If I were to simplify (okay, fine: oversimplify) the field of fan studies, I’d say that scholars typically take one of two broad disciplinary approaches: either they look at fan works (and come from fields like literary studies, media and film studies, etc.) or they look at fan cultures and social organizations (ethnography, anthropology.)  But other academic disciplines produce research that might be pertinent to fans and fan studies–for instance, psychology. 

I recently came across an article called  “Fictosexuality, Fictoromance, and Fictophilia: A Qualitative Study of Love and Desire for Fictional Characters,” (2020)  written by  Veli-Matti Karhulahti  and Tanja Välisalo in the journal Frontiers of Psychology.  The abstract explains:

Fictosexuality, fictoromance, and fictophilia are terms that have recently become popular in online environments as indicators of strong and lasting feelings of love, infatuation, or desire for one or more fictional characters. This article explores the phenomenon by qualitative thematic analysis of 71 relevant online discussions. Five central themes emerge from the data: (1) fictophilic paradox, (2) fictophilic stigma, (3) fictophilic behaviors, (4) fictophilic asexuality, and (5) fictophilic supernormal stimuli. The findings are further discussed and ultimately compared to the long-term debates on human sexuality in relation to fictional characters in Japanese media psychology. Contexts for future conversation and research are suggested.

The article is generally descriptive and nonjudgmental, and the authors note that “the present intention is not to propose fictophilia as a problem or a disorder,” but instead to assert that most people are “fully aware of the love-desire object’s fictional status and the parasocial nature of the relationship.” (In other words, we’re mostly pretty sane!) The essay also cites some interesting work that I’ve not seen typically referenced in literary or ethnographic fan studies works, including the proto-fan studies text Imaginary Social Worlds, by John L. Caughey (1984). While Caughey’s book (like many works of the 1980s) starts by evoking the figure of crazy or even homicidal fan (think Mark David Chapman or John Hinkley), his goal is to argue that ‘fantasy relationships’ are actually pretty normal.  The book looks at “fantasy relationships” across history, connecting fan crushes on characters and celebrities “to the lifelong bonds that people in different cultures have conventionally had with gods, monarchs, spirits, and other figures that they may never have had the chance to meet in person.”  While Caughey’s book is focused on Western history, Karhulahti and Välisalo’s “Fictosexuality” takes its examples primarily from Japan, examining numerous psychological studies of “Japan and its fiction-consuming ‘otaku’ cultures.” This gives it a global take not always seen in English-language fan studies texts (which tend to deal primarily with Western media.) “Fictosexuality” is also unusual for its interest in making connections between asexuality and fictophilia, asexuality also being underrepresented (and under-theorized) in fan studies texts.  

Fans have historically been wary of any attempt to psychoanalyse them–and fair enough: after all, it was only recently that people stopped assuming that all fans were out-of-control “fanatics,” and there’s been a lot of creepy and misleading work on fandom done by outsiders. (If you want agita, look up SurveyFail on Fanlore.)  But psychology and related fields may also have methods which allow us to understand fans and fandom in new ways.

–Francesca Coppa, Fanhackers volunteer