What is Stalking?
The legal definition of stalking is defined primarily
by state statutes. While statutes vary, most
define stalking as a course of conduct that places
a person in fear for their safety.
However, the term "stalking" is more
commonly used to describe specific kinds of behavior
directed at a particular person, such as harassing
or threatening another person. But the variety
of specific strategies employed and behaviors
displayed by stalkers are limited only by the
creativity and ingenuity of the stalkers themselves.
Suffice it to say, virtually any unwanted contact
between a stalker and their victim which directly
or indirectly communicates a threat or places
the victim in fear can generally be referred
to as stalking.
Is Stalking a New Phenomenon?
No -- the history of stalking behavior is as
old as the history of human relationships. Stalking
has always been with us -- what is new is that,
until recently, it was never labeled as a separate
and distinct class of deviant behavior. Prior
to its common usage and its subsequent designation
as a crime, stalking was referred to as harassment,
annoyance or, in some cases, simply as domestic
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, numerous high-profile
cases involving celebrities began to catch the
attention of the media and public policy leaders.
Only then did such behavior begin to be described
Since then, stalking has become a common subject
in the popular media. With the advent of blockbuster
films -- such as Fatal Attraction, Cape Fear,
and Sleeping with the Enemy -- and its coverage
by the news media, "stalking" has become
a household word.
How Common is Stalking?
Unlike most violent crimes, law enforcement officials
do not track the incidences of stalking offenses
as part of their normal crime reporting process.
Since there has been virtually no empirical data
available, no one knows just how common stalking
cases are in the United States.
Best estimates indicate that as many as 200,000
Americans are currently being stalked; moreover,
1 in 20 women will become targets of stalking
behavior at least once during their lifetimes.
With the passage of the 1994 Crime Bill by the
U.S. Congress, which mandated the tracking and
compilation of stalking crime statistics, experts
will be able to determine the prevalence of this
crime for the first time.
Who Are Stalkers?
Stalking is a gender-neutral crime, with both
male and female perpetrators and victims. However,
most stalkers are men. Best statistics indicate
that 75-80% of all stalking cases involve men
stalking women. Most tend to fall into the young
to middle-aged categories. Most have above-average
intelligence. Stalkers come from every walk of
life and every socio-economic background. Virtually
anyone can be a stalker, just as anyone can be
a stalking victim.
Psychological and Behavioral Profile of Stalkers:
Unfortunately, there is no single psychological
or behavioral profile for stalkers. In fact,
many experts believe that every stalker is different,
making it very difficult not only to categorize
their behavior, but doubly difficult to devise
effective strategies to cope with such behavior.
Forensic psychologists, who study criminal behavior,
are just beginning to examine the minds and motives
of stalkers. These psychologists have identified
two broad categories of stalkers and stalking
behavior -- "Love Obsession" and "Simple
Love Obsession Stalkers
This category is characterized by stalkers who
develop a love obsession or fixation on another
person with whom they have no personal relationship.
The target may be only a casual acquaintance
or even a complete stranger. This category represents
about 20-25% of all stalking cases.
Stalkers who stalk celebrities and stars -- such
as David Letterman, Jodie Foster and Madonna
-- fall into the category of love obsessionists;
however, stalkers in this category also include
those who develop fixations on regular, ordinary
people -- including co-workers, their aerobics
instructor, casual acquaintances or people they
pass in the street.
The vast majority of love obsessional stalkers
suffer from a mental disorder -- often schizophrenia
or paranoia. Regardless of the specific disorder,
nearly all display some delusional thought patterns
and behaviors. Since most are unable to develop
normal personal relationships through more conventional
and socially acceptable means, they retreat to
a life of fantasy relationships with persons
they hardly know, if at all. They invent fictional
stories -- complete with what is to them real-life
scripts -- which cast their unwilling victims
in the lead role as their own love interest.
They then attempt to act out their fictional
plots in the real world.
The woman who has stalked David Letterman for
five years truly believes she is his wife. She
has been discovered on Mr. Letterman's property
numerous times, has been arrested driving his
car and has even appeared at his residence with
her own child in tow -- each time insisting that
she is David Letterman's wife.
Love obsessional stalkers not only attempt to
live out their fantasies, but expect their victims
to play their assigned roles as well. They believe
they can make the object of their affection love
them. They desperately want to establish a positive
personal relationship with their victim. When
the victim refuses to follow the script or doesn't
respond as the stalker hopes, they may attempt
to force the victim to comply by use of threats
When threats and intimidation fail, some stalkers
turn to violence. Some decide that if they cannot
be a positive part of their victim's life, they
will be part of their life in a negative way.
Some even go so far as to murder their victims
in a twisted attempt to romantically link themselves
to their victim forever. This was the case with
the man who shot and killed Rebecca Schaffer,
the young actress and star of the television
show My Sister Sam.
Simple Obsession Stalkers
This second category represents 70-80% of all
stalking cases and is distinguished by the fact
that some previous personal or romantic relationship
existed between the stalker and the victim before
the stalking behavior began.
Virtually all domestic violence cases involving
stalking fall under this rubric, as do casual
dating relationships (commonly referred to as
Fatal Attraction cases, named after the popular
movie by the same title).
While this kind of stalker may or may not have
psychological disorders, all clearly have personality
disorders. One forensic psychologist has attempted
to identify some of the common personality traits
and behavioral characteristics among this category
of stalkers. Stalkers in this class are characterized
as individuals who are:
- Socially maladjusted and
- Emotionally immature
- Often subject to feelings
- Unable to succeed in relationships
by socially acceptable means
- Jealous, bordering on
- Extremely insecure about
themselves and suffering from low self-esteem
The self-esteem of simple obsession stalkers is
often closely tied to their relationship with
their partner. In many cases, such stalkers bolster
their own self-esteem by dominating and intimidating
their mates. Exercising power over another gives
them some sense of power in a world where they
otherwise feel powerless. In extreme cases, such
personalities attempt to control every aspect
of their partner's life. This behavior pattern
was vividly depicted in the major motion picture
entitled Sleeping with the Enemy, where the antagonist
turns to intimidation and violence as the means
to control every aspect of his victim/wife's life.
Since the victim literally becomes the stalker's
primary source of self-esteem, their greatest
fear becomes the loss of this person. Their own
self-worth is so closely tied to the victim that
when they are deprived of that person, they may
feel that their own life is without worth.
It is exactly this dynamic that makes simple obsession
stalkers so dangerous. In the most acute cases,
such stalkers will literally stop at nothing to
regain their "lost possession" -- their
partner -- and in so doing, regain their lost
Just as with most domestic violence cases, stalkers
are the most dangerous when they are first deprived
of their source of power and self-esteem; in other
words, the time when their victims determine to
physically remove themselves from the offender's
presence on a permanent basis by leaving the relationship.
Indeed, stalking cases which emerge from domestic
violence situations constitute the most common
and potentially lethal class of stalking cases.
Domestic violence victims who leave an abusive
relationship run a 75% higher risk of being murdered
by their partners.
Stalking behavior is as diverse as the stalkers
themselves. Yet behavioral experts are beginning
to identify patterns in the cycle of violence
displayed by simple obsession stalkers.
Stalking Behavior Patterns and Cycles:
Stalking behavior patterns closely mirror those
common in many domestic violence cases. The pattern
is usually triggered when the stalker's advances
toward their victim is frustrated -- regardless
of whether the stalker is seeking to establish
a personal relationship or continue a previously
established relationship contrary to the wishes
of the victim.
The stalker may attempt to woo their victim into
a relationship by sending flowers, candy and love
letters, in an attempt to "prove their love."
However, when the victim spurns their unwelcome
advances, the stalker often turns to intimidation.
Such attempts at intimidation often begin in the
form of an unjustified, jealous and inappropriate
intrusion into the victim's life. Often this contact
becomes more numerous and intrusive over time
until such collective conduct becomes a persistent
pattern of harassment. Many times, harassing behavior
escalates to threatening behavior. Such threats
may be direct or indirect and communicated explicitly
or implicitly by the stalker's conduct. Unfortunately,
cases that reach this level of seriousness too
often end in violence and/or murder.
Stalkers, unable to establish or re-establish
a relationship of power and control over their
victims, turn to violence as a means of reasserting
their domination over the victim. In some cases,
offenders are even willing to kill their victims
and themselves in a last, desperate attempt to
assert their domination over the victim.
The evolution of the stalker's thought pattern
progresses from, "If I can just prove to
you how much I love you," to "I can
make you love me," to "If I can't have
you, nobody else will."
While this progression in behavior is common,
no stalking case is completely predictable. Some
stalkers may never escalate past the first stage.
Others jump from the first stage to the last stage
with little warning. Still others regress to previous
stages before advancing to the next. It is not
uncommon to see stalkers intersperse episodes
of threats and violence with flowers and love
As difficult as it is to predict what a stalker
might do, it is at least as difficult to predict
when he might do it. A few stalkers will progress
to later stages in only a few weeks or even days.
In other cases, stalkers who have engaged in some
of the most serious stalking behaviors may go
months or even years without attempting a subsequent
How Do I File a Complaint Under My State's Stalking
To file a complaint that will trigger an arrest
and prosecution, it must be accompanied with sufficient
evidence to establish "probable cause"
that the stalker engaged in conduct that is illegal
under the state's stalking statute. If law enforcement
officials do not witness such conduct first-hand,
it is often up to the victim to provide them with
the evidence necessary to establish probable cause.
Again, victims would be well-advised to obtain
a copy of their state's stalking statute in order
to gain a clear understanding of what conduct
constitutes an offense under the statute. While
most state stalking statutes are written in laymen's
terms, the exact meaning of those terms is not
always clear. Victims may wish to consult with
law enforcement officials, prosecutors, or a private
attorney for an explanation and interpretation
of the specific stalking statute in question.
In other words, stalking victims are often put
in a position of having to first prove their case
to a law enforcement official before being afforded
the opportunity to prove their case before a court
of law. It is for this reason that it is crucial
for stalking victims to document every stalking
incident as thoroughly as possible, including
collecting and keeping any videotapes, audiotapes,
phone answering machine messages, photos of the
stalker or property damage, letters sent, objects
left, affidavits from eye witnesses, notes, etc.
Experts also recommend that victims keep a journal
to document all contacts and incidents, along
with the time, date and other relevant information.
Regardless of whether or not they have sufficient
evidence to prove a stalking violation, victims
wishing to file a stalking complaint with law
enforcement officials should do so at the earliest
possible point in time. In some cases, victims
may also be able to file a complaint in the jurisdiction
where the offender resides, if it is different
from the victim's.
If law enforcement officials refuse to investigate,
or if they are not responsive to a complaint filed,
victims may always directly approach their local
prosecutor (also known in various jurisdictions
as, the district attorney, state's attorney, commonwealth's
attorney or state solicitor).
It is also recommended that any person who suspects
or believes that they are currently being stalked
should immediately seek the advice and assistance
of local victim specialists in developing a personalized
safety plan or action plan. Victim specialists
can be found at local domestic violence or rape
crisis programs -- which should be listed under
"Community Services Numbers" or "Emergency
Assistance Numbers" in the front section
of the local phone book -- or in victim assistance
programs located in most local prosecutors' offices
and in some law enforcement agencies – which
should be listed under "Local, City or County
Government" in the Blue Pages of the local
For more information on
how to spot stalking and protect yourself, please
National Institute of Justice. (1993). Project
to Develop a Model Anti-Stalking Code for States,
Final Summary Report . Washington, DC: U.S. Department
Schaum, Melita and Karen Parrish. (1995). Stalked:
Breaking the Silence on the Crime of Stalking
in America . New York: Simon & Schuster, Inc.
All rights reserved. Copyright
© 1995 by the National Center for Victims