Why Are We So Affected By Celebrity Deaths?


At first glance, that question might seem harsh, or the answer obvious: because death is sad, of course. But I’d argue that we don’t handle news of a stranger’s death (say, the friend of a friend of a friend) in the same way that we often react to news of a celebrity’s passing—despite the fact that we’ve usually never met the celebrity in question, either.

I’ve always found certain reactions to these passings to be overwrought, or simply bizarre. (Of course, I refer here only to those who never knew the man personally.) This idea was recently mirrored in an episode of GIRLS, in which Hannah’s book editor suddenly dies, and the characters differing reactions to news of the death are explored, some less palatable to mainstream society than others. Hannah, especially, views the death from a selfish vantage point (What will happen to her book now?), one that comes off as decidedly less emotional than what our culture has come to expect of us. Her friends, who knew the editor even less than she did, seem far more upset by the situation than she does. In that sense, I think the episode was really on to something, which is to say that it highlighted our confusing relationship to death: our ability to be both stricken and/or ambivalent towards it (the latter being significantly more uncomfortable for us to acknowledge).

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not immune to the sadness and shock that strikes when a celebrity (especially one whose work, in the case of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s, I’ve greatly enjoyed) passes. That feeling hit me yesterday, like it has many times before, but this time, for whatever reason (perhaps I owe it to Lena Dunham?), I found myself wondering why exactly that was. Watching the tributes pile up on my various social media feeds, it was clear I wasn’t alone in feeling bummed and bewildered.

It would be too simplistic to say that a person’s emotional response to these calamities is purely due to the loss of a great artist. Yes, Philip Seymour Hoffman, like so many others who have left this earth far too soon, was immensely talented. I loved almost everything he was in, and as a very picky movie viewer, this meant something to me. He was one of the few ever-present faces (no, forces) in my very minute relationship to film. His allure was striking, even when playing characters seeped in despicable qualities.

But muted talent was not the sole reason for my sadness, nor, I think, that of everyone else who only knew the man from afar. The chord celebrity deaths seem to strike for us is one which reminds us of our collective vulnerability–especially I think, those deaths that result from self-inflicted behaviors like drug and alcohol abuse. Even though, logically, we realize celebrities are human, prone to all of the doubts and discouragements that we ourselves are, I’m not sure it fully computes in a society that places this subset of people on such a glorified pedestal. It is hard not to assume that they lead better lives in every sense, not just the material. Even when we know better, it’s quite easy to deceive ourselves otherwise: that they really do have it all.

And a death like this forces us to face that they don’t. That, even with their fame and success, life is hard for them in a way that it is also hard for us, perhaps even more so. They appear to us, at first, as the “winners” in a society that values wealth and renown far too much—they seem to be sitting, very comfortably, in life’s top tier. But then suddenly they’re not, and while we reckon with that, we also must acknowledge our own faulty beliefs: about others…about wealth, fame, and what we deem successful. They had so much, we think, yet they were unhappy. They were so talented, so special, yet they were unhappy. Where does that leave us, the “common folk”?

Our response raises plenty of questions about our current relationship to capital-C Celebrity, and lots of people have commented that (like some of the characters on that episode of GIRLS) some of the reactions seem disingenuous. I think that’s a bit off the mark though, because the vulnerability we feel as a whole when a celebrity passes is real.

Perhaps, when we flesh it all out, these reactions aren’t much connected to a specific person, but to what they represent for us, and to what their passing forces us to acknowledge: that someone we admired (from afar) felt weak, or unhappy, in a way that maybe we’ve felt before in some small (or large) way. That life, despite our constant attempts to pretend otherwise, can be really hard, for everyone…that there are no sure ways to avoid that reality—no ideal sum of money, talent, or fame to ward off struggle. No path, essentially, is innocuous—a reality that, though disruptive and painful, is important to remember.

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