Celebrity stalking: a dangerous combination of obsession, delusion

By Phyllis Hanlon
December 1st, 2015

When Robert John Bardo murdered actress Rebecca Schaeffer in 1989, he drew public attention to the issue of stalking. In response, California passed the first stalking legislation in the country in 1990; by 2000, all 50 states had enacted similar laws, according to the National Center for Victims of Crime. While stalking most often involves perpetrators and victims who are acquainted or related, celebrity stalking captures headlines.

According to Gerald Sweet, Ph.D., forensic and police psychologist, co-developer of the Military Veterans Psychology Program and faculty member at William James College (formerly the Massachusetts School of Professional Psychology), celebrity stalking falls into the category of “love obsessional” behavior.

“There is no interpersonal relationship with the victim. The stalker becomes obsessed after a brief encounter or something he sees in the media. He engages in a pattern of behavior in an attempt to make the celebrity aware of his existence,” he said. “The person believes that if his presence is known to the victim, they can have a relationship.”

Erotomania, elements of which overlap with love obsessional behavior, involves the belief that the victim is in love with the stalker, Sweet noted. “He needs to pursue the victim long enough and consistently enough to make the victim realize the two of them belong together. This is fed by a delusional system of ideas,” he said.

Robert Kinscherff, Ph.D., associate vice president for community engagement at William James College, added, “Celebrity stalkers have an increased preoccupation with pursuing their victim with delusions in the hope to have a romantic relationship.”

In addition to delusional thinking, stalker behavior originates from many different pathways and may include social ineptitude and a high degree of narcissism, among others, said Kinscherff.

“Traits are highly individual and depend partly on motivation. Lots of fans are preoccupied with a celebrity, but don’t become a stalker and may not be delusional. You have to look at the nature [of the stalking] in the reality between the victim and the stalker.”

While stalkers typically engage in an intentional pattern of repeated behaviors meant to intimidate, their motivations sometimes differ, noted Donald A. Davidoff, Ph.D., chief, neuropsychology department, at McLean Hospital in Belmont and assistant professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School.

“Celebrity stalkers over-identify with the victim and have a desire, maybe unconsciously to be that person. The behavior causes the victim to feel harassed, threatened and fearful.” He added that the celebrity stalker might have a “psychotic attachment” to the victim, seeking the fame or wealth that the celebrity enjoys.

In most cases, stalkers are male, but sometimes females become fixated on a high-profile figure and fantasize that they have a romantic relationship. “This is a pathological exacerbation of Darwinian urges. [The stalker thinks] if I get close to a high-status individual, he will recognize how special I am,” Davidoff said.

Identifying signs of potential stalking behavior can be challenging, explained Davidoff. In the beginning, the stalker engages in private behavior, such as collecting photos and news stories about the victim and may not raise any red flags. “Until it becomes public, you don’t see things,” he said. “It’s not always easy to perceive in advance those who will become stalkers.”

Davidoff added that stalkers are embroiled in a “longstanding pattern of adaptation.” “They are not successful in dealing with the real world. The use of substances, depression or a hypomanic episode can exacerbate a pre-existing condition,” he added.

According to Jill Silverman, Ph.D., private practitioner in Greenwich, Conn., data suggests that half of the stalkers in the U.S. have diagnoses ranging from depression to psychotic disorders, including schizophrenia, substance use and personality disorders.

“Given that stalking, per se, is not a mental disorder, it needs to be understood that these other conditions play variable roles through this process. It might be a psychotic understanding of the stalker that the celebrity does want his attention – the disease part – but the manner in which he effects the behavior is premeditated, generally logical and intentional,” she said. “The underlying disease might promote and motivate the stalker behavior, but still, the stalker will not meet the diagnostic criteria for the associated mental illness.”

Silverman reported two major treatment options: “one approach addresses the underlying psychopathology and the other addresses the offenses themselves in an attempt to get the stalker to see that they are not ultimately successful.”

The first approach focuses on developing functional social networks and interpersonal relationships, she noted. “The other major approach is to attempt to help the stalker to see that their behavior is essentially maladaptive and to build an interest and alliance in changing it.”

Mark Holbrook, Ph.D., LCPC, private practitioner in Brunswick, Maine, explained that the celebrity stalker has “poor reality testing.” A normal person might admire a famous person, but does not resort to stalking, he noted. “We can test a fantasy. For a delusional person, this is impossible to do.”

Furthermore, individuals who stalk usually have a “pervasive thought disorder” and embrace a “belief system that is never challenged by reality.” Holbrook said, “If the person has a lucid moment, it means that reality has intervened.”

Nowadays, ready access to the Internet is facilitating celebrity stalking, according to Kinscherff. “If I want to learn a great deal about you, it’s easy to access information on the web. I can get photos of the neighborhood and your house. I can track you with GPS and know your cell phone number,” he said. “This makes it much easier to get information on the intended target. If a person is technologically skillful, he could hack email and learn about your plans and your friends. A determined smart stalker can cause a great deal of stress.”

Regardless of who or how a person engages in stalking behavior, Sweet emphasized, “Not all stalkers have a mental illness.” He does note that a higher risk of violence in stalking episodes exists for those who carry a mental health diagnosis. “The most dangerous stalker is one with mental illness and substance abuse,” he said.

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