Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Eminem, "Stan" video; Perfect Blue; Misery (Screenshots: YouTube)
Graphic: Libby McGuire

1. Eminem, “Stan” (2000)

The third single from The Marshall Mathers LP earned Eminem some of the highest praise of his career, but back when “Stan” was grabbing VMA nominations and giving a three-year-old Dido single a piggyback ride up the charts, who would’ve guessed the song’s lasting legacy would be lexicographical? “Stan” is literally the definitive depiction of obsessive fandom: The song weaves a tale of celebrity-worship so intense that its title became shorthand for such outrageous loyalty. Grappling with listeners who might take the repugnant catharsis of his Slim Shady persona at face value, Eminem gave toxic fandom a face—one that dressed like him and walked, talked, and acted like him, but eventually came to stand in for anyone who’d sincerely tell the object of their enthusiasm, “We should be together, too.” (In the song’s music video, that character was played by Devon Sawa—who, thanks to “The Real Slim Shady” co-star Fred Durst, finds himself on the opposite end of this conundrum in 2019’s The Fanatic.) The rainy-day beat by legendary DJ The 45 King isn’t the backdrop to Em’s most dextrous rhymes; “Stan” is more like a well-told campfire story, building to a foaming-at-the-mouth fury and a tragic epilogue that’s casually omitted by modern coinages like “we stan a legend.” (Or not, considering all the times Swifties, Beliebers, or Barbs have caused Twitter users to declare “RIP my mentions.”) [Erik Adams]

2. Misery (1987)

Stephen King was a mess when he wrote Misery. He was fucked-up on drugs and booze and dealing with a fanbase that didn’t much like him deviating from the horror upon which he made his name. Sure, he satiated the masses with It in 1986, but he was still stung by their anger at 1984’s The Eyes Of The Dragon, a fantasy tale that didn’t have enough blood and guts. Would he forever be beholden to his base? It was anxieties like these, not to mention the creeping feeling that he was becoming imprisoned by his addictions, that led to Misery, a story that burst out of him after he dreamed of a writer being held hostage by a psychotic fan. That fan turned into Annie Wilkes, an unstable nurse who, after finding her favorite author, Paul Sheldon, in the wreckage of a car crash, treats his injuries, tortures him into subservience, and, eventually, forces him to resurrect the character of his recently shelved romance series. Though the piece finds horror in the obsessive fan, it’s more about King reckoning with his fame, his legacy, and whether he had the strength to break free of his bonds, be they inflicted or self-imposed. Kathy Bates won an Oscar for her work as Wilkes in the 1990 film adaptation, and Lizzy Caplan will play a younger version of the character in the second season of Hulu’s Castle Rock. Whoever she stans in a pre-Sheldon universe, we don’t envy them. [Randall Colburn]

3. The King Of Comedy (1983)

Martin Scorsese’s depressingly applicable, endlessly endurable showbiz satire actually offers up two prime portraits of the obsessive fan—one more, let’s say, “pure” than the other. (Although we’re in some very relative and worrying waters with that particular distinction.) Sure, it’s clear that oddly upbeat sadsack Rupert Pupkin’s fixation on talk-show host Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis) is genuine: Robert De Niro’s frustrated comedian can rattle off the details of Langford’s career at the drop of a hat, and does. But it’s also clear that his fandom is built less on Langford the man, and more on the way he represents the big break Pupkin is convinced the world has been consistently screwing him out of. Whereas for Sandra Bernhard’s co-conspirator Masha, it’s all about Langford the man (not to mention screwing), something that becomes painfully clear during the “date” she coerces the heavily duct-taped host into (at gunpoint) while Pupkin is busy hijacking his show. Slipping immediately into the sort of overly familiar parasocial intimacy that can only come from spending years of your life staring at someone who has absolutely no idea who you are, Bernhard rattles off every single nervous thought in Masha’s addled head, then goes in for the big finish: An impromptu a cappella rendition of pop standard “Come Rain Or Come Shine,” followed by stripping, and—were it not interrupted by Langford’s eventual escape—what’s implied to have been a very dedicated, giggly attempt at sexual assault. It’s easy to imagine Rupert moving on from his Langford phase some day, especially if the film’s winking conclusion represents reality, and not just another Pupkin delusion. But what Jerry and Masha have? That’s forever—unfortunately for him. [William Hughes]

4. The Fan (1981)

Only a few years before The Terminator, Michael Biehn landed his first major movie role as the title character in The Fan, a young man obsessed with Sally Ross, played by screen legend Lauren Bacall. In a case of art imitating life, Sally was a 50-year-old former film star now trying to make a musical; in real life Bacall had also gone from the screen to the stage, winning a Tony for Applause. Here Sally’s trajectory only makes her more accessible to young Douglas Breen (Biehn), who starts out writing her polite, poetic letters. But as he only receives formal replies in return, his letters get increasingly more violent, and so does the fan himself. As thrillers go, the casting of Bacall, with James Garner as Sally’s ex-husband and Maureen Stapleton as her secretary, helped elevate The Fan above run-of-the-mill slasher fare. Unfortunately, the movie was released less than a year after John Lennon’s murder by an obsessed fan and an assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan by a man who was fixated on Jodie Foster. While the epistolary book the movie was based on had come out a few years earlier, The Fan’s story still veered a bit too close to actual current events, and the movie bombed. Bacall herself derided the film, lamenting to People magazine that the blood and guts were piled on after she read the initial script. [Gwen Ihnat]

5. The Fan (1996)

Is there a phrase in the English language more redolent with glaring, brilliant red flags than “divorced, mentally unstable knife salesman played by Robert De Niro”? And yet that’s exactly who Wesley Snipes’ Bobby Rayburn—a hot shot hitter for the San Francisco Giants, whose current career slump quickly becomes the least of his problems—finds himself contending with in Tony Scott’s ludicrous thriller, The Fan. Playing like a more pathetic (but no less dangerous) riff on Cape Fear’s Max Cady—albeit one decked out in mountains of Giants swag—De Niro’s Gil Renard steadily ingratiates himself into Rayburn’s life, even managing to parlay a “rescue” of his drowning son into that mainstay of dad-deprived characters everywhere: a game of catch. Once he catches the merest whiff of the baseball star’s fan-inflicted burnout, though, Gil not only turns on his hero, but makes the shift into full supervillain, kidnapping Bobby’s son, murdering rival players, and somehow teleporting behind home plate at a major league baseball game for a ridiculously dramatic final confrontation in the rain—after threatening to kill Rayburn’s kid unless he hits a home run and dedicates it to his tormentor. In the end, though, we learn what we almost always learn in these circumstances: That Gil’s “fandom” was always far less about the object of his twisted love, and far more about finding new expressions for his obsession with himself. [William Hughes]

6. Big Fan (2009)

Patton Oswalt has made a career of playing nerds and misfits, but Paul Afrielo, the obsessive football fanatic Oswalt plays in Big Fan, may be the most pathetic of all of them. Paul loves the New York Giants, and escapes from his humdrum life of living with his mom and working in a parking garage by calling in to a sports radio show to talk shit about the Philadelphia Eagles. Then Paul’s innocent, yet undeniably creepy tailing of a Giants player named Quantrell Bishop (Jonathan Hamm) lands Paul in the hospital. That’s not enough to shake Paul’s religious devotion to the team, and in fact Paul defends Quantrell against an opportunistic lawsuit filed by Paul’s brother. But when his favorite talk-radio host jumps into the fray, it doesn’t take long for this parking attendant to go full Taxi Driver. [Katie Rife]

7. Frasier, “The Two Hundredth Episode” (2001)

Kelsey Grammer (left) and Adam Arkin in “The Two Hundredth Episode”
Screenshot: Netflix

After celebrating his 2,000th episode on the air, Frasier discovers a tape missing among his immaculate collection of The Dr. Frasier Crane Show. When Tom (an earnest Adam Arkin) answers Frasier’s on-air plea for fans who may have recorded the episode in question, “perhaps in order to review [Frasier’s] advice or even just play it for some friends,” Frasier comes face to face with how obsession can take over a man’s life. Tom’s shabby apartment is a veritable Frasier shrine: What was once a window is now papered over with photographs of Seattle’s favorite radio psychiatrist, and his answering-machine message plays Frasier’s mellifluous tagline. What’s more, Tom quit his old job when it began to interfere with transcribing the show. As their meeting ends, Frasier realizes that his own obsession—over completing his collection of tapes—is perhaps not so different from Tom’s. After all, there’s no bigger fan of Frasier than Frasier. [Laura Adamczyk]

8. Nurse Betty (2000)

A feature-length exercise in black comedy, Nurse Betty gave controversial playwright and filmmaker Neil LaBute his first chance to direct someone else’s words, and the result is a messy, only fitfully funny exploration of someone who has fallen headfirst into the delusion that they are “meant to be together” with the object of their affection. Renee Zellweger’s Betty enters a fugue state after witnessing the murder of her husband, and becomes convinced she’s a nurse on the soap opera A Reason To Love—more than that, she’s determined to reunite with her obsession, George McCord (or “Dr. David Ravell,” in Betty’s feverish mind), the show’s star played by Greg Kinnear. Traveling cross-country, she eventually meets him, only for George to believe she’s an actress staying in character to land a part on his show. He starts to fall for her too, to add implausibility upon implausibility. Betty eventually comes to her senses, but some critics remained under her spell—Zellweger won a Golden Globe for her performance. [Alex McLevy]

9. Friends, “The One After The Superbowl” (1996)

For a much more entertaining version of the soap-obsessed superfan, cast your eyes upon Friends and its post-Super Bowl episode (the most-watched installment in the series’ entire run) featuring the controlling visage of guest star Brooke Shields’ Erika Ford, a woman under the delusion that Days Of Our Lives is actually happening in reality. So when she seeks out Joey (Matt LeBlanc), who plays Dr. Drake Ramoray on the series, it doesn’t take long for him to realize that she’s in love with his alter ego, not him—not that the sweet but dimwitted lothario of an actor cares, as he sleeps with her anyway. It unspools quickly enough, when Erika storms over to his apartment, hurt after seeing “Dr. Drake” kissing another woman on screen, and believing she’s been cheated on. Things seem dire, until Ross (David Schwimmer) devises a solution—Joey is actually Dr. Drake’s evil twin—“Hans Ramoray!” as he exclaims. Erika buys the reasoning—and better still, it gives almost everyone in the room a chance to throw water in Joey’s face. [Alex McLevy]

10. American Dad, “My Morning Straitjacket” (2009)

Stan Smith is an extremely uptight man, to the point where he’ll do everything he can to stop his daughter Hayley from going out to a rock concert late at night. When she disobeys him and goes to the show anyway, he follows along and tries to force her to come home… until his earplugs get knocked out and he hears the majestic beauty of My Morning Jacket for the first time. In an instant, Stan’s life changes: He no longer cares about anything but My Morning Jacket, pushing his fandom so far that he kicks Hayley out of his dedicated MMJ hangout room for recommending another band, ignores his wife as she gets strangled by the vacuum cord, accidentally eats the family’s talking fish, and is completely oblivious when a burglar breaks in and stabs his son. (It’s a comedy show.) He even pays some creep on the internet for a bootleg recording of frontman Jim James in a bathroom. Stan’s conclusion is that he and James must be soulmates since the music speaks to him so clearly, and it’s not until he actually meets an appropriately freaked-out James that he realizes how ridiculous he’s being. [Sam Barsanti]

11. Supernatural, “Season 7, Time For A Wedding!” (2011)

Leave it to Supernatural to find the most meta spin possible on the obsessed-fan story. Long after the show revealed an in-universe series of books accurately recounting the real-life travails of demons hunters Sam and Dean Winchester (Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles), book series superfan Becky Rosen (Emily Perkins) decides she’s the only one for Sam. Tracking him down and drugging him with a love potion, the two immediately get married, much to the chagrin of Dean, whose focus on a case keeps him from getting to the bottom of his brother’s predicament. Of course, it’s soon revealed the Wiccan supplying Becky with her potion is actually a Crossroads demon, demanding her soul in exchange for 25 years of wedded bliss to the taller Winchester sibling. Becky eventually does the right thing and helps Sam defeat the demon—although to be fair, she only does so after realizing she’s basically out of options. It’s understandable: Those Winchesters are damn charming, after all. [Alex McLevy]

12. Perfect Blue

Social media was still a few years away when Perfect Blue hit American theaters in 1999, and Satoshi Kon’s landmark anime is even more chilling viewed in the rearview mirror of the smartphone era. The story is more Brian De Palma than Hayao Miyazaki: Mima, a former pop idol embarking on a new career as an actress, is plunged into a surreal nightmare when an obsessed fan starts murdering the people he deems responsible for her perceived fall from grace. Sophisticated or innocent, she cannot compete with the perfect image her stalker has built of her in his mind, putting the real Mina in danger—if she can remember who the real Mina is. Beautifully animated and razor-sharp, it’s one of the best cinematic depictions of the dissociative nature of fame, made even scarier in a world where it’s easier than ever to feel like you “know” someone you’ve never even met. [Katie Rife]

13. Flight Of The Conchords, “New Fans” (2007)

Mel (Kristen Schaal) isn’t just the biggest Flight Of The Conchords fan—she’s Bret (Bret McKenzie) and Jemaine’s (Jemaine Clement) only fan. She lets absolutely nothing distract her from her adulation, not her job as a junior professor of psychology nor her husband, Doug (David Costabile), who we learn in “New Fans” was once the object of Mel’s unhealthy desire. Mel channels her love for the Conchords in unsettling but not quite threatening ways, from paintings to carrying a photo of Jemaine’s lips. Naturally, she bristles at the arrival of “New Fans” in this season-one episode, pointing out that Rain (Heather Lawless) and Summer (Sarah Burns) don’t even check the fan roster regularly. Turns out, the one thing that could make Mel question her place among Conchords fans isn’t the band’s ongoing indifference to her—it’s that they would consider letting anyone else into that very, very exclusive group. “New Fans” reveals the legal trouble Mel’s found herself in over her unhealthy fixations in the past, but it also proves her appreciation for their craft (as it were). [Danette Chavez]

14. WWE, Mickie James stalks Trish Stratus (2005)

The mid-’00s were a rough time for women’s wrestling, with WWE’s roster of talented female grapplers routinely subjected to exploitative dreck like “bra and panties” matches. Still, now and again a good storyline emerged, even if it was built atop the romance and jealousy go-tos that defined so many female feuds. One of the era’s best was newcomer Mickie James’ Single White Female-ing of veteran Trish Stratus, the WWE Women’s Champion. James debuted as Stratus’ No. 1 fan, linking up with the champ for a number of tag matches that only served to fuel her obsession. Soon, she was dressing up in Stratus’ gear, using her finishing maneuvers, and, in the feud’s unfortunate low point, trying to romance her. Stratus’ eventual rejection of James turned the latter heel, leading her to kidnap and gag Stratus’ pal Ashley in order to draw out her rival. It all culminated with a dynamic, climactic match at Wrestlemania, where James defeated Stratus, quite fittingly, with her own version of her opponent’s finisher. Interestingly, James, despite being the heel, had the roaring crowd on her side, which is what happens when you actually give a wrestler clear character beats and motivations. Today’s WWE creatives might want to take note. [Randall Colburn]

15. Ingrid Goes West (2017)

Ingrid (Aubrey Plaza) is already displaying some, let’s say, boundary issues—i.e., macing a casual acquaintance at her wedding—when she latches on to faux-bohemian Instagram star Taylor (Elizabeth Olsen) in Ingrid Goes West, Matt Spicer’s ruthless satire of the influencer culture that’s spread its green-juice sipping, selfie-snapping tendrils across the greater Los Angeles area. Being a new kind of celebrity (and a sheltered rich kid), Taylor has a naïve view of the consequences of her fame, allowing obsessive stalker Ingrid to insert herself into her life in some pretty significant ways. She also has the kind of narcissistic, shallow personality that keeps everyone at a distance, a trait that’s bound to clash with Ingrid’s psychotic need to completely possess her idols. [Katie Rife]

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