My guest bedroom also serves as my computer room and as a catch-all place for things such as my telescope (nothing fancy or expensive), microscope (also nothing fancy), and odd bits of memorabilia. On the walls are autographed 8 x 10 photographs of celebs I have met over the years at places such as Chiller Theater Conventions. I usually acquire only two or three new photos per year, but, since I’ve been doing this quite a while, the walls are getting pretty crowded.
A visitor at my house the other day asked to use the computer to check her e mail. This happens less and less as internet-linked mobile phones become the rule rather than the exception (though I presently don’t have one), but it still happens.
“Wow, you know all these people?” she asked, looking at the walls.
“No, not really. I just snare the occasional pic at conventions.”
Being decades younger than I (she wasn’t there to visit me, alas), she added “I don’t recognize any of them.”
“I probably wouldn’t recognize anyone posted on your wall either,” I responded, almost surely correctly.
“Oh, I know that one. He was in something years ago.” She was pointing at Edward James Olmos as Admiral Adama, which he played 2004-2009.
“Battlestar Galactica,” I said.
“Yeah, I didn’t really watch that.”
I let her get on with her online activity.
Fame is not actually fleeting, though it does diminish. After all, there are sizable crowds at those conventions seeking autographs of people my guest didn’t recognize, and long dead actors have facebook pages with thousands of friends. Fashionable heartthrobs come and go, however, since youth (relative youth anyway) is always a factor in that particular status. I’m a fan of many of the occupants of my computer room walls, but of all of them I had a true schoolboy crush (yes, at the appropriate age) on only one: Britt Ekland. I was kind enough not to tell her that while she was signing her photo; it’s not something one wishes to hear from someone graying around the ears.
In the last decade there has been an increase in scholarly papers and books about fandom. It is a broad and rich topic, in part because fans vary so much. Sports fans, Harry Potter fans, and band groupies seem have little in common other than focused dedication. The degree of dedication varies a lot among fans, too, but among many it can be intense, even violent. More than a few riots have followed sports matches. There is nothing new about this. In 531 AD a riot broke out at the hippodrome in
Constantinople among supporters of the
Green and Blue chariot teams. (Red and White supporters evidently were a more
sedate bunch.) The rioters ran amok for days, burned much of the city, and turned
their uprising into a full scale revolt against the government. The Emperor
Justinian (a Blue team fan) sent in the troops. According to the historian
Procopius, 35,000 people were killed, making this the deadliest sports riot
ever. Fortunately, fans usually are satisfied just to cheer or boo.
For fans of individuals, the whole relationship is much more personal, even romantic. Psychologists call this sort of fandom Parasocial Interaction, which seems to me a misnomer since frequently there isn’t any interaction. The relationship is entirely one-sided. This sort of fandom can occur without modern media, though I’ll nonetheless refer to a movie for an example. There is a scene City Slickers (1991) in which Curly (Jack Palance) tells Mitch (Billy Crystal) about being smitten by a woman he once espied from a distance.
Mitch: What happened?
Curly: I just turned around and rode away.
Curly: I figured it wasn't gonna get any better than that.
Mitch: But you could have been, you know...with her.
Curly: Been with lots of women.
Mitch: Yeah, but you know, she could have been the love of your life.
Curly: She is.
It is true, though, that modern media are what make the phenomenon a mass effect. When silent film star Rudolph Valentino died in 1926 there was a rash of suicides across the nation. 100,000 people showed up at his funeral and rioted. Nothing like it had been seen before. We’ve seen plenty like it since. Now we are accustomed to millions grieving over James Dean or Elvis Presley or Michael Jackson as though they had lost personal friends. Sociologists often point out that we spend as much or more time in the “company” of favorite stars we see on the screen as we do with actual friends and family. From well-publicized crimes, we all know that some disturbed individuals are unable to distinguish fantasy from reality; a few of them become troublesome or dangerous stalkers. Most people, though, are perfectly aware of the difference between real friends and Friends; they can feel familiar with the cast of the show while knowing they really aren’t.
“Engagement in a devotee world isn't inherently harmful,” according to Jeff Rudski, a psychologist specializing in fandom, Harry Potter fandom in particular. “But for some, the object of devotion begins to substitute for other rewards in life.” Perhaps, but for most folks fandom is not only harmless but life-enhancing. If you wish to see a lot of happy playful people enjoying each other’s company, go to a Star Trek Convention or to Comic-Con. More often than not, we are richer for such enthusiasms. As for our adolescent “parasocial” attachments, long after we have taken down the posters from our bedroom walls they continue to influence our tastes and values in subtle and often unconscious ways. As a possible example, it may be pure coincidence that my first serious romantic attachment was to someone (hi Angela) who bore a distinct resemblance to Britt. Then again, maybe not.