When fans go too far
Xiah Junsu (left) and Hero Jaejoong (right) are members of the K-Pop band JYJ, which has a saesang following.
October 19th, 2012
07:14 AM ET

When fans go too far

As an overly passionate, silly geek, when I like something, I don't just "like" it. I tend to get excited in a very specific way, going into full fan mode fairly quickly (see this drawing for a visual explanation).

Once I get rolling, I become a constant broadcaster, excitedly telling my friends about my newest obsession, while I wave my hands around in the air for emphasis.

This excitement is called "fangirling" (or fanboying, as the case may be), and it's fairly common behavior when it comes to the nerd world. In fact, it even extends beyond nerds: Stamp collectors, vintage record experts, and doll fanatics have their moments, too. We all light up when we get a chance to talk about the thing we love. When we share our enthusiasm, we welcome another person into our inner circle.

Sometimes, though, in the midst of marathoning yet another Asian drama with impossibly good-looking leading men, I'll catch myself wondering: Is my fandom escapism? And can it go too far?

All pleasures can lead to escapism, but where do they cross over into obsession? Are you obsessive if you spend each year crafting yet another insanely detailed Final Fantasy costume to wear to Dragon Con, or are you merely nurturing your creative pursuits? Is an encyclopedic knowledge of Star Trek history a good thing, or does the need to keep it up-to-date eventually edge out the necessities of life?

If there's one sect of fandom that's all about creating worlds to escape to, it's fan fiction. Magan Cubed, who has been actively involved in the fanfic community for over a decade, said fandom is usually a harmless social networking tool. But at its worst, it can become dangerous, leading to stalking or harassment, she said.

"This tends to happen when a camp of fans become overly entitled," Cubed said, "They begin to feel that they have a say in how the source material is written, presented, cast, etcetera, and that the creative staff is wrong for not following their wishes. This often presents itself as a sense of ownership over the actors of a film or television series, and has resulted in threats against the actor and his or her loved ones, both online and in person at conventions."

In a recent example, a contingent of fans of the show "Supernatural" began calling themselves "The Silent Majority" and started a campaign to write the upcoming season as they saw fit, claiming the show's writers had betrayed the core viewership.

"This group had also sent threatening and invasive messages to members of the cast and their wives, and attempted to get cast members fired from the show," Cubed said. "Ultimately this campaign went nowhere, but it was a scary reminder of how some fans can lose sight of reality."

This sense of entitlement is typical stuff on the internet, especially in the form of seemingly endless –and ultimately harmless - rants on fan forums.

America has seen it's share of fan-turned-obsessive, as is evidenced by celebrity stalking cases. Across the globe in South Korea, there's a completely different form of over-the-top fan behavior going on.

Korean pop stars have their own special brand of stalker, called "saesaeng (pronounced 'sah-sang')." These female groups go to extremes to enter the personal lives of the idols they adore, working closely together so they can achieve success. They are often seen hovering in the background of photos of pop idols, sometimes crammed up against the windows with their faces pressed to the glass in hopes of getting a glimpse of the stars.

They have been known to work around the clock to pursue celebrities in taxis, break into their homes, and buy and sell their personal information online, including identification numbers and telephone numbers, said Bianca Gomez, who runs Korean pop culture blog Angry K-Pop Fan.

K-pop stars JYJ have been one of many bands that have been targeted by saesang fans, but they are one of the few that reacted publicly to them, causing waves of discussion in the fervent fan communities.

Unlike paparazzi, saesang have one aim only: To get as close to the idols as possible, she said.

"The extreme behaviors and acts [saesangs] exhibit make it hard to believe that their motivations are just as simple as that of any other fan," she said. Healthy fans, she said, admire their favorite idol and are dedicated to supporting them all the way.

"In Korea, [saesangs] are walking paradoxes: they cause harm and distress though they don't mean to; they love the celebrity but seek complete possession of them; and they are deemed as outcasts by their peers," Gomez said.

Shunned by the bulk of their collective fandoms, saesangs socialize in self-managed, highly organized networks, she said.

"They are assigned responsibilities and fulfill them impressively, their information-finding skills are top-notch, and their ability to stay connected with each other and keep up with the fast-paced schedules of their idols is astounding," Gomez said.

This social organization sets saesangs apart from the solitary celebrity stalker we're used to hearing about in the US, Gomez explained.

So do Korean laws concerning privacy.

"We do not have much experience in protecting privacy," Lee Jin-ki, a law professor at Sungkyunkwan University, said. South Korea, he said, is in a transitional period, changing from a group-oriented to an individual-oriented community. As such, saesangs are not arrested for invasion of privacy. They can, however, be arrested for defamation, blackmail or threat.

"Anyone can get severe punishment for insulting someone both offline and online. It's not about whether or not we have the laws, but rather about people's mindsets," Lee said.

James Turnbull, lecturer and consultant on Korean issues, says the saesang phenomenon is just another necessary tool that the Korean advertising industry uses to keep all eyes on their idols. This may be another reason authorities tend to look the other way when it comes to saesang activity, Turnbull said.

"Obsessive saesang behavior is merely a logical, albeit extreme, side-effect. And it has had a long time to develop, too. Middle-aged women, with the financial resources to be saesangs, began dominating fanclubs in the mid-2000s. We're only going to see more of it so long as illegal downloading and the current glut of music groups forces management companies to rely on endorsements for profits," Turnbull said.

Mindy Mechanic, a clinical psychologist specializing in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and an associate professor of psychology at California University, said the behavior demonstrated by saesangs is profoundly culture-bound, and must always be understood in that context.

The group dynamic among these types of fans allows a sense of anonymity when the members violate the personal boundaries of celebrities, Mechanic said. In the case of saesang fans, it's easier to forget that what they are doing is disrespectful because they are surrounded by others who will join their cause.

But if they pursue a celebrity on their own, Mechanic said, it may mean facing consequences for their actions toward the person they romanticize.

“Many stalkers, even those stalking public figures and celebrities, are mentally ill and laboring under false beliefs. However, these group fans are likely more like groupies ... acting in concert with other adoring fans and attempting to get close to or connected to their greatness," she said.

Gomez agreed.

"There's a sense of importance and identity that is fostered by not only 'connecting' with a celebrity, but by finding other fans via their involvement in these networks," she said. "In the case of sasaeng fans, the pursuit of a fandom gives them something their own lives, and the people in them, are failing to provide."

In your mind, what's the difference between a hobby, a passion, and an interest that's gone too far? Is there any difference between being a devoted fan and being an obsessed fan?

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Filed under: Fandom • Otaku
soundoff (50 Responses)
  1. cxneruvbm

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    February 5, 2013 at 6:00 pm |
  3. gracestylez1981

    Sum ppl get stalked jus bcoz how they look not celebrity at all
    i should know lol hav had soooooo many guys try hit me up then stalkn yeh
    this is in Ozzie 2 not USA so ppl go 2 far all over tha world i guess
    sum of us and i reckon celebs get off on it tho
    the attention bla bla

    January 13, 2013 at 11:57 pm |
  4. Uni

    n a recent example, a contingent of fans of the show "Supernatural" began calling themselves "The Silent Majority" and started a campaign to write the upcoming season as they saw fit, claiming the show's writers had betrayed the core viewership.

    "This group had also sent threatening and invasive messages to members of the cast and their wives, and attempted to get cast members fired from the show," Cubed said. "Ultimately this campaign went nowhere, but it was a scary reminder of how some fans can lose sight of reality."

    THAT'S PATENTLY UNTRUE, get your facts straight before throwing accusations like that.

    November 17, 2012 at 1:41 pm |
  5. Cheryl Schaeffer

    I LOVE asian dramas and k and j pop stars. I would love to be on the front row of a Shinee concert so I asked my son the same question: am I obsessed and he said, "Mom, did you ever stop to think that's what keeps you so young?" Good answer! I love my son! Cheryl

    October 31, 2012 at 1:21 pm |
  6. Sophie0364

    Sorry to other commenters here but S Korean sassaeng members are a totally different animal – they can't be compared to over-zealous Western fan groups. In particular, those SK sassaengs who have been fixated on JYJ for years now. Breaking and entering into idol's apartments, stealing underwear, leaving letters written in menstrual blood along with used tampons, knowing minute by minute the schedules of JYJ, chasing them 24/7, physically assaulting them (because, according to them, hitting the celebrity will cause the assaulter to be acknowledged), and on and on. Their behavior is beyond reason and most of the behaviors are just flat-out illegal. The irony of it is when the celebs (like JYJ) react negatively to these invasions of privacy they are then criticised by nutty groups of netizens. Idols can't win in South Korea.

    October 27, 2012 at 12:09 pm |
    • Ricardo

      Gabby, you're into teenage-girl anime too? Will you be my intenret BFF? I really wanted to get a chipmunk in China but I didn't know what I'd do with him when I went home so I didn't. They looked so cute playing with hamster toys, and I also wanted to say my pet chipmunk .

      December 20, 2012 at 5:52 am |
  7. Jess

    You spelled saseng (사생) wrong throughout the entire article...

    October 24, 2012 at 4:01 pm |
    • Yeojin

      I was going to mention that too! Thanks! :D

      October 25, 2012 at 7:13 am |
      • Bayu

        Heh. Every girl needs an internet BFF. So, sure! Ah, yeah, I saw the Chipmunks, too, but I was too afarid I would get bitten or it would escape from the cage and raise hell in the apartment. I don't know how I would have explained that or a piglet walking up the stairs with me everyday. It probably is a good idea I didn't get one because I have no idea what I would have done with it when I left.Phil calls me Shampoo, which I sorta find offensive, but that just means I can run around the house saying, Wo ai ni, Philby.

        December 19, 2012 at 10:16 pm |
    • miyukiwi

      I was going to say that too :] It should be sasaeng, not saesang, because the latter means world (as far as I know).

      October 27, 2012 at 2:13 pm |
    • lalala

      You kinda spelled the romanization wrong as well. xD 사생-Sasaeng, that is.

      January 12, 2013 at 8:05 pm |
  8. The One Who Knows

    Pathetic souls with no lives who live vicariously through Justin, Snookie, and the Kardashians...

    Those people would do well to emulate me...or try anyway, but they would fall very saddingly short.

    October 24, 2012 at 7:55 am |
  9. pleasefactcheck

    "Saesang" (pronounced say-sang) means WORLD. The correct word you're looking for is sa-saeng (pronounced sah-seng). Come on CNN! Surely you have a token Korean friend?

    October 23, 2012 at 5:03 pm |
  10. jdoe

    Well in America you have groupies who will happily jump into bed with the celebrities they stalk. Don't see how Korea can be worse.

    October 23, 2012 at 3:01 am |
    • Miroku

      Sasaeng fan's objectives aren't necessarily to sleep with these celebrities, but to have any kind of contact at all with them. Situations include Sasaeng fans breaking into JYJ's dormitory and taking photos of them and kissing them while they slept. So yeah, I'm pretty sure Korea is worse in that respect. These people aren't just 'groupies'. Other situations include car accidents caused by Sasaeng fans.

      November 1, 2012 at 1:53 am |
  11. Caliban

    All you are seeing all around you is people that need something to look up to because they don't have enough self esteem. It's not easy to get with the vain, judging way the work now rocks back and forth, but if you look past societal frivolities you will see in yourself what they cannot, for their sight is dim and limited like a child's.

    October 22, 2012 at 4:09 pm |
  12. blessedgeek

    WELCOME to the new reality.

    Cable gets dropped for hulu or netflix.
    Napster forces the success of Youtube and online music.
    Democracy, false or pretensed, driven by social-networks is infecting governmentation styles.

    This author is delusional, pining for the good old days.
    You will be assimilated. Resistance is futile.

    October 22, 2012 at 10:06 am |
    • Foodpimp

      Sigh....the quality of knee-jerk hyperbole is rapidly going down hill among our nations geek population. ah...geekdom before it was fashionable. They were hard-core. Today's geeks.....soft and weak. Mere shadows of their ancestors geekness.

      October 22, 2012 at 10:39 am |
    • Resistishall

      I shall not be turn into BORG !!!! NOOOOOOOOOOO !!!!! " I am now BORG ! "

      October 22, 2012 at 11:47 am |
  13. David

    Being OK with the existence of the TSA, NDAA and Patriot Act is dangerous fandom,
    liking a tv show or k-pop song is fine.

    October 22, 2012 at 4:20 am |
    • Foodpimp

      Ahhh...one of those guys that seeks to insert politics into every conversation. I can see how people just crave your company on a regular basis. The first guy they ask to go out for a beer or shoot a game of pool.

      October 22, 2012 at 10:01 am |
  14. Laerrus

    "Stamp collectors, vintage record experts, and doll fanatics"
    See: "Nerds"...

    October 21, 2012 at 1:59 pm |
    • Seraphim0

      Missed the part where they flat out said that, did you?

      Then again, I guess a more appropriate use of time would be getting drunk, eating hotwings, and watching a bunch of men in tight pants pile on one another for a pigskin ball.

      October 22, 2012 at 9:50 am |
      • Foodpimp

        Take it easy there squirt. Speaking as someone that played sports and was a geek, I know as a certainty that you can live in both worlds. That being the case...I could probably beat both of ya in sports and counter culture trivia. So both of ya quit being biznatches and suck it up!

        October 22, 2012 at 10:50 am |
  15. Scotty

    Every time you look up to someone else, you make yourself a little bit smaller.

    October 21, 2012 at 2:00 am |
    • Jasmina

      Posted on I ought to say, as a whole lot as I enjoyed rendiag what you had to say, I couldnt support but shed interest right after a while. Its as if you had a fantastic grasp on the subject matter, but you forgot to consist of your readers. Perhaps you must consider this from far a lot more than one angle. Or perhaps you shouldnt generalise so considerably. Its greater should you consider what other people may possibly have to say rather of just going for a gut reaction towards the topic. Think about adjusting your own believed method and giving other people who could read this the benefit of the doubt.

      November 14, 2012 at 5:15 pm |
  16. Loyal Northern Democrat

    Koreans can only copy. They cannot do anything original.

    October 20, 2012 at 10:21 pm |
    • Samantha Sheridan

      okay, Loyal Northern Democrat... that especially makes sense because america is so original... get real.

      October 21, 2012 at 6:59 am |
      • Zebula

        Yeah cuz there are so many declarations of independence out there......

        October 22, 2012 at 3:41 pm |
      • Eva

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  17. Jacky Lang

    Check out my short story about the KPop fan world (for adults only) https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/240628 it's called Fan Service.

    October 20, 2012 at 7:41 pm |
  18. Yikes

    Who are these girls?

    October 20, 2012 at 7:55 am |
  19. Poor folks/no hobby

    Obviously, an over obsession with most things can be negative. There's ten thousand other things that life offers
    that can provide greater personal immersion that would include a creative, passionate expression. The media provides
    a fantasy soup to the table. If only some of these people actually knew these celebrities and realize most would not
    treat them batter than the store clerk in the day to day, they'd get the message.

    October 20, 2012 at 2:01 am |
  20. 1stSig

    I think we have more celebrity-worshipers here in America.

    October 19, 2012 at 8:28 pm |
  21. Steve Smith

    Anybody who is obsessed with a celebrity in anyway has no real life at all. It's quite pathetic really.

    October 19, 2012 at 4:21 pm |
  22. The Woof

    The whole fan obsession thing is really tragic. This to me is people who are A. Trying to live a life through others or B. Have no life on their own. While admiring a person to a degree is fine, the minute it goes beyond that is borderline sanity.

    October 19, 2012 at 4:07 pm |
  23. reithena

    The way I see it, the sasaengs always move onto another thing. I'm sure there are a few that stick around and remain loyal, but ultimately there is always 'the next big thing' in K-Pop and drama. That being said, I can't fault them as long as no one is getting injured. South Korean lifestyle is all about glamour right now, and idols provide that. Us in America are not really that different, we just have reality shows to create our own supposed celebrity and fill that section of our lives.

    October 19, 2012 at 8:28 am |
    • Celia

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      November 14, 2012 at 7:30 pm |