Since the deaths of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper in close succession in 1959, there’s been a myth, still established in Hollywood, that celebrities die in threes. In 2009, we witnessed this in the case of Michael Jackson’s death during the week Farrah Fawcett and Ed McMahon died. The rule of three is just another reminder of sheer morbidity and bizarreness surrounding the world of entertainment celebrities.
The revelations that roll out in media reports are even more complex and longer-lasting if the death is accompanied by three conditions: 1. The celebrity dies under mysterious or unusual circumstances, invoking an element of shock, 2. The celebrity enjoyed considerable popularity for a good or bad reason, creating a sense of “knowing” the person, and 3. The celebrity was part of a world-famous entertainment project, adding a global appeal to their portfolio.
Recently, we saw two young deaths in Hollywood and Bollywood. Indian actor Jiyah Khan’s death was complemented by the first and third condition. She died mysteriously and was part of a megahit project Ghajini starring Aamir Khan. But consider this, many of us didn’t even know her name before she died. Arguably, she gained more popularity after her death compared to her limited recognition during her lifetime.
This week, US TV show Glee star Cory Monteith was found dead in a Vancouver hotel room. Monteith’s death comes with all three elements that can increase the shelf life of the news. The incident has left his name trending on Twitter, with tweets mourning his untimely death. Like any other death under unusual circumstances, Monteith’s death, too, has caught the attention of those who hardly watched Glee or ever remained a fan of him.
Now, we see the re-emergence of a mediated ritual of grief — something similar to what we witnessed at the deaths of Heath Ledger, Michael Jackson and Brittany Murphy. Remember, for instance, Princess Diana’s death which left a global impression, holding people to their television screens showing her funeral processions — the number of books featuring her pictures suddenly became popular, as more and more young people joined her fan club.
Theoretically, such a mediated ritual of grief can be backed up with the discussion in “No Sense of Time” by a contemporary media scholar Joshua Meyrowitz. He re-offers the concept of ‘para-social interaction’ — a term originally proposed by Donald Horton and Richard Wohl, for a phenomenon in which the otherwise distant audience members build an association with a celebrity as if they existed in their physical reality. Ironically, sometimes we see such an ‘intimacy at a distance’ burgeoning after the death of a celebrity — a phenomenon that can be described as a “posthumous para-social relationship”.
By triggering a global outpouring of grief, the deaths of celebrities often have a bizarre appeal, inviting the viewers’ curiosity to find out more and feel close enough to join the mediated ritual of grief. Ostensibly, what drives this phenomenon is the uniqueness of a death that in normal circumstances would not have happened — a young death, a sudden death, an accidental death or a mysterious death.
Consider, for example, the obsession of many young people with celebrities who died before these fans were even born. John Lennon and Marilyn Monroe died long before the birth of many of their young fans today. Once again, it’s about the unusual circumstances and the mystery around their death, along with the popularity they enjoyed during their lifetime. These fans, then, can be rightly termed as ‘posthumous fans’.
Monteith’s death, too, is likely to earn him many new fans, building up a posthumous para-social relationship. Regardless of which celebrity we are talking about, what’s truly ironic about this phenomenon is the fact that these celebrities are indeed not even dead for their posthumous fans. In fact, their fan-celebrity relationship started only after the death. Unlike an in-person interaction with the celebrity, the basis of this posthumous relationship had only been the media-generated content (in the recent case, Monteith’s performances and media reports about him) that these fans experienced. And this content will remain to keep the bond established.
Lastly, even more bizarre is the fact that if the celebrity had not died, the relationship for many would not have ever been created. As a fan of Beatles’ John Lennon, how would I have even listened to his music had I not been curious to find out more about the celebrity shot dead by his own alleged fan?
Published in The Express Tribune, July 19th, 2013.
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