Saturday, 7 December 2013

Why are we fascinated with celebrity deaths?

Paul Walker

This week, Hollywood and fans around the world mourned the death of actor Paul Walker.  On Twitter, amid the outpourings of emotion and condolence messages, one stood out. “Am I the only person who didn’t know who Paul Walker was? #willwatchhisfilmsnow.” 

It’s strange how our curiosity about famous people often peaks after their death. Websites unearth a plethora of hitherto unknown and largely inane details about their life. We click on ‘last interview’, ‘last film’, ‘last photo’. The final photo of Paul Walker was taken just as he was about to jump in to the doomed Porsche minutes before he died in the fiery crash. We study it, share it and are drawn to glance at it again. It’s as though by looking at that grainy image we’re searching for traces of death’s coming - of a reaper standing in the shadows. 

Over recent weeks, we’ve been bombarded with repeated images of gunfire blowing out JFK’s brain. Again and again the vision rolls, ostensibly in the context of the 50th anniversary of his death and new revelations about who pulled the trigger. But underneath it lurks a fascination, which few seem willing to voice. We so rarely bear witness to the moments just before death. The re-mastered video footage reveals the shocking juxtaposition of a man in his prime on a glorious sunny day slumping in death moments later.  It’s as revolting as it is riveting. It’s not the gruesomeness of that moment that draws us, but watching the thread that separates life and death snap before our eyes.

As humans, we are acutely aware of our own mortality, but through fear or self-consciousness or denial, few of us talk about it outside the spectre of illness or mass tragedy. Viewing death through the prism of celebrity allows us to validate our curiosity about it. We watch their films. We devour their music, writing and art. We’re not so much honouring their death, but trying to uncover the meaning of their life and perhaps, the meaning of ours.  And we do it in droves.

Lou Reed toiled in the music industry for 50 years, famously not achieving significant commercial success. But the week after his death in October, his album sales skyrocketed by 607%.

It’s possible that the media exposure of his death stimulated interest in his work, but maybe there is something else at play here, given how often it occurs. Editors have long packaged death upfront “If it bleeds, it leads”.  At the time of Whitney Houston’s death, the majority of the public dismissed her as a good girl turned train wreck. But that week, she became the first person in 50 years (and the first ever woman) to have three top 10 albums in the Billboard chart.  

Similarly, Michael Jackson hadn’t produced an album in the eight years leading up to his death (the last being 2001’s relative flop, Invincible). He was living as a virtual recluse, mocked and derided. But in the three weeks after he took his last breath, 2.3 million albums were sold.  What did we hear when we listened to those tracks that we were unable to fathom while he, the most talented performer of a generation, was alive? If life imitates art, perhaps art explains death. The tortured psyche of Heath Ledger’s Joker in his last film, The Dark Knight carries an eerie reflection of the stories we heard of him holed up in that hotel room on his own, suffering severe insomnia and confused about his medication.

Paul Walker’s car crash was all the more surreal because he was famous for his recurring lead role in the Fast and the Furious franchise. His words about dying smiling in a fast car haunt us and we wonder if on some level he had an awareness of his fate. James Dean offered a throwaway line to camera in a 1950s interview, warning about the dangers of speeding. “Take it easy driving – the life you save might be mine,” he said, winking. He died when his car was unable to avoid a speeding, oncoming vehicle.

Maybe it’s through art, culture and celebrity that we feel liberated to express our curiosity about death, which manifests in increased clicks and sales, revealing something deeper about our inability to otherwise engage with it.  Filming for the next instalment in the Fast and the Furious franchise has been halted indefinitely in the wake of Walker’s death. If the film is ever released, I’m tipping it will outperform all others in the series by a mile. Not necessarily because it will be the best, but because in watching a young man on screen who is no longer with us, we’ll be searching for answers about our own existence in the darkness of the movie theatre.