There are several ways to describe the outsize, almost alien reaction that stans experience when seeing their idol in person. Way back when it was attached to specific figures, most famously with Beatlemania; nowadays it is concisely memed as "screaming crying throwing up". The physical and emotional response is immediate and overwhelming. Fans yell, shake, sob, faint or even black out with excitement when the celebrity they adore enters the vicinity, even if they are separated by tens of thousands of other fans.
Historically this reaction, like so much of fan culture more broadly, has been dismissed with a chauvinist wave as a form of hysteria or even mania and therefore something that can’t be rationalised. Leaving aside the obvious sexism at play, this doesn’t acknowledge how these reactions can be as surprising for the fan as it is for those who know them.
This experience happened to a friend of mine last year. She was at the London HAIM gig where Taylor Swift appeared on stage to sing a few songs. The next thing my friend remembers is screaming in her boyfriend’s face, minutes after Swift appeared. Another friend who attended the same show told me she stood shocked and in tears for minutes after the gig ended.
It doesn’t have to be a surprise performance. Those lucky enough to see Beyoncé on her Renaissance tour have described it as such an overwhelming experience that it felt like time stopped when she stepped onto the stage. Fans were quoted in The Guardian, saying "I’d never have thought she would have me in tears" and that "people were basically stunned. I felt like I needed 24 hours to process it."
The strength of this response raises the question of what is actually happening psychologically when fans, for lack of a better phrase, lose their shit.
There are several complex systems going on in the brain when you experience joy but the most pertinent to the fan experience is the release of specific hormones.
What happens when your brain releases dopamine and serotonin?
When we experience something joyful like seeing a beloved performer or meeting an adored actor, the two neurotransmitters most associated with happiness — dopamine and serotonin — are released into our bodies. Your brain receives a signal to release these chemicals into your central nervous system, which triggers a range of physical responses such as pupil dilation, faster breathing and changes in activity in the sympathetic, parasympathetic and enteric components of the visceral motor system, which govern smooth muscle, cardiac muscle, and glands throughout the body. This in turn can lead to lightheadedness, wide eyes and a loss of appetite.
There is no standardised physical reaction, especially when experiencing the emotion in extremes. One person will jump up and down while another cries and yet another yells at the top of their lungs. A lot of this depends on personality but there are psychological forces that exacerbate the reaction, too.
Dr Lynn Zubernis is a licensed clinical psychologist and author of Fangasm. As she explains, the first and perhaps most obvious force of a reaction for anyone who’s used online fan spaces is parasociality: a one-way or unreciprocated relationship that is often really intense.
What are parasocial relationships?
Parasocial relationships, Lynn explains, are "based on attachment theory, the built-in evolutionary phenomena where we instinctively connect to and form affection for familiar faces". If you're a fan and you see that person's face day in and day out, even on social media, our brains can’t really tell the difference between familiar faces we see on our screens and familiar faces we see in everyday life. As Lynn puts it: "We're built to be connected to [those faces] either way."
Once there is that attachment, there's a thing called proximity seeking, which describes how it feels really good to be physically close to that attachment object. All these feelings are magnified in crowd situations by emotional contagion.
"It was an evolutionary advantage back in the day," Lynn explains. "If you're in a crowd of humans and somebody sees something dangerous and gets afraid, it makes sense that that emotion would spread quickly, unconsciously and instinctively. Then everybody can run away from whatever is threatening the group." While emotional contagion is often associated with negative emotions like panic and anger, it can also happen with positive emotions like joy. Either way, people unconsciously mimic the people around them — so any elation you feel at a gig is intensified by those around you.
Audiences and crowds, particularly crowds at gigs, have a very unique social context that brings out screaming crying throwing up feelings. It is the kind of behaviour that would be unacceptable in most other scenarios, even meeting that same idol in a one-on-one interaction.
Even if a fan is surprised by the strength of their reaction when meeting a star outside of that performance context, like at a meet-and-greet, most of us will adhere to the social contract and repress any extreme emotions — at least until after we’ve left the star’s immediate vicinity. Lynn has seen this time and time again at conventions, where she watches people meet a star calmly, then faint or start crying once they leave their vicinity. "There’s a lot of emotional repression that goes on in that moment. So when you are in a safe space, where there's a social cue like a good friend, then that repressed emotion can just come pouring out."
What is collective effervescence in stan culture?
Crowds are completely different. The feeling in a crowd is known as collective effervescence, a phrase that really evokes what it feels like to be in a huge group that's united in focus. Everyone is sharing the passion and euphoria that you’re experiencing and you’re permitted to jump and scream and cry (though throwing things at artists clearly steps over the line).
This is unique to crowds and isn’t mirrored in digital spaces. That said, social media has had an impact on the strength of fans’ emotional reactions. Michael Bond, author of Fans: A Journey Into The Psychology Of Belonging, says: "Social media has obviously enabled people to access their heroes or at least get an insight into their day-to-day lives. And obviously celebrities play into that by posting mundane stuff about what they do day to day, not just about their art. So it enables the fans to have that sense that they know something about their lives. If anything it probably strengthens that relationship." This isn't a substitute for the in-person experience but it does make that emotional reaction even stronger when it happens in a crowd.
This behaviour may look bizarre and obsessive from the outside but it all (mostly) falls within the normal parameters of human behaviour. It just needs to be set in the context of what that figure means to the fan — more often than not, they’re not just an artist. They are often also a role model.
As Michael explains: "When you go and see someone who fulfils that role for you and has given all that to your life and you see them live in the flesh, it can evoke all kinds of passions and unexpected reactions. That meaning is coming out in real time. And if you look at it that way, it's not so weird, it's not so odd, it's just real life." Far from hysteria, screaming crying throwing up is our bodies and minds processing sudden, overwhelming joy. What could be more uplifting than that?