Stalking, Erotomania and Othello Syndrome – When Love Goes Wrong.
Trigger Warning: This post contains discussion of stalking and sexual violence
This week on Freudian Script, I am going to talk about two disorders beloved of crime fiction writers and close to every stalker’s heart. We’re going on a little tour of stalking because that’s the most common manifestation of these disorders in fiction. I will talk through the definitions of stalking, erotomania and Othello Syndrome, infamous examples in fiction, and how you can write better love-sick stalkers.
DISCLAIMER: This blog post is designed for writers of fiction. If you are concerned that you or someone you know has symptoms of mental health problems, please see your doctor. If you think you are being stalked, please contact the police.
What is stalking?
Stalking has no specific mental health or legal definition in the UK, but it’s generally considered to be unwanted and/or obsessive attention towards an individual. It can take many forms, including physical following, contacting, or intrusions into privacy, like hanging around their house or even their Facebook page. It is closely allied with harassment.
There are five common types of stalker:
> Rejected – pursue their victim after a failed relationship, either seeking reunion or revenge
> Resentful – seeking to intimidate and distress the victim because of a sense of grievance
> Intimacy seeker – desire a loving relationship with the victim, because they are soulmates
> Incompetent suitor – attracted to victim and want a relationship, but have poor social skills
> Predatory – spy on a victim in order to plan an attack, often sexual. This can be more typical of serial killers and psychopaths.
What is erotomania?
Erotomania – also known as delusions of love – is a delusional disorder where the sufferer imagines a love affair between him and someone else. And when I say “imagines”, I mean believes totally and unshakably that the person is in love with him and that they should be together. (Psychology students may also recognise this as de Clérambault’s syndrome after the bloke who put it all together).
What is Othello Syndrome?
Named for the protagonist of Shakespeare’s Othello), Othello Syndrome is also know as delusions of jealousy or morbid/pathological jealousy. In this delusional disorder, the sufferer believes completely that their partner is in love with someone else and/or having an affair.
Stalking occurs in erotomania because the would-be lover is trying to connect with his one true love (i.e. Intimacy seeker, or possible Incompetent suitor). In Othello Syndrome, the supposed cuckold looks for evidence of his partner’s affair and therefore watches her every move (i.e. Rejected – even in advance of the anticipated rejection).
Let’s talk Fatal Attraction. I’ll hold my hands up straight away and say that I haven’t seen it. However, the thing I wanted to draw attention to here is the inciting incident – i.e. the affair between Dan and Alex. Therefore, the intimacy between them cannot be classed as delusional – i.e. erotomania – because it happened. The problem arises from the differences in their perception of what that intimacy means – he thinks it’s a no-strings weekend fling and she thinks it’s a sign of deeper affection. That would place her more in the rejected stalker group.
The Bodyguard (1992) has a great example of erotomania. The besotted fan believes he has a connection to Rachel Marron. He stalks her and collects her possessions to prove their closeness.
However, the content of his letters shows a late delusional stage where he has decided “if I can’t have you, no one can”. This is when erotomanic stalking is at its most dangerous – the stalker makes his move, leading to kidnapping the victim to consummate their relationship or murdering the victim to prevent her being with anyone else.
These risks are also present in Othello Syndrome. And what better example to examine than Othello himself.
Interestingly, experts have debated whether Othello is actually a good example of Othello Syndrome – because he is deceived into his jealousy because of Iago’s handkerchief’s antics. However, Othello does go on to “gather evidence” of her infidelity, particularly noting every time she mentions Cassio. Shakespeare does embellish a bit of the “madness” – trance states and so on – but as modern writers struggle to get a grip on mental health issues, we’ll forgive him his sins.
A better example is Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull. He’s hypersensitive to any little “sign” that his wife Vickie may be interested in someone else. This culminates in him confronting the suspected lovers, including his own brother Joey in the infamous scene below (NSFW!):
It ends with verbal and physical aggression towards Vickie, and violence towards Joey.
Writing Stalking, Erotomania and Othello Syndrome
Stalkers and those with erotomania are often painted as villains. We could also use more protagonists with erotomania. There are some examples that leap to mind – One Hour Photo, for instance – but there could be more of these fascinating characters.
However, there are some heroes with Othello Syndrome. In a far more popular scenario, the hero cheats with the possessive bad guy’s woman and his jealous rage is at least partially justified – The Illusionist, Moulin Rouge. The hero then gets to save the poor damsel from her hideous relationship, so he can possess her instead. It would be great to see more focus on the impact of this stalking behaviour on the victims and more self-rescuing damsels in these plots.
One problem with these disorders is that they feed into the Hollywood culture of violence against women. Sensationalised violence is partially the purview of the writer, but also of the whole creative team in broadcast media.
In Binary Witness, the killer has a severe case of erotomania. He idealises a woman that he met once – his freebird – and, to attract her attention, stalks a series of women and posts their photographs online. By using the killer’s POV, I tried to give some insight into his delusional system and how love can be used to justify violence. In this instance, he uses stalking in two different ways – the intimacy seeker in relation to his “true love” and predatory when hunting his targets.
I had difficulties balancing my desire to tell a serial killer story without playing into the fetishism of violence towards women. I’m not sure that I succeeded, but I tried to give the victims voices and give them a chance to fight back.