Regardless of how you feel about the extremely controversial series finale of Game of Thrones, one fact is beyond debate: It’s all over. For die-hard fans of the show, this can be a jarring realization. What will fill the Arya-sized hole in your Sunday evening? What, if not the manifest destiny of Daenerys Targaryen, will you discuss with your colleagues at work? What now?
If you woke up Monday morning feeling this way, take comfort in the fact that you’re not alone. West Virginia University media psychology professor and Game of Thrones fan Elizabeth Cohen, Ph.D., tells Inverse this feeling has “been termed in the literature as a ‘parasocial breakup’.”
Though non-fans may find it odd that others feel sad, bereft, empty, or listless at the end of the series, Cohen thinks it’s completely normal — in fact, she says, she would find it more strange if fans didn’t respond in that way. Humans are hard-wired to form social relationships, and it really doesn’t really matter whether the people we form them with are real or not.
The feeling of loss has been termed the “show hole,” notes University at Buffalo health educator Jessica Kruger, Ph.D., who studies the effects of binge watching. “It’s like your good friend just left you,” she tells Inverse. “The friends that you created over these episodes are now gone.”
Yes, You Can Break Up With Fictional Characters
People develop relationships with media figures,” she says, “even people who don’t actually exist — fictional characters. In fact, there’s some evidence that suggests that you can actually feel closer to fictional characters that you read about in novels.” Or, of course, over a richly imagined storyline that has unfolded dramatically over an eight-year TV series.
The “parasocial” relationships we form with fictional characters can feel even more intimate than the ones we form with actual people because the storytelling process often gives us more information about a character than an actual person might actually divulge. “Think about it: You would know everything about them,” says Cohen. “When you think about how much information you get about the characters and how much time you’ve spent thinking about them and immersed in their world, that’s a high level of involvement.”
Research on this phenomenon began long before Dany and Khal Drogo’s horrific wedding night. One of the first studies on the friendships we form with fictional characters started with, fittingly, the end of the series Friends. “People had reactions to the ending of Friends and the loss of those relationships similar to when somebody dies in your social network,” says Cohen. “Obviously to a much lesser extent, but everything kind of mimics how we respond in the social world.”
Disrupting Routines and “Empty Oprah” Syndrome
In 2011, Cohen wrote about a phenomenon called “Empty Oprah” syndrome — a similar feeling to the GoT blues that fans felt when Oprah went off the air. More than just a parasocial relationship, the bond fans felt with Oprah manifested in the rhythms of their lives.
“She was part of people’s daily routines,” Cohen says. “She left a void for a lot of people,” every afternoon at 4 p.m.
At 9 p.m. next Sunday night, fans may feel at a loss for what to watch. This is interesting in itself, notes Cohen, considering that the advent of streaming services and DVRs means we can generally watch shows on our own schedules. Social pressures and the desire to take part in a cultural conversation lead us to make watching shows like GoT a communal and, importantly, routine experience — the loss of which might also sting.
How to Beat the Post-GoT Blues
We must mourn, says Cohen, or find a way to get over the sense of loss. To this end, she offers two pieces of advice. “Find another show,” she says before adding: “Now’s a great time for reruns, actually.” Research on spoilers, she notes, suggests that it doesn’t actually take away from a person’s enjoyment of the show and, in fact, can actually enhance it.
Kruger, however, warns against diving into a new relationship too quickly and too intensely. “I caution people to not binge watch just because you’re in a show hole because it has effects on mental and physical health,” she says. “Watch in moderation!”
If you really feel a painful, Westeros-shaped hole in your heart, spinoffs, fan fiction, and other forays into the mythology of the Game of Thrones universe may help ease the transition period. If we treat our relationships with the characters as real ones, doing so is somewhat like reliving old memories or daydreaming new ones, which can tide us over until the next blockbuster series is released.
“There are always going be other narratives that can still connect you with that world,” Cohen says, “if you want.”