The Psychology of Fandom Hyperfixation
You ever suddenly obsess over one single piece of media for days, weeks, or maybe even months? You can’t talk about anything else except your new shiny fandom and suddenly its your whole world. This is what I call a Fandom Hyperfixation.
This sort of hyperfixation has been a feature of my fandom life as far back as I can remember. The current fixation is the anime show Given, but just a month ago I was drowning in Good Omens. Before that? Boku no Hero Academia. Before that? Legion. And everyone who knows me even a little bit knows that Yuri on Ice had its hold in me for well over a year. And it’s still there waiting for the Yuri on Ice movie to get released before it comes back with a vengeance.
Back and back it goes all the way to the beginning stages of my fandom life. I just don’t know how to consume things I love in a casual manner. I never have and I’m not sure I ever will.
My fandom hyperfixation typically starts with watching or reading something in a way that at first feels casual. Maybe I’ll just watch one episode of this show while I eat dinner, I tell myself. Or maybe I’ll just read one chapter of this manga and go to bed.
To kind of give you an idea of how this starts, I watched the first episode of Given on Friday September 6th and I was expecting to go to bed shortly after. I had no idea that a fixation was on the horizon when I hit play on the first episode. Once the episode was complete, however, I hit play on the next one. Then the next one. And the next one. This became my new shiny thing and it took hold of me. Hard.
When a fixation takes hold of me, it manifests as an inexplicable compulsion to just keep consuming this new thing until I’ve absorbed it all. Sometimes this continues even to my own detriment. My sleep schedule is routinely screwed up when this happens. I consume every bit of it as rapidly as possible until it’s done and I don’t want to stop or slow down.
I started the first episode of Given on Friday night and finished the ninth episode midday on Saturday – the very next day. That was nine episodes in less than 24 hours. While some might not see that as too impressive, it’s important to note that I was on vacation at the time, and yet I still crammed these episodes in when I had a beach resort around me to take up my time (I watched an episode at the poolside bar, okay? It was just that strong of a fixation!). Without that vacation, I probably would have finished it all in one sitting with no interruptions and been up until the wee hours of the morning.
Once the primary source has been thoroughly consumed, I need to find any supplemental material that exists. Does this show have a book? Does this book have a sequel? Does this anime have a manga? I started the Given manga on Sunday – the day after I finished the last episode available for the series available at the time. Twenty-five chapters of the manga were consumed in about three days. And the anime still has one more episode left of the season, too. You’d be safe to assume I’m going to watch it the moment it drops. Because again, I don’t know how to be casual about these things.
At some point (usually once the canon source material has dried up) I enter the world of fanworks and it’s all downhill from there. If there isn’t enough work out there or there isn’t any content I’m looking for, I make it, and I spend every moment thinking about new scenarios to write about. There’s only 36 Given fanfics on AO3 and I need to fix that. I already have plot bunnies in my head and I’ll need to throw them into a word doc, polish them up, then publish them on AO3. I just gotta. This stage usually lasts the longest – weeks or sometimes months.
This is Fandom Hyperfixation. It’s a thing. And I’m not alone. But what is this? Why do we do this? What compels these seemingly odd media consumption habits? And is it ultimately a good or a bad thing?
Hyperfixation: Why do we do it?
Hyperfixation, sometimes referred to as “hyperfocus” by some mental health professionals, is associated with a number of psychological conditions including anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, and, probably most commonly, ADHD. It’s a way to soothe many of the symptoms associated with these disorders, giving us a gratification that is often lacking because of our diagnoses. We keep doing because, put simply, it feels good.
“We consume entertainment because they bring us gratification,” says Licensed Professional Counselor Mei Hua-Burns. “They may be fun or exciting, or allow us to experience complex emotions like empathy or sadness. Sometimes they make us gain insight or feel intellectually challenged. When entertainment deeply inspires thoughts or feelings, we appreciate them more and therefore consume more of it.
“Hyperfixation can happen when such a gratifying piece of entertainment comes to us,” continued Hua-Burns. “Just like a book fan may stay up all night to finish reading the latest novel, an anime fan can binge watch a series in a day or two.”
When I watched Given in two days, I felt an immense amount of gratification. The anxieties I had about every day life that usually plague me daily were subdued. My continued attempts to create fan content after I’ve consumed as much of the source material that I can find often feels like me trying to extend those feelings, hoping I can keep being gratified and keep the anxiety at bay for as long as possible. It usually works for a while, but then eventually fades. And then I latch onto a new fixation. The cycle begins again.
“There is a concept called ‘flow’ that most people experience,” says LaRae LaBouff from Psych Central. “Flow is a groove. When a person is in flow, focus is heightened, creativity is high, ideas conglomerate seamlessly and one point of focus after another simply falls into place.”
A flow for me can happen both during the initial slide into the fixation, as well as the continued creative output after the canon material has been thoroughly explored. The two flows feel different to me, but are equally valid and gratifying. When I’m consuming, my mind is absorbing all the information presented to me as I mentally explore all the different aspects of it. After that I take all the information I absorbed and put it back out into the world as fanfiction. While the former flow is restrained by how much material there is out there to begin with, the latter is something I can control and keep going for as long as I want.
An article on healthcaretip.com highlighted my particular mental health disorders and why hyperfixation has helped me cope with them:
Usually, Hyperfixation can play a core part in handling anxiety and bring the patients back to their normal lives. For this, Hyperfixation anxiety/depression has become an effective and highly beneficial psychological tool.
How does it manifest?
You’ve heard my story earlier. But what about other frequent hyperfixators? I’m definitely not alone with this particular habit. The amount of people that approached me when I was putting this piece together to tell me they were eager to find out why they do this too has been pretty overwhelming.
To get a second experience for comparison, I reached out to a friend of mine who also finds herself hyperfixating on things.
“Usually my fixation starts with getting validation from others,” Kim said. “[My partner] Rose and I usually hyperfixate at the same time and it becomes even more obsessive. It usually starts with binge reading or watching whatever it is I’m getting hooked on and then I start looking for online content like fanart or fanfiction. Then it goes to merchandise and saving tons of photos on my phone or computer.
“EraserMight [EraserHead/All Might] started with binge watching Boku no Hero Academia with Rose one weekend and then she sent me an EraserMight photo the next day and said ‘I like this ship’ and then we started sending photos back and forth and then we decided to start a roleplay between each other.”
Ironically enough, Kim and I met because we were both hyperfixating on EraserMight at the same time. I’ve often noticed that friendships form when you’re deep in a fixation. As Kim said, there’s a sort of validation that you get from others. However, like me, Kim’s hyperfixation habit goes back a long way. It’s been a feature of her fandom life for an incredibly long time.
“Before Rose, I got really into things like Sailor Moon, Harry Potter, and Lord of the Rings. When I lived with my parents I would watch the movies nonstop and I would decorate my room with posters and plaster it with pictures. I wore the soundtracks out on my CD player, I played the video games. It was just nonstop. My parents always were chill about it though so I never questioned it. I just always had that one thing I could escape into.”
My high school obsession with all things Anne Rice was pretty similar. In fact, I pretty much went full blown goth for a few years as a result.
Is Hyperfixation a bad thing?
As I mentioned previously, I frequently lose sleep over these fandom hyperfixations. So yes, sometimes it can be bad. Keeping control of our hyperfixations while balancing our daily lives is a challenge. But if we can minimize the negative effects, we can use hyperfixation as a tool to cope with our psychological symptoms without letting our daily lives suffer.
“Like most aspects of life, too much of a good thing can become dysfunctional,” continued LaRae LaBouff in her Psych Today piece. “Hyperfocus is a problem when the person experiencing it begins to ignore the world around them. Time passes without realizing it. Others are ignored and responsibilities fall by the wayside. At that point, and especially when it happens repeatedly, it’s no longer a positive state like flow, but becomes debilitating.”
I have absolutely let this happen before and I’m continually keeping myself in check. I’ve found myself binge watching shows way late into the night, then going to work on just three hours of sleep with an accompanying killer migraine from exhaustion. I’ve been so absorbed in a fanfic that I missed my bus stop and had to walk miles home in the rain. I’ve forgotten to eat. Or I started a meal and forgot about it, only to find a soggy cup of noodles in the microwave hours later. It took me years to get a grip on just how all-consuming this hyperfixation could be, and I continue to work to keep the bad aspects at bay.
Kim had similar effects on sleep from her recent hyperfixation.
“When I was in the thick of it I couldn’t even fall asleep,” she said. “I was so hyped up on thinking about it, like being buzzed on caffeine. I tried any chance I could to talk about it and discuss it and I just looked at photos online and showed them to Rose and we would scream and geek out. It felt like a caffeinated dream driven by these excited emotions in my chest.”
It feels good at the time, even when we are losing sleep over it. It could be midnight on work night and I’ve just opened up a 40,000 word fic and I think to myself ‘hey, maybe I should put this off until tomorrow and get some sleep.’ But the happy feeling inside is so strong I might completely disregard that rational thought and just keep going.
This is the downside of hyperfixation. It’s very real, and sometimes a bit scary. We can conquer it, but it takes some effort.
“Any kind of activity can have a negative impact on life if done in excess,” cautions Hua-Burns. “When hyperfixation on something starts to interfere with other aspects of life, then it becomes a problem for the person. Binge watching a show may be very enjoyable, but binge watching shows to the point of missing work and getting fired is a cause for concern.”
Hyperfixation can help those of us with a variety of mental health diagnoses cope with the negative symptoms and experience gratification. But we need to develop the skills necessary to chase these happy feelings while still managing to keep our lives together.
Basically, go to sleep, guys. You have work tomorrow. Remember that and you can happily fixate and chase those gratifying feels to your heart’s content.
And now that this piece is complete, I’m going to go write some Given fanfic.
Author: Angel Wilson
Stephanie “Angel” Wilson is the admin of The Geekiary and a geek culture commentator. She earned a BA in Film & Digital Media from UC Santa Cruz. She’s contributed to various podcasts and webcasts including An Englishman in San Diego, Free to Be Radio, and Genre TV for All. She’s written for Friends of Comic Con and is a 2019 Hugo Award winner for contributing fanfic on AO3.
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