Goldblum Lives! Or, The Trade In Celebrity Death

Pleasantly surprised: Jeff Goldblum. Image: Sweded

Pleasantly surprised: Jeff Goldblum. Image: Sweded

Michael Jackson’s death was sad for a variety of reasons, but it was not entirely unexpected. Just ask US supermarket tabloid the National Enquirer, which is now in the odd position of having one of its stories proven entirely accurate.

Back in January, the Enquirer trumpeted that Michael Jackson had “6 MONTHS TO LIVE!” Oprah better watch out – the Enquirer has given her three years! Use them wisely.

But although he didn’t fool us, Richard Wilkins will never, ever be allowed to live down his eagerness to report as fact the fake Jeff Goldblum death story generated by the website It was excruciating television. They’ll probably play the footage in Wilkins’s own death montage.

People lap this stuff up. Why are we so interested in celebrity deaths when the celebrities’ merely being alive holds comparatively little interest?

Celebrities, like everyone else, do sometimes die in sudden, unexpected ways: Natasha Richardson dropping dead from a seemingly minor skiing injury; David Carradine found hanged in a Bangkok hotel room. But why did the deaths of Farrah Fawcett and Michael Jackson spark a fictional celebrity bloodbath that grimly reaped Goldblum (fell off a cliff in New Zealand), Harrison Ford (washed overboard a luxury yacht), Miley Cyrus (a car crash), Britney Spears (reported dead via Twitpic) and even Rick Astley (found dead in a hotel room)?

At the most basic level, celebrity deaths are striking because they are singular events; Michael Jackson is never going to die again. But death hoaxes are almost more emotionally turbulent, because they give us the shocking dénouement of that singular event, plus the swiftly following revelation that “this isn’t really happening”.

“Whenever you get unusual events like this weird kind of cluster of actual celebrity deaths it creates a mood of doubt and uncertainty, which is the environment [in which] hoaxes and urban legends proliferate,” Museum Of Hoaxes founder Alex Boese told America’s ABC News. “Because our mental defences are slightly weakened, we’re more willing to believe everything we read.”

Death hoaxes are also embarrassing because the supposedly dead person has a chance to hear the news of his or her own demise. Poor Patrick Swayze, the subject of countless “almost dead… almost…” media stories, had to release a photo of himself in May to show he was still alive. And the Bloomberg financial newswire was mortified last August when, amid widespread uncertainty about Apple CEO Steve Jobs’s health, it mistakenly hit “publish” rather than “save draft” on its on-file Jobs obituary.

Goldblum himself had the last laugh in a delicious segment on The Colbert Report in which he Twittered Stephen Colbert, and mocked Richard Wilkins from ‘beyond the grave’, and then eulogised himself. (“I cannot overstate how good Jeff Goldblum was in bed.”)

The Colbert Report Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Jeff Goldblum Will Be Missed
Colbert Report Full Episodes Political Humor Jeff Goldblum

A celebrity death only has power over us if we feel strongly enough about the place the celebrity occupies in our lives. University of Melbourne literature professor Stephanie Trigg has blogged thoughtfully about her feelings of shared ties with deceased celebrities. Like Michael Jackson, Trigg was born in 1958, and like Jane McGrath, Trigg has suffered from breast cancer.

But the snuffing-out of famous people’s lives seems more shocking precisely because we tend to think of celebrities as unlike us – and hence impervious to mortal concerns – despite the mechanisms of banality that drive contemporary stardom.

This is because celebrities are remote from our daily lives and indifferent to our fascination. They remain essentially inscrutable, no matter how much information the media can scrounge up about them. In our imaginations they are fixed and unchanging even as their images, and the complex dramas they enact in their professional and personal lives, constantly shift and percolate through media and culture.

Working from a theory by Graham Harman, academic Steven Shaviro calls the bewitching aura of celebrities their “allure”. For Shaviro, allure is the combination of realising that someone is essentially remote and unknowable, yet still wanting to ‘know’ them in the intimate way we do our closest friends.

“I am enthralled by their all-too-human failures, miseries, and vulnerabilities, precisely because they are fundamentally inhuman and invulnerable,” Shaviro writes. “They fascinate me, precisely because it is utterly impossible that they should ever acknowledge, much less reciprocate, my fascination.”

When they die, we grieve as if we knew them – and these displays of public grieving can be pornographically intense. But we also grieve for the way their deaths emphatically clamp down on the possibility of glimpsing the celebrities’ perpetually hinted-at inner lives.

Ironising celebrity deaths, on the other hand, might seem callous. But it’s an equally urgent response to the allure of celebrity. Recognising the objects that celebrities become, we treat their deaths like light switches (“is it on or off?“), or as trophies to be collected for status among one’s friends. Take the ghoulishness of celebrity dead pools, in which the celebrity’s entire complex persona – and our affective response to them – is flattened out into one key attribute: how likely they are to die this year. (I’m currently enjoying a fairly unassailable lead in my local competition, having successfully predicted the deaths of Jade Goody and Michael Jackson.)

More recently, in a story informing readers that Michael Jackson would be buried without his brain (as the necessary narcotics tests require weeks of preparation), Britain’s Daily Mirror couldn’t resist noting that Jackson had played the Scarecrow in The Wiz. Y’know! The guy without a brain!

Patrick Swayze and his wife Lisa Niemi in May 2009. He looks pretty alive, all right.

Patrick Swayze and his wife Lisa Niemi in May 2009. He looks pretty alive, all right.

Because of the seductiveness of irony, we’re often fooled by celebrity death hoaxes that demonstrate a certain black humour. The paradigmatic example is the rumour that ‘Don’t Worry Be Happy’ singer Bobby McFerrin committed suicide.

Similarly, a Bruce Willis death hoax was too good to be true, considering that Willis had not only starred in a series of films called Die Hard and another called Death Becomes Her, but had also portrayed a superhero who can’t be killed and a child psychologist who doesn’t realise he’s dead. And as for a hoax in which Will Ferrell was supposed to have died in a freak paragliding accident – it’s an absurd scenario straight from one of Ferrell’s comedies.

There was both hysteria and irony in rumours that Twilight‘s mega-heartthrob star, Robert Pattinson, had either been mown down by a cab or died of a heroin overdose. The ironic camp wanted to believe it because he played an undead vampire, whereas the legions of women who get really worked up about Twilight were distraught at the possible loss of their idol.

There’s been much debate about the ethical dubiousness of both ostentatious grief and ironic detachment as responses to celebrity deaths. For some, a more tasteful and respectful response to celebrity deaths – and public deaths in general – is to ‘bear witness’ to them.

This is a sombre but visceral feeling. It offers the same kind of frisson, or aura, that many museums seem to aim for these days, especially in exhibitions devoted to celebrities. Bearing witness is an attitude that we’re in the presence of a knowledge that may be painful but is important and honourable.

Some people bear witness to celebrity deaths by deliberately subjecting themselves to detailed and often distressing accounts of the celebrity’s final moments, or images of his or her dead body. They may visit the place where the celebrity died in order to experience its emotionally charged atmosphere for themselves. Rather than a public overflow of feeling, bearing witness has an understated, elegiac quality.

It’s impossible to talk about bearing witness without mentioning the Holocaust. People study its terrible details and visit its notorious sites in order to feel a horror that’s intended as a prophylactic against similar atrocities in future generations. In this context, bearing witness has become steeped in honour; and it’s meant to signal moral bankruptcy when, in The Reader, Hanna Schmitz says, “It doesn’t matter how I feel. The dead are still dead.”

But bearing witness can be ethically troubling, too. As Kate Harding writes in Salon about the videotaped death of the young Iranian woman ‘Neda’, it can descend into a “ghoulish and exploitive” act that people engage in “merely because it’s so shocking – perhaps even perversely thrilling, in a tiny, shameful way”.

Celebrities can matter to us in deeply personal ways, even though we simply don’t matter to them. But the next time you tweet your shock at the news another famous person has died, make sure it’s someone who matters to Richard Wilkins.

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  1. T J Honeysuckle says:

    “Michael Jackson is never going to die again”
    Thank god.

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