The stalker – why our obsessive fascination with the obsessed? Amy Bird
Tell someone you have written a book about a stalker, and there’s an ‘ooh’ moment – a leaning in, a sense of intrigue. So what is it that continues to fascinate crime writers and readers about stalkers?
The two key elements of the stalking motif are obsession and fear. The stalker themselves is obsessed with the chosen one. This obsession can be categorised in four ways: the grudge stalker (for example Precious Thing by Colette McBeth); the sexual predator/slasher stalker (In the Cut by Susanna Moore); the ‘I want to be your friend’ stalker (Enduring Love by Ian McEwan); or the ‘I want to be you’ stalker (The Talented Mr Ripley by Patricia Highsmith). For some of these, there is a clear or lucid motivation; for others, just being close to the object of the obsession is enough. They might be strangers or they might already be friends. But either way, there is a fixation.
What, then, of the fear? Is it just the idea of physical threat that scares us? Ultimately, maybe. That is the final weapon of the stalker. But it is also the sense of the unknown, the invasion of privacy. That’s what builds the suspense and the stress. Imagine that you are always, always watched. You are in your front room, now. You know there is someone outside, looking in. Can you relax? No. You get a gift, kindly chosen. Nice, someone thought of you. Now you get one twice a day, then three times, then four, hand-delivered. Still nice? You walk to the shops; someone walks behind you. You challenge them. But they say they just want to be your friend or protector. Or maybe they want to become you – or already are you. The fear of full annihilation by a hostile doppelganger is what terrifies the protagonist in Dostoyevsky’s The Double, now a film by Richard Ayoade. It’s like having your own personal malign fairy.
And it’s personal not just because they are attached to you. It’s also personal because the manifestation of each individual obsession is different. That’s where the fascination for writers and readers lies. In my first book, Yours is Mine, I wrote about two women who exchange identities, masquerading as each other. One woman only wanted to escape her own life for a while; the other wanted to take that life over utterly. The antagonist had a lucid motivation, which I won’t give away, as it would spoil the book for you. But the rationale was all very structured and controlled, and the intrigue came from what the antagonist would do next and why, and whether the protagonist could get her life back. However, in my second book, Three Steps Behind You, I wanted to go deeper into the unique quirks of an obsession motivated by obsession alone. Writing in the first person, I explored the psyche of Dan, a man obsessed with his childhood friend, Adam, and who will do anything to try to get closer to him. Even if that does what the world would perceive as ‘harm’ to Adam, for Dan it is an act of love. As a writer, that was an intense creative voyage into the mind of a psychopath. Hopefully, for a reader, that intensity is just as exciting.
In both of those books, there is a final category of stalker that escaped our earlier categorisation: the stalkee turned stalker. In other words, the one being followed starts doing the following. Delving into film for a moment, think of the climax of Single White Female – our stalkee has had enough and is hunting down the stalker. There is only room for one of the women in that identity; and who will it be? The protagonist takes control of their life again, wresting it away from the malign fairy. But in so doing, do they keep their role as the innocent? Or are they too now entering into a dangerous obsessional game?
We can all of us be guilty of obsessions, whether that’s with a box set, a career, or a lover. Maybe that is why, on one level, we can relate to the addictive fixation of a stalker. In the case of a benign pursuit, that can safely be called a passion. But when that tips over into a dangerous obsession, and the malign fairy waves its wand, that is when our skin starts to crawl, and the pages start to turn.
Amy Bird’s psychological thrillers, debut ‘Yours is Mine’ and her second novel ‘Three Steps Behind You’ (published by Carina UK, the digital imprint of Harlequin), are available now from Amazon and other e-retailers. You can find more details at http://www.amybirdwrites.com and also follow (but not stalk) Amy on twitter @london_writer