“Don't I Know You?” How Curious Strangers Become Stalkers
When delusion becomes dangerous and familiarity sparks imaginary relationships
Posted November 25, 2017
Have you ever run into a local television anchor at the grocery store? Because you see her face on television every day, you feel like you know her. But her face is out of context in the grocery checkout line, so you might even say hello, struggling to place the association. News personalities experience this innocent phenomenon all the time.
Your perceived familiarity with the anchor is enhanced by the on-air illusion of direct eye contact — an intentional effort on the part of the newscaster to appear approachable and relatable to viewers. Yet such techniques can have unintended consequences.
I have prosecuted stalkers for targeting newscasters they became familiar with through watching them on television every day. Having formed imaginary relationships with them, they felt entitled to have more. This phenomenon is corroborated by research. Hoffman et al., in “Contemporary Research on Stalking, Threatening, and Attacking Public Figures” (2014), explain that, unlike movie stars, newscasters not only appear to be talking directly with the viewer, they are also not portraying a character — they are playing themselves.[i] They suggest that these differences account for the increased pursuit of this group of local “celebrities” by psychotic viewers.
When Familiarity Causes Fans to Become Fanatical
Other types of television personalities and celebrities are targeted as well, due to their public visibility. Margaret Mary Ray believed she was romantically involved with late-night star David Letterman. She broke into his house several times, and once even stole his Porsche.[ii] Madonna was stalked by a man who jumped the fence of her home in Hollywood Hills and threatened that he would slice her “from ear to ear” if she refused to marry him.[iii]
In “Stalking: Patterns, motives, and intervention strategies” (2012), Laurence Miller discusses a variety of stalker typologies, including those who target celebrities.[iv] He cites research that mentions the Letterman case as an example of the erotomaniac stalker, described as a small minority of stalkers, mostly women, who pursue male strangers or acquaintances.
He also cites research that describes a delusional fixation type of stalking, particularly applicable to celebrity stalkers. This stalker has a fantasy of having a special relationship with the celebrity, believing that his or her persistence eventually will bring them together.
While it is true that celebrities pick up stalkers due in part to public visibility, you do not have to be a public personality to capture the attention of someone with a troubled imagination. There are people who see you every day at work, during your morning run, on the train, at the grocery store, or anywhere else, and while you might not have noticed them, they have noticed you.
Familiarity Fueled Fascination
Have you ever passed someone in the office hallway, library, or gym so many times you feel like you know them? You might even say hello — although you do not even know their name. There is a practical explanation behind the experience of familiarity being more likely to breed contentment than contempt. Schneider et al. (2005) note that proximity increases interaction, which increases the chances of forming relationships.[v] They explain that the proximity effect links liking and physical distance.
Individuals predisposed to stalking behavior, however, view familiarity a bit differently. If they see you frequently, they feel like they know you too — perhaps a little too well. This familiarity may spark their desire to learn more about you, which can add fuel to the fire. Be wary, for example, of a co-worker whom you have never spoken to at the office, but who follows you on every one of your social media platforms.
Recognizing someone does not make them safe. Strangers are still strangers, even if you see them every day. Until you have developed a friendship or relationship of trust, you do not really know anything about them. And because imaginary relationships can have unintended consequences, be alert for red flags signaling that someone has developed an unhealthy interest in you.
[i] Jens Hoffmann, J. Reid Meloy, and Lorraine Sheridan, ”Contemporary Research on Stalking, Threatening, and Attacking Public Figures,” in International Handbook of Threat Assessment, eds. J. Reid Meloy and Jens Hoffman, (2014: Oxford University Press), 160-177.
[iv] Laurence Miller, “Stalking: Patterns, motives, and intervention strategies,” Aggression and Violent Behavior 17, iss. 6 (2012): 495-506.
[v] Frank W. Schneider, Jamie A. Gruman, and Larry M. Coutts, Applied Social Psychology: Understanding and Addressing Social and Practical Problems (Thousand Oaks: SAGE, 2005), 80.