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The delicate relationship between grief and fanfiction, explained by a psychologist

Fandom offers many fans a crucial respite from the pandemic. But it’s complicated.

A person sits on a low wall looking at their phone. Martin Vorel
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

Several years ago, while I was dealing with the death of a close family member, a strange thing happened: I suddenly found myself unable to stop watching Supernatural. I’d never been a huge fan of the show, but I’d recently decided to catch up on its many seasons. So I began marathoning episodes — though it was more like I inhaled them at a level approaching nihilism.

Even though SPN wasn’t “my” fandom, something about the show’s gritty universe and over-the-top levels of angst and machismo balanced against the softer comfort provided by the attached fandom and fanfiction, turned it into a strange respite that matched my mood. I’d watch sad episodes, then turn to the popular fanfic platform Archive of Our Own (AO3) and read fanfiction that “fixed” that episode; a character would die onscreen, and then I’d read fic where they were brought back to life. For a while, it was the only form of grief I allowed myself.

These days, I’ve become increasingly aware that my response to that period in my life wasn’t uncommon. Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, it’s become routine for many people to discuss their self-care and wellness practices — and one frequently mentioned source of comfort these days is fanfiction.

The idea of fandom as a form of escapism isn’t new; recall all the times you’ve seen stereotypical geeks characterized in pop culture as using their love of media to avoid real life. But during the pandemic, the stakes are higher. More people have been forcibly separated from their normal routines and coping mechanisms, and more people are experiencing loss and grief. Amid that maudlin atmosphere, a recurring theme I’ve observed is that there’s something uniquely soothing about fanfiction that allows readers to feel a sense of safety and calm.

“There are so many people I know right now who don’t try to go to bed at night until they at least read one fic,” professor Lynn Zubernis told me, “just to put themselves in a different headspace and have that burst of emotional resonance and familiarity.” Zubernis is a psychologist and mental health counselor as well as a longtime member of fandom and the author/editor of many books on Supernatural fandom. She’s also currently teaching a course at West Chester University on the psychology of grief, so I thought she’d be the perfect person to talk to about this phenomenon.

After all, if fanfiction really is functioning as a special outlet during the pandemic, it’s helpful to understand not only why that’s happening and whether it’s beneficial, but what its limitations are as a coping mechanism. Fandom isn’t a universally safe space, and treating it like pure escapism may not be the healthiest approach for everyone in the long run. But, as Zubernis and I discussed, fandom is also a space for reflection, critical thinking, and, hopefully, growth. Our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity, is below.

So why fanfiction? Why now?

I think anything that is familiar to us right now is incredibly comforting. I mean, our brains are kind of wired to respond to familiarity. We feel safety from seeing the same faces and the same people again and again, whether in our workplace or our school or our neighborhood. We’re cut off from that right now in the pandemic. We’ve really been cut off from a lot of our familiar coping strategies.

So I think we are really drawn to things that feel familiar to us and feel good to us, and anything that we are fannish about feels really familiar. So whether that means going back and rewatching your favorite show or whether it means immersing yourself in fanfiction to get back into that familiar world with those familiar characters, I think those things are really therapeutic right now.

Is there something about fanfiction as a medium that offers a kind of familiarity that, say, reading books can’t?

I think it depends on the books that you’re reading. If you’re a huge Harry Potter fan, it’s going to feel very familiar and comforting to reread those books or any kind of book series that has been important to someone over time. But I think fanfiction does that even better because there is so much of it for many media properties that we’re passionate about. So you can literally immerse yourself in that world every night for years at a time, so that’s very compelling.

And I also think fanfiction is different than published books in a number of ways. One of the ways it’s different is that it’s very, for lack of a better description, Id-y. Fanfic is written to have emotional resonance for the reader. It’s not written to make somebody a lot of money. It’s not written to get a publishing deal. It’s literally written to appeal to the Id of some other like-minded person. So that means that reading fanfiction is in some ways an even more immersive experience than reading something else.

And sometimes, it is also to appeal, on an Id basis, in a sexual way, and that’s also very life-affirming. In the middle of a pandemic, with all of the sociocultural unrest and injustice, we really need anything that is life-affirming. So I think for those two reasons, reading fanfic is particularly compelling right now and really popular.

I think fanfiction has generated this mode of storytelling that I’ve seen described a couple of different ways. I think of it as a “fluff procedural,” where there’s a specific format — a domesticated situation with a romantic pairing, for example — but there’s no real long-term plot other than just watching people be happy. That’s something that a lot of fics are very interested in and a lot of fanfic readers are very interested in.

Yeah. I mean, coffeeshop AUs [an established fic genre in which a romantic pairing meets at a coffee shop or other romanticized retail environment], right, are the stereotypical example of what you’re talking about. And I think some of that is healthy escapism. You know, the world is really difficult right now. So this might not be the time when we’re really drawn to read a lot of apocalyptic [material]. I don’t need to read about the apocalypse right now because it feels like it’s happening outside my door sometimes. So it can be a lovely escape to immerse yourself in a story where you can see these characters that you have an emotional investment in be happy — that doesn’t always happen in the source material. It might be therapeutic to read something soft and fluffy and happy-making and to remember that there’s hope.

We look for that in the stories that are in media, around us, and that’s part of the way we keep hope alive for ourselves in the real world.

Is there a gap that we’re feeling because the pandemic has separated us from so many real-life connections? Is there some extent to which fiction is making up for what we can’t have in reality?

I think the answer is yes — and not just fanfiction but fandom in general. When the pandemic [first] happened and we all realized that we were going to be in quarantine or isolated, so many people including my own children said to me, “Oh, mom, you’ll be fine because your friends are online as much as they are in person.”

And to some extent, I think fans have fared a little bit better because we do have really extensive and really tight-knit communities that are established largely online — not to say that we don’t, you know, have friends and family and partners in real life, but we also have these other communities that are online.

You may think of reading fanfiction as a solitary enterprise because usually you’re reading it by yourself. But I think when you’re reading fanfiction, psychologically, you’re tapping into that sense of community. You know another fan wrote this for you. You know other people who are reading it. Another fan may have recommended it to you. When you get to the end of it, you can read the comments and see what other people thought of it. And you can interact with the author and with other commenters. So I think reading fanfiction feels communal because you are immersing yourself in the fandom as well as in the piece itself.

And that’s probably another way in which fanfic differs from books. Because with a book, you just have the text and it’s a one-to-one relationship with the author.

And there’s no invitation to respond to it. I mean, you have your emotional feelings about it, but most of us don’t get to the end of the book and immediately try to find the author’s email so that you can leave them some feedback.

I have seen some authors do some semblance of this where they recreate AO3 tags in reference to their books, which is a testament, I think, to how much influence AO3 is having over taxonomy culture and publishing culture, at least in some circles.

I think the way that AO3 does the tagging system has also helped fanfiction be more therapeutic for people in the time of pandemic, because it’s been set up to make it easier for readers to find what they need to read at that particular time. Things that you want to avoid you can easily avoid; things that you’re looking for, that you sense would be therapeutic for you to read, you can find. And it’s validating that you just can find what you want. You know, if somebody’s got a tag for what you’re looking for, clearly your kink is okay because somebody wrote something and tagged it so that you could find it. And conversely, if you know, from a self-preservation standpoint, that you need to stay away from them, you can do that too.

Sometimes, however, it’s impossible to effectively protect yourself from harm in this space, no matter how hard you self-curate and practice self-care and set boundaries. You mentioned Harry Potter as a type of comfort read, but for me as a nonbinary reader who was deeply hurt by J.K. Rowling’s transphobia, this past year has been a gradual grieving process over the Harry Potter series.

I was a clinician for over a decade, and I worked with so many people grieving, so many different kinds of losses. And I just really got an understanding of how often losses impact our lives — including things that we don’t necessarily define as loss. And so people don’t realize that they need to grieve them because they’re not even aware that they have gone through a loss. There’s such a thing as disenfranchised loss, which is a loss that happens and other people don’t recognize it as a loss. So not only does the person themselves not really understand that they’re grieving, but there’s no support around them for even conceptualizing it as a loss.

As a huge Supernatural fan, we are still dealing with the Supernatural finale. That seems like a very frivolous thing to most of the world. Most people would say, ‘What do you mean you’re crying because a television show on the CW ended? That’s insane.’ That’s a disenfranchised loss. But for many people who had been long-term fans of that show and for whom that show and its characters were like comfort food, for that to be gone in the middle of a pandemic when it felt so needed, and for it to leave in such a controversial fashion, was really traumatizing for many people. And it’s because it was one of those disenfranchised losses.

The situation with the loss of Harry Potter and the controversy around it — that is so similar to what happened with Supernatural. The grieving becomes very complicated because now you look back over the whole course of that media that was so important, and those characters who were so emotionally resonant, and they’re almost being recategorized in a way. So it’s a loss that goes back 15 years or more for some people. So it’s a huge loss, and it’s complicated by other people who were [also] passionate about that thing feeling perhaps very differently than you do. Really hard.

As a psychologist who’s also a fan, you’ve probably encountered plenty of therapists and other mental health professionals who believe that fandom is obsessive and unhealthy. How do you approach that?

There’s always been a real distinction between how we as a culture look at media fans versus how we look at something like sports fans. So, you know, I’m in Philadelphia. You can paint yourself green and go to an Eagles game, and people are just going to pat you on the back and say, ‘Dude, that’s awesome.’ You can follow your favorite college football team all over the country. And people will say, ‘Wow, I’m so jealous.’

And I think some of that comes from the initial sort of coding of media fandom as kind of a more female-associated thing. It’s the whole Beatlemania thing where a fan is coded as a hysterical female who’s just screaming and illogical. And that’s maybe scary in a misogynistic culture, because why are all these women passionate about something that’s not their partner? So understanding that the roots of it are in [patriarchy] that we want to eradicate anyway is helpful.

And then the other thing I think is just to keep in mind that fandom is really healthy. It has a lot of benefits. Are there people who lose their boundaries and become obsessive or who can be delusional? Sure, just like there are accountants who can become obsessive and be delusional. So there is a continuum, but most of that continuum brings a lot of benefits. Fandom is a supportive community that can nurture people to help in their identity development or to, you know, harness their creativity and express themselves in ways that they haven’t. It can be a great place for exploring who you are because the norms for interaction in a fan community are much different than face-to-face.

As we think about fandom’s role in bringing people solace and refuge during the pandemic, I think it’s important to acknowledge here that it’s not always a refuge for everyone at all times, and it’s not necessarily a safe space for everyone, especially fans of color and other marginalized fans.

I found fandom so powerful as my safe space that I do sometimes tend to get stuck in a kind of utopian view of fandom. And that means it gets uncomfortable to look at the parts of it that are not positive. I think there’s a temptation to want to segregate off the positive parts of it and not look at the parts that reiterate what we’re trying to escape in the first place, which is all of the really awful stuff that seems to be going on in the real world.

But, of course, fandom reflects that real world, so I think we constantly have to remember that there is really no “escaping” from the real world because we’re all humans. So if you’re a fan, especially a fan of color, who’s dealing with those things in the real world and you’re going to fandom for an escape, you’ve [probably] also got it in your head that this is my safe space. This is where I can be real. This is where I can really feel like I belong.

And then you try to be real and try to express your real self, including your experiences with racism and stereotyping and stigma. And then you get smacked down within that perceived safe space. That’s extra painful.

Fans have had many difficult conversations within the last year about how to make fandom in general, and AO3 in particular, a safer, more inclusive space. The AO3 community is very big on self-curation as a response to these types of discussions, but I’m not sure that complicated problems of identity, especially racism, can be assuaged by simply having a more robust community standard for tagging and curation.

I think it’s a really, really hard question. I do think that the AO3 tagging system is a great idea. It puts the responsibility on people to curate their own experience. But you also hear from Black fans and people of color that always having the responsibility to curate your own experience is asking more of people who have a greater likelihood of running into something that’s going to be hurtful to them. So I think that is an important thing to acknowledge.

And it’s also that they can’t curate their own experiences successfully if other people aren’t tagging their biases — and in some cases, as the recent “Sexy Times With Wangxian” debacle proves, even if they are tagging them. I think this is where you get into even trickier situations, like some that especially affect international fandoms. Increasingly, I think we’re seeing many culture clashes and issues arise from having so many people being in the same fandom spaces, around very different pieces of fandom property, right? When you get a bunch of fans who have come up in English-language serial media fandoms suddenly glomming on to a K-pop fandom like BTS or a Chinese show like The Untamed, you suddenly have a number of different issues that aren’t necessarily something you can fix with tagging.

Plus, so much bias is implicit bias, right? You can’t tag for something that you’re not aware of. We’re not used to interrogating our own experience. So there’s a responsibility on the tagger as well as the reader of tags. And then there’s this tension between representation and appropriation. You want fandom to be transcultural, but at the same time, if you have a lot of people who are writing that are not from that culture, then you have the risk of cultural appropriation. And it’s great that we’re talking about it, but these things are not very easily fixable when fandom is embedded in a global culture.

The more we can change the culture and push back against those kinds of things, to keep the discussion going in an open way — I think that’s one solution, but it sure isn’t a quick one. There’s certainly a lot of people who are not comfortable with uncomfortable conversation, but that’s the only way that you make change.

I think that goes back to escapism. They want this to be their escapist fantasy.

And I understand that, but it’s just not that simple. When you’re talking about your escape being something that can impact other people, then you have a responsibility not to use that escape in a way that is going to hurt other people. We know from history that when people resolutely stick their heads in the sand and don’t pay attention and say, “I can’t deal with this,” that really bad things can happen. So in a broadly ethical sense, trying to block real-world issues from your safe space is going to lead to broader cultural problems.

But at the same time, as a psychologist who knows how people can legitimately become overwhelmed and fall apart if they are exposed to certain things, I also see that for some people they may have to do that — hopefully temporarily. So I can see both sides, but I think there is an ethical obligation for us as a global culture to try not to totally escape and put our heads in the sand. That’s how we got to where we are.

So escape, but not too much.

It’s the same thing with dealing with grief and loss. Our brains are set up in a way that we instinctively try not to let ourselves get overwhelmed. There’s a reason why, when you go through a trauma or a loss, your brain will let you be conscious of it for a while. And then it kind of makes you forget for a while. It’s like this oscillation back and forth. And I think it’s like that with anything that is traumatizing. Certainly, you can’t sit and watch the news or immerse yourself in all the injustices that are happening 24-7, or you’re going to lose your mind. It’s not going to help anyone.

So everybody does need to kind of [regulate] their experience. And some people are much stronger than others.

But at the same time, I think we have a social responsibility to each other — to not completely escape and to push for that oscillation of whatever the individual person can handle. Because that’s the only way things ever change. And that’s the only way in the long run.

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