Robin Williams and Grief: Why Do We Care About Celebrity Deaths?

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When a celebrity dies, fans can feel a genuine sense of grief. Image by hotblack.

The news that Robin Williams will be honored at the Emmy Awards renews the public’s collective grief at Williams’ untimely death.

Why is it that celebrity deaths often have a pronounced effect on people, while most people pay no attention to the deaths of people who they don’t know?

The average person does not even take a pause to consider the some 2,000 Americans who die each day.

What explains our feelings of loss when a celebrity, who we are unlikely to have ever met, dies?

Para-social Interaction with Celebrities

In the 1950’s, two sociologist, Donald Horton and Richard Wohl, coined a term: parasocial interaction. The term describes the phenomenon in which the audience feels they have a relationship with the celebrity, despite their actual distance.

Mass media gives the viewer the illusion of having a face-to-face relationship with the performer. The association with the celebrity is so strong, that the viewers sense that the celebrity actually exists in their physical world.

Although the relationship is one-sided, people can strongly identify with celebrities. When a famous person dies, the significant relationship feels especially strong. The sense of grief can be overwhelming to fans, especially if their peers don’t understand why they are so sad. Social media can help fans connect in their sadness, to offer tribute to the dead celebrity and solace to one another.

Dealing with the Loss

In 2012, Scott K. Radford of the University of Calgary and Peter H. Bloch of the University of Missouri researched Internet message boards after Dale Earnhardt, Sr., a race car driver, died. They found that fans use both introjection and incorporation to cope with the loss of a celebrity.

Introjection means to take in the idea of the celebrity so it becomes part of ourselves. When fans of a newly-deceased celebrity introject, they relive their experiences of that celebrity. By sharing their experiences with other fans, they gain a sense of community and belonging.

Incorporation, the other method of coping with a celebrity death, means compensating for the death by acquiring material objects by which to remember the celebrity. Celebrity-related products become cherished by the fans; the objects, in a sense, help keep the celebrity alive. When Princess Diana died, for example, fans flocked to buy her memorabilia, which still proves popular seventeen years later.

Creating the Experience

The concept of parasocial interaction was further explored in a 2011 study by Tilo Hartmann & Charlotte Goldhoorn of the Netherlands. Hartmann and Goldhoorn designed a scale to determine when a parasocial interaction occurs. They wanted to understand which factors make viewers feel that they are having a social interaction with the media persona.

The results showed that both the performer’s characteristics and the viewer’s characteristics contribute to that feeling. When a performer addressed the audience on both a verbal and bodily level, and when the viewers perceived the performer as attractive, a parasocial interaction was likely to occur.

Furthermore, viewers who were good at perspective taking were likely to have a parasocial experience. People who easily adopt the perspectives of others are more likely to form a strong connection with a media persona, even believing that the persona is aware of them and paying attention to them.

Mourning Robin Williams

Given Robin Williams’ effusive personality, it is not surprising that he meets the criteria for giving viewers a parasocial experience. He spoke with both his words and his body language, and his engaging style made him attractive. The strong connection people developed with him is expressing itself in the outpouring of grief that’s evident in social media and in Hollywood.

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