This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.
The Pont De L'Alma tunnel in Paris is, objectively speaking, an unremarkable stretch of road. A quick Google search indicates that the tunnel runs below a bridge of the same name, which spans the banks of the River Seine. Tucked below this basic information is a result for a pre-planned Google Map titled, "Diana's Last Drive;" clicking the link takes you to a map of the path Princess Diana's car followed on the trip that culminated in her death. It seems kinda morbid. But if you've glanced at any checkout line front pages recently, it's likely unsurprising. As the world marks the 20th anniversary of Princess Diana's death, tabloid magazines and celebrity culture publications are in full swing with commemorative retrospectives, salacious decades-old conspiracy theories, and bizarre 'what-ifs.' Two decades later, Diana's death remains one of the most prolific and impactful in the history of celebrity culture.
The popular preoccupation with celebrity deaths is virtually unavoidable. Last year saw the deaths of international pop culture icons like David Bowie, Prince, Leonard Cohen, George Michael, and Carrie Fisher, and there's been little reprieve this year with Chris Cornell, Chester Bennington, Prodigy, Dick Gregory, Sam Shepard, Gregg Allman, and more passing away. Each of these deaths has spawned a flood of sentimental memorials and grief-stricken admissions of shock, from career celebrations to more personal essays. This is hardly anything new, as celebrity deaths have captivated people as long as the idea of celebrity has existed, and yet, each time a celebrity figure passes away, virtually every social media feed is inundated with expressions of grief and sadness.
These deaths and our responses to them are emblematic of a unique social phenomenon: Why do we feel attached to, and intimate with, people we've never met? Why does the death of a stranger on the public stage impact us so deeply and traumatically, and how can we understand our relationships to these people and their deaths?
Dr. Samita Nandy, Director of the Centre for Media and Celebrity Studies (CMCS) in Toronto, explains that, while our interactions with celebrities are still mediated, they've become exponentially more accessible, thanks to new possibilities for personalized, familiar engagement with our favorite artists (dozens of articles detail schemes to instigate engagement from celebs on social media), our feelings of connection to these artists are growing stronger. Nandy calls these interactions "para-social relationships."
Dr. Jacque Lynn Foltyn, a professor of sociology at National University in La Jolla, California, has been studying celebrity deaths and public interest for years. She told VICE that our favorite celebrities are "deeply connected to our developing self." She notes that when these figures express relatable personal tribulations like Chester Bennington did with his mental health, we deepen our connection. "It makes them vulnerable," Foltyn says. "It makes people identify with them: [the artist] speaks for them." These expressions ultimately legitimize and give credence to "the production of our own identity, and our own life cycle and rites of passage," she adds.
Foltyn calls these figures "intimate strangers," and describes the grief we experience as "disenfranchised grief," a form of socially inappropriate mourning. She says it's often characterized by dismissal from others: "Someone might say to you, 'Get over it! What's the big deal? You didn't know that person.'" This creates dissonance with the highly publicized accounts of celebrity deaths that produce total acknowledgment via hours of content. Foltyn notes that for many young people, this is the first time they deal with death, but it's "mediated by distance and by screens, so it's at a safe distance."
Nandy also differentiates this grief by noting a lack of "material responsibilities" produced by the loss. "In the case of losing a loved one, such as a family member, there are often legal and financial responsibilities to undertake," she says. By contrast, when a celebrity dies, we shift those duties to their family, agents, or publicists, while consuming these events from a distance. "It becomes another cultural artifact to consume for gratification. In some ways, grief is then expressed as a form of pleasure to cope with perceived loss."
Both Nandy and Foltyn explain that celebrity deaths also confront us with our own mortality. "As in real life, any such death also reminds us of our own mortality, which we tend to reverse through cultural constructions of immortality in fame," Nandy says.
Foltyn thinks that a lack of formal training in death and related processes leaves us unprepared to deal with these losses. "This is particularly important in a secular era where there's great uncertainty for most of us about what happens to the self after death," she says. This general anxiety results in a reactionary "blaming" of public figures for their own deaths. Foltyn is critical of the practice: "I think that's a way of managing the death," she explains. "'What is the cause of death, and was it preventable?' We make them responsible for their own deaths." The idea, then, is that we convince ourselves we can avoid death by not making the same mistakes. "It's all a way of managing our feelings about death."
The complex mechanisms by which we understand and are affected by the deaths of public figures will likely continue to develop and intensify as digital proximity cultivates increased feelings of connection and identification with beloved celebrities. Both Nandy and Foltyn urge social interrogation and deconstruction of our feelings toward celebrities and the grief we feel with their passing. Their goal is not to shun or invalidate grief, but rather to process and cope with these deaths, and our relationship to them, in a healthy, constructive way.
Follow Luke Ottenhof on Twitter.