How 'Outlander' Created a Whole New Breed of Superfan
Donna Pfister and her friends arrived outside of Macy’s in New York’s Herald Square at 5:20 in the morning. They had come into the city the night before from Long Island and stayed at a hotel in order to be better prepared for the busy day ahead.
Pfister slept on the floor. “That’s what you do when you want to meet Sam Heughan,” she told me, laughing.
They weren’t even the first in line—that honor went to a group led by a woman with Heughan’s signature tattooed on her arm. In total, hundreds of people came to the department store, hoping to say a brief hello and take a photo with the actor.
Heughan isn't a household name at this point (a spy comedy co-starring Mila Kunis and Kate McKinnon, out next year, might change that), but through his portrayal of 18th-century Scotsman Jamie Fraser on the Starz time-travel drama Outlander, he has amassed a very passionate fandom, the likes of which is typically reserved for boy bands or members of the Marvel Universe.
His fans call themselves Heughan’s Heughligans, and the demographics of the community are far from those of the typical groupie; these aren’t 14 year old girls fawning over a pop star, nor are they geeky 30-something guys obsessed with the latest superhero film. Instead, they’re a wide-ranging group of women (and some men), many of whom are middle-aged or older, who have fallen in love with Heughan and the world of the show.
It’s not hard to see why.
The 37-year-old Scot is Adonis-like with a chiseled jawline, striking blue eyes, and abs of the washboard variety, and the character he plays on TV is practically perfect: simultaneously hyper-masculine and emotionally sensitive, strong, and self-sacrificing.
Jamie isn’t the most dynamic or conflicted character on the show, but perhaps that also helps explain his broad appeal. So does the fact that some Sunday nights, he appears on-screen nearly nude.
“He’s a man,” says Diana Gabaldon, author of the books on which the series is based. “And I mean that in the best sense of the word. He takes responsibility for things and people, he keeps order in his social group—be that family, community, or military—and he responds to things with directness and logic."
Gabaldon, who has gained something of a cult following herself, knows the profound appeal of a historic epic. “Jamie is an eighteenth-century man, which means that his sense of honor is explicit and ingrained from the cradle. It isn’t that he can’t do reprehensible things, but his soul is wounded when he does,” she continued.
“And of course, he talks in bed.”
Samantha Linet, whom I met while she was waiting in line at the Macy’s event for Heughan’s new collection with Barbour, agrees with Gabaldon’s description.
“He’s manly, but he’s soft, and he’s chivalrous,” she said. “I just think people look at that and they swoon because it’s not the real world. We get that, we understand that, but it’s fun to escape into a world where this perfect man exists.”
Not to mention this particular fantasy of a bygone era is wrapped up in a physique you'd find on the cover of Men's Health. “It doesn’t hurt that he has a killer 12 pack," Linet agrees, "but I’m pretty sure that even without that, there would be just as many people here.”
When I asked Linet’s friend Marlow Palmer whether her love was for Sam Heughan the actor or Jamie Fraser the character, she paused. “At first it was Outlander, and Jamie Fraser, but then it was all-encompassing of Sam and all of his philanthropy and every interview that he’s done, and every ab that he has, and his accent. It’s the entire package.”
She’s never come to anything like this before. It’s a common refrain I heard when speaking with the women in line at the event. This is their first experience with this kind of fandom.
Sam Heughan and Catriona Balfe as Jamie and Claire in Outlander season one.
“I’ve never been a fangirl, never done this,” Donna Pfister tells me. “I always thought it was bizarre, and now my friends are saying, 'You look a little bit bizarre right now,' but there’s something really magical about the fandom of Outlander. You always find a couple kookies, crazy people in any fandom or any walk of life, but the people that I’ve met are romantic and they’re kind and they’re generous.”
At first glance, it does all seem a little strange: crowds of grown women lining up for hours, camping out even, just to briefly meet an actor. Is all this really healthy?
According to experts, the answer is yes—so long as it doesn’t become an obsession. In fact, Dr. Laurel Steinberg, a New York-based psychotherapist and adjunct professor of psychology at Columbia University, says these groups can actually be beneficial. “Being in a fandom is similar to being in a sorority in that it provides instant friends and activities,” she tells T&C.
It can also encourage people to travel and learn about new cultures they might not otherwise ever experience. According to Visit Scotland, Outlander has had a notable impact on tourism to the country because fans are traveling in droves to see the scenery depicted onscreen.
Between the series premiere in 2014 and 2016, Doune Castle, which serves as Castle Leoch on the show, saw a nearly 92 percent increase in visitors from 47,069 to 90,279. Other attractions with ties to the story—including Blackness Castle, Glencoe Visitor Centre, Glasgow Cathedral, and Preston Mill—have seen tourism bumps over the past few years, all from Outlander fans.
But much more than an excuse to travel to Scotland's picturesque countryside, Outlander has become a kind of sisterhood—Steinberg's comparison to a sorority is particularly apt. For these women, this community is, as Pfister says, “magical.”
The group operates within private Facebook communities that draw members from around the world. And they clearly come for more than just episode recaps. Peppered in between discussions about the show, the latest photos of Sam Heughan and his co-star Caitriona Balfe, who plays the show's heroine Claire, and posts lamenting the ways the TV show has subtly changed the books' beloved storylines, are calls for prayers and moral support. There are requests for words of comfort for a sick parent or a troubled child, as well as shared moments of triumph and congratulations.
“They are a passionate group that can baffle you one day, then overwhelm you with their big hearts and generosity the next,” says Kim Lovelady, who co-founded the Heughan’s Heughligans Facebook group back in July of 2013. “The other admins of the group and I often receive messages and tweets from people sharing their stories of themselves, family, and friends that are dealing with cancer and the pride they feel being a part of a group that is so giving.”
The growth, Lovelady says, has been “staggering.” “At one time we discussed what we would do when we reached 5,000 members. I think back on that and kind of chuckle. Our current Facebook membership is over 56K.”
As in any group, there are some people that take things a little too far (“All families have their own issues,” Lovelady tells me), but generally speaking, it’s a community of mild-mannered period-drama aficionados, some of whom even track down where the show is filming to bring the cast and crew baked goods.
Gabaldon described the fans as, “Deeply committed, remarkably social, and very entertaining.”
“It has people of all colors, of all sexual orientations, and nobody cares about that,” says Nancy Tucker, a Heughligan from Maine. “They only care about having a good time.”
hey also care deeply, it turns out, about raising money. Outlander fans seem to have found a higher purpose for their obsession. And this commitment to philanthropy may have its roots in Heughan's own enthusiasm for the causes he supports.
This summer, the Outlander community raised approximately $26,000 for the Youth Theatre Arts Scotland program; they contribute to Cahonas Scotland, a testicular, prostate, and male breast cancer awareness organization, for which Heughan is an ambassador; and they regularly give to the charity initiatives of other cast members, including Balfe, who is a celebrity patron of World Child Cancer, and Tobias Menzies, who has done work with Wateraid.
In 2016, Outlander fans raised $299,000 for Bloodwise, a UK-based non-profit committed to beating blood cancer by funding research and supporting patients and their families. It was enough to fully fund the Camellia Clinical Trial, which is testing a drug to fight acute myeloid leukemia, a very aggressive form of the disease.
It's not too much to say this group is literally helping to find a cure for cancer. And it makes you wonder what Star Wars fans have done lately.
The Bloodwise funds were raised through another initiative that has become a huge part of Outlander fandom: the My Peak Challenge (MPC), a program founded by Heughan to encourage his followers to become healthy. Heughan says MPC has over 12,000 subscribers.
“It’s like a big support group with people all over the world and once you get involved, you feel like you’re part of a big family,” Pfister says.
Wellness programs are almost always the purview of female celebrities—think Oprah or Gwyneth Paltrow—but fans of Heughan pay a membership fee, and in return they receive nutrition tips, exercise tutorials, and other resources to get fit.
Half of these fees go to charity. "We recently fully funded the Camellia research project through Bloodwise and are now looking at a new project to reduce the aggressive treatment of children suffering from Leukemia and Lymphoma," Heughan told T&C.
Peakers, as they call themselves, are also given access to private social media accounts where they can post triumphs and trials, cheer each other on, and find fellow fans nearby to exercise with.
“I’ve seen some people who are older or have come through injuries or illnesses or people who are tremendously overweight transform and become more positive,” Pfister explained, “all because of something that [Sam] decided to create and put out there. It’s pretty great stuff.”
For his admirers, Heughan has become more than just an actor; he's motivated them to change their lives for the better. “Sam is such a positive influence. He’s this great human being who has affected the lives of a lot of people over the past few years in so many ways outside of just being the celebrity that he is, and he doesn’t have to do any of this, right?” says Pfister. “He could just go to fundraisers and look pretty in front of the camera, but he does all this other stuff, and it’s completely on his own time.”
Heughan is aware—and a little in awe—of the power this community has. A fanbase with this much passion must be unnerving, but he never has a harsh word to say about the people who admire him from afar.
“Outlander fans are number one,” Heughan tells T&C. “Our fans have supported us from season one, not only in the show, interacting with every department of production, but they've also willingly aided us in other projects. Caitriona and I have various charities we support, and the fans have been incredible, making a huge difference in people’s lives."
At the Barbour event at Macy's, he greeted every single fan with the same enthusiasm, posing for a picture and making all the conversation that a minute and 30 seconds will allow.
The crowd at Macy's for Sam Heughan's collaboration with Barbour in September 2017.
Arlene Boeree, a fan who stood in line for the event, says the connection is genuine. “Since the first time I met him, he has shown me, and other fans, nothing but kindness, enthusiasm, graciousness, and appreciation,” she told me.
This ethos is apparently shared by the entire cast of Outlander. “They’re genuinely nice people,” Gabaldon said. “And will go a long way to interact with the fans on a personal level.”
Sony Pictures Television Studios, which produces the show, is well aware of the community—and its impact.
“We want our episodes to ring true to our devoted fans,” says John Westphal, SVP of current programming at Sony Pictures Television Studios via email. “We also actively engage the marketing, social media, and publicity teams at Starz and Sony to include fans in as many ways as possible.”
Even Sony Executives find themselves interacting with fans. In the internet and social-media age, there's no such thing as behind the scenes. “Many Outlander fans interact with myself and other members of the Sony team on social media," says Chris Parnell, co-president of programming and development of Sony Pictures Television Studio.
Behind the scenes of Outlander's third season
The publicity department has done its best to court these fans and keep them engaged. “They will often reach out to the fan groups around the world to make sure they’re included in announcements, events, etc.," says Parnell. "After four years, many of the fans are familiar faces to the Sony team. I’d like to think we’re honorary Heughligans, Caitriots, Menziatics, OutManders, and all the other incredible nicknames.”
But despite its success, Outlander still flies under the radar. The season three premiere in September set a record for the series with just over 2 million viewers over three airings. This puts it at just about the same viewership as the final season of Mad Men, which averaged 2.06 million total viewers per episode. But that show was treated as a cultural bellwether, a supreme achievement in the TV arts.
You couldn’t browse the internet in 2015 without reading about Don Draper, Peggy Olson, and the brilliance of Matthew Weiner. But that hasn't happened with Outlander, not in the same way. It’s on a premium cable channel. That is certainly a factor (and so are the show’s fairly graphic sex scenes) but neither of those things stopped Game of Thrones from becoming a massive hit.
I have to wonder if the reason these women are so passionate about the story is the same reason it hasn’t fully broken through to the mainstream: it caters to the romantic and sexual desires of women, and does so unapologetically.
“Historically, older women have felt neglected in television offerings, and we saw an underserved audience that we knew wanted a show that delivered a wish-fulfilling, romantic adventure that felt adult and didn’t pander,” Parnell wrote me, before pointing out that Outlander does also have a male fanbase. “The series has something for everyone and speaks to a wide range of fans—from the mystical time travel elements, to the historical details, and epic battles. Of course, at its heart is a beautiful and pure love story, which I think men and women can relate to."
While the women I spoke with share their love for the show with abandon, voting for the series in polls and award categories and tuning in every Sunday night, they don't particularly care that their beloved show is still categorized as a sleeper hit. Fans of Outlander are happy simply to have their community, and their love of Jamie, Claire, and the rest Gabaldon’s universe, to serve as a much-needed escape.
“[Sam and Caitriona] show us by example how to live our lives more kindly and gratefully by giving back,” Tucker said. “Being part of this fandom keeps me sane as my country falls apart.”
*This story originally appeared on Townandcountrymag.com
*Minor edits have been made by the Townandcountry.ph editors