Research says we’re turning stars into saints
UW PhD candidate says fans of celebrities past are mirroring the followers of medieval saints
Hardcore fans are taking the concept of “following something religiously” to a whole new level, creating quasi -saints out of dead celebrities, says University of Waterloo PhD candidate Kathleen Riddell.
According to Riddell, fans of past celebrities have formed communities around the ideals represented by their beloved musicians, actresses, and actors throughout their lifetime, much like the devoted followers of medieval saints.
“Religion, at a fundamental level, forms a community — a fandom is a community, a church is a community. Christians identify with Christ, fans identify with dead celebrities,” said Riddell, explaining the connection between fandom and religion.
Riddell’s study focuses on the lives of three of the world’s most celebrated musicians: John Lennon, Johnny Cash, and Jimi Hendrix. She took the opportunity to observe the phenomena surrounding the three musicians when she visited some of their most recognized pilgrimage sites for fans on the celebrities’ birth and death anniversaries, along with other celebrated dates.
“In the medieval period when saints were most popular in the Catholic Church, they represented ideals that were important to a given community. In the contemporary period, dead celebrities come to take on these ideals,” said Riddell.
John Lennon is historically associated with peace activism thanks to his part in “Hair Peace,” an anti-Vietnam war protest. He continued his work as a peace activist even in his solo career, in part through his world-renowned song “Imagine.”
“When he was assassinated on December 8, 1980, his widow chose to capture his image as a peace activist, and fans subsequently began to form communities around this ideal,” said Riddell.
Isaac Noyes, a UW physics student, suggests fandom has become a trend thanks to the consumption of tabloid magazines and social media, providing fans insight into celebrities’ lives.
“Right now, people actually follow the personal lives of celebrities. They know exactly all the goings-on, what with all the pop culture magazines nowadays,” Noyes said.
“It’s easier for us to know about them, and research them,” added Michael Jadon, a health studies student at the university.
Riddell is quick to enforce her belief that this modern day sainthood is not replacing traditional structured religion.
“I think it’s just that we’re differently religious. Religion is no longer privatized; it’s no longer in the home, and it’s no longer just under the authority of the priest in an institution like the church. It’s everywhere in the public realm. This is just another way that religion has manifested in the public realm,” said Riddell.
When asked what effect this is having on today’s society, Riddell quoted Clark Gable, star of Gone With The Wind, who once famously said, “As much as we like to see them succeed, we also like to see them fail.”
“When we form audiences around the destruction of a celebrity, that could be a negative response, but I think that fans of the dead celebrities that I’m studying can have a very positive effect in our life.”