There’s a reason you’re obsessed with certain celebs, and it’s why people turn into dangerous stalkers
It’s called parasocial interaction
by Katie Way
Would you die for Rihanna? Do you know that if you met Mindy Kaling just once you guys would completely click?
There’s a psychological reason we feel oh-so attached to our favorite celebrities: Our brains trick us into believing we really know people we only experience through their music, or movies, or social media accounts.
This phenomenon is called parasocial interaction, a phrase first coined by psychologists Donald Horton and R. Richard Wohl in 1956 in their paper titled "Mass Communication and Para-social Interaction."
Basically, parasocial interaction is the connectivity or sense of shared experience felt by a spectator while consuming media produced by a performer. Despite the fact that the performer has no idea the viewer even exists, a sense of attachment forms as the cache of seemingly shared moments builds.
“Parasocial relationships psychologically resemble those of face-to-face interaction but they are of course mediated and one-sided,” according to A Dictionary of Media and Communication. “On the rare occasions when we encounter celebrities in the street we may smile involuntarily in recognition that we know them but we are obliged to realize that they do not know us.”
Obviously, there’s nothing wrong with being an emotionally invested fan. I once cried watching Cardi B freestyle because I’ve been following her since I was in high school and I’m just… so fucking proud of her.
But parasocial relationships aren’t always harmless, especially not to the unwitting object of that relationship.
That’s where the issue of stalking comes into play. Stalking is practically par for the course for celebrities, but that doesn’t make it any less frightening. Taylor Swift, Björk and Beyoncé are among many celebrities who've dealt with stalkers. Sandra Bullock’s infamous 911 call after her stalker broke into her home in 2014 is still chilling to listen to years later.
But most celebrities are lucky enough to live in gated communities and employ security teams. Most of the millions of American women who are currently being stalked are not nearly as lucky, according to TV producer and victim’s rights advocate Lenora Claire.
Claire has plenty of first-hand experience with stalking- she’s been stalked since 2011 by a man who was previously arrested for stalking Ivanka Trump. She has given numerous interviews and appeared on television shows like 48 Hours to discuss her own experience with stalking and to raise awareness of the issue of stalking as a whole.
According to Claire, her stalker first latched on after he saw her in a magazine. "LA Weekly had made me one of the people of the year, so I had a nice profile in there, a cute photo and all that,” Claire said. “I guess he just decided I was an appealing target.”
The man, whose legal name is Cloud Starchaser, approached her in her art gallery dressed in a spacesuit. He told her she reminded him of Jessica Rabbit, called her “a supreme being” and let her know he intended to stalk her. He has done so ever since.
Parasocial interaction is not the only factor that contributes to stalking- Claire stressed repeatedly that her case is unusual in that she did not know the man who stalks her before the ordeal began. Most victims of stalking know their aggressor, usually from some kind of prior relationship.
But as a former casting director and a current TV producer, Claire has an active social media presence which means that strangers like her stalker have an easier time keeping tabs on her. The same thing goes for celebrities, for whom maintaining an active social media presence is basically a job requirement.
Not only can social media drive parasocial attachment, it can help stalkers track their targets through geotagging and online information registries. Claire recommends trying to remove any excessively personal information about yourself from the internet, and to avoid posting a picture until after you've left the location where it was taken.
"We tell people now promote your social media, get yourself out there, get as much attention, hype your thing but we’re not really telling people how to protect themselves," Claire said.
Although celebrity stalking cases are often highly publicized, the laws that restrict the access a stalker has to their victim are severely outdated. According to Claire, most of the anti-stalking legislation currently on-book is from 1992, before the rise of the internet- let alone social media.
That's why Claire is working with Congressman Adam Schiff to push legislation that takes a harder stance on stalking. She also wants to push social media sites, which are largely unregulated by the government, to self-police content by allowing people who have restraining orders for stalkers to submit their order to expedite the process of reporting stalkers who create multiple accounts to target their victims.
With the restraining order in hand, social media sites will be able to identify a stalker's IP address and delete any accounts associated with that address and attempt to interact with the party with the restraining order.
Celebrities, for their part, can be most helpful on the legislative front. "It’s always nice to get celebrity support," Claire said. "I would love to see them coming forward and helping with legislation." Claire named Pauly Perrette, star of NCIS and TV host and musician Dave Navarro as celebrity supporters of her cause. Perrette herself has also been stalked, and Navarro's mother was murdered by her stalker, an ex-boyfriend.
But Claire said that despite widespread support from the people who see her on TV or read about her story online, legislative progress has been slow. "Let’s be frank," Claire said. "The reason why this crime is treated the way it is is because it largely happens to women. That’s absolutely part of it."
And unfortunately, until law enforcement takes stalking more seriously, the most sinister byproduct of parasocial attachment will continue to have dire consequences.
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