How The COVID-19 Pandemic Returned The Fandom Experience To Its Roots

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It’s great to see things the entertainment world slowly pick up the pace again, and I’m excited for all the upcoming content and discussion. The COVID-19 pandemic slowing the industry down at a time when people were desperate for entertainment and distractions brought down a lot of the excitement and even morale in the world of online fanbases, a world in which I tend to spend too much time in even when there isn’t a global pandemic going on. Growing impatient waiting for news on anticipated projects but not wanting to let the sour mood of social media bring me down, I looked for ways to entertain myself on my own, and rediscovered my passion for fandom in the process.

When I could see the writing on the wall and knew my country and many others were about to go into lockdown mode back in March, I made one last leisure-based shopping trip in search of some books to escape into (glad I was getting back into reading before the pandemic!). Like many people, I figured I’d use some of the extra time to catch up on things I always said I’d get around to reading and watching, so I picked up some second-hand copies of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, having never experienced the series before apart from the occasional internet meme (and despite being constantly “plugged in” somehow managed to avoid major spoilers for the series).

Diving into The Fellowship of the Ring made me feel a way I hadn’t since I was a kid reading Harry Potter with my family for the first time. There was no press tour or advertising campaign to get me hyped and no fan speculation or theories to get caught up in; it was just me and a 535-page adventure, with no outside sources giving me preconceived notions of the book or telling me how excited I should or should not be to read it.

My experience after finishing the book also stood in stark contrast to what I’d grown accustomed in the era of social media: I’d normally hop right onto Twitter or Reddit after completing a book or movie, desperate to see what everyone else thought and, in a way, looking for validation of my own thoughts. I’m not usually one who feels pressure to fall in with the crowd when it comes to popular opinion, but I would be lying if I said I didn’t try to look for at least a handful of people who share my feelings on a particular topic, just to reassure myself of my own sanity.

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Credit: New Line Cinema

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Something else I didn’t realise I missed about “old school” fandom is the sense of freedom to complete the trilogy at my own pace. There’s no pressure to finish as quickly as possible in order to be able to come up with an immediate “take” on the material and share in with others in a timely enough manner in order for it to remain relevant and the “work” I’ve done to not go to waste. As such, I’ve given myself breaks between each book, even though I’ve enjoyed what I’ve read of the series so far. It’s nice to be able to digest what I’m reading (and in some cases, watching; in addition to Lord of the Rings I also decided to catch up on all the theatrically released Muppet movies I had yet to watch during the lockdown) without being on a time crunch.

Of course, one element of old school fan culture that is virtually nonexistent right now is the in-person events. And I’m not talking about the giant pop culture conventions we tend to think of these days, more like book launches and movie screenings for fans. Before “stan culture” of books and movies grew to the same level of pandemonium as musician fanbases reached several decades ago, it was simply about spending time with others interested in the same things you were. And things have largely seemed to return to those roots over the past several months in the form of book clubs and “watch parties” over video chat and social media.

This hiatus from press tours, meet and greets, and fan conventions serves as a reminder that as easy as it can be to get caught up in the world surrounding our favourite stories, the real reason we’re in these fandoms is to enjoy the media itself. When we watch professionally recorded theatrical productions, we’re excited to watch the show itself without the distraction of planning strategies for the stage door (where fans gather after a Broadway show in hopes of getting photos and autographs from the actors). The same goes for attending virtual author events and watching the many online TV and film cast reunions that have happened this year; it’s not about attention and clout, it’s about an escape from our troubles and an opportunity to have some fun.

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Credit: New Line Cinema

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By no means do I intend to give up participating in the buzz and excitement of the cultural zeitgeist cycle as we know it today in favour of consuming media on my own. I believe shared experiences have an important place in our society – even more “trivial” ones like popular culture – and they can result in learning new things and building a sense of community, which is especially important in the rough times a pandemic brings. (I actually think the global nature of this crisis has helped remind us of value in the collective media experience, something a lot of people were concerned was dying out this time last year.)

And yes, of course, I miss packed cinemas and fan conventions as much as anyone! But even though things in the entertainment industry have started to gradually return to some level of normal, I’m still finding myself drawn to the simplicity and quiet but pure joy of old school fandom. So I’m excited to go to the next big blockbuster opening night (whenever it happens) but I’ll be just as happy to come home afterwards and enjoy a few chapters of an indie novel before going to bed.

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