detail, “the murder weapon has been consistent as a large, fixed blade knife. This leads me to believe they found the sheath.”

Some believe Pappa Rodger was Kohberger himself—which would make his username a nod to his identification with incels, as well as a kind of brag. Elliot Rodger was the name of the misogynistic terrorist who killed 6 people and injured 14 others in Isla Vista, California, in 2014, when he was 22, before turning a gun on himself. Rodger is a hero to the incel movement, which the U.S. Secret Service’s National Threat Assessment Center has identified as a growing domestic-terror threat. Through his murder spree and his online manifesto, in which he blames his “loneliness and isolation” on women, “for refusing to have sex” with him, Rodger became the incel king. “All hail the Supreme Gentleman Elliot Rodger!,” Alek Minassian wrote on Facebook before his 2018 Toronto attack. Incels cheered.

The last picture Goncalves ever posted on Instagram.

We are haunted by the last photo Goncalves posted on Instagram, just hours before she and her roommates died. There is Mogen, smiling, sitting on the shoulders of Goncalves. They were like sisters, inseparable since sixth grade. There are Kernodle and Chapin, embracing. Whoever killed them killed four people with loving connections—the types of connections Kohberger never found in life and coveted in others.

The senselessness of it is infuriating. Is that why we’ve become so obsessed with this story? And yet, many other murders occur that are as shocking and deserving of our attention. So why the Idaho victims? Could it be that we’re as obsessed with Stacys as incels are? “Dead white girl, holy grail of podcasts,” remarks B. J. Novak as the cynical podcaster in the movie Vengeance.

Nancy Jo Sales is a journalist whose 2010 article for Vanity Fair, “The Suspects Wore Louboutins,” inspired The Bling Ring. She is the author of American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers and Nothing Personal: My Secret Life in the Dating App Inferno