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The science of dead celebrities

Eric Thayer / Reuters
Michael Jackson fan Leandro Lapagesse of Brazil clutches a handful of
memorabilia outside the Forest Lawn Mortuary in Los Angeles on Monday.

Why do celebrities such as pop star Michael Jackson exert such a pull, especially when they've just passed away?

For decades, psychologists have been studying the one-way relationships we create with celebrities. Some researchers say such connections are merely a fact of life in a media-saturated age. Others suggest that celebrating dead celebrities offers a way to come to terms with our own mortality - and reach for a kind of immortality as well.

The public fascination with Jackson is certainly beyond dispute: When word of his death circulated on June 25, it almost broke the Internet. Hundreds of thousands of mourners are expected to converge on downtown Los Angeles for Tuesday's memorial service. Sales of music and memorabilia have spiked so high that some speculate Jackson is worth more dead than alive.

Even Gayle Stever, a psychology professor at Empire State College who studied the Michael Jackson fan phenomenon 20 years ago, is amazed at the response she's been seeing on her Facebook page. "Fans that I haven't heard from in 15 years are finding me on there," she told me.

Jackson's fans sparked Stever's first research project, and since then she's been studying the relationships that fans have forged with celebrities ranging from singer Josh Groban to the stars of the "Star Trek" and "Lord of the Rings" on-screen sagas. The way Stever sees it, such ties, known in the trade as "parasocial relationships," can be just as real as your ties with family and friends.

"We are biologically programmed to be attracted to human faces and human voices," she said. "In the last 100 years we've been able to 'know' people through media that normally we wouldn't know ... and I think our human brains don't always know the difference."

That means the grief felt by Michael Jackson's fans can be as deep as the grief one feels over the death of a family member. "The key to why people are affected by the death is to ask why we are affected by any death. I don't think it's any different, whether it's a parasocial attachment or a person we saw in real life," Stever said.

Stever said the intensity of that feeling doesn't necessarily depend on how big the star is. As an example, she points to Craig Parker. Craig who? He's the guy who played one of Orlando Bloom's elven pals in the "Lord of the Rings" movies.

"That actor has a fan base of devoted, die-hard, attached fans, and the attachment to someone like that, who you've never heard of, is just as intense, just as personal, just as important as the attachment to a Michael Jackson, or my current study, who happens to be Josh Groban," Stever said. "The magnitude of the star doesn't correlate to the intensity of the attachment."

Celebrity action at a distance
Is that a bad thing? Not necessarily. In a series of studies published last year in the journal Personal Relationships, the University of Buffalo's Jaye Derrick and her colleagues found that some college students viewed their favorite celebrities as being more similar to the way they saw themselves, while others saw celebrities as being more similar to the way they'd like to be. The first group tended to have high self-esteem; the second group was judged to have low self-esteem.

"Basically, we found that with low self-esteem people, these celebrities embodied their ideal selves," Derrick told me. "High self-esteem people saw them more like their actual selves."

One of the more interesting outcomes was that once the low self-esteem subjects reflected on their favorite celebrities, they tended to rate their own self-image higher. In fact, thinking about celebrities was more of a mood-brightener than thinking about their own partners - which led the researchers to conclude that "parasocial relationships can have self-enhancing benefits for low self-esteem people that they do not receive in real relationships." (They hastened to emphasize, however, that celebrities can't replace real friends.)

In a follow-up study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Derrick and her colleagues found that merely watching television can give some people a sense that their social needs are being met.

A kind of immortality?
Psychology professor Chi-Yue Chiu and Pelin Kesebir of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign found even deeper meaning in a series of studies presented last year at the annual meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology. They found that our feelings about the legacy left behind by celebrities could be affected by reflection upon our own mortality.

In an e-mail from Istanbul, Kesebir explained the point behind the research:

"Famous people, at their best, are sacred heroes who reflect what we hold to be the best of our culture and society. As such heroes they are considered less mortal than ordinary humans, both symbolically and literally. My research shows that this perception of cultural heroes as imperishable serves to alleviate death anxiety.

"After being reminded of their mortality, for example, people think that famous people will be remembered for a longer time in the future, attesting to people's desire to see these celebrities as symbolically immortal. And the more celebrities represent cultural values, the more is the desire to see them as everlasting.

"In research I conducted two years ago, I had participants answer the hypothetical question of how long Michael Jackson (among other celebrities) will be remembered after he dies, after making them write either about their mortality or some other control topic. Participants reminded of their mortality on average thought that he'll be remembered for 104 years, whereas participants in the control group thought that he'll be remembered for only 60.71 years.

"That study revealed that to the extent that famous people represent cultural values, they are perceived to be symbolically immortal, and this perception intensifies after reminders of mortality. In another study, I showed that people think that if they board the same plane as a famous person, the plane is less likely to crash, to the extent that the famous person on board represents cultural values.

"As also suggested by the expression 'celebrity worship,' parallels between religion and the veneration shown to certain celebrities are plentiful. Iconic stars like Michael Jackson occupy the status of a demi-god, if not a god, in the eyes of their fans (incidentally, a word that has religious origins) and thereby provide meaning and existential stamina to them the way religions provide to their believers. Michael Jackson's death will therefore be very hard on his die-hard fans.

"They will experience the shock of seeing the annihilation of something they inwardly deemed to be imperishable (just like a god). In a way, they have lost one of their bulwarks against existential anxiety, and they are in a vulnerable state now. With time, though, they will come to accept his literal death and derive a similar sense of stamina from his symbolic immortality."

What do celebrity fans seek?
Some might say Kesebir is taking her conclusions too far. It's unlikely that any of Michael Jackson's fans ever seriously regarded him as a literal god (although there's already a not-completely-serious effort to deify him). And Stever pointed out that hard-core, borderline pathological fans make up a small proportion of the typical celebrity fan base (although some studies suggest that a larger number of people engage in milder forms of celebrity worship).

"Fan bases are made up of just as diverse a group of people as any other group," Stever said. You can find zealots in any population sample of significant size, whether you're talking about a celebrity fan club or the local fraternal lodge, she said.

Stever said that, in her experience, most fan clubs are all about "appreciating true talent, and seeing the fan base as an opportunity for social networking." So when thousands of people show up at the Staples Center, or go online to share their feelings about the King of Pop, the experience might be as much about connecting with a community of like-minded fans as it is about immortalizing the silenced celebrity. That funerary tradition is as old as any mythology.

What do you think? Is the mourning of Michael Jackson a throwback to ancient religious rites, a media-generated spectacle or a healthy catharsis for millions of fans? Feel free to leave your comments below.

Derrick's co-authors for the self-esteem study, "Parasocial Relationships and Self-Discrepancies: Faux Relationships Have Benefits for Low Self-Esteem Individuals," include Shira Gabriel of the University of Buffalo and Brooke Tippin of Detroit. Her co-authors for the television study, "Social Surrogacy: How Favored Television Programs Provide the Experience of Belonging," include Gabriel and Kurt Hugenberg of Miami University.

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