Why We Mourn Intimate Strangers
Before Michael, there was Princess Diana, John F. Kennedy Jr., John Lennon and Marilyn Monroe. And, of course, there was Elvis Presley, who had 14 white Cadillacs escort him to his final resting place.
The list of larger-than-life personalities going out in high style is a long one because when it comes to celebrities and their deaths, it's as though we can't get enough.
Tears for Michael Jackson
"We care about these celebrity deaths because these people intersect with our personal biographies," said Jacque Lynn Foltyn, a professor at National University in San Diego.
Foltyn studies celebrities and their deaths.
"When these people die, we reflect on our own lives and we feel a sense of loss because they have been in our lives, many times, for decades and we followed… their maturing, we followed their successes. People know more about celebrity lives, and then deaths, than they know about their own neighbors. They are these intimate strangers," she explained.
According to Larry Hackett, the managing editor of People magazine, "Celebrities are this kind of connective tissue… In our world of sort of friends and neighbors, they represent those friends and neighbors for all of us. So, when they die, it's a huge, huge shock, as it would be if somebody truly close to you died. And that just connects all of us, together."
Honoring The Glittery Glove
Celebrities not only connect us to each other, they also create a bridge to our past - our lost youth.
"In the case of Michael Jackson… when you watch the videos of Motown dancing and the moon walking and all the music videos on MTV, you're also replaying your own life," Hackett said. "You're remembering where you were when that happened, and what you were like when you first saw "Billie Jean" and what it was like for you to hear "Thriller" in a car.
"This is a dual experience," Hackett continued. "It's one of, like, 'Yeah, I was there. I remember that.' And then, 'I remember what I was thinking and I was doing and what my hopes were, and my dreams were, and what I felt and who I was dating.' And that's very powerful."
More from People's Larry Hackett
You might think all these giant memorials are the product of the non-stop, technological age we live in. But this communal grieving process literally goes back to the age of silent movies.
"Rudolph Valentino was an erotic icon. He died as a young man. He was very beautiful. Women and men swooned over his beauty. He was a silent film star and they lined up 80,000 strong to view his body," Fulton said of the actor's death in 1926.
Fans Reflect on Their Pop Hero
Dying young and sexy, suddenly and mysteriously, seem to be the keys to an outsized display of public emotion. Anna Nicole Smith, Heath Ledger and the rapper Notorious B.I.G. had their turns in the death spotlight. But none of them was anywhere near as big as Michael Jackson.
"Michael was the biggest star in the world at the same moment in Asia, in Africa, in South America, in North America - in every country in the world. He was the No. 1 star," said John Landis, who directed Michael Jackson's "Thriller" video.
Landis saw Michael's effect on people firsthand.
"It really was like being with Christ - that's what I used to think. I used to think I'm with Jesus, because people would faint, people would have orgasms and people would get hysterical. Men would burst into tears. You saw this mass hysteria," he explained. "It was like nothing I'd ever experienced. I worked with a lot of big stars and concerts. I had never seen anything like the way people responded to him. They went crazy."
And over the last week, everyone has heard about Jackson's exploding record sales after nearly two decades of flat-line business.
"Everybody is making money off of celebrity deaths. Everybody enjoys celebrity deaths, even as they mourn them," said Foltyn. "Elvis Presley is a much more lucrative source of income in his death than he was in his life. And Michael Jackson may be, too. He's being rehabilitated. His image is being rehabilitated now."
The rehabilitation of Jackson's tarnished image is striking. Pushed to the background are the repeated allegations of child abuse lodged against Jackson, his payoff to the family of an accuser or his never-ending rounds of cosmetic surgery.
Complete Coverage: Michael Jackson
"He obviously was a deeply troubled and screwed-up guy. Clearly… he was childlike. He was emotionally stunted. I mean he named his ranch Neverland. These are not subtle clues. He loved children and he was a very tortured and complicated person," Landis explained.
So is the public ignoring the pop star's flaws and demons?
"I don't think the public is ignoring it," Hackett said. "But I think people immediately hearken back to that moment that they loved him. And that may be human nature. He's the guy who they're missing… They're not shocked and caring about it because he was an accused child molester."
Hackett says it all goes back to people wanting to connect.
"They wanna sit around and watch these shows and read these magazines because it's kind of like a campfire. 'Tell me the story again about this beautiful boy from Gary, Indiana, who was part of this band, who then became a worldwide superstar, and who then saw it all fritter away because of his own personal demons and because of the trap that fame is.'
"That's a pretty good story. And people wanna read about that. And they know it. And they wanna hear it again and again and again, because it tells, again, a story of their own life, because it's a cautionary tale. Because to see him dance is a beautiful thing. And they can't get enough of it… Lighting doesn't strike like that very often."
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