Last weekend, Hugh Jackman made headlines when he was confronted by a stalker as he left a gym in New York City. Katherine Thurston, 47, followed the actor from his home to the gym, where she chased him with an electric razor (reportedly full of her pubic hair) and repeatedly declared her love. It wasn’t the first time Thurston had accosted Jackman—he and his family reported seeing her outside their home, as well as his children’s school.
Many news outlets wanted to focus on the hilarity of the situation. But the important question in this situation is, what causes someone to stalk? Sure, Hugh is a tall and handsome celebrity, and some of us might follow him around for a minute to snap a photo. But what is happening in the mind of a person who goes to such lengths to repeatedly follow a celebrity to work, break into his or her house, and even threaten his or her family?
What is happening in the brain of someone who stalks? It’s a question that science has been trying to answer even before stalking was criminalized in California back in 1990.
So what conclusions has science drawn? Well, nothing about an association with pubic hair, unfortunately. But we do know that there appear to be two types of stalkers: those who go after a former romantic partner, and those, like Thurston, who pursue an acquaintance or a stranger.
In stalking cases involving former partners, researchers like Rutgers University’s Helen Fisher believe that stalking behaviors may be linked to some kind of overactivity in the love areas of the brain. She suggests that this heightened activity in the brain’s reward and love systems are behind a “romantic” stalker’s focus, attention, impulsivity and obsession. In short, these “romantic” stalkers are much like addicts — but their heroin of choice just happens to be a past lover. It’s a form of love—but taken way, way beyond the pale.
The second type of stalker is a bit harder to explain. Here’s what we do know: studies suggest that most stranger stalkers have some type of psychiatric diagnosis. In fact, a recent study by researchers at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, found that individuals who stalk strangers are more likely to have a psychopathology. Generally, it’s some type of personality disorder—characterized by an inability to conform to social norms and expectations when it comes to relating to others. In other words, most stranger-stalkers are mentally ill, and at times even psychotic.
It can be easy to dismiss stalking. One U.S. prosecutor even said, “no blood, no crime.” And seeming-outrageous stories about celebrities and pubic hair don’t make it any easier to take seriously. But being stalked is no joke—it can imprison the victim in his or her own life, and leave them extremely vulnerable to harm. And most stalkers, whether they fall into the romantic or stranger category, require mental health intervention. Because both cases, unfortunately, can lead to violence. The psychopathology involved means that an individual may become increasingly obsessive over time, and the “increased rejection” only makes it more difficult to control impulsive behaviors.
There’s still a lot that needs to be understood about the science of stalking—most interested researchers believe it has been woefully understudied. But the one big takeaway is this: if you have been or are being stalked, alert the authorities immediately. Don’t wait until things go too far.