Fandoms: The Philosophical Cults of the 21st Century4 min read
1893, on a craggy mountain side are two men locked in a mortal struggle. Months of devious parley have led to this agonising moment from which only one could emerge; only one set of footprints would lead back down the mountain. Suddenly a punch, a stumble and one of them flies south, plunging into the swirling waters of Reichenbach Falls. The next day saw London in an uproar, with men taking to the streets in protest, piles of Newspapers lying angrily discarded amongst their feet.
This was the death of Sherlock Holmes, and the first ever recorded incident of ‘fan frenzy’. Enraged by the death of their hero, even if a fictitious one; over 20,000 Strand subscriptions were cancelled. The magazine barely survived, with Holmes’ death coming to be known as ‘The Dreadful Event’.
The publication of Conan Doyles short stories in The Strand created a phenomena now known as ‘fandom’. The rise of print media, celebrity culture and the realistic penmanship encouraged his fans to wilfully suspend their rationale and allow Holmes to step off the page and into the real world. His apathy towards his leading character only encouraged his fans to build on the Holmes story, the flood of sequels and imitations that followed were the first ever examples of ‘fan-fiction’.
More than a century later, fandom is now a recognisable sub culture, spanning generations across. One of the most thrilling aspects of studying this sub culture is witnessing the unrivalled passion and devotion felt by its members towards their ‘canon’ (the official story, in contrast to ‘fan fiction’). Boderline hysterical in their dedication, fandoms develop around elaborate online societies, intricately woven community threads that delve into the deepest depths of analysis.
As with the case of the Star Trek Franchise, that recently celebrated its 50th anniversary of the first airing of the show, fans are drawn to the ‘mythos’ of the show, its ideal of a utopian future and its humanistic portrayal of its characters. A 23rd century crew hurtling through space, encountering new planets and cultures, find themselves questioning their own beliefs and confidence in their evolved way of life. Spock was a novelty, a purely logical being devoid of emotion, he gave viewers a feel of the simplicity that could encircle life and death. Uhura and Sulu were the first interracial couple on prime time TV, drawing censure and praise alike. This was not the fodder of typical cold war era television. The philosophical and political underpinnings of the drama, hidden beneath an overlay of science fiction, had fans hooked from the very first episode. These fans, or Trekkers, are drawn to the show’s ideological core.
When Nichelle Nichols, the African American actress playing Uhura, was contemplating leaving the show for a career on Broadway, she found herself being convinced to stay by a rather surprising icon of the times. Martin Luther King Jr. sought her out at a fundraiser, proclaimed himself a Trekkie and proceeded to say to her ,” Nichelle, whether you like it or not, you have become a symbol. If you leave, they can replace you with a blonde haired white girl, and it will be like you were never there. What you’ve accomplished, for all of us, will only be real if you stay”.
50 years on and still counting, Trekkers still go boldly where no fandom has gone before.
Rowling’s creation, ‘the boy who lived’, struck a chord within those of us lucky enough to have read it. Written for young adults, Rowling humorously dealt with the more serious facets of childhood and adolescence. The correlations are endless, just as Harry was ‘The boy under the stairs’, we were all the unhappy little child tucked out of sight, feeling ignored and abandoned, at some point of time during our awkward youth. No matter how gloriously happy your childhood, Harry Potter had something for everyone. Rowling played homage to the traditional British genre of the schoolyard story, her characters mimicking the very real exasperation felt by all of us on more than one occasion, thanks to an unfeeling teacher, or the bold shenanigans of the playground bully. The ability to flesh out a character and identify with it on a human level is what drives fandoms.
Fandom is more than simply a show of cultural solidarity, it’s not just a bunch of people with a shared interest. The intensity and obsessive nature of modern fandoms are borderline pathological. The interaction with other fans and with the object of mania impact the way we live our lives. Just as with football clubs, literary and television fandoms have evolved a spectator value. Conventions, cosplays, fan art and fan-fiction, all add a social component, very similar in nature to what fans at a sporting match experience. A sense of camaraderie and inclusion.
Mass hysteria or cult phenomena, call it what you will, nonetheless, Fandom is social cohesion in its most contemporary form.
The picture accompanying the article was originally published in The Manipal Diaries.