It would not be a stretch to say that Amanda, a young, talented model with flowing golden hair, could attract any gentleman whose attention she might want. But alas, young men; her heart already belongs to someone, and she will spurn all advances. Amanda will tell you that she’s not simply attached, but married as well. Do not expect, however, to find her husband hovering around her photo shoots, or sitting quietly with her. Amanda is rarely afraid to discuss her unconventional relationship around sympathetic ears. She acknowledges that she is missing out on many of the things that normal couples do together, but feels that the strength of her love makes up for this. “I am aware that I’ll never have the physical bond that conventional couples have. I’m aware that I may be alone in the physical world, but I’ll always have Sephiroth,” she says. ((Private interview, November 2007))
Amanda will tell you that she is married to Sephiroth, popularly known as the primary antagonist of the popular console RPG Final Fantasy VII. She says that, though he does not exist physically in “our world,” he exists spiritually, and that, on a spiritual level, their minds meet to exchange vows and express their mutual love. Amanda says that, within her minds eye, she can see Sephiroth, and speak to him.
Amanda belongs to a large (and growing) online community of people claim to be friends (or even lovers) of anime and manga-style characters, with whom they claim to have elaborate conversations on a daily basis.
Within this community, the term soulbonding is often used to refer to the experience of having a friendship or other relationship with a fictional character, and the term soulbond refers to the character. Amanda prefers to consider Sephiroth a soulmate rather than a soulbond; however, she has much in common with those who self-identify as soulbonders.
Soulbonders describe their experience as that of having a fictional character living inside one’s mind, or otherwise in regular communication. Some soulbonders say that they communicate with their soulbonds in an internal, mental world, which they may conceptualize as another “plane of existence.”
Others simply experience the soulbonded character as a voice in their head, or a mental “presence” of which they are almost constantly aware. Soul Whispers, a popular website on the topic, sums of the relationship of the soulbonder and the soulbond thusly: “(Soulbonds) may be confidants or mentors, guardians or guides, encouraging you and providing a means for you to explore your own self and examine your motives. Some may reflect a person you’d like to be, or a side of yourself that you have difficulty expressing; your darkness, or even your light. Some may be lovers; some may just be friends.”
This may seem to resemble the imaginary friendships many of us had as children. The soulbonding subculture, however, consists mainly of young adults, and they take this very seriously. Online forums for the discussion of soulbonding make it quite clear that its practitioners view soulbonding as they would a relationship with another human being. Livejournal, an online blogging and social networking site, has become a hub for soulbonders, and many even have separate online journals for each of their soulbonds to write in. On the Livejournal-based community, ~soulbonding, members express the intricacies of these relationships and the joy they provide, but also make ample mention of soulbonds as a source of tension. Apparently, relationships with fictional characters can be just as dysfunctional as any other relationship. One finds emotionally-charged descriptions of fights and upheaval, sometimes violent, between soulbonds in their mind.
In another thread, users discuss the issue of “fronting:” a term they use for when a soulbond leaves the soulbonder’s mind to take control of his or her body. One member identifies herself as a soulbond who “fronts,” often without the explicit consent of her soulbonder, and notes that the soulbonder often has a “foggy memory” of what happens during these periods.
Another member, says that her soulbonds often “front” during her classes, and that one of them handles most of her academic writing, whereas another takes care of her Japanese classes. It is, naturally, up for debate whether or not this constitutes a violation of academic integrity. Still other soulbonders say that they often share their consciousness and interaction with the physical world with their soulbonds, and call this “co-fronting.”
In another controversial thread within the community, a member says that her soulbond is in pain after being “dumped” by a lover, and that his pain is making her physically ill. Because of this, she wishes to “kill” the bond and end his (and, presumably her) suffering. The ~soulbonding community reacted to this post with vitriole, treating the potential “killing” of a soulbond as fundamentally the same as murdering another human being. “If you think being dumped by a lover is cause enough for murder then you are going to have a very unhappy future ahead of you,” said one member. Taken as a whole, ~soulbonding and other communities like it express the deeply-held belief that fictional characters with whom one has soulbonded are equivalent in most ways to human beings one meets every day on the street. They can love and be loved, hate and be hated, and generally deserve the same respect as physical humans.
Mental Illness or Societal Phenomenon? (Or both?)
At first blush, many would dismiss soulbonders as insane, and soulbonding websites often go to great lengths to distinguish the phenomenon from voice-hearing as part of well-known mental illnesses. “Schizophrenics are unstable, unable to cope in everyday society, and often dangerous to themselves and others,” says one soulbonding website, “Soulbonders are not that.” Despite this, accusations of mental illness tend to follow mentions of soulbonding outside of the subculture. Portal of Evil, a moderately-popular website dedicated to showcasing (and often mocking) strange websites, devoted an entire forum to soulbonding, the tone of which ranges from mild contempt (“This sure is a convoluted definition of daydreaming!”) to disturbed concern (There is another name for this: Schizophrenia.”)
It would be simple to dismiss soulbonders as mentally ill if there were not so many of them. The sheer size of the subculture suggests that the phenomenon should be viewed from a societal, rather than a psychiatric, standpoint. Paying heed to communications from unseen, disembodied entities should be familiar to any denizen of the early 21st century, and, in other contexts, few would see it as a sign of psychosis. A recent poll reported by The New York Times determined that slightly more than one in four Americans have friends whom they have never physically met, whom they have no definite awareness of aside from digital communications. In a world of cell phones, instant messengers, and e-mail, friendship need not entail physical contact.
We engage in a growing portion of our day-to-day interactions as disembodied entities in digital space. These interactions are almost always infused with a faith that the entity with whom we are communicating is really who they present themselves as, but this is never guaranteed, and reinventing oneself via a digital persona is common. These personas, though fabricated, can easily affect others as strongly as real people, and, as such, can take on what one might call a life of their own. “The Internet has put persona-hopping within the reach of all Americans, and even might be helping to train us for life in a more protean future,” says John Schwartz of The New York Times. ((Schwartz, John. 2002 “Who Says Surfers Are Antisocial?” The New York Times. October 26.))
Soulbonds may be entirely fictitious characters, but, to the soulbonders, they might easily seem just as real as the other disembodied characters populating their lives. Though Sephiroth is a fictional character designed by Tetsuya Nomura for Square Enix, Amanda’s love for him may very well be as real as that felt for a physical human being.
Amanda firmly believes that Sephiroth loves her back, and this perceived exchange clearly affects her just as much as any physical relationship might. When one examines soulbonding from a relational standpoint, the existence or non-existence of the fictional soulbonds becomes moot; their effect upon the soulbonder is real and quite powerful. Put simply, to soulbonders, it does not matter to them that their companions might not be real; what matters is their loving relationship, which most certainly is perceived as real.