What is it about the death of a celebrity that has such a profound impact on the masses. We don’t personally know these celebrities. And the fact is, we hear of people whom we don’t know dying every single day. When these non-celebrity- status strangers pass away we don’t cry or even give their death a second thought. We didn’t personally know Prince, Michael Jackson, Robin Williams or the like. Chances are we have never even occupied the same room as them, yet their death evokes distress in much the same way the death of a loved one would.
With today’s social media culture fans are able to connect with celebrities in a way that is similar to our connection to friends and family in traditional relationships. This phenomenon, called parasocial interaction, refers to relationships that are one-sided and the person on the receiving end, usually a celebrity of sorts, is completely unaware of the friendship or even intimacy felt by the initiator. In fact, it is the single-sided nature of this relationship that encourages it. In parasocial relationships there is no chance of rejection and the onslaught of exposure of a celebrity through mass media allows for this “relationship” to flourish.
Much more simplistic though than a faux relationship rooted in misplaced intimacy is that we have experienced memorable moments in our lives with these celebrities. I remember listening to Dancing in the Streets by David Bowie in the car on the way to my high school graduation. I will never hear Little Red Corvette again without conjuring up an image of my childhood best friend and me dancing in her bedroom. Or what about being on a first date watching Patrick Swayze tear up the dance floor in Dirty Dancing. These memories are what they are because of the totality of the experience- sites, smells, sounds.
Whatever prompts a fan to grieve a celebrities’ death in what some may deem to extreme, grief is personal, unique to the experience and does not follow a rule book. Because these celebrities were participants in our lives – players in the memories from our formative years- we feel a significant loss upon their death.