News and events archive 2004 - 2013


Stalking: Cause and Effect

Dr Lorraine Sheridan, a Chartered Forensic Psychologist and Senior Lecturer in Forensic Psychology heads cutting edge research into the effects and causes of stalking. (Article first appeared in Graduates Review Spring 2006)

On the 4 January 2006 Reuters reported on the case of a man who broke into a woman’s house on five different occasions, he washed her dishes, did her laundry and left snacks for her. He was arrested after he was caught leaving her house with one of her bras, an MP3 player and photos. The court pardoned the man because he said “(I took) her bra and photos out of love...”

Sounds relatively harmless? A lonely man, bereft of company, sees a woman and, too shy to talk to her, follows her around and breaks into her house, he does nice things for her, doesn’t threaten her or attack her. A little odd perhaps but nothing lifethreatening. But what if you were that woman, how do you think you would feel if someone was watching your every move, that they could easily gain access to your home, your friends, family, and your life?

Most people think that stalking is something that will never happen to them but unfortunately anyone can become the victim of a stalker. The National Stalking Survey, conducted by University of Leicester Psychologist, Dr Lorraine Sheridan, shows that out of the 1,051 respondents half of them had a prior intimate relationship with their stalker, a further third had some prior acquaintance with their stalker – as a friend of a friend, a neighbour or work colleague, and one in 10 victims did not know their stalker.

Dr Sheridan, a Chartered Forensic Psychologist and Senior Lecturer in Forensic Psychology, is a renowned expert on stalking, a subject she became interested as an undergraduate and decided to study for her PhD thesis. At the time there was a paucity of research on the subject: “Our programme of research has identified that virtually anyone can become the victim of a stalker, and virtually anyone can be a stalker. Stalkers are not all mentally disturbed, shadowy figures. Many will be educated professionals who will outwardly appear to be charming and well adjusted.”

Results from the National Stalking Survey found that 86% of stalking victims are female with the majority of stalkers being male. Women are generally stalked by men, and men–who account for 5% of cases overall–are stalked equally by both sexes. Female stalkers are usually less violent then men, though Catherine Zeta-Jones may wish to dispute this – she was the victim of a stalker who threatened to slice her up “like meat on a bone and feed her to the dogs”. Fortunately the stalker was later jailed for three years.

However, a custodial sentence for a stalker is the exception rather than the norm. Whilst there have been changes in the law, most notably the Protection from Harassment Act of 1997, many victims and their families and friends still feel that stalking and its effects on victims are not taken seriously enough. A tragic example of this is the murder in September 2005 of Clare Bernal, a 22 year old beauty consultant, shot dead by Michal Pech, a man she had a short relationship with earlier in the year. Pech was on bail having been found guilty of harassing her at the time of the murder. After shooting Clare he turned the gun on himself. Clare’s mother has spoken out about the events leading up to the murder – Pech had been arrested twice by police for stalking Clare, and had also threatened to kill her but was let out on bail and allowed to leave the country. He returned to his native Slovakia and, after undergoing firearms training, purchased a Luger, smuggled the gun back into Britain and used this gun to kill Clare and then himself.

As identified by Dr Sheridan, perceptions of stalking need to change; to define the offence in relation to the experience of the victim and not the intentions of the stalker. Stalking has left many victims with symptoms similar to post-traumatic stress disorder with family, friends and work colleagues suffering as well.

Some stalkers have been known to continue their persecution from prison. Tracey Morgan, whose case was instrumental in the implementation of the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 was harassed by her stalker, Anthony Burstow, whilst he was in jail.

The results of the National Stalking Survey have found that greater awareness of stalking and its effects on victims are essential to increase understanding by the general public and agencies, to emphasise that stalkers aren’t necessarily mentally ill or simply lonely individuals and that it’s not only celebrities who are stalked; it could be anyone.

As Dr Sheridan notes: “Many health and legal professionals I have met have stated that of all the client groups they have ever worked with, stalkers are by far the most frightening. The public perception of a stalker, however, is of an obsessive but perhaps harmless individual who is encouraged by the victim. This is simply not true. Stalkers can be extremely dangerous and many will simply increase their stalking activities following polite rejections from the victim.”

Her research has allowed her to identify four distinct types of stalkers:

  • Ex-Partner Harassment – bitterness/hate linked to the past relationship; new relationships engender jealousy and aggressive behaviour; abuse of family and friends (verbal and physical); high levels of physical violence/ threats/property damage; anger and impulsive activity leads to lack of concern about potential police attention.
  • Infatuation Harassment – target is ‘beloved’ rather than ‘victim’; world events interpreted in relation to beloved; beloved is focus of fantasy; low levels of danger; perpetrator age typically teenage or mid-life.
  • Delusional Fixation Stalking – high risk of violence and sexual assault; perpetrator likely to be known to police and mental health professionals; with a history of stalking and sexual offences; belief in relationship although no prior contact; stalkers tend to couch their statements of love in terms of sexual intent towards victim.
  • Sadistic Stalking – can target family and friends in an attempt to isolate victim and further enhance control; initial low level acquaintance; communications are blend of loving and threatening (not hate); progressive escalation of control over all aspects of victim’s life (social/historical/professional/financial/physical); offender is sadistic, gratification rooted in desire to extract evidence of victim’s powerlessness with inverse implications for his own power; emotional coldness, deliberateness and psychopathy; stalker could be highly dangerous; victim made to feel fear, loss of privacy and of a social life, lack of confidence, humiliation, disgust and general undermining of self-esteem.


Article first appeared in Graduates Review Spring 2006 which can be read here

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