Death & the Celebrity: Popular Fascination with the Famous Dead

by Kasey McKee

I was prompted to write on this topic by the widespread popular perception that 2016 was a veritable annus horibilis for celebrities: “not a good year to be famous”, as so many journalistic publications have been eager to announce. Although roughly 60 million people have died in that same space of time, there was a noticeable preoccupation with a select few. What I found perplexing was the apparent reluctance of these commentators to explore the factors that might be underlying this perception, or to contribute anything beyond a sort of dismissively superstitious notion that it was just a particularly bad year. As the very famous and very dead person Socrates once said, “the unexamined life is not worth living”.

Death, ever the subject of complicated anxieties and taboos, has come to occupy an uncommon place in modern Western society. Whereas even a century ago the specter of death was not an unusual presence in the home and on the street, it is now largely concealed from public view. Hospitals and other medical environments have largely replaced the necessity to personally care for dying loved ones in the immediate manner required by former times, and a robust vocabulary of euphemism currently surrounds the event of death itself. The unseemly visage of decrepitude need not interfere with the realm of the healthy.

It would certainly be difficult to argue that the development of medical technology is necessarily bad—-indeed, it is probably one of the few ways to objectively measure a society’s progress; but when death becomes increasingly estranged from everyday life, regarded as an anomaly rather than an inevitability, anxieties are sure to follow.

Though our culture prefers to keep the unpleasant actuality of death comfortably remote, the media landscape is nevertheless awash with images of casual violence. While on the surface this may seem to be a fairly obvious statement, it is something to keep in mind. To paraphrase Marshall McLuhan, does the fish notice the water in which it swims?

For instance, the modern action movie advertisement, the type that airs during prime-time commercial breaks, is like Eisenstein on amphetamine: a sensory assault of snapped necks, bodies thrown from buildings, exploding corridors–all edited down to the split second in an apparent effort to disorient the viewer. While it may be plausible that this is an attempt by film studios to extract the most value from their advertising dollar, nagging suspicions of subliminal programming are difficult to dispel.

Moreover, television news is hardly immune to this sort of slick Hollywood presentation. Over thirty years ago, in Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman observed the way in which news programs use cinematic musical cues and sound effects to create an alienating sense of un-reality, a convention that is more common today than ever before. When an anchorwoman reads through the litany of anonymous and ephemeral carnage, there is an implicit cue to share in her carefully-manicured detachment: a fleeting look of concern, but always ready to shift emotional gears in the blink of an eye.

I mention these examples–commercials and TV news–because they are by their very nature intended to be ubiquitous, forming the background noise of daily life. The proliferation of screens in restaurants, bars, and other public spaces has contributed to this feeling of an unceasing and nearly unavoidable stream of inconsequential extermination untethered from any sort of tangible reality.

For a growing part of the developed world, the concept of death has understandably become confused and unbalanced, seemingly the exclusive domain of medical professionals and media conglomerates. Its unglamorous realities have been made distant at the same time that its hyper-violent stylization has become commonplace. How does a person who lives in this environment begin to make sense of these extreme cultural messages, which are so clearly at odds with each other? Perhaps we should now refer back to the celebrity.

There is a peculiar relationship between fame and death, and the objects of public veneration and bereavement tend to say a lot about the culture doing the mourning. In centuries past, it was typically an occasion reserved for royalty, spiritual leaders, and military commanders. Since around the mid-20th Century, that kind of social esteem has been transferred to the celebrity, essentially a phenomenon created by mass media.

We all die, even celebrities. It may be true that several celebrities have died in the past year, but the same trend will surely continue in the years to come. In fact, when one considers the rapidly-expanding definition of celebrity, there will probably be many more celebrity deaths in the future. After all, we are living in this post-Warholian age of the celebutante, where being famous for being famous has become an increasingly legitimate career.

Ours is a popular culture that fetishizes youth and exploits feelings of nostalgia with a chilling rapacity, but the celebrity who dies in public is like a testament to the finality and inevitability of death. Like a modern-day danse macabre, the eulogized death-event of the celebrity demonstrates how equal we all are before the scythe: neither beauty nor fame nor wealth will save you.

This sort of introspective moment–the memento mori–might just be a necessary component of mental wholeness, a wholeness that has been gradually eroded by the accelerated pace of our technologically-assisted social world. Perhaps the perceived phenomenon that these recent deaths are somehow related is actually our collective psyche beginning to display symptoms of fatigue.

And perhaps, surrounded as we are by these conflicting values, the death of the celebrity is the only opportunity where we feel permitted to reflect on our own mortality.

– January 2017

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