Q: We’re approaching the 34th anniversary of the killing of John Lennon. It seems hardly any time at all, but I guess a complete generation has passed. What’s always made that case so bizarre to me was that Mark David Chapman, the killer, was actually a fan of Lennon’s and had even got his autograph. He also said he received instructions through the central character in J. D. Salinger’s novel Catcher in the Rye. “I kind of felt I kind of was him,” Chapman speculated. Years later, he changed his motive slightly, saying: “I felt that by killing John Lennon I would become somebody and instead of that I became a murderer, and murderers are not somebodies.” But he’s never expressed anger towards Lennon and appears to have been a fan, albeit a very unusual one.
A: Well, not that unusual actually. You have to think about fans as points on a spectrum: at the one end, there are those who admire at distance; while, at the other, there are those who love and identify so completely with the artist that they have strong, sometimes overwhelming, passions that either they can’t control or don’t want to control. For example, Nathan Gale was an intense fan of the heavy metal band Pantera. After the band split up in 2003, Gale carried on following the former band members. He went to a gig at Columbus, Ohio. The band playing was Damageplan, one of the splinter bands. Former Pantera guitarist Dimebag Darrell Abbott was on stage performing, when Gale opened fire and killed him. No one quite knows why he did it because he was killed himself in the ensuing melee. He could have blamed Abbott for Pantera’s breakup, but we’ll never know. The timing of the killing December 8 2008 was surely not accident, being the 24th anniversary of Lennon’s death. There’s actual footage of the incident here:
Q: Can we still call them fans when they have such motivations?
A: I agree that we are stretching the term, but we have to acknowledge a few uncomfortable truths. First, a biological one: love and hate are intimately linked in the human brain, according to a study that has discovered the biological basis for the two most intense emotions. Loathing and adoring can result in similar acts of extreme behavior, such as killing. Fans are prone to emotion, which can feed love or hatred. Second, a sociological fact: the media has changed the way we engage with famous people. At one time, we used to read about them, but now we feel almost intimate with them. That’s because the media, especially social media, has closed the distance between us. The third point is that the passions that celebrities excite in us are, for the most part, controllable: most fans manage their habits and practices; but some manage them in a way that is destructive.
Q: I see what you mean. But, when a fan loves a celebrity so much and manages their passion in a constructive way, what makes them switch to a destructive mode? I’m thinking of that Björk fan who wanted to kill her — and himself.
A: That was Ricardo Lopez who, in 1996, sent the singer a package that, if opened, would have exploded with sulfuric acid and who videotaped himself committing suicide in a perverse supplication. The grim and tragic episode dispensed a reminder that fans can be disturbed by potentially anything. While Lopez’s motives can’t be interrogated, it was thought he became upset on learning Björk was seeing the British artist Goldie. You can see Lopez’s video diary here, but, be warned, it makes for uncomfortable viewing:
Q: I’m reminded of the scene in the 1976 movie The Omen, when the nanny throws herself out of the window with a noose around her neck after telling young Damien she loves him: “Look at me Damien … it’s all for you.” She hangs herself as self-sacrifice.
A: Yes, that seems to be the motive, except that this guy wanted to take the object of his love with him. In the event, he killed himself, but the parcel bomb never got to Björk.
Q: Maybe Lopez had somehow arrived at the thought that Björk was interested in him; does this ever happen?
A: All the time. Let me spell this out. Erotomania describes a condition in which someone believes that another, usually a person of higher social status (sometimes older), is in love with him or her. Such beliefs when held by some fans are resistant to extinction. Fans often actively create conditions under which they appear “true”: they rationalize them, making them seem perfectly reasonable. In this sense, obsessive fans control their own destinies, though only with the unwilling cooperation of celebrities. Facing one such fan, Robert Hoskins, across a California courtroom in 1996, Madonna said of his trial: “I feel it made his fantasies come true. I’m sitting in front of him and that’s what he wants.” Hoskins had made three approaches onto Madonna’s property and was shot twice by a security guard. Sometimes fans remain engrossed for years. Mark Bailey broke into the home of Brooke Shields in 1985, seven years after her film début as a 12-year-old nymphet in Pretty Baby. He was put on five years probation, surfacing again in 1992 when he made threats to Shields. Seven months imprisonment did little to stifle him. A legal order in 1998 prohibited him from ever contacting Shields, though he continued to write to her, prompting his arrest in 2000. He was carrying a three-page letter for Shields, a greeting card and a .25-caliber automatic. Occasionally, fans threaten partners. Catherine Zeta-Jones, wife of Michael Douglas, was threatened by a fan who became convinced she stood between herself and Douglas. The fan claimed she met Douglas at a party in Miami in 1999 and had a two-year relationship with him. In one of her letters to Douglas, she referred to Zeta-Jones: “We are going to slice her up like meat on a bone and feed her to the dogs.” She was jailed for three years in 2005.
Q: Incredible. The Michael Douglas case reminds of the guy in Germany who was fixated on Steffi Graf.
A: You mean Gunther Parche, an unemployed lathe operator from Germany, who was obsessed with the tennis player Steffi Graf. At his home, he built an altar in her honor. When Monica Seles replaced Graf as the world’s leading female player, Parche was stung into devising a way of restoring his idol to her rightful place. When Graf met her rival in the German Open of 1993, Parche ran onto the court and stabbed Seles, putting her out of action. During her inactivity, Graf resumed her place as the world’s number one. Parche ended up in prison, but he accomplished his mission. Graf took the number one spot. The footage of the stabbing has been taken down, but you can view the aftermath here:
Q: I bet that other tennis player Anna Kournikova had her fair share of fans too, eh?
A: Oh, too many to mention, but one in particular made big news. William Lepeska, in 2005, tracked Kournikova to within three doors of her Miami Beach residence and settled down naked at a poolside to wait for her. When police apprehended him, he implored the tennis pro-turned-model “Anna, save me!” and later explained: “I had all kinds of delusional assumptions about Anna’s feelings toward me.” Previously, Lepeska had written letters and posted messages on her webpage and though his communication was unrequited, Kournikova, like most other globally known celebrities made herself or, at least, her representations widely accessible (see below). Dave Gahan had a male fan who kept an all-night vigil outside the Depeche Mode singer’s Hollywood home. Gahan ended up headbutting the fan who then sued, claiming brain damage.
Q: Both erotomaniacs, presumably.
A: Lepeska for sure. Gahan’s fan, possibly: gay fans have much the same motivations as all others, remember. But in all the cases, the fans had got into their heads that the celeb was, in some way, reciprocating their intense feelings. Nowadays there is no shortage of media coverage, in print and broadcast, so we have raw material. So we can imaginatively make up narratives about celebs. Most of us create harmless narratives. Some clearly don’t.
Q: So, have fans just turned ugly since the rise of celebrity culture and the media that’s fuelled it, or are there historical examples?
A: Well, in 1949, American baseball player Eddie Waitkus ensured himself a dubious place in history when a female fan shot him. The obsessive fan, Ruth Ann Steinhagen, died last year (see below). All the same, the preponderance of intense fans does seem to be the result of media coverage: we know celebs much more closely than at any time in history. Being a fan today involves watching, hearing and talking about celebrities, empathizing, perhaps even over-identifying with them and compulsively collecting items, like pictures, souvenirs or other artifacts. Fans often labeled obsessive-compulsives, stalkers or even full-on headcases, do not, on this account, do anything that other fans don’t typically do. Fans who crave a special relationship with celebrities can tolerate ambiguous experiences or interpret events that buttress their personally held beliefs. Potentially damaging episodes can be neutralized, setting in motion a kind of irrefutable, self-perpetuating cycle. Compulsive behavior and obsessive tendencies characterize the fans we’ve discussed already. The point to bear in mind is there might be much more psychological resemblance between this type of fan and those who enthuse over celebs but without expressing any thoughts or behavior that might be considered inappropriate.
Q: So let’s return to Lennon’s assassin.
A: Chapman has much in common John Hinckley Jr, who attempted to assassinate U.S. President Ronald Reagan in 1981. Both Chapman and Hinckley believed they were acting as proxies for others when they embarked on their missions to kill John Lennon and wound President Ronald Reagan respectively. Chapman, as I said earlier, said he received instructions through Catcher in the Rye, while Hinckley was motivated by his erotomaniacal fixation with Jodie Foster. In these two extreme cases we can discern qualities common to most other kinds of fans, albeit taken to extremes. Hinckley in particular shares much with the fans of Björk, Graf and Kournikova, in both their spurious romantic attributions and in their delusion that they were responding to the caprice of others. “The obsessive fan who camps on the star’s doorstep has the potential to become either a murderer or a marriage partner,” the media psychologist David Giles reminds us. “The difference between the devoted admirer and the dangerous ‘stalker’ may be alarmingly narrow.” Giles was writing before the rise of social media. Armed with the force of digitized communications, fans who are vengeful, unwittingly fearsome, or perhaps just plan creepy have found a conduit for their words and images. The practice of communicating deliberately hurtful and malicious messages through social media became known as trolling, and the perpetrators, trolls; though, as Giles’s point makes clear, the difference between deliberately harmful trolls and sycophantic devotees may be narrow. Fans are blissfully aware that they share a pseudoenvironment – in this case, in cyberspace – with others, some of whom will be more virtuous, others more nefarious than themselves. Their judgments are directed at those who either are or purport to be celebrities, not each other.