Thursday, May 2, 2013

Living with Fame

Fans of horror, comics, and science fiction (there is much crossover among the genres) are a dedicated bunch. Fortunately, they have no shortage of conventions to attend (often in costume) around the country and around the world: Worldcon, Fangoria, the various Comicons (San Diego is still the largest), and so on. The one closest to me is Chiller Theater (, held twice per year in Parsippany, NJ, most recently this past weekend.

The organizations running these conventions typically earn money from entrance fees and from selling table space to vendors. The odd mix of DVDs, dolls, posters, costumes, tee shirts, vintage comics, and sundry items on sale by the vendors are probably enough to draw a fair number of visitors by themselves, but the celebrities who show up to hobnob with the crowd are (in current terms) the killer app. At Chiller Theater there are usually 100, more or less, with various degrees of name recognition. Sometimes the stretch for a sci-fi/horror connection is a long one (the Monkees?), but most have something in their careers (e.g., from this year’s guest list, Mariel Hemingway was in Superman IV and Karen Allen was in Starman) to serve as an excuse. So, almost anyone can show up.

The use of the term “celebrity” as an identity (much as one might say a lawyer or a tailor), rather than just as an attribute (i.e. celebrity as something one might have in the way one might have wealth), dates to the 18th century, but the idea is older. The term got a boost from the spread of modern media in the form of newspapers and magazines. Celebrity culture grew throughout the 19th century when readers loved being shocked by reports on the likes of Lord Byron (who famously sired several illegitimate children including one with a half-sister) or of actress Sarah Bernhardt (who traveled with a pet python and alligator). By the turn of the century the “society pages” of the papers were rife with tales of the excesses of upper class offspring and of lurid celebrity scandals such as the murder of architect Stanford White over the young model Evelyn Nesbitt. These people became household names. The rise of film and recorded music, however, increasingly focused public attention on entertainers who became familiar faces and voices. By the 1920s, the major stars had acquired such celebrity status that 100,000 fans showed up at the funeral of Rudolph Valentino in 1926, and rioted. The guest lists at Chiller Theater have yet to include anyone of sufficient fame to inspire a fan riot, but they do attract autograph-seekers.

Nowadays, popular culture very largely is celebrity culture. On the TV listings are almost as many shows about entertainment as there are providing the thing itself. The mainstays of their offerings are celebrity gossip. Talk shows abound on which celebrities chat about nothing in particular. The rise of “Reality TV” has created some very unlikely entrants to their ranks.

Social scientists have taken note, and churn out an endless parade of books on the subject; the authors ponder why so many of us want to be celebrities and why so many of the rest of us want to meet them. It’s a good question. After all, most celebs are not any more interesting as people than many non-famous folks we commonly meet in everyday life – people who may be more attractive, more insightful, or wittier (or all three) than the celebs. And why does fame per se attract us more than achievement? The men and women who designed my GMC pick-up (for instance) arguably have influenced my life as much as Three Days Grace (whose album is presently in the truck’s CD player) yet I have no particular desire to meet the truck’s designers. Why the difference?

One of the more curious answers (not mutually exclusive with others) comes from Terror Management Theory. Researchers in the field tell us that thoughts of our own mortality make us value fame as a way of cheating death. (Lyrics to the theme song for the TV show Fame: “I’m gonna live forever.”) This seems intuitively correct, but, less intuitively, they propose that thoughts of death make those of us who are not famous value more highly those who are. By rubbing elbows with the famous (the immortals), some of their mojo rubs off on us – or so we feel on a subconscious level. This expectation isn’t very logical, but humans only rarely are that. Social psychologist Nathan Heflick tells us, “In several studies, people were more positive towards celebrities and fame when they were first reminded of death. This suggests that people cope with the awareness they will die by loving themselves some fame and celebrity.”

There is an abundance of death references at a Chiller Theater Convention. There even was someone costumed in a hooded cloak and carrying a scythe. (At least I assume it was a costume.) I wasn’t consciously dodging the fellow by exchanging pleasantries with familiar faces from the large and small screen (in fact, I smiled and nodded at him), but perhaps on some level I was employing sympathetic magic against him. Well, I’m still here, so it appears to have worked.

Terror Management? Aubrey Plaza (her movie Safety Not Guaranteed reviewed in my February blog, The View from the Couch) says she plans to live forever

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