2016 may go down in history as the bonfire of the celebrities. We seem to have lost so many famous people. David Bowie, Ronnie Corbett, Guy Hamilton, Prince, Victoria Wood, Chyna.
Ah, yes, Chyna, the former wrestling diva and porn actress. She was the star of the magnificently titled “One night in Chyna”, which I am sure has pride of place in every gentlemen’s VHS collection.
But I digress …
2016 has seen so many of our favourite celebs “exit stage left pursued by the Grim Reaper”. But why? What is it about this year that has caused a traffic jam of obits?
Here is the BBC speculating about it:
A strange thing is starting to emerge from all these stories. Popular culture likes an easy single answer to everything. Force X causes outcome Y.
And the answer which is starting to be accepted as the only cause is … “because there are more celebrities these days”.
When you stop to think about it, that’s a passably good argument. With the advent of television in the 1950s and 1960s, and then the internet from the noughties, we have seen a massive increase in the number of celebrities. My grandparents might have known a handful of politicians, sportsmen and explorers. Now reality TV is giving us people who are famous for being ordinary.
I recall a bizarre discussion with my elderly Mum where I tried to explain to her who Kim Kardashian was. And why.
More celebrities in the mix means more celebrities falling off their perch at any given time. In particular, we are seeing the closing scenes of celebs from the baby boomer generation – people who became famous in the 1960s to 1980s.
So, that’s it, right? Case solved. More celebs are dying in 2016 because of a growth in the number of celebs, and an increase in our ability to hear about it through the internet, television and newspapers. We can all have conversations with our friends where we smugly slip that little factoid into the discussion.
Friend, shaking head in sad resignation: “Have you heard? We’ve lost another one.”
You, trying not to sound too smug: “Ah yes. That’s because of a boom in the number of celebrities caused by the internet and television.”
It’s one of those appealing little facts like the one about celery needing more calories to eat than it has (not true) or humans being unable to lick their elbows (also not true). We do love our devastating little factoids, don’t we?
Except this explanation doesn’t quite work. There are a couple of other things happening that are being swept under the carpet as we settle for the one convenient explanation.
For one thing, the “because there are more celebs” argument doesn’t explain how there seem to be significantly more celeb deaths in 2016 than in 2015. The number of celebrity obits published on the BBC has more than doubled in 2016 compared with a similar period in 2015. There were 12 celeb obits in the first three months of 2015, compared to 24 in the first three months of 2016.
If the “because there are more celebs” argument was true, we would expect to see a gradual increase in celeb deaths and not a sudden spike. There is nothing in history which affected a single year so significantly that it ought to create a sudden spike now.
Indeed, there has been a steady increase from 2012 to 2015. It is only 2016 which looks off trend.
Part of the reason for this is that it is simply a random spike in the data. In a random sequence, we nearly always get clusters which seem to be spooky and hard to explain.
Here’s a little experiment. I am going to throw a coin one hundred times and write down whether it lands heads and tails each time. This is what I got:
To be perfectly honest, I cheated a little here. I used Excel to mimic tossing the coin. But the results would still be the same.
If you look through the list, you might see some “odd” patterns. There is a spell towards the end where there are eight tails in a row. The odds of throwing eight tails in a row is 256 to 1.
Yet I know that every time I run this experiment I will get clusters of results like that. This is how randomness works. We might expect that a random sequence would be something like HTHTHTH, where there are a similar number of heads and tails all the time. But real randomness gives us clusters. HHHH is just as likely to happen as HTHT.
So part of our explanation for the roll call of passed celebs is that it is simply a spike that might not happen again next year. Or in the second half of the year. It happens.
For example, did you know that there are a cluster of poets’ deaths and birthdays around today’s date: 23rd April?
Shakespeare, Cervantes, Rupert Brooke, William Wordsworth, Charlotte Bronte, Henry Fielding, Victor Nabakov, Anthony Trollope – all were born or died within one or two days of 23rd April.
Spooky? Nah. It’s just probability doing its thing. Clusters happen.
There is something else going on. When spend most of our lives on autopilot. We make sense of a complicated world by filtering out the stuff that isn’t important. This means that we don’t normally keep a tally of how many celebs are dying.
When we look out for something we notice it more. That can make us think that it is happening more often than it really is. The other post office queue doesn’t always move faster than the one you are in. You don’t always find something in the last place you look (apart from the fact that you stop looking after you’ve found it). Aunt Cecily doesn’t always phone just after you were thinking about here.
These things only seem to happen more often because you are looking out for them. We remember the seemingly remarkable and the things which affirm conclusions we have already reached. That makes it seem as if they are happening more often.
So right now we are noticing the deaths of celebs which would not normally cross our radar. The newspapers and websites are starting to report more deaths of relatively minor celebs because it plays into this emerging story of 2016 being a bad year for celebs.
That brings us neatly back to Chyna. For some people she might seem like yet another departed star of the silver screen who dropped off her perch in 2016. For others, it might be a case of “who?”
Here’s a list of wrestlers who have died in the last few years:
2016: Chyna, Balls Mahoney
2015: Roddy Piper, Dusty Rhodes
2014: the Ultimate Warrior, Big Daddy V, Mae Young
2013: Maurice Vachon, Doink the Clown, Paul Bearer
In other words, two or three per year. Most don’t make the headlines because they are only celebs if you are into that sort of thing. Or if we are noticing celeb deaths, as we are at the moment.
So there we have it. We are seeing more celeb deaths than ever before because there are more celebs, but it’s probably just a random spike and we are almost certainly noticing it more because it has become a story.
There is something else happening here