The Illusion of Celebrity Deaths

I do not understand the phenomenon of crying and grieving over a dead celebrity.

Inappropriately grieving celebrity deaths

Let me back up. I actually do understand this phenomenon quite well, but it’s probably more accurate to say I don’t participate in it.

My senior thesis in college was on the topic of Para-Social Interaction Theory (PSI) – the theory by Horton & Wohl (1956) that said one-sided relationships can develop between an audience member and performer in the media they are consuming, creating the illusion of a face-to-face relationship. In layman’s terms, you feel like you are friends with someone in the media and they meanwhile have absolutely no idea you exist.  A tame version of PSI may be tuning in to the same nightly news cast because you feel like you know the anchor and can trust the information they provide; An extreme version of PSI is the case of Robert John Bardo who stalked actress Rebecca Schaeffer for three years and shot her to death because she had filmed a sex scene.

When I was writing my paper in 2006, the web and social media were not the robust platforms they are today. Then, you’d be lucky if a celebrity had a MySpace page, let alone a website. But now, any media personality is easily accessible—or at least gives the illusion they’re accessible – making PSI and celebrity worship more rampant than ever. Whereas you may have previously written your favorite singer a letter or an email, and prayed to god they somehow saw it, now you can directly tweet at them. Instead of relying on People Magazine to snap two blurry pics of your favorite celeb on vacation, now you can visit their Instagram and see what they’re eating, wearing, or thinking, all in real time. Websites like Perez Hilton and TV shows like TMZ and Entertainment Tonight feed into our culture’s obsession with stars, and even local media personalities feel intense pressure to keep up an online persona.

Because we have access to celebrities through so many channels, it’s easy to feel like we “know” them on some level. That’s why you watched their wedding on TV, rooted for them when they went to rehab, and why you burst into tears when they died. At best this sort of thinking is delusional, at worst it’s dangerous.

Along with putting celebrities on a pedestal, our culture gives celebrities immortality and is then crushed when they die like the rest of us mere mortals. Grieving used to be appropriate for an untimely or tragic death. John Lennon, for example, dreamed of a world without hunger, possessions or violence and then was shot to death (by a fan who no doubt was experiencing PSI). That was tragic. But now whenever anyone remotely famous dies, regardless of the fact that they were a senior citizen with cancer or punished their bodies with drugs and alcohol for decades, it’s heartbreaking, it’s sad, it’s awful. You know what? It’s LIFE.

There’s no disagreeing David Bowie was a musical genius and a pioneer who broke barriers. I have mad respect for him and his extensive career. But his death still didn’t make me cry because I didn’t know him–none of us did. As his wife Iman said, “I am married to David Jones. David Bowie and David Jones are two different people.” Maybe you’d argue that his music was the soundtrack to your life—there for all of the bad and the good times. My question back to you would be, “Why does him dying change any of that?”

And as far as Alan Rickman is concerned—yes, he had a prolific, successful movie career, but you didn’t know him either. It seems so trivial to me that people are upset over his death when they’ll be able to see Rickman’s face or hear his voice anytime they wish by simply popping in a Blu-ray or adding Harry Potter to their Netflix queue. Can you say the same about a lost friend or family member?

If you’re still reading at this point, it’s likely you think I’m cold or emotionless. But you’ll be happy to hear there is something that makes me feel sad when a celebrity dies – it’s the fan who mourns the loss for days on Facebook, but cannot be bothered to attend a blood relative’s funeral. “No, I’m not going to attend the services,” they’ll say. “We just weren’t that close.”

 

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