Warning: MASSIVE Stranger Things season 4 spoilers!
Over the years, I’ve been in relationships with quite a few people. I’m currently romantically involved with several men. Some are temporary crushes, some are romances that have been going strong for years. It’s great. Overall, at least. I always look forward to seeing these people, they bring me comfort when I’m stressed or sad and they make me happy. But it’s not always fun. Sometimes they leave me. Or worse, they die. What I should probably mention is that these people are not exactly aware that we’re in a relationship. Oh, and they’re not real. Yeah, that too.
Everytime we touch
So I get attached to fictional characters. If you’ve ever met me, this cannot possibly be new information. Books, tv shows, movies, it doesn’t matter. If a character touches my heart, I’m a goner. It doesn’t happen every time I consume a piece of fiction, but it happens enough. I recently learnt that these are my comfort characters: fictional people that you, as a fan, identify with or are enamoured by to the extent that you develop some sort of bond with them.
Although I can’t remember who my first ever comfort character was, Ron Weasley must have been one of the first. I’ve been in a parasocial relationship with him ever since I first gazed upon his ginger locks. During my teenage years I had a very intense time with Captain Jack Sparrow. I spent night after night watching YouTube edits of him with If I’m Not In Love With You by Faith Hill or Everytime We Touch by Cascada (the ballad version) as their soundtrack. At some point my friends actually begged me to stop trying to make every conversation about him. I had a crush on Grey’s Anatomy’s Mark Sloan. The Vampire Diaries’ Damon Salvatore was another one. Sheldon Cooper got added to the list a couple of years later, although he was more of a best friend (until they ruined that entire show). In the summer of 2020 I started a platonic relationship with a character from one of my favourite book series. And only last year I found my actual soulmate in Schitt’s Creek’s David Rose.
I used to think that this was just part of growing up. Sure, I was aware most of my peers didn’t seem to spend as much time and energy on their fandoms, but I thought I would grow out of it eventually. However, I’m currently less than two months away from turning thirty and it just happened again.
Oh, if it isn’t my new husband
Season four of Stranger Things, one of Netflix’s most-watched shows ever, was released this May. I agree with most fans that this season was the best since season 1, maybe even the best one overall. It was scary as hell, it brilliantly showed society’s fear of the occult in the 80s, it had several iconic musical moments, and it introduced one of the show’s most-loved characters ever, which resulted in actor Joseph Quinn being catapulted into fame overnight and both fans and strangers (lol) of the show suddenly finding themselves in a global mania so enormous that I think we can safely say that 2022 is the year of Eddie Munson.
We meet Eddie as this loud, alternative, slightly obnoxious young man who clearly hates everything that has anything to do with conformity (that’s what’s killing the kiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiids!) We quickly discover that there’s a lot more to him than this false bravado though, and we quickly start caring for him. Also, I need to say it: that hair…does things to me.
Now, if you’re still here you probably already know what happens to this character, which is good because then I don’t have to go through the torture of explaining it. Okay, I’ll rip off the bandaid: Eddie, who became my favourite character faster than you could say Scoops Ahoy, does not survive the season 4 finale. After a handful of demobats feasted on his body (one can hardly blame them) he dies in the arms of my second favourite character, Dustybun.
I can’t remember the last time I cried like this. Wailing is probably a better word. If you would have seen me that day, you would have thought I was married to this man. In the days that followed I was still kind of shaken and I couldn’t think about it without crying again. It’s been three months and I’ve been reading so much fan fiction where all the characters are alive and well that I seem to have tricked my brain into thinking that Eddie survived (and is in a loving relationship with my third favourite character Steve Harrington, but that’s a different story). I’m in for a nasty shock when season 5 comes out.
Wait, I’m not done!
Yes, I’m very aware that all of this is fiction, that these people are not real and that I don’t actually know them. It also does not feel the same as real-life situations or relationships, and I definitely don’t get the two mixed-up. But it can still get quite intense.
I don’t know how many times I have cried myself to sleep after watching a movie or a season finale. In the days that follow, I’m usually still a bit emotional. This can also happen when I haven’t even gotten attached to one specific character. Last Christmas I watched The Shawshank Redemption for the first time and I was a complete mess. I cried for days after reading Reunion by Fred Uhlman because the ending just left me heartbroken. I remember watching Toy Story 3 and my dad bringing up that hand-holding scene at a family dinner a couple of days later. I had to leave the room and had a cry in the bathroom.
When something happens to a character I love, it’s like I feel it in my soul. It doesn’t even have to be sad. I feel the same way when something happy but touching happens. Of course I have friends who watch the same shows that I do, and sometimes we have conversations about an episode or a character’s fate. We discuss it for a little while, but then it quickly becomes clear that they are over it and they’re ready to move on with their lives. I, however, often feel like I still have so many thoughts and emotions that I haven’t been able to process yet, and although I might bring it up a couple more times, I still hold back. A lot.
This is why I’ve been asking myself: Is this normal? Is getting this attached to fictional characters mad… or is it, as Eddie would say…metal?
There are others out there
It’s perfectly possible for me to enjoy something without wanting to dedicate my entire life to it, but when it happens, there’s really no limits. I get all the merch I can get my hands on, listen to playlists over and over again, think about it all the time, might even get a tattoo or two…
Fortunately, in these situations, one can always count on a loyal and just as passionate friend: the internet. Fan fiction is always my go-to, but I’ve also had lengthy private conversations with strangers where we both tried to make sense of what we had watched or read. This has made me realise that, although maybe most people don’t go this hard, there are also plenty that do. Otherwise there would be no fan fiction, fanart, merch, playlists or threads where fans endlessly discuss and analyse scenes.
What we can be
I think there is something very moving about being part of a fandom. When the Norwegian teenage drama Skam came out a couple of years ago, the internet was obsessed. The second an episode (or even an extra scene or a text conversation) was released, one or two people would translate everything, add subtitles and share the episodes on Google Drive so the rest of the world could enjoy them too. So wholesome.
The great thing about these shows, book series or films is that they connect people and they make people’s worlds a bit bigger and brighter. One of my best friends and I bonded over our love for Ron Weasley over fifteen years ago. A guitar teacher recently told me that after the Stranger Things finale came out, many kids signed up for guitar lessons because they wanted to learn how to play Master of Puppets (sobbing). In fact, after being convinced for most of my life that I hated metal music, I have now discovered that I actually quite like most of it but that I just had a very limited definition of the genre. I have also joined a Dungeons and Dragons group, something I have been meaning to do for over ten years, but this season of Stranger Things finally made it happen. When I inevitably become a famous Dungeon Master, that will be thanks to Eddie too.
If there were no passionate fans, none of these shows would be successful. Of course the characters that we love were invented by other people, but maybe that’s exactly what’s so cool about it? Knowing that a whole team worked together to create a character that makes people feel less alone. Those characters speak to a part of our souls. They show us who we are or what we can be. And we, even if it’s only for a little bit, find a home in them.
The perfect outlet
I don’t think I’m obsessed in an unhealthy way. It doesn’t affect my relationships with people in real life. As long as you can still differentiate between fiction and reality, it’s all good. If you, let’s say, refuse to date anyone because you think Jim Hopper is your one true love, I would say maybe it’s time to calm down a little bit. But if you happen to notice that after watching Schitt’s Creek you tend to dress in more monochrome clothes, whereas when you’re in your Sex Education phase you’re all about clashing prints, I would say that’s just a healthy amount of fun. Although after watching Stranger Things 4 it’s probably for the best that a perm would destroy my hair so it’s not an option…
To me, being invested in these fandoms has always been a great way to let my emotions out. It has also, on several occasions, taken my mind off of stressful situations or even heartbreak. I recently had this conversation with a colleague who, I was happy to discover, found all of this very relatable. She put me at ease: ‘It just means that we’re empathic and we feel deeply. That’s a good thing.’ She’s right. It’s not only fictional characters I get passionate about. I also have it with musicians, books, and the people in my life, which I think is quite a nice thing. And hey, there are much worse things to find solace in.
So I will just keep on loving fictional characters and be grateful that there are so many things that fill my heart like this. And if you see me in my new Reeboks that look suspiciously like Eddie’s… no you didn’t (but also, they were sold out for months, so clearly it’s NOT just me).
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