Scott Renshaw is Dian Fossey, fans are his gorillas, and fanny packs his mist.
Fans have gone mainstream in a major way. No longer bullied for their obsessions, they represent a significant force in culture and a significant demographic for businesses. People will pay to have their nerdiness catered to and businesses are trying to understand what that requires. Movies and television have continued to be shaped by the efficient internet sociology of the hashtag while more and more often these signifiers lead to targeting, bullying, and hate from fans towards those deemed outside or too critical of something that should be unquestioningly adored.
Attempting to understand this culture is the new book Happy Place, a series of textual vignettes of fans who’ve found community, love, inspiration, or entrepreneurship in Disney parks.
This series of essays connect interviews of exceptional fans with the enamored, yet not uncritical, eye of Scott Renshaw. Renshaw, the arts and entertainment editor and film critic for the Salt Lake City Weekly, is a Disney park fan who (like all fans) grapples with a piece of himself that would like to be a fanatic. Something primal, some buried gene, yearns to be one of his interview subjects, like a man that went to a Disney park or cruise every single day for an entire year, but lacks the specifically rare real-world circumstances and dedications required for such a lifestyle. When you’re a fan of a place rather than an idea, your obsession becomes intrinsically tangled with logistics.
Renshaw’s search for these members of fandom who’ve carved niches as idiosyncratic as any Guinness World Record category and fraternal understanding of them are a bit like using a blown-up scale model of fandom to understand that buried gene lurking within himself. These are the people who’ve embraced their fanaticism, who let their love of the parks into every facet of their lives. Their girlfriends, workplaces, and geographic locations stem from their relationship with the parks. If some see fandom as a result of an obsession-inclined personality, these people are high-functioning fans whose exploits are captured with an infectious giddiness.
Intermingled with autobiographical accounts of disney derring-do in an attempted 24-hour park immersion, his memories of teenage dates at the park, and his own evolving relationship with his inner fan, these interviews unveil the fan’s relationship with the critic.
As the park changes to make way for new acquisitions and updates to old attractions, Renshaw documents a personal story of aging fandom that alters one’s appreciation for a piece of culture so closely linked with one’s identity – a story of artistic love independent of medium.
Bristling responses to these park changes accuse critics of “armchair Imagineering” and seem familiar to anyone who’s ever had an opinion on the internet. The fickleness of fans becomes apparent in their demands, as the battlefront between the rose-colored immaculate perfection of any decision that comes down from the Disney company on high and the combative conservatism of original Walt Disney intent becomes one jagged with online jabs and thrusts. Fanbases come divided and attempts to pander to every marketable quadrant have blighted summer movie seasons for years.
The distinct ambitions of Walt Disney have complicated this further. His legacy has molded his fanbase alongside the man’s own temporally-displaced desires seen in his rural short animations and optimistic visions for Tomorrowland and Epcot. Now among the Disney parks community are those harboring a nostalgia for the idea of nostalgia or a nostalgia for a future that never came to fruition.
Impossibilities stack as those afflicted slowly mature to their own acceptance of their tumultuous love (as one interviewee does with a lengthy critical analysis of the Pirates of the Caribbean ride) or embrace their love for what it once was, acknowledging their time to move along.
Renshaw falls between the two categories.
He covers the death and rebirth of fandom, the message board diehards whose backs fail them during a park-wide trivia puzzle game and the young YouTubers who’ve added their own twist to the Disney experience, and it’s easy to see that Renshaw is an optimist when under their spell.
Though the scarier, darker side of internet gang-ups, racism, and hate are covered, their potency and prevalence are limited compared to the intensity and rage around the less demanding objects of fan obsession. The ugly side of fandom seems far more common when it takes less work.
Yet the things that bring the parkgoers together never seems like work. These aren’t the stressed-out families from films like National Lampoon’s Vacation, these are people finding families of their own. “Fans gather things and catalog things and evaluate things, because that’s the way we make sense of our passions,” Renshaw writes. For some these collections are souvenirs, for some they’re memories, for others relationships. A formerly obese man whose park fixation focuses on one particular ride knows the employees personally, exchanging baked goods, phone numbers, and even wedding invitations.
Whether they’re nerds cosplaying as Star Wars characters, people crafting Stranger Things fan theories, or middle-aged MiceChatters, the community forged by fans can’t help but feel like it outweighs the backlash-prone entitlement permeating our cultural discourse when seen through Renshaw’s lovingly crafted amusement anthropology. This is required reading for anyone that calls themselves a fan, if only to force thoughtful positivity onto a potentially dangerous subculture.
Happy Place will be available via The Critical Press at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Powells, Indiebound on October 11. You can find Scott Renshaw on Twitter or at Salt Lake City Weekly.