This past weekend, the movie “The Patriot” was on TNT and although I’ve definitely seen it a good eighteen times, I can never seem to get enough of it. Heath Ledger as the dashing, young, patriotic soldier who enlists in the American Revolution despite his father’s sincerest efforts to discourage him – my heart literally skips a beat every time he comes onto the scene. I realize that I’m in my solid mid-twenties and celebrity crushes have usually been a fleeting thing of my teenage past. But there’s always been something about Heath Ledger that I just can’t shake. Well, him and John F. Kennedy, Jr. Come to think of it though, I only became really wrapped up in John-John once his plane crashed back in 1999 – I remember sitting in front of the television uninterrupted for a week, waiting for his body to be recovered. I was devastated when my mother told me to let it go. And then when Heath Ledger died – as a first-year teaching assistant in graduate school, I definitely used my newfound discretion to allocate an entire class period to have my students reflect on their favorite Heath Ledger moments in film.
What is it about celebrities? And perhaps more interestingly, what is it about dead celebrities? According to Pelin Kesebir and Chi-yue Chiu, both cultural psychologists affiliated with the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, our fascination with celebrities is really just an attempt to relieve ourselves of the death anxiety we experience as the only living creatures to be conscious of our own mortality. As suggested by the large body of research supporting Terror Management Theory, to take our minds off of the chronic and debilitating terror of knowing we are eventually going to die, we cling to cultural icons (i.e., celebrities) and worldviews that assure us that we stand for something larger than just our physical selves and that once we do die, we will have achieved symbolic immortality from having been affiliated with these great contemporaries and ideas. In short, if you’re concerned with leaving your mark on the world, and someone famous embodies your value system, you peg your legacy on his or her legacy. As Kesebir puts it, “After being reminded of their mortality… 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 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.”
And what happens when these celebrities actually die before we do? Do we lose our buffer against the existential terror they have for so long kept in check for us? According to Kesebir, “[Mourners] 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 [the] literal death and derive a similar sense of stamina from [the celebrity’s] symbolic immortality.”