April 27th, 2015
Dear Professor xx,
I hereby submit to you my research essay on the topic of Celebrity Worship and Para-social
Relationships: True Connections or Illusory Devotions. I decided to write my essay on this
subject to examine the existence, dynamics, benefits, and consequences of celebrity worship and
para-social relationships. My impetus to dig deeper into these subjects occurred because I too
have engaged in these types of connections, although I never knew it had a name until now. I was
also curious to explore to what levels these types of behaviors may occur.
I was very grateful to have found this topic, because as aforementioned, it hits close to home for
me, bringing back welcomed memories of my youth. Many of my para-social interactions during
adolescence were defining moments for me and I learned through my research that they can have
both benefits and consequences, and more importantly, that I am not alone in my tendencies to
develop these seminal attachments. Ultimately, what I discovered was that the issue of true
connections or illusory devotions is arbitrary and singular. As individuals, we are free to make
our own distinctive choices and these include to what level or extreme we choose to engage in
terms of relationships, whether real or illusory. We may expend the same amount of emotional
energy into either and reap rewards or experience consequences, but the choice is always
personal. Therefore, I concluded that these connections true or not, are individual, peculiar
choices intrinsically ours and ours alone.
I hereby confirm that all the work mentioned is original and true to the best of my knowledge.
Celebrity Worship and Para-social Relationships:
True Connections or Illusory Devotions?
Abstract: This paper examines the phenomena of celebrity worship and para-social
relationships, and the predilection of fans to develop and engage in unrequited, illusory relations.
I explore the role of celebrities and celebrity worship in the formation of para-social relationships
and the role media plays in their pervasive development as well as provide examples of how
extreme or pathological para-social behavior may reap emotional and or tragic consequences.
The research will show that it is challenging to seek conclusive answers to the question of
whether para-social relationships are true connection or illusory devotions when the answer lies
within the sphere of human choice.
Progression 3 - Final
Celebrity Worship and Para-social Relationships:
True Connections or Illusory Devotions?
In the late 1970’s, I was an introverted high school student whose main
interests were watching TV, reading books, listening to disco music, and
idolizing celebrities. Quiet and shy by nature, I had few close friends. I lived a
life of meandering what ifs with media stars as my favored, albeit imaginary
companions. My preferred activity back then was indulging in fantasies about
my favorite stars, all of them male, handsome, and supremely talented. My
voracious appetite for celebrity rags and periodicals, as well as my incessant
television watching only served to whet my fascination with their lives. In
the 1950’s, sociologists, Donald Horton, and Richard Wohl coined the term,
“para-social interaction”, describing this phenomenon. They described it as
“an illusion because the relationship between the persona and any member
of his audience is inevitably one-sided, and reciprocity between the two can
only be suggested” (Horton and Wohl 217). I was the one of those
“members of the audience” that Horton and Wohl described, that engaged in
illusory relationships with stars I’d never meet.
I vividly recall two personal para-social experiences from that time and
consequences I suffered due to my delusory emotional attachments. In 1977,
my world came apart. On January 29th, 1977, my favorite comedian, Freddie
Prinze committed suicide. He was handsome, New York born and raised, and
Puerto Rican like me. He was funny and charismatic, and I just adored him.
Freddie’s funny stories about growing up in the ‘hood just resonated with me,
and I eagerly followed his rise to fame. He moved to the West Coast and
made it big in Hollywood starring on a show called, “Chico and the Man.” I
watched it religiously and when he died on January 29th, 1977, I felt like I died
too. For months, I wept and moped, distraught over his loss. Eventually, life
went on and just as I was starting to feel better, on August 16th of that same
year, I heard more devastating news. Elvis Presley, “the King of Rock and
Roll”, my musical idol, was dead at the age of 42. I grew up watching his
movies on TV and listening to his records, so he was one of my beloved idols.
A New York Times article described him as “the object of such adulation that
teen-age girls screamed and fainted at the sight of him” (16 Aug 2010). I was
one of those teenage girls. I don’t remember thinking about the
circumstances of his demise, why or how he died. I only knew that Elvis was
gone, a fact that made me very sad. I recall sitting on the edge of my
mother’s bed that August day, in a state of shock. I watched the non-stop
coverage of his death on the news where I saw many fans, just like me,
pouring out their collective grief. I too sobbed long and hard.
Horton and Wohl describe the para-social relationship as “one-sided,
nondialectical, controlled by the performer, and not susceptible to mutual
development” (215). The performer or celebrity, in this instance, controls
their image, purposely portraying how they want their fans to perceive them.
These carefully crafted actions work to allow the fan to “come to believe that
he ‘knows’ the personae more intimately and profoundly than others do; that
he ‘understands’ his character and appreciates his values and motives”
(Horton and Wohl 216). Yet none of these aforementioned actions change the
fact that the relationship remains one-sided and illusive with the fan defining
the fervency thereof.
The dynamics of para-social relationships can take on many forms.
They can range from superficial and fleeting to intense and long-lasting or
from ordinary to complex. Horton and Wohl described the para-social
relationship as a “simulacrum of conversational give and take” (215). What
drives the range of para-social interactions is the level of knowledge the fan
acquires about the celebrity. For example, “the social dramas surrounding
celebrities’ reported activities and life-events profoundly affect some people,
evoking responses ranging from the mildly unusual to the profoundly
pathological” (McCutcheon, Lange and Houran 69). This awareness in turn,
feeds the fan’s desire for intimacy and connection with the particular
celebrity. Normally the phrase, “in a relationship” infers a close connection or
association between two individuals; however, for fans in para-social
relationships, these connections are an unrequited association. As
individuals, we form these imaginary relationships by investing time and
emotional effort in getting to know the recipient of our non-reciprocal
affection, by whatever means possible.
By the nature of a celebrity’s work as a performer, they work hard to
connect with their audiences. Through performances, be it on the big or
small screen, they offer their audiences “simulated interaction” (Cohen 191).
In the present celebrity culture, social media has become the vehicle
whereby individuals, as spectators, are invited to deeper and more intimate
interaction with the famous people they admire. They follow their Twitter,
Instagram, Facebook, and other social media accounts. They post messages
and if and or when the celebrity replies, they’re all atwitter. The use of
social media “allows celebrity practitioners to create a sense of closeness
and familiarity between themselves and their followers” (Marwick and Boyd
147). The media also bombards fans with ubiquitous images of their
celebrities in “normal interactions”, and in this manner, they are invited into
a level of engagement that only intensifies the fan’s devotion. It draws the
follower closer to a world of their making where they feel they know their
celebrity personally, and this well-known individual has become like family to
them. The danger then lies in what may occur when the celebrity disappoints
the fan in some way, either through unexpected negative actions or
circumstances, such as a fall from grace or a sudden and tragic death. A
particular few of their admiring public then may find themselves thrust into
an experience of profound grief and despair and, of course, who wouldn’t
mourn the actions and or loss of a beloved member of their family?
At first glance, it would appear that there is little harm in forming a
para-social relationship. Horton and Wohl remark that,
for the majority of the audience, the para-social is complementary to
normal social life. It provides a social milieu in which the everyday
assumptions and understandings of primary group interaction and
sociability are demonstrated and reaffirmed…nothing could be more
reasonable or natural than that people who are isolated and lonely
should seek sociability and love wherever they think they can find it.
The danger then lies in that segment of society that takes it that one step
further. Horton and Wohl describe this as “extreme para-sociability” and say,
“it is only when the para-social relationship becomes a substitute for
autonomous social participation, when it proceeds in absolute defiance of
objective reality, that it can be regarded as pathological” (223). I would posit
that this behavior has its basis in what is known as “celebrity worship”. This
is, in other words, the sacralization or veneration of celebrity, actions of
which are most evident when an adored celebrity dies.
A spectacle of anguished, grief-stricken followers gathering en masse is
no longer unexpected. An untimely death of a 31 year-old beloved, global
movie star, as described by the following instance, sent adoring fans into a
“hysterical state of mass mourning. More than 100,000 of the faithful paid
tribute at (their) open coffin in New York” (The Times 24 August 2000). These
fans were a cadre of admirers idolizing someone they knew of only through
their work and the death provoked among the fans an outpouring of grief like
no other, at the time. There were even reports of suicide by those
overwhelmed with despair at the loss of their beloved star (Abel 290).
Although this sounds like a current event, in fact, this person died in 1926,
and his name was Rudolph Valentino. Valentino’s passing occurred at the
dawn of the film age, in a time when this form of mass media was just
emerging into its own. His immense success as a silent film star endeared
him to a multitude of fans around the world, making him a superstar before
the word ever came into vogue. Valentino’s fans were one of the first to duly
demonstrate the complex dynamics and potential pitfalls of celebrity worship
and para-social relationships.
The history of celebrity worship, as demonstrated by Valentino’s
adoring fans almost 90 years ago, is a long-standing phenomenon.
Researcher, Gayle S. Stever remarked that “the presence of media fans and
communities of fans has been pervasive in American culture for at least half
a century (3). It has however, grown exponentially over the course of a
century with the evolution of mass and now social media. Historically, and as
in the present day, the singularity of a particular celebrity and or celebrity
groups do “inspire uncontrollable outbursts, veritable seizures of enthusiasm,
fervor and admiration, sometimes tears” (Hollander 388). As described by
Stever, “celebrity worship progresses along a continuum that begins with
interest in celebrities for entertainment and social value, but progresses
toward an intense personal kind of worship, and that the final and most
extreme form of celebrity worship is called borderline pathological (qtd. by
McCutcheon et. al. 2004). Mass media assists in fostering these
aforementioned fanatical displays of emotion and many react in this manner
because they feel they have a genuine connection to these persons, and
their devotion fulfills within them both social and psychological needs.
Researchers, Katz, Blumler, and Gurevitch described what occurs with the
relationship between celebrity and audience as a type of “media
gratification” (pp#). They hypothesized that it sprung from “a need for selfesteem; social utility functions may be traced to the need for affiliation, and
escape functions may be related to the need to release tension and reduce
anxiety” (514). Other researchers have concluded that admiration for
celebrities may actually have, for some people, important benefits. These
“connections to celebrities (i.e. parasocial relationships) can provide a safe
route for people who have a difficult time with real interpersonal
relationships (i.e. low self-esteem people) to view themselves more positively
with very little risk of rejection” (Derrick, Gabriel, and Tippin 261). Therefore,
in most para-social relationships, extensive media coverage can provide for
fans, both benefits and consequences. A good representation of their
beloved celebrity affords the fan a positive role model and may yield for
them a sense of affirmation. On the other hand, a negative projection will
likely only highlight the unpleasantness of celebrity behavior, producing
disappointment in the fan and increasing their perceived sense of isolation
and negation. It’s a fact that celebrity media coverage is an important tool in
the promulgation of the celebrity-obsessed culture we presently live in. As
such, it is responsible for the proliferation of the illusory actions and beliefs
that define para-social relationships.
In American culture, constant and ever intensifying celebrity media
coverage fuels the flame that fosters para-social relationships. Nothing
affirms this more so than when it’s described as “significant and telling of
priorities in American society that the lives and deaths of entertainers (most
of whom provide the ranks of celebrities) are more extensively and
prominently covered in the news media than major historical or political
events” (Hollander 388). This contributes to what occurs to fandom when a
celebrity dies, and especially so if they happen to die under tragic
circumstances. The massive media coverage that follows evolves into a
“socially destabilizing and emotionally affecting” (Sherlock 169) event for the
fan whose once strong para-social relationship is no more.
Fans who engage in strong para-social relationships find themselves
thrust into very real emotional turmoil. For these,
the feelings of loss in a para-social break-up are very real for the
individual, and the intensity of this loss is a function of the level of
attachment felt towards the character (qtd. in Eyal and Cohen, 2006).
If the end of the relationship is final due to the death of the individual,
such feelings may be more intense. (Radford and Bloch 140)
If a fan’s strong and intense para-social relationship was especially fostered
through social media interactions, they will more than likely immediately
seek out a similar-minded community with which to grieve. Radford and
Bloch describe this process as “introjection”, which “allows individuals to
relive and reinterpret past interactions with the deceased and reinforce
relevant memories” (147). A type of communal commiseration, if you will, as
it allows fans to share their grief process, and find solace within a community
that understands the depth of their pain and suffering. Sherlock states, “the
Internet and the media facilitate a new type of ritualized, collective mourning
that potentially serves to distract mourners from the physical reality of
death” (169). For many this allows for a “linear path by which a mourning
party sequentially works their way through grief” (Radford and Bloch 145).
For others, it may propel them towards a greater state of delusion, which can
sometimes spiral into tragedy.
Rebecca Schaeffer was a beautiful, 21-year-old rising star in Hollywood.
She was achieving great fame with her work and in turn rapidly building her
fan base. One of those fans was a 21-year-old young man by the name of
Robert John Bardo.
Like millions of fans, Bardo started to write letters to her. Rebecca
responded, writing that his letter was "the most beautiful" that she had
ever received. On her letter, she drew a peace sign, a heart, and
signed it: "With love from Rebecca." The day Bardo received the letter
he wrote in his diary: When I think of her, I would like to become
famous to impress her. (Reel Reviews)
This instance of a genuine act of affection from a celebrity to a fan began
what would become for Bardo an obsession and the ultimate example of a
pathological and tragic para-social relationship.
Robert John Bardo was the youngest of seven in a military family. He
grew up “the object of much physical and mental abuse” and was further
described as “a time bomb on the verge of exploding” (Reel Reviews). By the
time Bardo began writing Rebecca, he was already severely emotionally
damaged. He became a fan of Rebecca’s television show, My Sister Sam and
developed an obsession with her character, “Patti.”. He began bombarding
her with letters that expressed his deep love and affection for her. His
fixation progressed to a point where he felt as if he had to have her, and if he
couldn’t have her, no one else could. Bearing gifts, he traveled to California
and made various attempts to visit her at the studio where she worked but
was not successful. His delusion surrounding his relationship with Rebecca,
and what he interpreted as her rebuffs towards him, grew to the point where
he had to go see her and, in his mind, right this wrong. On July 17th, 1989,
Robert visited the offices of the California Department of Motor Vehicle.
There he was able to obtain Rebecca Schaeffer’s home address. On July 18th,
1989, he arrived at Rebecca’s doorstep, where initially she rebuffed him yet
again. He left and when he came back, upon her answering the door, Robert
fired two gunshots into Rebecca, killing her on the spot. Robert John Bardo is
the archetype of the murderous celebrity stalker; a fan whose deluded,
passionate fixation with a young celebrity he did not know personally
spiraled into dangerous territory with what were ultimately deadly
consequences. When asked why he killed her, Bardo said, “I was a fan of
hers, and I may have carried it too far” (Reel Reviews). Robert John Bardo is
an extreme and tragic example of a para-social relationship because he took
his obsession with Rebecca Schaeffer that one step too far.
Fortunately, most para-social relationships are relatively benign.
Particularly, in American society, they fulfill a need and desire for
attachment. In one way or another, we all desire a deep connection to
others, and para-social relationships achieve that without the reciprocity that
normally accompanies them. Many engage for no other reason other than it
allows them to control the depth and dynamics of the one-sided relationship
and explore and experience “intimacy at a distance and pseudo-friendship”
(Cohen 191). They are also abundant and inevitable, because as long as
there are celebrities, fans, and forms of media to connect the two, parasocial behavior will continue to exist. Consciously and unconsciously, these
relationships have become a part of our psyche, and it is individuals who
determine how far to take the fantasy. For someone older like me, age,
maturity, and knowing the difference between real and unreal helps to
separate true relationships from imagined ones. Interactions with stars on
social media, and corresponding responses continue to incite a certain level
of excitement for many. Celebrities that are wise and media savvy know how
to use this to captivate their audiences, in turn increasing the admiration,
devotion, and loyalty from their fans. Personally, I appreciate all that and
revel in it watching my much anticipated weekly episodes of Arrow or The
Flash, and tweet along with everyone else, yet I also know that it is foolish to
think my life revolves around a particular individual that is just like me, just a
lot more famous. That said, the link between celebrity worship and parasocial relationships will always remain strong because they will forever
coincide and coexist. In terms of a definitive answer to the question of
whether or not a para-social relationship is a true connection or an illusory
devotion, I opine that there is none because it will always remain the domain
of the particular individual who chooses to engage in these relationships and
to what levels they desire to take them.
word count: 2958
Horton, Donald, and R. R. Wohl. "MASS COMMUNICATION AND PARA-SOCIAL
INTERACTION." Psychiatry 19.3 (1956): 215.
Ivins, Molly. “Elvis Presley Dies; Rock Singer Was 42.” New York Times.com 16
Aug. 2010. Web. 18 Apr. 2015.
McCutcheon, Lynn E., Rense Lange, and James Houran. "Conceptualization
and Measurement of Celebrity Worship." British Journal of Psychology
93 (2002): 67-87.
Cohen, Jonathan. "Parasocial Break-Up from Favorite Television Characters:
The Role of Attachment Styles and Relationship Intensity." Journal of
Social and Personal Relationships 21.2 (2004): 187-202.
Marwick, Alice., Boyd, Danah. “To See and Be Seen: Celebrity Practice on
Twitter.” Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New
Media Technologies. 17.2 (2011): 139-158
"Hysteria Greets the Death of Valentino." The Times 24 Aug. 2000: 2.
Abel, Richard. "Silent Film." Google Books. Rutgers University Press, 1 Dec.
1995. Web. 05 Apr. 2015. .
Stever, GAYLE S. "Celebrity Worship: Critiquing a Construct." Journal of
Applied Social Psychology 41.6 (2011): 1356-70.
Hollander, Paul. "Why the Celebrity Cult?" Society 47.5 (2010): 388-91.
Katz, Elihu, Blumler, Jay G., and Gurevitch, Michael. “Uses and Gratification
Research.” The Public Opinion Quarterly 37.4 (1974): 509-523.
Derrick, Jaye L., Gabriel, Shira, Tippin, Brooke. “Parasocial relationships and
self-discrepancies: Faux relationships have benefits for low self-esteem
individuals.” Personal Relationships. 15.2 (2008): 261-280.
Radford, Scott K., and Peter H. Bloch. "Grief, Commiseration, and
Consumption Following the Death of a Celebrity." Journal of Consumer
Culture 12.2 (2012): 137-55.
Sherlock, Alexandra. "Larger than Life: Digital Resurrection and the ReEnchantment of Society." The Information Society 29.3 (2013): 164-76.
“The Death of Rebecca Schaeffer.” Reel Reviews. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Apr.
Celebrity Worship and Para-social Relationships:
True Connections or Illusory Devotions?
Key terms: Para-social relationships, attachment, celebrity, celebrity worship,
fans, death, grief, obsession, mass media, sacralization,
introjection, social media
Freddie & Elvis, my personal para-social experiences
Horton & Wohl - What are para-social relationships?
The dynamics of para-social relationships
The role of the celebrity
Why do celebrity actions/deaths trigger such passionate fan
Why is grief so profound for some individuals?
Robert John Bardo and Rebecca Schaeffer and the tragic effects of
extreme para-social relationships