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Hollywood's Stalker Fetish

Why is society so mad about obsessive love? With Beyonce starring in yet another film about an erotomanic, psychiatrist Doreen Orion analyzes pop culture’s fixation on lovelorn stalkers.

04.25.09 8:25 AM ET

This weekend’s release of Beyonce’s movie, Obsessed, about yet another crazy broad stalking some unattainable guy she barely knows (although knows enough to be convinced they belong together), makes me obsess myself—about why our culture is so fascinated with these types of scenarios. As a psychiatrist who has treated stalking victims, as well as having been stalked myself for over a decade, I suffer from no delusions that as a society we’ll ever be anything but fascinated by such extreme examples of “love.”

Watch Video of Hollywood's 9 Most Obsessed Female Characters

Stalking, in fact, has long been a staple of nearly every form of entertainment, not just the screen – whether large or small: From comic books with Charlie Brown’s little sister, Sally, relentlessly pursuing Linus (where stalking is merely an amusing nuisance), to songs which include Sting asserting, “I’ll be watching you,” (where it is an admirable devotion), to the world’s most performed opera, Bizet’s “Carmen” (where despite the victim’s murder, we are made to feel sorry for her stalker’s ruin).

Perhaps cultural portrayals of stalking are so popular because they strike such a deeply personal chord: This is the kind of behavior most of us can identify with. If even Oprah can admit to sitting in her car “in front of some man’s house,” can any of us be truly immune? And, assuming one is lucky enough to never have experienced unrequited love, who can’t identify with being driven to a single-minded pursuit of some lofty goal? That the goal in a stalker’s case is merely to be loved, only makes his behavior seem that much nobler, as a Los Angeles Deputy District Attorney was amazed to learn while prosecuting Madonna’s stalker in 1995: Although he threatened to slit the singer’s throat and scaled her eight-foot security fence, reporters from all over the world only demanded to know, “How can you prosecute this poor man?” Is it any wonder that one of the most popular perfumes of all time is Calvin Klein’s “Obsession”?

The research, however, belies the notion that stalking is just an extreme reaction in “normal” individuals. Study after study identifies most stalkers as people with either serious mental illnesses or prior, unrelated criminal activity. Yet, even as the facts about stalking become clearer, the fiction surrounding it – that stalking is not a serious problem, or even worse, that it is a noble pursuit – remains.

The most common depiction of women stalkers in pop culture is of erotomania, which contrary to the way it sounds, has nothing to do with sex or eroticism: It is the delusional belief that one is loved by another.

Erotomanics are usually unmarried, socially immature “loners”, employed if at all, at jobs with little opportunity for advancement. Unable to establish or sustain close relationships, they rarely date and have few friends. Instead, they become fixated on someone unattainable, as if only the love of a highly desirable other can bestow self-esteem. It’s as if they think, “Gee, if that person loves me, I must not be so bad.” (Dean Martin certainly could relate when he crooned, “You’re Nobody Until Somebody Loves You.”) For this reason, these delusions tend to be extremely tenacious, are generally resistant to treatment, may last for decades and often end only when transferred to someone else. Even an imaginary love is better than no love at all.

That popular culture depicts erotomanics as predominantly female is not surprising, given that throughout history, erotomania was thought to be almost exclusively a disorder of women. The word was first coined in 1640 by a French physician to mean not only, “love madness,” but a “depravity of the imagination.” It was then used pejoratively for centuries, being equated with nymphomania, “insane jealousy” and finally, in the ultimate irony, to cast aspersions on “old maids.” By 1921, another Frenchman, de Clerambault (it is also known as “de Clerambault’s Syndrome”) pronounced erotomania to be ”le delire professional de la femme” – the professional delusion of women – who need security and legitimacy from men.

Recently, the definition of erotomania seems to have become, as Maureen Dowd so succinctly put it, “a little nutty and a little slutty,” especially useful as a slander strategy when trying to get rid of a powerful man’s pesky subordinate. During Justice Thomas’ confirmation hearings, Anita Hill was diagnosed erotomanic by a senator playing a psychiatrist on TV, and Monica Lewinsky was likely spared a similar fate only by the emergence of a blue dress.

Historically, the dependency inherent in the delusion that someone of a higher social status could, by virtue of his love, dramatically transform an otherwise dreary life, has been more easily attributable to women. A woman’s station has, after all, until relatively recently, been determined by whom she married. With the rise of feminism and greater opportunities for women then, one would expect the incidence of erotomania to have decreased – but it hasn’t. If anything, technological advances only seem to have enhanced the problem for both sexes. The immediacy with which we can now observe and connect with people all over the world imparts an implied intimacy – even between complete strangers. This is especially true for celebrities. How many of us who consider ourselves “normal” feel almost as if we know our most beloved stars?

I doubt we’ll ever lose our fascination with stalking stories, they are simply too bizarre, too titillating - and too close to home. But if pop culture depictions – even including cat fights between two gorgeous women, as in Obsessed, help raise awareness that stalking is a serious crime, maybe that’s not such a bad thing.

After all, it wasn’t until 1990 that the first anti-stalking law was passed in the United States (understandably in celebrity-studded California), but it took nearly a decade for every other state to follow suit. In many cases, due to lingering prejudices fostered by centuries of misunderstanding, victims (who most likely have been in relationships – and frequently abusive ones – with their pursuers) still have difficulty getting police officers to enforce restraining orders and make arrests.

So, if we’re obsessed with fatal attractions, let’s at least take the requisite boiling bunnies with a grain of salt, and stop romanticizing stalkers as harmlessly lovelorn, or simply dismissing them as nymphomaniacal sluts. We should view stalking for what it really is: a crime which can strike both men and women, as perpetrators and victims, whether famous, successful, attractive or not.

Watch the trailer below.

Doreen Orion, MD is a psychiatrist and award-winning author. Her bestselling travel memoir, Queen of the Road: The True Tale of 47 States, 22,000 Miles, 200 Shoes, 2 Cats, 1 Poodle, a Husband and a Bus with a Will of Its Own has been called, “Eat, Pray, Love—without the depression” and is in 6th printing.