When the King of Pop died last week, people around the world felt Michael Jackson’s death as acutely as if a family member had died. They cried. They pilgrimaged to his family home to lay bundles of flowers and leave private messages of grief at the gate. They gathered at special church services to mourn. Radio stations filled the airwaves with tribute shows of the iconic pop star’s music. Television, magazines and newspapers chronicled his sometimes bizarre life. The world mourned the loss of a man whom to most was a total stranger.
Why do we become wrapped up in the lives of celebrities? We followed Farrah Fawcett’s valiant struggle with cancer as if she was family. We took sides when Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston’s marriage crumbled. We couldn’t wait to see pictures of Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt’s twins. We castigate Lindsay Lohan and worry about the Jonas brothers as if they were our own teens. Why do the lives of these well-known strangers impact our lives?
Celebrity worship isn’t new, but Twitter, You Tube, social networking, and Internet news have made it more immediate and more personal. Celebrities become more than ordinary men and women to us. Through them, we live vicariously, achieving hopes and dreams, wielding power, finding love, vanquishing enemies. We infuse these normal, flawed individuals with their on-screen personas, imbuing them with invincibility and immortality that makes us unprepared for their all too human deaths.
Research shows that celebrities fill a need for social connectedness in a world grown increasingly isolated. Following their lives “… fills a gaping and painful void in our lives,” said Dr. John Lucas, clinical assistant professor of psychology at Weill Cornell Medical College and assistant attending psychiatrist at New York-Presbyterian Hospital in New York City, in a U.S. News & World Report online HealthDay article.
“When a celebrity passes, the loss is personal — not because we knew the celebrity but because they were with us as we grew up and as we had our own special moments,” Dr. Alan Hilfer, director of psychology at Maimonides Medical Center in New York City, told U.S. News & World Report. When a celebrity dies, we cherish their art in which we’ve enfolded our own memories, and we mourn their death for the piece of our own cultural history that dies with them.