Celebrity worship syndrome: The mental illness where fans go too far

Celebrity worship syndrome: The mental illness where fans go too far

We're all guilty of glorifying celebrities to a certain extent. Find me someone who didn't have a poster of a household name blue tacked to their wall growing up, or who hasn't been goaded into finding out the juicy details of the latest Hollywood split. Admiring the famous often appears to be something that is untaught; almost Darwinian in its nature, it replicates the natural order where both animals look up to creatures perceived to be the strongest of the pack. But what happens when this inexhaustible adoration of the fittest (AKA, the most beautiful, the most talented, the richest) goes too far? What happens when it's not just a gaggle of young girls mooning over Justin Bieber at a sleepover, but instead a mindless horde of rabid fans frantically chasing the alpha, all the while suffering from bona fide psychological condition: Celebrity Worship Syndrome.

As a society we've always recognised that there were certain frenzied groups who stepped so far past the line, it became only a blurry dot in the distance. Rewind to 1841, where fans of Hungarian pianist Franz Liszt showed a level of fanaticism that was previously unheard of; one account even tells of the time "music's first superstar" threw away an old cigar stump in the street "under the watchful eyes of an infatuated lady-in-waiting", who then collected it from the gutter and had it encased in a locket and surrounded with the monogram "F.L." in diamonds. Then, of course, there were the four Liverpudlians who captured every teenage girl's hearts in the 1960s; Beatlemania gripped the world with fans screaming themselves into hysteria, nothing behind their vacant eyes but fantasies of the acclaimed Mop Topped foursome.

Beatlemania was potentially celebrity worship syndrome Credit: Getty

However, it wasn't until the early 2000s that the condition was officially defined. In a 2003 study named 'A Clinical interpretation of attitudes and behaviors associated with celebrity worship', researchers John Maltby, James Houran and Lynn McCutcheon named the phenomenon as Celebrity Worship Syndrome, an obsessive-addictive disorder where an individual becomes overly involved and interested (i.e., completely obsessed) with the details of the personal life of a celebrity. Subsequent research on larger samples by Dr. Maltby and his team determined that the condition could be separated into three independent dimensions; based on a continuum, they were named as entertainment-social,  intense-personal, and borderline pathological.

Those associated with the entertainment-social dimension were attracted to celebrities because of their perceived ability to entertain and to become a social focus of conversation with likeminded others. These individuals were only mildly afflicted with the newly-founded psychological disorder, they tended to be extroverts with lots of friends and were passionate about using famous people as a conversation topic. All in all, pretty harmless stuff.

Yet CWS ramped things up with the intense-personal level, where individuals would have intensive and compulsive feelings about a star. This was edging towards the danger zone. It was found that these people would have higher levels of anxiety, depression, high-stress levels, increased illness, and poorer body image.

Lastly, and most concerningly, were level three sufferers, the hardcore devotees who were solitary, impulsive, anti-social and troublesome, with insensitive traits. These were the people who felt they had a unique bond with their chosen celebrity and were prepared to lie, or even to die, for their idol. Described by professionals as "borderline pathological", about two per cent of people are said to be at this stage in their celeb worship.


Driven to insanity by their dedication, for these fans celebrities had taken the place of family members and friends. They had replaced their normal relationships with a one-sided love that would never be reciprocated but they still couldn't halt in its tracks. All of a sudden, people who used to be able to have a handle their mania had become one colossal fanatical hormone that was out for blood.

Dr. Maltby summarised his team’s research in an interview to the BBC saying: "Data from 3,000 people showed only around one per cent demonstrate obsessional tendencies. Around 10 per cent (who tend to be neurotic, tense, emotional and moody) displayed intense interest in celebrities. Around 14 percent said they would make a special effort to read about their favourite celebrity and to socialise with people who shared their interest. The other 75 per cent of the population do not take any interest in celebrities' lives. Generally, the vast majority of people will identify a favourite celebrity, but don't say they read about them or think about them all the time. Like most things, its fine as long as it doesn't take over your life."

But the small percentage of people suffering from new breed of fan were nonetheless troubling. Nowadays they are perhaps are most distinctly seen in One Direction devotees who claim to have an everlasting bond with X Factor runners-up, Harry, Liam, Louis, Niall and Zayn. The world was given a glimpse into their obsessive tendencies in the Channel Four documentary Crazy About One Direction, where one fan threateningly - and most likely quite accurately - described herself as "part of a fandom that can kill you if they wanted".

These were the enthusiasts who spent hours online each day talking about One Direction, creating a string of bizarre fan fiction and fantasies. They were the people who aggressively hounded their icons, working to find out which hotel they were staying in, then aiming to break in to their bedrooms as they slept. The individuals who attempted to bottle the band member's breath and display it in their rooms.

One direction fans sometimes suffer from Celebrity worship syndrome Credit: Getty

A recurring theme that stood out in the TV show was the idea that the manic teenage girls being interviewed just wanted their idols to know that they existed. So desperate to get the band to notice her one fan had tweeted Styles with the words "Why won't you follow me? Should I kill myself." Another told how she tolerated helping her mother with the housework by telling herself: "I'm going to marry Zayn, I'm going to have a maid, I don't need to do all that."

In addition, those onscreen displayed a dangerous obsession with the personal lives of the band members with one describing her meltdown when Styles was dating fellow singer Taylor Swift: "When Harry was with Taylor I was giving her death threats and she blocked me off Twitter. That's how bad it was. If I saw her now I'd rugby tackle her. I'd stamp on her. I'd rip all her hair out, I'd squeeze her eyeballs and step on them."

Amid this alarming behaviour was the feeling that the word "worship" was an overwhelmingly accurate description of what was occurring here. Rather than a healthy interest in the rich and famous, these people's whole lives had become about admiring their celebrity and their actions now resembled religious worship where they performed rituals, followed their celebrity around and tried to collect items that had been touched by their actor, singer or musician, believing they were valuable.

Has Celebrity worship syndrome affected Taylor Swift fans? Credit: Getty

Although it's not immediately clear what exactly causes CWS, some experts believe that the deeper levels reflect an attempt to soothe an "empty self". Rather than just mere entertainment, some of us now turn to celebrities for all aspects of our lives and end up becoming emotionally involved with people we have never met.

So it that it? Without famous faces, are some of us just empty shells of beings? Have people who were simply supposed to be there to entertain us, whether it be through singing, acting, dancing or whatever else, become our entire lives?

Ultimately, the evidence shows that if you can have a bit of fun reading up on the latest gossip and not replace emotional connections in your real life, then you're probably pretty healthy. On the other hand, if you're a quivering wreck anytime your celeb boy gets a new honey and as we speak are hunting online for the napkin your favourite star apparently blew their nose on, there is a major problem that you need to address.

Featured illustration by Egarcigu