Dissecting the Impact of Celebrity Deaths

When actor and comedian Robin Williams died, my world was shaken. I had grown up with the innovative artist. Stellar performances from him in feature films like Mrs. Doubtfire, Night At the Museum, and Dead Poets Society embedded my childhood. His eyes were kind and he never failed to make me laugh. That is, except for on August 12, 2014, when it had been announced that Williams committed suicide a day before.

The news hit me hard, and it hit my family harder. Why was I -- and the rest of the world -- so absolutely torn over the death of a man I had never met? Whom I didn’t even realize burdened such heavy mental struggles? Flash forward to 2016, when the year kicked off with the death of monumental musical storyteller David Bowie, which seemed to set off a series of dominoes. Celebrity death by celebrity death by celebrity death. The question provokes me, still: why do I care so much about the death of celebrities, when I know so little about them?

The BBC published an analysis of the pre-prepared celebrity obituaries which aired on TV, radio, and online networks by the company throughout 2016. The article stated, “Across the whole year, there was just over a 50% increase in BBC pre-prepared obituaries used in 2016 compared with 2015.” There was a count of 49 celebrity deaths last year -- just counting the major figures -- in stark contrast to the previous year’s number of 32 deaths.1

This statistic brings us back to the question at hand. After careful observation, it seems that it comes down to self-identification, which will be elaborated upon in the following points.

1. Celebrities are chronological landmarks in our lives.
Like I talked about with Robin Williams earlier, many celebrities have guided us through our childhood. Whether through comedy, inspiration, or the feeling of a friend, many people who put themselves out there tend to reach someone. That someone, in these cases, ends up cultivating an audience. And this concept doesn’t only apply to our childhood. Maybe you played David Bowie’s album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars through a difficult time, or you watched the Star Wars movies every holiday season with your family. Losing someone you grew up with, someone who guided you through a period of your life, will emotionally impact you regardless of whether they were physically present or not. We identify certain characters or people or music with specific points in our lives, and taking part of the person out of the equation hurts.

2. We see ourselves in celebrity portrayals.
One of my favorite characters out there is probably Amélie, from the French film of the same name. Something about her unique perspective really strikes a chord with me; this girl reminds me of myself, but better. This type of identification with a portrayal of a character is not at all uncommon. Just think about Carrie Fisher’s death. Part of the reason it affected the public so much is because many children and adults alike look up to her character of Princess Leia in the sci-fi saga Star Wars as a role model. After all, Princess Leia is pretty rad. Fisher contributed a valuable character to her legacy, and we see the impact her most notable character had through the public’s reaction to her death.

3. It is a reminder of time passing.
Albeit this concept is significantly stronger in people of past generations, it is an abrupt reminder for all people that time has passed and the world is not the same as it was when we learned about these people. I can tell stories of watching Robin Williams’ hilarious performances, recalling the scenes like it was yesterday. That is, until I remember plugging in the VHS in a different home than I am now. Pieces and parts of art bring us into past chapters of our lives. It is nostalgia, projected into a small fragment of our lives, lost.

We identify these artists -- of all spectrums -- with stages in our lives and with our person as a whole, and that is why I believe we are so impacted when we hear of certain celebrities’ passing. And while I thoroughly broke down this hypothesis of mine, I hope that this is the last I think of celebrity deaths in a while. 2017, please be good to us.

By Danielle Leard


  1. McDonald, Charlotte. "Have More Famous People Died in 2016?" BBC News. BBC, 30 Dec. 2016. Web. 23 Jan. 2017.


  1. this is a really good piece. i like your thoughts and appreciate that there are some facts to it

    1. Thanks, Angelica! I present this as a hypothesis of sorts, so I wanted it to have some factual basis.