The news has been dominated in recent days, and throughout 2016, with reports of the deaths of beloved and iconic celebrities: Alan Thicke, Florence Henderson, Carrie Fisher, Debbie Reynolds, to name a few (and we are certainly grateful for their contributions, especially to creating family-friendly fare). But even if you missed the news reporting, it is impossible to avoid the outpouring of reactions on social media feeds.
How could so many people – who have never met any of these celebrities in person, who have no connection beyond watching them on television or in the movies — feel so personal a sense of loss at their passing? And why should their deaths resonate more deeply with us than the loss of Richard Adams, author of “Watership Down,” or celebrated playwright Edward Albee? Or taking it a step further, why should they matter more than the deaths of scientific or medical pioneers whose innovations improve the quality of life for millions around the globe; or of soldiers who make the ultimate sacrifice so that we can live in peace and comfort?
Television, and to a lesser extent, movies, create an illusion of intimacy. In a sense, these TV and movie stars aren’t untouchable, distant stars. They are people we’ve grown up with, laughed with, cried with, rooted for… We’ve shared their heartbreak on screen, we’ve rejoiced at their victories.
Of course, none of it is real, but the feelings they provoke certainly are.
Our physiological response to what we see on screen has been shown to be identical to the physiological response we experience in reaction to real world events. Exposure to violent imagery is linked to increased heart rate, faster respiration and higher blood pressure. In other words, our brains don’t differentiate between fact and fiction. We identify closely with characters. The tears we shed are real. The dopamine or adrenaline responses to what’s happening on screen, are also real.
The false sense of intimacy is exacerbated by our celebrity-obsessed media culture that dissects and discloses every detail of their off-screen lives, too. We know all about Carrie Fisher’s struggles with mental health issues and drug and alcohol abuse; about her sometimes-rocky relationship with her mother. In a very real sense, we sometimes know more about – or at least think we know more about – the lives of celebrities than we do about the lives of our closest friends, colleagues, or even family members.
This isn’t intended as an indictment of our relationship with celebrity culture. It is what it is, and to some extent, it has always been thus: despondent fans of Rudolph Valentino reportedly committed suicide when the silent screen star died in 1926, and riots erupted as fans tried to get in to the funeral.
But this should all serve to remind us that while it is “just entertainment,” entertainment can be deceptively intertwined with our real lives. These celebrity deaths reveal that people connect, on a very deep level, with the entertainment they consume.
Entertainment does influence our behavior and our lives, and it is dangerous to ignore that reality. And to the extent that media is influential in our lives, there is a commensurate duty on film makers and TV producers to take care with the media messages they create. After all, people, and perhaps more fittingly, generations of children, are watching.