Gone Too Soon

Harold Ramis, who will always be Egon Spengler to me, died this week.  I am not here to eulogize the man.  Numerous news articles and reminiscences from people who actually knew him have covered his many contributions to the world of film and our popular culture.  Ghostbusters and Caddyshack are on my list of the essential films of the 1980s.  And (Spoiler Alert), when I get to them, you can bet that Animal House will make the 1970s list and Groundhog Day will be on the 1990s list.

Ramis’ passing got me thinking about our reactions to celebrity deaths.  In this age of Twitter and Facebook, people are able to take to the Internet immediately to express their shock and sorrow at the death of people they only know through a television or movie screen.  Now I don’t say that to belittle their reactions or imply that they’re not genuine.  To the contrary, I find it fascinating that we can and do form such strong connections to people that we’ve never met.

I was not particularly close to my maternal grandmother.  We lived many hours away from my grandparents, so I got to see them maybe once a year.  On those visits, my grandmother never seemed particularly interested in interacting with a couple of kids.  By the time I hit my teenage years, I returned the favor by not being interested in interacting with any adults.  And then it was too late.  She died while I was in college.

At her funeral, most of my thoughts were about how odd it was that my grandmother was in that box at the front of the funeral home (In my defense, it was the first funeral I’d ever attended).  I was sad because of how her fairly sudden death was affecting other members of my family, but I didn’t feel that personal sense of loss.

But just a few years earlier, the death of a man I’d never met hit me hard.  Jim Henson’s Muppets had been a huge part of my childhood, and losing the man who had created them, losing Kermit the Frog and Ernie and Guy Smiley and Rowlf and Dr. Teeth, that hurt me.  Even now, I cannot watch the footage from Henson’s funeral without tearing up.  Seriously.  I mean, have you seen THIS?

When Princess Diana died in 1997, at first I didn’t understand the genuine sorrow I was seeing from friends and family.  She was a British princess.  Why did we care?  But then I had to remember that some people felt the same connection with her that I did with people like Jim Henson or Gene Roddenberry.

And why shouldn’t we?  We live our lives surrounded by entertainers and celebrities.  When I was a child, I only saw my grandmother once a year, but Jim Henson was in my house almost every day thanks to Sesame Street and The Muppet Show.  Losing him did feel like losing a friend or family member. 

No doubt many of us have that kind of connection with some celebrity.  We may not actually know them, but we feel like we do.  It’s a connection that’s grown even stronger in this age of Internet celebrity news sites and celebrity-focused news and reality shows.  We can be virtually with them all of the time, if we want.

After the announcement of Ramis’ death, fans began leaving flowers, candles, and even Twinkies outside of the firehouse in New York City that was used in Ghostbusters.  My guess is that none of the people who left something actually knew the man.  But they wanted to thank, honor, and remember him for what he brought into their lives.  I wonder how many celebrities think about the effect they have on their fans.  Judging by the news, it may not be a large number of them, which is a shame, since for a lot of people (and as weird as this sounds) they really can be like family.

-Alan Decker

@CmdrAJD on Twitter