Tuesday, November 21, 2017
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Bowie, Rickman, Frey: Why is everyone dying at once?

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Mornings of late have taken on a new dread.

Wake up. Roll over. Grab your phone. Check who's trending. Scroll down to see whose photo has circulated on Facebook since last night.

Which of my heroes am I mourning today?

From Glenn Frey to David Bowie, Natalie Cole to Lemmy Kilmister, Alan Rickman to Dan "Grizzly Adams" Haggerty, the past three weeks have been filled with what feels like an unreasonable spate of celebrity deaths. The result is an almost palpable sense of communal cultural grief, as each new day seems to bring a fresh round of tributes and memorials, often triggered by the buzz of a push notification on your phone.

BOWIE: Cridlin: In his life and death, David Bowie achieved the highest art

Why is this? Are more celebrities really dying? Or does it just feel that way?

A tragic rush like this is not unprecedented — the summer of 2009, for example, saw the deaths of Michael Jackson, Walter Cronkite, Les Paul, Farrah Fawcett, John Hughes, Ed McMahon and Ted Kennedy, among others. But like the rest of us, celebrities of all stature die every single day. Wikipedia's "Deaths in 2016" list is already up to around 380 persons of note — actors, athletes, musicians, politicians, poets, statesmen, inventors.

FREY: Glenn Frey of the Eagles dead at 67

Not all are as famous as Bowie or Frey — or even Tower of Power's Mic Gillette or Mott the Hoople's Dale "Buffin" Griffin, both of whom also died this week. There was Yasutaro Koide, the world's oldest living man, 112. Peter Powell, inventor of the steerable kite, 83. Canadian wrestler "Iron" Mike Sharpe, 64. Tera Wray, pornographic actress, 33. Gulch, an American thoroughbred who once placed third in the Belmont Stakes, euthanized at 31.

Browse Wikipedia's ever-growing list, and you begin to realize that all those higher-profile deaths — the ones that have gotten all the headlines and generated so much public mourning — actually feel less like unique, stand-alone tragedies, and more like part of the larger, ongoing wave of life and death that envelops us all, even when we aren't paying attention.

COLE: Natalie Cole, 'Unforgettable' jazz icon, dies at 65

So why — apart from their indelible contributions to the arts — have the deaths of stars like Bowie, Frey, Rickman and Kilmister struck such a nerve?

Psychologists have a term that might explain why we feel like celebrities are constantly dying off: The "availability heuristic." It refers to our tendency to overinflate the importance of recent events on how we perceive reality. This is especially true with events that receive major media coverage: Plane crashes, shark attacks, child abductions, mass shootings. On a grand scale, these things happen so infrequently that one's risk of being personally affected is statistically nil. But it doesn't really feel that way, does it?

KILMISTER: Motorhead's Lemmy Kilmister, a rock god for the ages, dead at 70

The availability heuristic's influence is heightened by events that hit close to home, or have some greater emotional impact. Some might think it childish to mourn a celebrity you never met, but that's unfair — the music written by Bowie and Frey and Kilmister had a profound influence on millions of fans, especially during those formative teenage years when music and culture can have an inordinate impact on one's search for self-identity. A generation of children grew up watching Rickman portray Severus Snape in eight Harry Potter films over a decade. Of course his death would tug harder at their heartstrings.

RICKMAN: Alan Rickman, star of stage and 'Harry Potter,' dies at 69

Moreover, these aren't just legends from a bygone era, whose connection to modern culture is tangential at best. Many of them still feel vital and present. Bowie's new album Blackstar just debuted at No. 1. Countless people re-watched Rickman in Die Hard or Love, Actually for the umpteenth time over Christmas.

In their grief, fans turn to the one place they know everyone is listening: Social media, where #RIP hashtags, shared tributes from other celebrities and viral memorials — like the one compressing decades of Bowie's looks and styles into one five-second animation — have become not just commonplace, but an essential part of public mourning. The news dominates our feeds and our friends' feeds, dictating the digital discourse of the day.

We keep hitting refresh to click through to the next tribute or slideshow, and even begin bracing ourselves for who might die next ("These things come in threes, you know"). As comedian Rachel Dratch tweeted following Frey's death: "Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger...Gonna need you to SHELTER IN PLACE."

At some point, this rush of deaths will ebb, and we'll be able to resume checking our phones without wondering who might have died in the night. Until then, know that you're not alone your grief. Many celebrities, in fact, feel the same way.

On Tuesday, one day after the death of Glenn Frey, singer Jackson Browne opened his solo concert at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater with a solemn tribute to his old friend and songwriting collaborator. It was his first performance since Frey's death.

BROWNE ON FREY: Jackson Browne pays tribute to friend, collaborator Glenn Frey in Clearwater

"This is a sad, sad, sad day," Browne said.

These days, too many of them are.

Times movie critic Steve Persall contributed to this report. Contact Jay Cridlin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.

     
       
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