“How can fandom be toxic?!” Richie Kirsch (Jack Quaid) scowls after his motive explanation and reveal as one-half of the Ghostface team in last year’s Scream. “It’s about love! You don’t fucking understand– these movies are important to people!”
“Toxic fandom” may only feel like a relatively recent term, used in reference to crazed, niche fandoms of movies, franchises, comics, and musicians alike, especially within online forums and social media groups. However, horror has always known, warned, and held up a mirror to those who take their love of these art forms just a tad bit too far, as depicted in the recent Donald Glover and Janine Nabers-created Amazon Prime show, Swarm.
The quick-to-binge 7-episode series– which subtly nods The Shining, Candyman, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, outwardly supportive but inwardly manipulative cults like Midsommar, and a hypnosis scene straight out of Get Out– follows a young woman named Dre, played by Dominique Fishback, whose performance rivals similar levels of awe as Mia Goth in Pearl (so much so that Twitter has affectionately dubbed the character as the “Black girl version of Pearl”). Dre is obsessed with a fictional version of a Beyoncé-like singer named Ni’jah, to the point in which she looks her victims dead in the eyes and asks “Who’s your favorite artist?” and if they don’t say “Ni’jah,” well, they’re probably done for.
Commenting on Beyoncé’s diehard fandom known in real life as the “BeyHive” and in the show as Ni’jah’s “Swarm” in not-so-subtle ways, each episode begins with the witty disclaimer: “Any similarity to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events, is intentional.” It’s so specific in its references to the real singer and the pop culture moments surrounding her that even the first episode takes place in April of 2016, the same month Beyoncé dropped the pivotal visual album Lemonade (and fans at the time just about lost their minds.) Swarm’s Dre goes broke for pricey concert tickets, travels to notable music fests that Ni’jah is headlining, sneaks into VIP after-parties, alienates the few friends or love interests she acquires, and ultimately chooses violence to defend her beloved pop star, after a tragedy in Episode 1 flips her whole world upside down.
But the pitch-black comedy/horror series is more thoughtful and layered than that. The basic elevator pitch of Dre’s mania for Ni’jah may sound outlandish and campy on the surface– and there is a ton of quirky comedy moments, as tonally it’s reminiscent of Glover’s other acclaimed series Atlanta– however, her fandom is deeply rooted in her connection to her sister Marissa, (Chloe Bailey) as the tragic events that surround her sister and the reactions to it from abrasive online communities give Dre a motive to avenge her, as well.
Likely the immediate reaction to that brief synopsis prior to viewing by any horror fan recalls Annie Wilkes in Misery (1990) or the lesser known Simone from Der Fan (1982). Upon her fateful encounter with her beloved Stephen King-like author Paul Sheldon (James Caan), socially isolated, manic, “number one” fan Annie (Kathy Bates) is addicted to the character of Misery, and her disdain for Paul’s choice to kill the character off in his latest novel motivates her to torture and amputate him. In the film adaptation, and even more apparent in the King novel, Annie herself is a metaphor for Paul’s addiction, as she administers pain pills to him as a means of control. While Annie physically punishes Paul, Dre’s goal (initially) seems to be to simply meet her goddess Ni’jah, as she once promised to Marissa…That is, until she, indeed, physically violates Ni’jah.
In Der Fan, teenage girl Simone (Désirée Nosbusch) is enamored with a new synthwave musician named R (Bodo Steiger) to the point that it becomes her entire personality. When she gets to meet R– and he uses her for sex– R immediately dumps Simone, leading to Simone’s rampage for revenge, with dismembering techniques akin to Audition. Clint Eastwood thriller Play Misty For Me (1971) proceeds the others in this “psycho female fan” trope, as a woman named Evelyn (Jessica Walter) sleeps with a popular radio DJ and becomes unhinged when he pulls away. Annie’s, Simone’s, and Evelyn’s connections to their objects of fixations are all romance-based or psychosexual in different ways, as Paul Sheldon is a romance novelist and Simone and Evelyn are romantically attracted to and ultimately rejected by the men. However, even as Dre’s attraction to women in Swarm becomes apparent over time, her obsession with Ni’jah does not seem to necessarily be attraction-based.
Those interpersonal moments between Annie and Paul (against his will) and Simone and R are almost nonexistent in Swarm, however, in one instance, Dre sneaks her way into a VIP party where Ni’jah is, and the viewer watches on as Dre voraciously bites into a fruit for several seconds, which, in reality, we find out is actually the moment she took a vampire bite out of Ni’jah herself and scurries out of the party. (The bite is a nod to a real-life WTF Beyoncé moment.)
Dre is not only addicted to Ni’jah, Marissa, and killing those who disrespect them– her addiction to ravenously eating food, particularly junk, is similar to watching a feral animal stumble upon a carcass. Post-kill, Dre eats ravenously, often while still covered in blood, including a pie from a victim’s fridge, in one instance. Like the comparable Pearl, the passive, graceless Dre becomes visibly more liberated every time she ends a life.
In 1981’s The Fan, a deranged man named Douglass (Michael Biehn) stalks Broadway star Sally, (Lauren Bacall) addressing a letter to her: “I am your greatest fan. Because unlike the others, I want nothing from you.” Alas, after Douglass’ attempts at communicating with Sally are thwarted, he goes on to stalking Sally and her loved ones, as the tone within his letters grows increasingly abrasive. In the year prior’s Fade to Black, horror movie maniac and fellow stalker Eric Binford (Dennis Christopher) has his sights set on a modern day Marilyn Monroe lookalike, as she embodies his personal celebrity obsession. Simultaneously, Eric goes on a deranged killing spree, costumed as horror icons and reenacting movie scenes. The Fanatic (2019) sees Moose (John Travolta) idolizing actor Hunter (Devon Sawa) and getting enraged after being cheated out of a chance to meet him.
As mentioned earlier, much of the motivation behind several of the Scream franchise killers (including Billy, Stu, Mickey, Charlie, Richie, Amber) is built upon their unhealthy relationships to movies and franchises, and/or feeling the need to “improve” future Stab movies, as if they know better than the creators themselves. While each of these films within the toxic fan subgenre is a deconstruction of the delusional misfit characters that rely so heavily on their parasocial relationships with pop stars, movies, novelists, and the like– and their entitlement and denial of accessibility to these things– the majority of these particular ones above are even more about incel culture and disenfranchised white male rejection.
…Which is what makes Swarm so unique. Featuring the rare Black female antagonist and the even rarer instance in which that Black female antagonist is a serial killer, whose point of view the audience is following, Dre is perhaps the first of her kind in the genre– with the only exception being Ma (2019) whose titular character doesn’t share the same motivation and is written nowhere nearly as complexly as Dre. Other titles like Le Viol du Vampire (1968), Def by Temptation (1990), Spirit Lost (1996), and When the Bough Breaks (2016) may feature Black women as villains, but their motivations are typically romance/seduction-related or simply vampire queen sovereignty (du Vampire).
Spoiler warning for the ending of Amazon’s ‘Swarm’ (skip this next paragraph if you haven’t seen it)…
Blurring the lines between reality and delusion that culminates by the finale, aptly titled “Only God Makes Happy Endings,” we see through Dre’s unreliable POV, as the viewer realizes what they’re watching is Dre’s fantasy, and what is actually happening to her is bleak. Dre finally makes her way to a Ni’jah concert, after adding to her body count for a ticket. When she moves through the audience and approaches the stage to get closer to Ni’jah, Ni’jah’s face is intentionally blurry. As security tries to remove Dre, Ni’jah’s face is finally revealed to the viewer, but it’s Marissa’s face morphed onto Ni’jah’s body, as Ni’jah tells security to leave Dre be. Ni’jah then whisks Dre out to the backseat of her private car with her, while fans and paparazzi watch them pass. Ni’jah proceeds to gently hold Dre close to her, comforting her in a loving manner, as Dre weeps in her arms. The probable interpretation of this fantasy sequence is that Dre got arrested for, not only invading the stage, but her crimes and murders committed during this spree, and she’s actually being whisked away to the back of a cop car, completely alone. The Marissa/Ni’jah facial hybrid is created to show Dre’s association to the two of them as one, as these two women are the only source of (what she thinks) is real love and connection within her life.
The line between fan and creator is more blurred today than it’s ever been– especially before the eras in which many of the previously mentioned films were made– as creators have become more accessible via social media. With a simple tagging of a Twitter handle or a DM, fans can communicate to creators more easily than ever, and therefore have become more invasive to the boundaries of not only the creators themselves, but also within their interactions with fellow fans. For years, Dre runs a “Swarm” Twitter account with hundreds of thousands of fellow Ni’jah fans (and some haters), which is often her means of selecting her victims and hunting them down. While Dre works solitarily, a mob mentality can often arise within fan communities, as seen in the fan demand for Zack Snyder’s cut of Justice League or fan petitions to “redo” Halloween Ends.
As passionate as any other fandom, (perhaps even more so than others) horror fandom has especially become a place for safeguarding, as the number of horror conventions seems to have grown massively more popular by the year, and the genre has become more viable and marketable to the mainstream. Not dissimilar to Dre, horror fans are protective of their genre, their franchises, their filmmakers, their final girls, their villains, and those that portray them (Toni Collette’s Oscar snub for Hereditary is still a sore spot for the horror community). Horror is the best way to tell these stories, as it’s fully aware of how quickly our passion can become lunacy and acts as a fable for what can happen when we take our love of it too seriously.
Horror fans are hopefully better at managing our issues via catharsis through the movies and not the creators themselves, but if Swarm and these movies have taught us anything, we could all do a better job at checking our fandoms– before we whip out the weapons and say “Who’s your favorite___?”