“May it be a light for you in dark places, when all other lights go out.”
It’s very difficult to describe to those who have never been in a fandom why under its lens enthusiasm becomes passion, and acquaintances can become family. “It’s just a TV show!” they’ll exclaim. Precisely why media fandom is a more popular target for this criticism than, for example, sports fans, is a question unto itself. The fact remains that for people who have never been – even casually – participants in a fandom for a TV show, film, book, a blog, have great difficulty grasping how it’s possible that it could become the tentpole of a relatively sane individual’s life.
I’ve thought a lot about how to explain the kind of deep emotional ties that we can create with fiction (and often, creators of said fiction), and I think I’ve finally got it.
Imagine a lighthouse.
On a sunny day, what use is a lighthouse? It’s scenic. It has character. It’s painted in bold colors. But it doesn’t really serve any purpose in your life, even if you’re a seafarer, except perhaps as confirmation of where you are. For most people, fiction is like a lighthouse; it beautifies the surroundings, it gives you some kind of general touchstone as to what day of the week it is, or ties you to the place you are at the time.
Now imagine the same lighthouse, at night. There’s a storm blowing and the sky is black. And you’re out at sea. The only light to follow, the only guide you have to ensure you aren’t shattered into splinters on a rocky coast, is the lighthouse. Suddenly it’s not just there for looks. It’s a beacon, a tether to the world.
Just as before more high-tech methods of seafaring came about lighthouses had a deep meaning, so stories have long been a centerpiece of our world. Fiction has always been company and sustenance in long dark tea-times of the soul. And we have always built around them to create community, beginning with stories told around campfires. Our stories connect us. That shared campfire of fandom now burns 24/7, inside your phone. As a source of comfort, distraction, encouragement – it’s accessible and constant.
If you deeper look into fandom than just matching t-shirts, or tattoos, or cosplay, you will find most people in them are in some way at sea; or were when they came into it. They may have a weak support system locally, be estranged from family, have chronic illness. They’ve lost loved ones in ways they can’t understand, or mislaid their faith that things can get better. They’ve fought battles alone and silent, for victories unremarked and unsung. So in times of trouble they look for a light, bright and rhythmic, to guide them safely to harbor. It seems like a great weight to place on fiction, but the best fiction has something to say. It carries echoes of the pain and the wisdom of the real people who create it, and the audience feels that echo in themselves.
So to celebrities, writers, and creators who understandably find the attention they receive to be overwhelming, perhaps I would tell them to think of themselves as lighthouse keepers. They must tend a light largely oblivious of those who might see it; their number, their location, what ship they’re traveling in. Just like lighthouse keepers, they know long hours of solitude on a rock, climbing difficult stairs to tend a flame that no one may see – they know the hard work. But to the sailor who sees that light at their darkest and loneliest moment, when despair has taken hold and there is no way to chart a safe course – that one light is the difference between life and death. That stranger has lit and tended a personal beacon just for them.
So please, never be ashamed to look for the light in a storm, and never be afraid to keep a fire. Sometimes we all need a lighthouse. You never know who you might save.