Truly, madly modern

November 2, 2006

Is there something about contemporary life that encourages stalkers? Bran Nicol ponders

In Hoodwinked , the new Shrek-like animated parody of Little Red Riding Hood , Red, the predictably sassy heroine, sees through the wolf's disguise when she visits her grandmother's house. She exclaims: "You again? What do I have to do - take out a restraining order?" Thus the classic fairytale is recast as another stalker drama. This is a common move in contemporary culture. In Sam Raimi's 2002 version of Spider-Man , the heroine MJ comes across Spider-Man hanging upside down in an alley and remarks: "I think I have a superhero stalker."

Superhero, villain or pitiable recluse, the stalker is lurking everywhere in the modern world. He or she is the source of fear in films such as Hidden and One Hour Photo , of suspense in soap opera, as in Home and Away , and of parody in comedies such as I'm Alan Partridge and Bo' Selecta . One obvious reason for the stalker's ubiquity is the fact that he - or she - commits numerous real crimes. Last month, a woman was convicted of stalking the Crystal Palace FC chairman Simon Jordan. And it is just over a year since shop assistant Clare Bernal was shot dead in Harvey Nichols by a former partner in one of the most shocking cases of stalking.

Along with serial murder and child abuse, stalking is one of the signature crimes of our age. And, perhaps surprisingly, it is very much a recent phenomenon. It was only in the 1990s that it became properly defined as a crime. The British Protection from Harassment Act was introduced in 1997.

The same year saw the definition of "stalking" in the Oxford English Dictionary expanded to encompass a person "who follows or harasses someone (often a public figure) with whom he or she has become obsessed".

But is stalking really something new? People have always been infatuated with and harassed by others, or inspired to drastic action when a relationship has gone wrong. History abounds in examples of what seem suspiciously like modern stalking cases. There is Lady Caroline Lamb's persecution of Lord Byron, for example, in the early 19th century. She would hang around the poet's house, write to him endlessly (once including a clipping of her pubic hair) and cause scenes in public. There are also the cases of "erotomania" analysed in 1942 by the psychiatrist Gaetan De Clérambault - tales of prolonged and escalatory conflict that prove that stalking was a problem for some people long before the word entered the dictionary.

But while stalking of sorts has always been part of life, it is only in the past decade or so that it has become recognised as something prevalent and dangerous, requiring medical treatment and prompting legislation. So what changed?

Two events captured the media's imagination in 1989. The first was the case of Hollywood actress Rebecca Schaeffer, who was pursued and shot dead by obsessed fan Robert Bardo. As this case followed a string of high-profile attacks on celebrities, such as Mark Chapman's murder of John Lennon in 1980 and John Hinckley's attempt to assassinate President Ronald Reagan in 1981 (ostensibly to impress Jodie Foster, whom he was stalking), it seemed more than just an isolated case. A newspaper at the time called it "a symbol of a spreading national menace", portraying Bardo not as just another crazy, but as an "archetypal stalker".

The second event was the release of the film Fatal Attraction in 1987, which seemed to underline the fact that stalking was becoming epidemic. The film was treated by the tabloids as evidence of a trend, and numerous similar real-life stories were splashed across their pages in support. The Bardo case prompted the Los Angeles Police Department to set up its Threat Management Unit, designed to "manage" stalking cases, and in 1990 California passed the first anti-stalking law. This was quickly followed by legislation in other US states, in the UK and in most countries in Western Europe.

The sudden emergence of the stalking phenomenon smacks of the old sociological concept of moral panic - a sudden disproportionate focus on one issue among the many that seem to threaten social order. Yet there is more to it than media hysteria. In fact, it seems clear there is something about modern life that helps create the stalker.

The impulses that characterise stalking are very close to some forms of behaviour that have become natural in the contemporary world. Celebrity culture, for example, is dominated by the logic of "artificial intimacy", by which people are encouraged, through a vast media apparatus (TV, the tabloids, Hello! and Heat magazines, and so on), to feel a narcissistic connection with people they have never met. The internet, too, lends itself to prurience and voyeurism, enabling us to Google the names of people we encounter. And all the while, we are constantly tracked in return through digital technology, mobile phones and automated banking.

Other changes in modern society may have contributed more directly to the increase in stalking. Most stalkers are men, and their victims women. It seems plausible that stalking is rooted in a modern "crisis in masculinity" associated with the rise of feminism in the 1960s and 1970s and a weakening of traditional male forms of authority. Fatal Attraction is not just about a woman terrorising a man, but the dangers posed by a "career woman" who will stop at nothing to get what she wants. While it fails to reflect the gender balance of real stalking cases, it is an accurate expression of 1980s fears about independent women.

Contemporary attitudes to love can also function as triggers in the minds of socially inept individuals with stalker potential. Media images present women as always available, always sexualised. This is exacerbated by the approach to love and seduction adopted by Hollywood films, TV and the media. Love is envisaged as long-lasting, something that can endure indefinitely (and must be endured indefinitely, to invoke the punning title of Ian McEwan's stalking novel Enduring Love ). It is a powerful force beyond our control that can unhinge us, make us behave "madly". And this power demands persistence on the part of those who succumb to it, especially men. The plots of innumerable Hollywood films - think of The Graduate, Pretty Woman, Il Postino - feature men who are initially rejected by a woman only to finally win her over through sheer dogged determination.

Thus contemporary culture tacitly sanctions excessive, persistent behaviour in infatuated men. Worse, the implicit endorsement of the code of persistent love is accompanied by a corresponding decline in the codes that structure social behaviour.

It is not that the laws that determine how we act towards one another as social beings no longer function, it is that our informal, relaxed culture has made them implicit where once they were explicit. This is not necessarily a bad thing. But stalkers find it particularly hard to read these implicit codes. They get too close to someone without recognising their discomfort, unable to register how the imploring messages they send out might be received.

This kind of implicit law might explain why universities are so often the location for stalking cases. The sociologist Robert Fine, himself a victim of stalking by a student (as documented in his memoir Being Stalked ), has noted that universities are places where laws appear relaxed almost to the point of non-existence. Lecturers dress as casually as students and are referred to by their first names. Yet at certain points (marking essays, imposing university regulations) they must draw back and occupy a position of punitive authority. The resulting confusion can easily spark an episode of stalking.

Overall, our society is dominated by an ethos of hyper-individualism, a "rights-based" moral code that insists everyone is entitled to get what they want. There can be no doubt this is one of the weapons against stalking, as it means that victims of harassment can legitimately protest that their rights as a social being are being violated. Yet a twisted ideology of entitlement is subscribed to by the stalker - whether he is a dangerous predator or a persistent wolf in disguise - who feels he has a right to have, or punish, the object of his obsession.

Stalking impulses may well be an inevitable consequence of human attachment-formation. But they are surely intensified by the conditions of our modern world. As the wolf in Hoodwinked protests to his accusers: "What can I say? I was raised by wolves."

Bran Nicol is senior lecturer in English literature at Portsmouth University. His book Stalking is published this week by Reaktion Books.

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