Grief, gratitude and real (fictional) relationships as fans grapple with fall and rise of Neighbours

14 September 2023
A smiling man with dark hair and a beard, wearing glasses and a black tshirt and jacket.
CQUniversity psychology academic and Neighbours fan Dr Adam Gerace

Neighbours fans around the world felt real grief when the long-running Australian soap was cancelled, according to a CQUniversity study of viewer reactions. 

But Australian psychology academic and study author Dr Adam Gerace said the plot-twist revival of the Melbourne-made drama could have complex impacts on viewers’ emotions.

Dr Gerace conducted his study of more than 1200 Neighbours fans shortly after the final 90-minute episode screened in July 2022, and before the revival was announced in November. 

“The survey examined relationships formed with characters, viewing motives, and empathy and grief emotions, as well as perceptions of closure and gratitude,” he explained. 

“I found that fan reactions to the end of the series were influenced by the relationships they had formed with characters – and while different to real-world social interactions, these are relationships that are taken seriously by fans, and have real-world impacts in how they live their lives.”

The Adelaide-based academic said relationships with favourite characters – called parasocial relationships – can end because a character dies on screen, or because the show or series ends. 

“In Australia, we have a long history of characters that audiences have fallen in love with, who then die tragically!” Dr Gerace said.

“When Molly in A Country Practice died in 1985, the nation almost entered a stage of collective mourning. There were similar reactions when Maggie Doyle was killed in Blue Heelers in 2000.

“Even Neighbours has had its fair share of weepy deaths, for instance when Sonya Rebecchi died of cancer in 2019.” 

Dr Gerace decided to conduct the study given the significance of the end of the Australian series and the upset he noticed when fans were interviewed about the upcoming finale. 

“The end of Neighbours was a once-in-a-generation chance to examine how people react when their relationships with characters, which have been in their lives for years, are coming to an end – in some cases, the characters have been with them for decades.”

Fans completed several measures to understand their reactions to the end of the series, including the Parasocial Breakup scale, a 13-item measure of feelings and behaviours, that was originally created by researchers to measure fans’ reactions to the end of the TV series Friends

Interestingly, Neighbours fans reported greater feelings of loss compared to Friends fans that were surveyed at the end of that series in 2004.

“Fans of Neighbours reported experiencing strong feelings of grief at the end of the series, including sadness and anger,” Dr Gerace said.

“They also reported missing their favourite character a great deal…and not surprisingly, given the series had only just ended, they did not report feelings of ‘closure’, which can take time. 

“However, fans did express gratitude for the experiences the series had given them.”

The majority of survey respondents said they were five-day-a-week Neighbours viewers, with 512 saying they’d been watching for the full 37 years that the soap had been screening. 

Dr Gerace measured levels of devotion to the show and its characters, with higher levels correlating to more acutely felt grief reactions.

While the study focused on one tv series, Dr Gerace said the findings likely reflect fan experiences with other continuing media, be it other shows, movie or book series.

Of course, much like a soapie plot-twist, the return of Neighbours means all hope is not lost – and to go from mourning a death to experiencing a rebirth, there are complex emotions at play.

Dr Gerace suggests fans will likely move from mourning to joy. 

“It’s really like a favourite character rising from the dead, isn’t it – maybe Neighbours fans would call it a Dee Bliss moment? There’s something rather poetic about it all!”

Dr Gerace is a Senior Lecturer in CQUniversity’s College of Psychology, School of Health, Medical and Applied Sciences, and a regular commentator on psychology, mindset and emotions for Australia’s national broadcaster, the ABC. 

The passionate academic is Head of Course for the Graduate Certificate in Positive Psychology, Graduate Diploma of Positive Psychology, and Master of Applied Positive Psychology.

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