The Psychology of Celebrity Worship
Since antiquity, people have been fascinated with larger-than-life characters like Michael Jackson, experts say
FRIDAY, June 26, 2009 (HealthDay News) -- Looking at the legions of fans mourning the loss of Michael Jackson, one might think celebrity worship is a modern phenomenon. But from the gods on Olympus in ancient Greece to the bobby-soxers swooning over Frank Sinatra in the late 1930s and '40s to Brad and Angelina today, adulation of the stars is an age-old pursuit, psychologists say.
Jackson's sudden death Thursday at age 50, just weeks before he was to launch a major concert tour, riveted the world. And hours earlier, the news that Farrah Fawcett, the 1970s sex symbol, had died of anal cancer captivated Americans who remembered her first for her role in TV's "Charlie's Angels" and later as a courageous woman sharing the intimate details of her battle with the disease.
The public's fascination with celebrities "may seem new because we are such a media-immersed society, but it's really not," said Stuart Fischoff, senior editor at the Journal of Media Psychology and emeritus professor of media psychology at California State University, Los Angeles.
When the composers Frederic Chopin and Franz Liszt performed in the 19th century, women threw their underwear at them. And 80 years after the death of silent-film star Rudolph Valentino, fans continue to visit his grave, Fischoff noted.
Celebrities tap into the public's primal fantasies and basic emotions, lifting people from their everyday lives and making them believe anything is possible, said Dr. John Lucas, a clinical assistant professor of psychology at Weill Cornell Medical College and an assistant attending psychiatrist at New York-Presbyterian Hospital in New York City.
In the case of Jackson, with what appeared to be numerous plastic surgeries and skin bleaching, "the weirdness resonates with our own internal suppressed hidden wishes -- for immortality, gratification of sexual impulses and our wish for ageless beauty," Lucas said.
Humans at the core are social beings, and research has shown that the less connected people feel, the more they turn to celebrities, said Adam Galinsky, an expert in ethics and social psychology and a professor at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. "It's a very adaptive and functional behavior."
Lucas added, however, that while worshipping the rich and famous is harmless in itself, it could be perceived as symptomatic of a rootless culture in which many people feel a sense of isolation.
"What we know of them [celebrities] through People magazine and other media sources fills a gaping and painful void in our lives," Lucas said. The dwindling influence of religion adds to that sense of yearning in people, he added, making the stars' exploits and eccentricities, their loves and losses, more than a form of entertainment.
"Religion is faltering, and in the process people are grappling with infantile wishes, with magical thinking," he said.
For the most part, star status conveys a sense of immortality and invincibility -- and "we are shocked when they die," Lucas added.
With loved ones, long-standing rituals help people cope, he said. But with celebrities, fans can be at a loss. "We don't know quite how to mourn the loss of stars because we don't expect them to die," he said.
Fischoff said he thinks it is perfectly appropriate to grieve a star's passing. His own wife cried upon hearing that Jackson had died, he said. With the loss of someone of Jackson's stature, "your cultural history disappears," he said. "You feel that someone you loved is gone, and it takes time to close the wound."
Dr. Alan Hilfer, director of psychology at Maimonides Medical Center in New York City, agrees. "When a celebrity passes, the loss is personal -- not because we knew the celebrity but because they were with us as we grew up and as we had our own special moments," he said.
If you're overcome with emotion, Fischoff suggests writing down or talking through your feelings, either with a friend or into a tape recorder. "Think of it as the loss of a family member and go with it," he said. Although physically gone, deceased celebrities leave their art -- "those are the memories," he said.
But in a disposable culture such as today's, the mourning often doesn't last long, Fischoff noted. Jackson's death eclipsed Fawcett's, he said, and someone else with celebrity status could come along tomorrow and take Jackson's place in the public's collective consciousness.