Desperate to Fill An Emotional Void, Some Fans Become Dangerous to Their Idols

updated 04/20/1981 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 04/20/1981 AT 01:00 AM EST

Even before women swooned over Rudolph Valentino and bobby-soxers screamed for Frank Sinatra, the fan was an American phenomenon. Usually fans are innocent—devotees who idolize some figure in sports or entertainment or even politics—and show their appreciation by mobbing concerts, demanding autographs and filling their lives with mementos of their heroes. But sometimes fans turn sinister: Charles Manson, at first a Beatle maniac like so many others, came to believe that the lyrics of the White Album were commanding him to kill. Mark David Chapman allegedly developed a lethal delusion that he himself was John Lennon. Two weeks ago John W. Hinckley Jr. brought the nation to the brink of disaster to prove his devotion to a young actress he never met. Dr. Lawrence Z. Freedman has spent most of his career studying aberrant personalities. Following John Kennedy's killing, he developed a profile of presidential assassins for the Secret Service, and he co-founded the Institute of Social and Behavioral Pathology at the University of Chicago, where he is a professor of psychiatry. Freedman, 61, discussed the disturbing implications of America's passion for celebrities with Linda Witt of PEOPLE.

What makes a fan go wrong?

Fan is short for fanatic, which comes from the Latin fanaticus—someone inspired to a frenzy by devotion to a deity. Most fans are normal individuals who become involved in a continuing esthetic appreciation of a star. A fanatic goes further, submerging himself in adoration of the person and at times presuming an intimacy that doesn't exist. On the pathological end of the scale, these people can lose all distinction between reality and fantasy and turn to openly antisocial—even violent—behavior.

Why do those fans lose touch with reality?

The basis of the problem is usually a profound sense of self-loathing and inadequacy—the result of any number of frustrations and hangups from childhood on. To overcome these feelings, they latch onto a star, but there's always the nagging sense everyone can see through them. John Hinckrey's letter shows evidence of that.

What might have triggered Hinckley's imagined relationship with Jodie Foster?

A young man who is very troubled about his sexuality, isolated and fragmented in his personality can project himself into a fantasy relationship with an idealized character on the screen. He sort of slides over from falling in love with the character on the screen to the actress, a woman he's never met.

Could the film Taxi Driver have inspired Hinckley to shoot the President?

In any specific instance, the odds are extremely small that a person will model his behavior on the plot of a movie. It's highly debatable whether a movie like Taxi Driver can inspire anyone to action who isn't already predisposed toward violence. Dangerous persons have always existed—the media don't create psychopaths.

Is it contradictory that a deranged fan like Mark David Chapman would kill Lennon, the man he most admired?

No, killing is a peculiarly and intensely intimate act. Sirhan Sirhan reportedly said he "loved" Robert Kennedy. One speculation is that assassins act like rejected lovers—"If I can't have you, nobody else will." And one way to overcome that crushing sense of insignificance is to become united in death with your idol.

Why is there such a public hunger for celebrities?

This need possibly reflects a breakdown in our institutions. People used to make personal attachments to authority figures in the family or the community. Role models were parents, teachers, priests and so on. But after World War I all that began to change. At the same time these supercreatures—the movie stars—first appeared. I've studied the daily correspondence to Presidents and fan reactions to celebrities and have been struck by how extraordinarily personal most of these messages are. It's a demonstration of our hunger for intimacy, a sign that our communities are no longer of human size.

Why is it that the most passionate fans, and fanatics, are young people?

It's part of growing up. The child's sphere begins to widen beyond the immediate family. Yet the adolescent still yearns for a person to gratify basic biological—sensual—and psychological urges. They seek what they have lost—the mother-child intimacy, then the father-child intimacy, and the perception of Mom and Dad as infallible. Fixating on an idol is a mechanism for making the transition to maturity.

Aren't idols often an outlet for youthful sexuality?

In music, some performers plainly arouse adolescents and prepubescents, who are at the height of their sexual and psychological confusion. The girls who screamed for Sinatra, Elvis' gyrations and the Beatles were having a kind of sexual experience. When Alice Cooper bit off the heads of chickens, he was playing to the aggression and eroticism pent up in his audience. For kids to project their own burgeoning sexuality onto a remote—and therefore safe—figure is a catharsis. But fandom is also a search for self-image. You try to become accepted by a group—of other fans, for instance—in order to become accepted by yourself.

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