Editor’s note: This article contains plot spoilers for “Swarm.”
“Swarm,” the new streaming series created by Donald Glover and Janine Nabers, centers on a deranged superfan named Dre who becomes a serial killer.
Dre longs to meet a global pop star named Ni’Jah, who’s based on Beyoncé, and Dre’s obsession with the singer sparks a multistate murder spree that begins after the death of her only friend, Marissa.
As a criminologist, I look to understand what causes people to commit crimes, and I see more driving Dre than her extreme fixation on a celebrity. As the story unfolds, viewers learn about Dre’s childhood. To me, these early experiences explain a lot more about her crimes than her fandom does.
Social isolation and criminal behavior
In 1969, criminologist Travis Hirschi came up with what he called Social Bond Theory to explain delinquency in adolescents.
His theory, also known as Social Control Theory, suggests that criminal behavior is much more likely to happen when a person fails to develop normal societal bonds, which Hirschi divides into four categories: attachment to parents, peers and school; occupational and educational commitment; academic involvement; and belief in social rules and convention.
From the start of the series, it becomes clear that Dre has few friends outside of her foster sister, Marissa. After Marissa dies by suicide, Dre is truly alone in the world. She resorts to exotic dancing and living out of a cheap motel.
Then, in the series’ pivotal sixth episode, viewers learn that Dre is a product of the foster care system and was severely bullied in school.
Dre was taken in by Marissa’s parents as a foster child. However, Marissa’s parents struggled when Dre began exhibiting violent outbursts. So they returned her to state custody. It becomes clear that Dre has lived in at least three homes as a child, and she was already exhibiting symptoms of failure to develop normal bonds.
A 2008 study examining the delinquency in adolescents who grew up in foster care suggests that children who jump from home to home are more likely to engage in criminal behavior than adolescents with stable homes and permanent placements. Strong attachments play a large role as a foundation for receiving and giving care and contribute to healthy psychological development.
Given this troubled upbringing and the death of Marissa, Dre’s fixation on Ni’Jah represents the last existing person who hasn’t abandoned her. Holding on to the fantasy that she would one day meet Ni’Jah and befriend her gives Dre something to believe in and connect to.
Throughout the series, Dre encounters a number of people who seem to offer potential for the formation of healthy relationships. Each relationship is elusive, however, as Dre fails to overcome her fixation on Ni’Jah. A fellow stripper named Hailey seems to want to bond with Dre, but the feeling is not reciprocated. Dre also meets a caring man with loose connections to Ni’Jah. That connection is short-lived as well. Dre even inadvertently joins an all-female cult but ends up murdering the cult leader, who tries to keep Dre from seeing Ni’Jah perform at a festival.
Why did these budding relationships all fall apart?
Because the damage, according to Hirschi’s theory, had already been done. The ability to form healthy bonds is meant to be cultivated in adolescence. For Dre, that ship had already sailed.
People with unstable childhoods like Dre’s often end up suffering from an attachment disorder, which refers to the inability to form meaningful relationships as an adult, often due to the failure to establish proper bonds as a child.
On Beyhive and Barbz
The underlying narrative in “Swarm” is exaggerated, but not far-fetched.
Stories of fans-cum-stalkers are relatively commonplace. Justin Beiber can lay claim to one of the creepier stalkers. That man, who is now serving a life sentence in prison on unrelated charges, has a tattoo on his leg devoted to the singer and masterminded an elaborate plan to kill Bieber after the singer failed to respond to his fan mail.
Super fans have long been a prominent feature of popular culture, but social media has facilitated the emergence of full-fledged communities dedicated to celebrating, tracking – and protecting – stars. Beyonce has her Beyhive. The Swifties belong to Taylor Swift. Rihanna’s Navy comes to her defense, while Nicki Minaj has the Barbz in her corner.
Of course, the overwhelming majority of these fans are passionate but harmless. However, for those who lack strong social connections, superfandom can evolve into blind, unquestioning devotion to the celebrity. That sense of belonging can transform into a menacing adoration.
Towards the end of the series, Dre is arrested in her last desperate attempt to meet Ni’Jah. However, an idyllic ending ensues, even though what play out appears to be Dre’s fantasy.
In the last scene, Ni’Jah – whose face has been replaced with Marissa’s – saves Dre from security and the two leave the concert together.
Though Dre doesn’t say much, she radiates, for the first time in the series, a sense of calm, comfort and connection.