The Fan of the Fans

When Gayle Stever proposed studying Michael Jackson fans in the 80s, her thesis was snubbed. Three decades later, she’s shown why the psychology of fans is not necessarily an unhealthy obsession.

Mar 29 2021, 11:55am

This is part of a special series, The Future of Fame Is the Fan, which dissects how celebrity became so slippery. It’s also in the latest VICE magazine. Subscribe here

It was 1988, and 24-year-old Gayle Stever was struggling to pick a thesis topic for her master’s degree in counseling at Arizona State University. Her adviser gave her a prompt: “What is the most interesting human behavior you’ve ever seen?”

Advertisement

Stever immediately thought back to an experience she’d had a decade and a half earlier, when her mother brought her to Sibley’s department store in Rochester, New York, to buy a $1 Beatles record. There was a large group of people outside the store, waiting.

When the doors opened, “all of a sudden, it was either run or be trampled,” Stever recalled. “I was nine, looking around thinking, ‘I really want this, too, but these people are nuts.’ I couldn’t get my head around it. Why were people doing this?” Remembering that frenzied moment, Stever decided to dedicate her research to figuring out her unanswered childhood question.

When she went to the published literature, as graduate students often do to see what studies have been done previously on a topic, she found that “nothing had ever been done in psychology to study fan behavior.” There was some work from cultural or American studies and sociology, but in the realm of human psychology—exploring what it was that made a fan a fan and why they behaved the way they did—there was a gap.

She soon got clued in to a possible reason why: When she went to the head of her department to get a graduate student grant, he scrawled across the top of her proposal that her idea was “trivial”—not a serious subject for a psychology student to take on.

“People thought that it wasn’t worth doing, because we hadn’t yet been hit
with all this proliferation of media in every aspect of our lives,” Stever explained over the phone. “But when I went out to find fans to study in 1988 anyway, I sure didn’t have any trouble finding a ton of them.”

Advertisement

In the three decades since, Stever has proved that studying fans is anything but trivial. Now a professor of psychology at Empire State College, she has studied the fans of Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen, Paul McCartney, Madonna, Janet Jackson, Prince, George Michael, and Star Trek. And since 2005, she has focused on studying the devoted fans of the musician Josh Groban.

Along the way, she’s been trying to dispel some myths about devoted fans, foremost among them that being a fan is some kind of pathology or mental illness. She’s learned that the motivations for being involved in organized fandom aren’t just rooted in a one-sided obsession with a famous individual, but come from a sense of personal identification and very real relationships with other fans. If we paid more attention, the study of healthy, everyday fandom could help us understand how and why people form relationships and groups with like-minded people, and how that sense of belonging provides us with self-esteem and gives our lives meaning.

It was Jackson who started things off—as Stever was developing her thesis, he was about to begin the solo tour for his 1987 album, Bad. “I had seen some film footage on TV of it from Japan, with people exhibiting exactly the kind of frenzied fan behavior that I was interested in,” Stever said. “Michael Jackson seemed like a contemporary version of Beatlemania.” It would be the first concert she ever went to. She bought tickets to several of his performances, and drove from Phoenix to Los Angeles, not to see the King of Pop, but to witness those who were there to see him.

Advertisement

“Fandom went mainstream in the 2010s,” wrote Aja Romano in Vox in 2019. In the article, Romano explored how fans have gradually become more visible and more powerful, whether they are shipping Marvel movies, Fifty Shades of Grey, BTS, or Taylor Swift. In Romano’s eyes, there was one pivotal moment in that shift: “The 2013 Veronica Mars Kickstarter fundamentally changed the way many creators and fans saw their relationship, evolving it almost instantly from a top-down, worshipful artistic hierarchy to something like an equal partner investment,” Romano noted.

But fan-like behavior is hardly just a contemporary phenomenon. In 1841, fans of Franz Liszt, the Hungarian composer, were so intense that their adoration was called “Lisztomania” or “Liszt fever.” Fans (often women) would rip off pieces of Liszt’s clothing, steal his cigar butts and put them in their bosoms, throw their underwear onstage, or fight over his broken piano strings.

In 1893, when Sir Arthur Conan Doyle killed his character Sherlock Holmes in The Final Problem, readers reacted by sending furious letters to Doyle and, according to some accounts, wearing black bands around their arms to publicly display their grief. Doyle ended up bringing Holmes back to life at his readers’ behest. In the 1930s, science fiction fandom began to gain in popularity, and the first World-Con, or World Science Fiction Convention, was held in New York in 1939. Starting in the 1950s, Elvis and Beatles fans were shown screaming and fainting on television, and then, in 1966, the first episode of Star Trek aired and launched one of the most famous fandoms of all.

Advertisement

By 1994, 53 percent of Americans considered themselves Star Trek fans, but it’s widely recognized that there are different tiers of fanship—from the Trekkies who never miss an episode to those who fly out to Las Vegas each year for the convention or regularly dress up as a favorite character. David Giles, a reader in psychology at Winchester University, began studying the psychology of fame after working as a journalist in the rock music press in London in the late 1980s. His definition of a fan is simple: Someone who calls themselves one. But for a person who self-presents as a fan as an identity, rather than just an adjective—well, there’s a certain amount of extra legwork and personal meaning attached to that.

“Following your fan object in physical space, spending money and time on them, belonging to organizations with other fans, and so on,” Giles said. “But being a fan is somehow different from being an enthusiast—there’s an identity issue too. You have to make it part of who you are.”

When psychologists started studying fans, the focus was on behavior that appeared to cross the line into pathology, sometimes called celebrity worship, or an even more dramatic presentation called erotomania: a delusion that a famous person has fallen in love with you. This delusion can sometimes include the belief that the celebrity is communicating their love through secret coded signals.

Advertisement

The most extreme form of celebrity worship is called “borderline-pathological celebrity worship”; people may report that they would give large sums of money to buy a celebrity’s personal item (like a napkin), or do something illegal for a celebrity if they asked. Being a fan has even been compared to having an addiction; one study found that when the Harry Potter series ended, people experienced withdrawal, depression, and loss of motivation, prompting the authors of a 2009 paper to argue that such behavior resembled the official criteria for addiction.

Yet, when Stever showed up at that first Michael Jackson concert, she didn’t find the frenzied adolescents she was expecting. Instead, she met a lot of adults who were passionate, dedicated, and clear-headed about their fanship.

She discovered that there were vast networks of pen-pal groups who kept in touch about when the next events would be. If you were a Michael Jackson fan in 1988 and you wanted to find other fans, one common way to do it was to place an ad in Billboard or the PennySaver.

Stever got a list of addresses from fans in these pen-pal networks and mailed out hundreds of survey questionnaires. “I got every single one back,” she said. “I think that happened because these people found out I was interested in looking at normative mainstream fandom, and that I wasn’t about trying to make them all out to be crazy people.”

Advertisement

For the next several years, Stever collected surveys and conducted interviews with adult, healthy fans—now the main focus of her research. Alongside Michael Jackson fans, she collected data from a Paul McCartney stadium show in 1990, Madonna’s 1990 Blonde Ambition World Tour, and Janet Jackson’s 1990 Rhythm Nation tour. While people were waiting for the general-admission seating sections hours before a concert began, Stever would walk up and down the line handing out surveys, and people diligently filled them out because they had nothing else to do.

Fans would write Stever letters, sometimes up to 15 pages, and she had a team of five people reading through the text and distinguishing different motivational themes for fan participation. “I just started to build this big set of data about different pop stars, looking at what was the motivation for why they wanted to be such a big fan,” Stever said.

Around 1991, Stever went to a Star Trek convention with her brother when Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was announced. She decided to follow it, and its fans, from the beginning to the end of the show.

Stever never set out to meet celebrities. “That wasn’t interesting to me,” she said. “I was interested in fans.” Nonetheless, she had multiple interactions with Michael Jackson. She knows around a dozen Star Trek actors, and considers several of them friends. She’s met Josh Groban about 20 times. “I sat at MJJ productions on Wilshire Boulevard in Bill Bray’s office sharing all the results of my study and they wanted to know all about it,” she said. “And when I sent the copy of my master’s thesis to the office, Michael read the whole thing and had all these questions he wanted to ask about it.”

Advertisement

Starting from that master’s thesis, Stever has proposed that fans are attracted to the celebrities and media they resonate with on a personal level. In 1991, her study on Michael Jackson fans found that his fans were motivated by perceived personality similarities. Michael Jackson fans saw themselves as creative, but doing their own thing, forging their own path—and they thought Michael Jackson was the same way. When she asked fans to take the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator survey, she found that people often shared the personality type with the personality they perceived their favorite celebrity to have from afar.

“I was like, why am I suddenly insanely in love with a television show?”

Prince fans similarly perceived both Prince and themselves to be deep and introspective. “They were relating to him on a deeper level, whether it was his creativity and his artistry and his introspection,” Stever said. “They think, this is someone who’s like me.”

This still rings true today, said P. David Marshall, a professor in new media, communication, and cultural studies at Deakin University and the author of several books on celebrity and persona. One of his students recently finished research on Harry Styles fans. She found that her subjects were having difficulty determining their own relationships to other men and women, and considered Harry Styles to be open in terms of his sexuality and gender identity.

Advertisement

A fan brings their own personality, life experience, and struggles to the “relationship” with a celebrity, and then interacts with what they perceive the celebrity putting out into the world. It creates a dynamic interaction for people to think about themselves in relation to another person. “Harry Styles was the conduit, the pathway, for people who might be thinking about a different kind of gender identity,” Marshall said. “Not that the celebrity didn’t help produce that, but it’s also the relational product of fandom.”

Having a “relationship” with a famous person isn’t like a typical relationship, because you know them and they don’t know you. In psychology, this is called “parasocial.” Even if you’re not a fan, we all partake in parasocial interactions. We mentally interact with characters we watch on TV, or the characters in books we’re reading, or podcasts we listen to.

Parasocial relationships are when the interaction leaves the screen or page, and you’re still mentally interacting with someone outside the show, book, or music. When people form parasocial attachments, that’s closer to fandom; it’s when a person seeks proximity to a media figure or celebrity because they derive a sense of security, safety, or comfort from that proximity.

Some studies have treated this part of fandom, the parasocial attachments, as pathological. But in a fan’s parasocial attachments, people know that they’re not real relationships, Stever said. “That’s not pathological,” Stever explained. “Someone who has never experienced it might think it sounds crazy, but it’s really not.”

Advertisement

In the early 2000s, psychologists like John Maltby and Lynn McCutcheon began to study celebrity worship. The Celebrity Attitude Scale, developed by McCutcheon and Maltby, is focused on the darker side of fandom. It asked people about scenarios like, “If my favorite celebrity were to ask me to do something illegal, I would do it.” Or, “My favorite celebrity is my soulmate,” and “If my favorite celebrity were to die, I wouldn’t want to live.”

Stever said she noticed psychology papers using the terms “celebrity worshipper” and “fan” interchangeably, and she pushed back against this. Some fans, of course, do go too far. In 1988, Margaret Mary Ray was arrested for driving David Letterman’s Porsche, which she had stolen from his house. She claimed that she was Letterman’s wife, and that her son (who was in the car) was Letterman’s son. She was arrested eight more times for trespassing on Letterman’s property. Stever thinks that cases like Ray can’t be equated to everyday fandom; Ray was diagnosed with schizophrenia, a disorder that two of her brothers were diagnosed with as well. All three died by suicide.

Advertisement

In 2011, Stever looked to see how much fandom and celebrity worship really overlapped. She surveyed 105 Josh Groban fans and 87 Star Trek fans to see how many of them qualified for borderline pathological celebrity worship. The percentage of Stever’s fans who met the criteria was no greater than that of the general population, meaning being an everyday fan didn’t make you more prone to being a celebrity worshipper. If it did, Stever would have found a higher percentage of borderline pathological celebrity worship among her study subjects.

“In any group of people that you can think of there are going to be people who are susceptible to becoming delusional,” said Lynn Zubernis, a clinical psychologist and professor at West Chester University. “And there will be people who are not good with boundaries, or people who have been through a lot of trauma and that impacts the way they react to things. It doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with a fan, but because it is a continuum, there are going to be people who can slide down from the healthy to the pathological.”

It’s also a misconception that fans and celebrities stay totally isolated from one another. Studying Josh Groban fans has been one way for Stever to notice how fans and celebrities are increasingly connecting and becoming a part of each other’s lives. “The fans aren’t just needy and grasping,” Stever said. “The celebrities aren’t just basking in the adulation. That’s the stereotype. I think it’s much more complex than that.”

Advertisement

Many of Josh Groban’s fans consider him someone they “know,” and that is not a delusion. Stever has published research on this, writing that, “Contrary to the way much of the psychological literature depicts fans as celebrity worshippers or stalkers, the largest percentage of the fans observed in this study showed normal social engagement with others outside of their fan activity, and a friendly acquaintanceship with Groban that is similar to other kinds of relationships happening outside of the context of mediated relationships.”

During the pandemic, Alexander Siddig, who played Dr. Bashir on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, has been doing two Zoom calls a week with fans during the pandemic. “He realized people were sheltering in place at home and were feeling isolated,” Stever said.

Psychologists consider something a disorder when it starts to interfere with a person’s life. Zubernis thinks that when thinking about fandom, it’s helpful to apply the same lens, and not assume that fan-like behavior is always crossing that line.

“If fandom starts to ruin your other relationships because you’re spending so much time on it, or if you are spending so much money going to conventions that you can’t pay your rent, or if you are getting in trouble at your job because you’re watching videos all day, then you’ve moved into the pathological,” Zubernis said. “But that can happen with any interest that people have—not just fandom.”

Zubernis started studying fandom when, in 2005, she inexplicably became a fan herself, of the television show Supernatural. “I became fascinated by what was happening to me as a grown woman, as a professional, as a parent, as a partner,” she said. “I was like, why am I suddenly insanely in love with a television show?”

She became concerned that it was unhealthy, and wanted to understand if her newfound interest was harmful in some way. But overall, her work has echoed Stever’s: “There is something in the media or the character or the person that speaks to that person’s identity, that speaks to where they are at that point in their life,” Zubernis said. “There is some need there that is getting fulfilled, which is not a pathological thing. I mean, that’s the case for all human relationships.”

Advertisement

What makes fandom compelling to Zubernis, from a psychological perspective, is what happens after this initial attraction. Consistently, people seek out like-minded others who share their fanship, and then it’s the community of fans that reinforces the fandom and becomes a driving factor of the fan community itself—not just the musician, celebrity, or show. “It’s a whole separate thing that brings a lot of healthy enjoyment,” Zubernis said.

Belonging to a group in this way can boost people’s self esteem and bolster their individual identities. “Fandom allows people to ‘extend the self’ a little,” Giles said. “Fandom allows us to share other special people’s experiences and be part of a bigger community that gives additional meaning to their lives.”

Finding others with shared interests moves fandom out of the realm of parasocial relationships and into real ones. “I would say that the most committed fans I’ve met are as committed to the fandom—to the other fans—as they are to the celebrity,” Stever said. “They have become part of a social network that includes the celebrity.”

Zubernis said that some research views fans as very isolated. “It is this stereotype of the 25-year-old living in his mother’s basement, has no friends, and can’t make romantic attachments,” she said. “That is not really what most fans are like. It’s a very communal thing, because fandom is a community.”

Stever has found that a substantial portion of Josh Groban fans are involved in his charity group, once called Grobanites for Charity, now the Find Your Light Foundation. “I would interview women who were Groban fans who would say, ‘I never was a fan of anything before, but this is so great.’ And they’re having fun, and it’s giving them something that they didn’t have in their lives before,” Stever said.

“All these people who were dressed head to toe in their team colors, or painting their faces. I mean, they’re basically cosplaying.”

Zubernis has found that fan culture is a place where people can be themselves, express their passions without fear of criticism, and find ways to belong as their authentic selves. One study found that women in science fiction fandom were attracted to those communities because of the “nonjudgmental nature of fandom culture and the relationships that they formed.”

Still, fandoms aren’t utopias. A threat to that sense of belonging can threaten people’s sense of self-worth. A study from the University of South Florida gave Harry Potter and Twilight fans tests with questions like, “What type of wood is Harry Potter’s wand made from?” Or, “What two things did Bella Swan say blood smelled like?” Then, they told some of the participants that their score was above average compared with other fans, and some that they scored below average. When someone’s status as a fan was threatened—by implying they knew less about Harry Potter or Twilight—it led to reduction in self-esteem, especially if they were highly identified as a fan.

Advertisement

And as the fan columnist Stitch recently wrote in Teen Vogue, it can be harder for fans of color to escape into fandom because much of the racism that exists in the real world is still present in fan communities. “There’s always a racist person in fandom,” they wrote. “There are always racist fanworks. There are always racist creators. There’s always racism in the source material that people will defend in your mentions for days.”

There are also cases of groups of fans lashing out, like when the fans of Pretty Little Liars threatened the showrunner, I. Marlene King, because they didn’t like how the series ended. These complex dynamics, and the evolution of media fandom, is one reason Zubernis thinks it’s about time it’s taken more seriously in psychology.

It’s happening slowly; the Journal for Celebrity Studies was formed in 2010. But Zubernis is still met with skepticism when she says she studies everyday, healthy fan psychology. “The reaction is always, ‘What now? Why would you study that?’”

With everyday fandom, psychologists can understand the many pathways people take to connect to others, to make sense of their own lives, and more. “They help us understand the reorganization of the relationship between the individual and the collective in contemporary culture,” Marshall said. “That’s the beauty of it.”

Advertisement

Fans naturally form themselves into groups, Zubernis said, so it could help with the study of group dynamics and intergroup conflict, or the way that younger people in fan communities work on developing relationships. “You can watch people play out their developmental trajectories in a fishbowl because they are clumped into these groups, these communities that you can study,” Zubernis said.

People used to be more covert about being a fan than they are now. For the first two decades of her work, fans told Stever that they didn’t tell other friends or coworkers that they go to Star Trek conventions. “There was a real fear that they would lose respect,” Stever said. After hearing about her research, an insurance salesman once excitedly confided in Stever that she made an annual trip to Graceland because she was an Elvis fan.

In fan studies, it’s also worth thinking about what kinds of fandoms are more socially acceptable compared with others, and whether that has driven the narratives of obsessive or pathological behavior. “People often assume that fandom is the top of a slippery slope that leads to obsession and a loss of reality, but ultimately, most fans remain perfectly levelheaded,” Giles said. “Partly this comes from the idea that fans are investing their energy in worthless cultural products—if you don’t share their enthusiasm it can seem irrational, but there’s a lot of snobbery involved.”

Advertisement

Zubernis thinks that many fandoms dominated by women can be dismissed as silly or emotional. “You can see it in the way something like the Twilight fandom was dismissed,” Zubernis said.

This attitude can still be easily found. Drew Ramsey, a Columbia professor of psychiatry, told Vulture that being a fan beyond “idle interest” could be creeping into dangerous territory. “Our hopes and fears for our own relationships get displaced onto these fictional characters,” he said. “I understand the desire to escape, but it concerns me when people spend time worrying about fiction rather than improving their reality.” (According to Vulture, Ramsey once liked the TV show Dexter, but gave away his television to “rid himself of the temptation to get hooked on other programs.”)

Yet Zubernis said that a person could travel all around the country following their favorite college football team and “nobody is going to raise an eyebrow. In fact, most people are going to say, ‘Oh, that’s so cool that you’re able to do that.’”

When Eric Wesselmann, a social psychologist at Illinois State University, was younger, he remembers being frustrated that the same kinds of fan behavior that were thought of as nerdy—going to conventions or geeking out over comic books—were celebrated in professional sports. “All these people who were dressed head to toe in their team colors, or painting their faces,” said Wesselmann, who now studies fandom through the lens of social inclusion and exclusion. “I mean, they’re basically cosplaying.”

Advertisement

Only a few studies have tried to bridge the gap between sports and other kinds of fans, finding that both fandoms could be associated with positive outcomes. One that did so acknowledged that there was a “disjuncture between sport and pop culture fan studies that ultimately limits the ability to fully understand the range of fan experiences and fandoms.”

There have been more studies done on the physiology of sports fans, finding heightened hormone levels, for example, when fans watch their teams playing. But many of the psychological effects seem to be similar: Sports fans are also bound together by a community to the other fans, not just to their teams. One psychologist, Daniel Wann, has found in surveys of hundreds of undergraduate sports fans that those who more closely identified with a team had lower levels of alienation and loneliness, and higher levels of collective self-esteem and positive emotion. The more intense a fan is, the greater the positive benefits.

For the psychology of fandom, it’s an unfortunate gap that persists: a separation of media and celebrity fans from sports fans, when the groups could learn a lot from one another.

For her part, Zubernis has only ever been a fan of Supernatural—a fandom that she’s been part of for 15 years. “That is the only thing that I’ve been fan-ish about,” she said. “And now that it’s ended, I don’t really anticipate falling head over heels for something else.”

Supernatural came along at a time in her life when she was in flux. She was moving from being a clinician to a professor; her kids were getting a little older and needed less attention.

“There were a lot of things that I think put me in a headspace where I needed some inspiration,” she said. “And the media that was Supernatural really spoke to me. Then the community that was the Supernatural fandom helped me unleash my own creativity and solidify my own identity as I was going through a transition in life.”

Stever has never been a fan herself, which makes her stand out among “aca-fans”—academics who study the fan groups they are part of. She is instead, she said, a “meta-fan,” or a “fan of fans.”

“I have always known in my heart of hearts that I was not a ‘true’ fan, because when it was time to move on to the next case study, I never had any trouble leaving behind the one with which I had finished,” Stever wrote in 2019.

After moving on from Michael Jackson fans in 1992, Stever learned almost no information about him or his career, even after being so heavily immersed in his fandom. But she had made an impact on the fans. In 2009, when Michael Jackson died, fans who had been part of Stever’s early study found her on Facebook. “They were not people that I had kept up with,” she said. “But they reached out to say, ‘We’re grieving, we’re sad, and we knew you’d understand.’”

She did come close once, in 2003. “I was deeply troubled about our role in Iraq and the fact that we went to war with Iraq and that we were the aggressors,” Stever said. “We all want to have a worldview that we’re the good guys and everyone else are the bad guys. And that wasn’t working for me right then.”

She briefly became engrossed in the Lord of the Rings films, a universe that presented a more simple division of “good guys,” and “bad guys.” She has never studied Lord of the Rings fans because of this personal connection, and her participation in Lord of the Rings fandom didn’t stick.

To this day, the only thing Stever has ever been a sustained fan of is fans themselves. Of all the Michael Jackson, Josh Groban, or Prince performances she’s been to, the Star Trek episodes she’s watched—her attention has always been grabbed by the people offstage and off-screen.

“One of my favorite things to do is just stand back and watch as a celebrity interacts with their fans,” she said. “It’s so interesting to watch that exchange. That’s what sort of defines the work I’ve done, is that I wanted to be out there meeting people, understanding what it meant for them.” Stever has stayed true to her nine-year-old self’s fascination: It remains, it would seem, the most interesting human behavior she’s seen.

Follow Shayla Love on Twitter.

Tagged:

Celebrity, fandom, psychology, The Fame Issue

More
like this
Chase Icon Just Wants to Live Up to Her Name
How to Build a Global Abolition Movement
Aneesa Ferreira Will Do ‘The Challenge’ Until She Can’t 
Huns Weigh In on Hun Culture
The Deuxmoi of It All
White People Keep Posing As People of Color for Clout
A Brief and Garish History of Megamansions
‘We Are Completely Ignored’ – What It’s Like Being a Black Woman in Journalism