[A major spoiler related to Sunday’s episode follows.]
It’s now been two days since Game of Thrones fan favorite Oberyn Martell met his gruesome, death-by-exploding-head end, and the initial shock of the horrifyingly gory scene has faded a little bit (although I’d very much like to know whether it’s really possible for someone’s head to pull a Gallagher watermelon — get on that, science). In its place, there’s a kind of sheepish sadness. You can click through all the Instagram photos you want, but it’s not the same; Pedro Pascal may live on, but the Viper is dead.
It feels dumb to be sad about losing someone who was essentially an imaginary friend, but psychologists say the feeling is quite normal. We can and do form real emotional connections with fictional characters; these are called parasocial interactions, and they create an illusion of intimacy between you and the people who live inside your TV. They’re one-sided relationships, sure, but research is beginning to show that this doesn’t make the emotions people derive from them any less real.
For example, one 2009 study suggests that a beloved television program can actually make people feel less lonely, and when the authors of a 2004 paper asked people to imagine losing their favorite characters, people anticipated feelings “similar to those experienced after the dissolution of social relationships.” Luckily, it’s extremely rare for anyone to die on Game of Thrones, so fans probably won’t have to ever worry about this again.