On the afternoon of March 30, 1981, in Washington, D.C., then-president Ronald Reagan was leaving a conference when he was attacked with a hail of gunfire. The shooter, John Hinckley Jr., missed the target but hit a police officer, a Secret Service agent, and the White House’s press secretary. Meanwhile, Reagan was hit in the chest by a bullet that ricocheted off the presidential vehicle. After a few weeks in the hospital, Reagan made a full recovery.
A wounded John Hinckley Jr., on the other hand, was immediately arrested. He pleaded not guilty with an insanity defense and was acquitted of his failed assassination attempt at a sitting president. When asked why he did it, he said, “The shooting outside the Washington Hilton Hotel was the greatest love offering in the history of the world. I sacrificed myself and committed the ultimate crime in hopes of winning the heart of a girl.”
The girl was Jodie Foster, star of the critically acclaimed film The Silence of the Lambs. Hinckley developed a parasocial relationship with the actress—or to be more specific, a character she played in the 1976 movie Taxi Driver. He called her repeatedly, sent her letters, and even moved to a different state to follower the actress. His infatuation with a fictional character—and, by extension, Foster—evolved into an obsession that pushed him into attempting murder because he believed it would impress her.
The phenomenon of parasocial relationships has since been the subject of films such as Perfect Blue and continues to shape the way we think of the wider societal impact of celebrities.
Parasocial Relationships: What Are They?
The term parasocial relationship was coined by sociologists Donald Horton and Richard Wohl in 1956. It describes that feeling of connection we form with media personalities as their audience. It’s the sense we have that we will get along with a person who we always see on screen or read about, even if we’ve never actually met them.
Almost everyone who consumes media develops parasocial relationships, especially in the digital age. If we’re not watching movies or reading books, we’re jumping from one social media platform to another. Just look at YouTube, Instagram, TikTok, and Twitter. These websites are full of celebrities and public personalities whose main goal is to connect with their audience. The views, likes, and comments they get are proof that they are really effective at engaging people, who may or may not be forming a parasocial relationship with them.
Fictional characters, like Foster’s Iris Steensma in Taxi Driver, can also be the receiver of this attention. So are characters of franchises, like Harry Potter for book lovers, Spider-Man for superhero fans, or Geralt of Rivia for video game players. The more exposure we have to these characters, the more information about them we collect. That’s why social media influencers are so good at generating engagement from their followers. They let people in on their private lives, which makes them relatable and aspirational at the same time.
And when you think about it, a real relationship—one that isn’t imaginary or with a fictional character—is essentially all about finding out things about a person that we like and might connect with. We form parasocial relationships with living people or fictional characters when we develop an attachment or an emotional bond that gives us pleasure, even though these connections are actually one-sided.
Imaginary Relationships Can Actually Be Beneficial, According to Research
As cringe-worthy as they might sound on paper, parasocial relationships are actually not that unhealthy. There’s nothing inherently wrong with feeling attached to a person who may never know you exist. In fact, it’s only human nature to find something relatable about people, whether they exist only on the pages of a book, behind a screen, or in real life.
Parasocial relationships can give us a lot of positive emotions, from pleasure to inspiration. Perhaps we connected with Hermione Granger as a child because we were also the nerdy outcast in class. Maybe that motivated others to work harder in school because even though Hermione was a little annoying at times, her brilliance and passion literally helped save the wizarding world in the Harry Potter universe. I can now admit to personally having a parasocial relationship with Alex Russo from Disney Channel’s Wizards of Waverly Place because she was spunky, a bit rebellious, and street-smart. I thought I had these traits as a teenager too, which made me really want to become Alex’s friend.
There are many real public personalities who are influencing their audience in a good way. For instance, the Korean singing group BTS has a very organized fanbase called ARMY. To outsiders, they might seem like Kpop-crazed fans with intense parasocial relationships with the group, but the fanbase is actually very involved in charity works and activism. A lot of this behavior is inspired by the philanthropic work of BTS itself, as the group has famously used their influence for good. From partnering with organizations like UNICEF to end violence against children to donating to the Black Lives Matter movement, BTS encourages their army of fans, many of whom feel personally attached to them, to do good.
Interestingly, having parasocial relationships with the same person or group can be beneficial, too. ARMY, Potterheads, Little Monsters—whatever the fandom’s name is, members are united by their shared attachment to a particular piece of media or media personality. Fandoms can get toxic but for the most part, psychologists say that they’re actually good for our overall well-being, especially for younger individuals.
“Belonging to a fandom group helps adolescents connect to their like-minded youths on social media throughout the year, as well as at concert events. Feeling like you are part of a group can help one define his/her identity and give a sense of purpose to what might be an otherwise routine lifestyle,” explains psychology professor Dr. Laurel Steinberg.
When Parasocial Relationships Go Too Far
But as John Hinckley Jr. has demonstrated, there is a darker side to parasocial relationships. Intense attachments we form with any public persona or fictional characters create a danger of evolving into obsession. Hinckley was a mentally ill young man with a history of fabricating relationships. When he discovered Jodie Foster’s character in a movie, he was love-struck and believed he could woo her in his own way.
Many social media influencers have also spoken up about their personal experience with harassment both online and in real life. Parenting and skincare influencer Andreea Bolbea had a scary experience with an obsessed fan who stalked her and harassed her, as well as her family. When she got a tattoo, the follower sent her a message saying, “I can’t believe you didn’t okay this with me. How dare you! You only just got that other tattoo lasered off your arm.”
This level of parasocial relationships, wherein we blur the lines between what is real and imaginary, can become dangerous when we feel disappointed by the object of our obsession. When they do something that we feel they shouldn’t or something that contradicts what we think we know about a person, we feel dejected and hurt. It’s as if we were personally attacked by a person’s decisions even though logically, there is no reason to be given that they don’t even know we exist.
Or, in the case of John Hinckley Jr., people with unhealthy parasocial relationships with real people or imaginary characters might go to extremes to impress them. They spent hundreds of hours “getting to know” a celebrity or influencer that they feel entitled to their attention.
So…Should You Break Up With the Object of Your Parasocial Relationship or Not?
We’ve all had parasocial relationships, whether we like to admit it or not. But not everyone has stalked their celebrity crush or harassed online influencers when their emotions get the best of their logical thinking. Parasocial relationships are not inherently bad, and may actually be good for our mental health and emotional well-being. They could help us stay motivated or feel like we belong to a group of like-minded people.
However, we should all be wary of parasocial relationships that cross a dangerous line—the line that separates fact from fiction. When we allow these imaginary connections to take over our lives in any way, that’s a sign that we might need to “break up” with the object of our parasocial relationships.
For instance, when we prioritize consuming the content of our favorite content creator over hanging out with our friends and family, then we may be developing unhealthy attachments towards a public persona. Or when we feel personally offended when an influencer doesn’t do what you think they should be doing based on what you “know” about them, maybe take a few steps back before leaving a hateful comment on their page.
It’s important to remember that media personalities are people, too. If we romanticize them to a fault, that’s on us. What we see is only a fraction of who they really are or simply the persona they portray. At the end of the day, we can never truly know the individuals we end up developing parasocial relationships with, but we can find more pleasure and emotional connections in the people we actually know in real life.