When Parasocial Relationships Become Real

Why do people freak out when they meet celebrities? I used to think it was ridiculous how fans go wild and lose their minds when they see their favorite singer/actor/athlete in person. But I have to admit, when I see a famous person in public, I feel an emotional reaction as well. Albeit not to the same extent. I don’t act crazy or run up for selfies and autographs, but I do have a surreal feeling of awe, like, wow, its really them. I used to think those who had extreme emotional reactions toward celebrities were immature or obsessed with fame—and maybe some are—but I don’t consider myself either, yet I still experience that surreal feeling.

I remember it specifically occurring to me on one occasion. For years I had been listening to a podcast (The Q&A, formerly Creative Screenwriting), in which the host, Jeff Goldsmith interviews screenwriters about their movies. I listened to hundreds of episodes of the podcast, hundreds of hours of hearing the host’s voice in my head. When I moved to Los Angeles, I finally saw the podcast live, and upon seeing the host in person it felt surreal, like OMG, I can’t believe it’s really him. It was similar to the feeling people get when they see a celebrity in person, but this podcast host was not famous. If he walked down the street, 99.9% of people would have no idea who he was—only the small percentage of screenwriters who listen to his podcast would recognize him (and even then, they may only know his voice). He is not a true “celebrity.” So what gives?

I think there’s something else at play, beyond fame and celebrity. Something psychological, deep-seeded in our brains—the brains of all human beings, not just fanatics and the fame-obsessed. For some, the thrill of seeing a celebrity is pure hero worship, but what I experienced was the substantiation of a previously parasocial relationship.

All humans have the desire to connect with other humans in person. In the case of TV, movies, music, radio, podcasts, YouTube, or any other form of media, you develop a parasocial relationship with the host/actor/writer/musician. You can spend years watching/listening to this person and feel like you know them, but the relationship is only one way. Though you feel like you know them, they do not know you.

There’s a disconnect in internet relationships because you only see a digital projection or hear a voice. It’s like the uncanny valley. It’s not the same thing as physically seeing the person. So when you finally do see them in person, after years of only seeing/hearing them digitally, it’s overwhelming. There’s a mix of emotions, including relief that this “digital person” is actually real. They do exist, and aren’t just some computer program or simulation.

It’s similar to seeing a family member who has been away for years. You can email, text, talk on the phone, and even video-chat every day. But when the family member comes home, and you finally see each other in person, you feel overwhelmed with emotions because you’re so ecstatic to see each other in the flesh. Likewise in a parasocial relationship, the “celebrity” (no matter how famous they are to the broader public) feels like family to you—family that you haven’t seen in years, if ever. This is especially true in an intimate medium like podcasts where you can hear the person talking directly in your head for an hour-plus every day, revealing personal details about their lives. So when you finally do see the podcaster in person, you are overcome with emotion. The “para” is removed from your relationship with them, making it fully social.

Certain fans may still become a little too obsessed with fame, but in many cases, the emotional reaction you experience upon meeting a “celebrity” is simply your brain being elated to make a real human connection.

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