One of the more ubiquitous artifacts of the Internet age is Fanboy Rage. We've all seen it. Packs of half-crazed Star Wars or Star Trek or [insert beloved SF franchise, fantasy series, or gadget brand here] fans swarming over forums and blogs to register their boundless outrage over the defilement of whatever it is they love so dearly. It happened with the Star Wars prequels, spawning a global George Lucas backlash. I experienced it personally when Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull turned out to be a steaming pile of elephant dung. I bear the mental scars to this day.
Turns out, there is actually a psychological basis for these pop culture mass freak-outs. According to an excellent article on Very Evolved, it has to do with how we create, process and update memories:
Our brain isn’t the hard drive of a computer, and our memories aren’t hard coded and unchangeable. Every time you recall a memory it may become subtly altered and associated with what ever it was that triggered that old memory. If this trigger happens repeatedly, then you’re adding new layer of interpretation that will be recalled automatically with the old memory next time it’s called up.
A great example of this in action that also demonstrates fluid nostalgia, is the backlash against George Lucas. A large portion of 70’s and 80’s children had grown up owning Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader figures and playing in the backyard pretending sticks were light sabers. Fond childhood memories.
When the first abysmal Star Wars Prequel was released the strong feelings against the film weren’t just those of disappointment at a bad movie. If it were that simple, we should also feel the same way about Police Academy 7.
The reaction can be partly explained by the sense of attack on our previously fond feelings. Watching the new movie automatically calls up memories from the previous series and all the pleasant childhood playtime memories associated with it. But recalling these fond memories in the context of a negative experience begins the process of re-coding, or modifying our old memories. This is an undesirable outcome for nostalgia as it is usually such a pleasant feeling. Naturally there is some resistance and cognitive dissonance when this happens and the brain will try to avoid it like any other unpleasant experience.
To wit: when George Lucas makes a bad Star Wars or Indiana Jones movie, it's like he's forcibly re-wiring our brains and stealing our happy childhood memories. And that's what creates the angry.
All of this is a cautionary tale for aspiring filmmakers. If you're going to revisit a popular franchise, be damn careful you don't screw it up. The brains of rabid fanboys everywhere will rise up is revolt against this forced re-programming, and the combined force of this enraged gray matter will destroy you. I'm looking at you, JJ Abrams.