Is Stanning a Sin?

Donald Glover’s twisted new show, Swarm, hints that our biggest stars fear their own fans.

Nirine S. Brown bathed in gold light as Ni'Jah
Chris Reel / Prime Video

Both slang for “super fan” and the title of a terrifying Eminem song, the term stan refers to a distinctly modern phenomenon depicted in the controversial new Amazon Prime series Swarm. In the horror-comedy created by Atlanta’s Donald Glover and Janine Nabers, a young woman takes lethal revenge on people who talk poorly about her favorite pop star. A smartphone enables her to constantly consume content by her beloved singer—and to smash the skulls of people who make nasty jokes on Twitter.

Swarm’s contemporary trappings are a bit of a feint, however. The show portrays a kind of devotion that’s old, even ancient. The most famous examples of fans who stalk and murder predate the modern internet (RIP John Lennon and Selena Quintanilla). And given that no known stan has ever massacred a bunch of haters, to find a real-life precedent for the actions of the show’s anti-hero, Dre (played with blank-eyed brilliance by Dominique Fishback), you have to look beyond pop music. Questing around the nation, smiting anyone she sees as a heretic, Dre resembles a holy crusader, or a terrorist. Swarm is about religion, and it condemns the sin of idolatry.

To see condemnation in this series is to differ, slightly, from many readings of Swarm thus far. The show’s audacious filmmaking, writing, and acting have earned deserving admiration, but many reviews posit that Swarm raises more questions than it answers. Some viewers have critiqued Glover and Nabers for—among many other things—neither seeming to understand fan culture nor having many coherent thoughts about it. Glover himself alleges that their show isn’t making an argument about our own world. He told Vulture, “I don’t want people to study this and be like, ‘Oh, this is a very true depiction of blank.’”

Yet nearly every episode begins with an assertion of truth, in text reading This is not a work of fiction and Any similarity to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events, is intentional. The fashions, music, and biographical details of the fictional superstar Ni’Jah closely resemble those of Beyoncé. The casting of Billie Eilish, Paris Jackson, and Chloe Bailey—a pop star, a pop star’s progeny, and a pop star’s protégé, respectively—heightens a sense of meta-commentary. On some level, this is a work by famous people expressing something about the very people who admire them.

Almost explicitly, the show pursues plot-level mystery along with a broader cultural mystery: Why is Dre this way?, which is a way of asking, Why are some fans so extreme? The sixth episode takes a formal detour into the style of a true-crime docuseries. A detective hunts to find Dre and understand her motives. “There are usually some factors that contribute to a child lashing out,” explains a social worker who once knew Dre, growing angry at the nosy cop who’s digging for more insight. “You need there to be a reason she was so messed up so you don’t have to sweep your own front door and realize that you are just as flawed.” This monologue is double-speak, directed unmistakably at the audience.

As it turns out, there is not a reason for Dre’s crimes. There are many. Acute grief is foremost. Childhood bullying and abandonment lie under that. A number of characters remark that something is off about Dre—code for perceived mental-health conditions. The show even flirts with the cliché of killer queerness, leading viewers to wonder if Dre’s admiration for Ni’Jah expresses her long-thwarted desire for women. These personal issues are fed by cultural ones: the distortions of social media; the holes in our social safety net; the prejudices facing Black women. The bottom line is that society’s many failings have left Dre starved for belonging and connection. A shimmering visage on her phone screen, singing about liberation and love, fills that hunger. Stanning, Swarm says, is a symptom of a sickness we all help cause.

That this sickness is spiritual would be obvious even without Dre encountering a New Age cult midway through the season. At one point we see a fan refer to Ni’Jah as both a goddess and a sister, similar to how real pop fans intermix deification with cries of “Mom,” and similar to how various real-world faiths regard higher powers as parental figures. The conflation helps explain Dre’s behavior: Killing to protect one’s family, and murder by extremists in defense of faith, are not abnormal in history. Swarm gets progressively more disturbing as it untangles the inhumane logic of righteous violence, showing how the hope for otherworldly redemption—in heaven or a backstage pass—can choke off someone’s ability to accept real love when it’s offered. The finale’s title: “Only God Makes Happy Endings.”

Swarm’s take on these matters is bold but not fresh. Op-ed pages and church pulpits are hardly lacking for sermons saying that celebrity worship reflects community collapse and secular emptiness. Conspiracy theorists have filled the internet with feverish, bloody fantasies of self-deifying stars hypnotizing the masses. Swarm uses satirical extremity to offer a jolting reminder, a soul-deep yuck—perhaps in hopes that viewers check how much of themselves they see in Dre. A scene in Episode 6, in which another of Ni’Jah’s superfans is interviewed, captures this. The fan mulls whether he would kill in the name of his idol—and appears hilariously unsure about his final answer of no.

Swarm pointedly downplays the upsides of fandom: the authentic community, the nourishing sense of purpose. And it flattens the artist-celebrity into the glistening silhouette of Ni’Jah rather than recognize that the canniest stars create obsession by flaunting complication and flaws—as Beyoncé has, as Glover has, as Eilish has. The show’s stark, stylized polemic is all the more chilling given how eagerly it draws attention to its own authorship by fawned-over entertainers. The message is the same one Eminem offered in “Stan,” a song imagining his biggest fan to be a monster. Many of our modern gods are, quite clearly, afraid of their congregants.