How the murder of John Lennon and the issue of celebrity stalking is represented in the media.

Late on 8th December 1980 Mark David Chapman fatally shot renowned musician John Lennon after stalking him for several months. The event has been depicted by the media in numerous ways, from breaking news reports by The Washington Post and The Associated Press, to dramatization Chapter 27 (Schaeffer, 2007) and a recent article from the MailOnline covering the 35th anniversary of Lennon’s death. Since this attack the media continues to fixate on celebrity stalking and the phenomenon has only worsened.

This sinister consequence of celebrity culture only came to public attention in the 1980s, thanks to Chapman’s actions and movies like Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy (1982). Although, until Rebecca Schaeffer’s murder in 1989, stalking still failed to be recognized as a criminal offence. Presumably, this is why the MailOnline article from 2015, refers to Chapman as a stalker frequently, whereas the news reports from 1980 tend to call him a “gunman” or “killer” (Boyle).

Despite this, celebrity culture continued to thrive and the “celebrity race is now ubiquitous in all walks of life” (Rojek, 2001, p. 15), today stalking is even seen as “the price of fame” (Nicol, 2006, p. 7). “The popular news media may suggest that celebrities and public figures are the most common targets of stalkers” (Schultz, Moore, & Spitzberg, 2014, p. 614), this is not the case and yet, “stalking enters the public consciousness as a result of the stalking of celebrities” (Nicol, 2006, p. 64).

Even so, the stalking of celebrities “has increased significantly since 1980” (Schlesinger & Mesa, 2008, p. 92) because “actively encouraging the fantasies of others” has become the “standard process by which a celebrity reaches out to his or her audience” (Nicol, 2006, p. 66). Fans are persuaded into “delusions of intimacy” (Rojek, 2012, p. 48) by indulging in details of celebrities’ private lives and personalities. In this case, act of being a fan is bares many similarities to the act of actual stalking.

Musicians and actors are further promoting fantasies in fans by “deliberately setting out to provoke an emotional response in viewers or listeners” (Nicol, 2006, p. 67); this helps to sell their music and movies but in certain flawed individuals this could incite an unwarranted infatuation.

Many stalkers have narcissistic tendencies, which can cause them to “feel that an artist’s songs are directly for or about them”. This was the case for Chapman, who “regarded John Lennon’s music (and that of others) as containing messages directed to him” (Nicol, 2006, p. 67). In Chapter 27, the character of Chapman explains that Lennon’s music and lyrics “provided me with everything I needed” and that if a writer is really great, they can make you feel like you are best friends.

Many stalkers, like Chapman, identify themselves with people they perceive to be superior “out of his fear of being labeled a loser” (Lasch, 1979, p. 85). But, when the object of their admiration disappoints them, “they experience immediate hatred and fear, and react by devaluating the former idol” (Kernberg, 1975, p. 236); it is then that they can turn to violence. Chapman changed his opinion of Lennon once he deemed him to be a ‘phony’, and this new opinion urged him to hurt him. It is judged to be a point of interest and a peculiarity that Chapman used to be a fan of Lennon and the Beatles; almost all media texts representing the murder comment on how Lennon signed an autograph for Chapman just hours before he was shot.

However, ironically, the celebrity identities that captivate fans are usually a “carefully staged illusion” (Nicol, 2006, p. 67). Celebrities may appear “magical or superhuman” (Rojek, 2001, p. 13), but that is often because they are “cultural fabrications” (Rojek, 2001, p. 10). This can be thanks to the celebrity’s management and public relations team, but it is chiefly credited to the media, who can build up a celebrities’ image or tear it down. Following Lennon’s death, the media universally represented him as almost god-like. In both articles from the day the news of Lennon’s death broke and the article from the 35th anniversary, Lennon is characterized as a musical hero. Weil describes him as “one of the most successful and popular composers of all time” (1980), perhaps inflating his success to make the event more poignant. Hampson expresses that Lennon has been “slain” (1980), which connotes Lennon was a powerful being, cut down wickedly in his prime.

Much of what we believe about celebrities’ personae is formed in our minds from the various media we consume: “we create them out of the two-dimensional material presented on the screen” (Cashmore, 2006, p. 81). A lot of the time, if we wish to view them a certain way, we will selectively internalize some stories and dismiss others. Once Chapman’s opinion of Lennon switched, everything he saw about Lennon angered him. We can see this process in Chapter 27: at first he appears to be excited about meeting Lennon, he eagerly tells Jude that he “came all the way from Hawaii just to get his autograph”. However, while reading Lennon’s magazine interview the apprehension grows and he becomes angered by Lennon comparing himself to Jesus. It seems he cannot believe what he is reading: “he really said all that”. After this moment, every word he reads disgusts him. Through extreme close ups of his hands and face, we see that he becomes physically agitated, scratching his head and fidgeting. He is so appalled by how fraudulent Lennon is, he critiques, “imagine no possessions … the bastard had millions”. Chapman then decides that Lennon has “turned his back on everyone” and the scene is intercut with shots of the gun, suggesting he has the overwhelming desire to kill him.

Fans can form profound relationships with celebrities “despite the absence of direct, personal reciprocity” (Rojek, 2001, p. 12); McDonald calls this “Misplaced Intimacy” (meandbillybob.com). Chapman’s character in Chapter 27 even points out “John Lennon must be the most famous person in the world… and I’ve never seen him”, even though he has traveled thousands of miles to see him. In complex cases, these relationships can sometimes be a coping-mechanism “that suggests disengagement with life” (Maltby et al., 2004, p. 425). For Chapman, a relationship with Lennon reflected his many mental health issues, he even “had a history of drug addiction and mental illness and had been hospitalized for suicide attempts in the past” (Schlesinger & Mesa, 2008, p. 86). Chapter 27 draws attention to his mental health to represent him as deranged and unpredictable. By relaying short shots of him praying and unwrapping his gun whenever he becomes angered, we can see his thought process. The combination of this and tilted camera angles imply to the audience how chaotic the inner workings of his mind are. Contrary to Chapter 27, the articles reporting on Lennon’s death barely touch on the issue of mental health; instead they merely malign Chapman throughout. Hampson’s report reads, “the gunman emerged from the shadows” (1980), portraying him as a threatening evil that had been creeping and waiting to viciously pounce. The use of the word gunman furthers this depiction, as Chapman becomes a faceless evil being, so he is much more terrorizing to readers.

Sometimes, these already unbalanced people “who feel alienated or disaffected” (Nicol, 2006, p. 49) become obsessed by a cultural narrative or text, “around which a series of desires seem to have crystallised” (Nicol, 2006, p. 47). For example, Chapman was taken in by Holden Caulfield, the protagonist of The Catcher in the Rye (Salinger, 1951), and said that he “received instructions through J. D. Salinger’s novel” (Cashmore, 2006, p. 94). This could be because, like Chapman, Holden feels “alienated from the values of respectable society” (Rojek, 2001, p. 160). Chapman maintained that part of the reason he assassinated Lennon was because he considers him “to be a phony in that Lennon called for love and peace while enjoying a privileged lifestyle” (Schlesinger & Mesa, 2008, p. 87) and the novel reiterates a loathing of ‘phonies’ and “celebrates integrity, even at the cost of disrupting the social and cultural order” (Rojek, 2001, p. 160). Chapter 27 emphasizes the influence this book had over Chapman; in the film he even tries to reenact iconic scenes from the book. At the start, he strikes up a conversation with a taxi driver about the ducks in Central Park and even giggles in delight at the thought of acting out the scene. He also regularly calls himself ‘Holden Caulfield’ and it depicts how Chapman wrote in a copy of The Catcher in the Rye, “This is my statement”.

Nicol contends that stalking is “an appropriate symptom, perhaps even an inevitable product” (Nicol, 2006, p. 8) of our post-modern world, where many boundaries are blurred. The distance between celebrities and us has been ostensibly shrunk, causing us to feel intimate despite our lack of closeness. Furthermore, public and private spheres have entangled and “the invisible lines which mark off our own private space” (Nicol, 2006, p. 62) have disintegrated, meaning it is easier and more common to stalk than ever. Both articles from 1980 report that Chapman was outside the Dakota apartment building, home to Lennon and other celebrities, as if it is unusual; Weil describes how Chapman “had been loitering near the entrance” (1980). This suggests how fans seeking out their favourite celebrities was less much less common then than it is nowadays. However, in Chapter 27, the doorman tells a story of how photographer Paul once snuck into the apartment building dressed in a maintenance uniform to get photographs, he condemns the actions, saying, “Shame on you. These are private individuals”. This exemplifies how the boundaries of celebrities’ private sphere were already being pushed.

In fact, we are probably closer to being stalkers than we imagine, as we all engage in celebrity culture and “adoration of celebrities as idols or role models is a normal part of identity development” (McCutcheon, Ashe, Houran, & Maltby, 2003, p. 309). However, “the distinction between pathological and non-pathological celebrity worship is somewhat tenuous” (McCutcheon, Lange, & Houran, 2002, p. 69). The act of stalking “revolves around desires and emotions we all share” (Nicol, 2006, p. 13), so by criminalizing stalkers, “society absolves the rest of us from recognizing unreasonable, possessive tendencies with respect to stars in our own habitual behaviour” (Rojek, 2012, p. 50). Even though the MailOnline article had the advantage of hindsight, it still criticizes Chapman for his inappropriate obsession, meanwhile, pitying the Lennon’s mourning fans. And yet, both instances are examples of celebrity worship, just on different scales.

It may be that the resemblance between stalkers and us that allows us to empathize with their characters in film and other dramatizations. Nicol recognizes how movies can “manipulate us into identifying with the characters in different situations” (2006, p. 132) by “emphasising, at key points, the vulnerability of a person we could otherwise dismiss as demonic” (2006, p. 136). In Chapter 27, we are shown how troubled Chapman is and we as an audience suffer with him. For instance, when he is speaking to his wife on the phone he is visibly upset and torn, whereas in the news reports, Chapman is rendered uncaring and dispassionate. Weil tells of how when asked what he had just done Chapman replied, “I just shot John Lennon” (1980), making readers think he is a callous man.

The empathy we are made to feel for the stalker in movies could be part of their appeal. Another reason we enjoy watching these films is perhaps because they illustrate “a phenomenon that fascinates and scares us in the real world” (Nicol, 2006, p. 10). They reflect one of our biggest social anxieties, giving us a certain thrill, comparable to “the thrill we gain from crime fiction or horror fiction” (Nicol, 2006, p. 11). We may also find stalker films cathartic, as they can provide us with “a renewed appreciation of what is valuable in our own lives” (Nicol, 2006, p. 146). In addition, the act of stalking “lends itself well to creating narrative suspense” (Nicol, 2006, p. 10) because of the way tension can build throughout the plotline. Chapter 27 is the perfect example of this as at the beginning of the film the character of Chapman is quite humorous; he teases the doorman and the music is fairly jaunty. Then, as the story moves on the film changes tone and the music becomes moodier and more foreboding. The tension rises until the climax of the movie, in which he shoots Lennon.

Many stalker movies still manage to thrill audiences despite the fact that the stalker characters are repeatedly represented as one of two main stereotypes from our culture. Nicol categorizes these as either “the ambitious independent woman, motivated by an excess of sexual desire”, or the “male loner with a destructive violent core” (2006, p. 55). But no matter what, they almost always depict stalking “enacted by a crazed or mentally disturbed stranger” (Schultz, Moore, & Spitzberg, 2014, p. 614). Chapman is incessantly represented as the latter stereotype in Chapter 27; for example, he often acts odd and does not understand social cues. When Paul observes, “you don’t sound like you’re from Hawaii”, he instantly thinks, “he knows. He knows. Get him.” And physically confronts him. This indicates to the audience that he is volatile and could turn aggressive at any moment. In the second half of the film there is a scene where Chapman is looking at himself in the mirror, he rehearses pulling out is gun and tells himself “I am Holden”. This scene is reminiscent of the iconic scene from Taxi Driver (Scorsese, 1976) and cements the image of Chapman as psychologically distressed. This stereotype also appears in the article from The Associated Press, in which police are quoted as calling Chapman a “local screwball” (Hampson, 1980).

All forms of media continue to shine a spotlight on this issue of stalking, which keeps the topic in public consciousness. This coverage can also lead to many stalkers gaining a great deal of attention and some can become notorious.

However, this is what many stalkers want, they “are attracted by the possibility of fame ‘rubbing off’ on them” (Nicol, 2006, p. 64). Lasch points out that this yearning for an identity is often fulfilled. The media legitimise “antisocial acts merely by reporting them” and so anyone who stalks a celebrity inadvertently “takes on the glamour of his victim”. Consequently, the stalkers themselves end up providing “the same popular entertainment as the private lives of their victims or near-victims” (1979, pp. 84-85). The modern news report the MailOnline points out Chapman’s wish for fame and, ironically, shames it while simultaneously gratifying it. Boyle writes about how Chapman “boasted about the media attention” he receives, debasing Chapman’s morals.

Overall, it is apparent from Hampson, Weil and Boyle’s articles that the press continues to castigate Chapman and ignore many of the underlying issues that contribute to celebrity obsession. And even though adaptations, like Chapter 27, allow us to empathize with Chapman and his struggles, they also help further the stigma surrounding mental health and maintain the stereotypes of stalkers. These representations are not helpful and the issue of celebrity stalking continues to increase. With the rise of celebrity culture, the problem seems almost impossible to solve, because in a very real sense, “celebrity culture is a stalking culture” (Nicol, 2006, p. 71).

 

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