Celebrities, entertainment, and their relationship with death have always given a strange insight into the morals of our societies. At the heart of this are the changing forms of punishment and forgiveness.
There used to be a time when actors (actually replacements for the actors) were literally killed on stage in performances. The Romans, the Greeks, and I would say many antiquated cultures had a fixation on blood and death. It was something confronted and seen everyday. Entertainers and death were mixed together; this was the norm. When I say death here, I don’t mean special effects, but literally a human being slaughtered before a crowd.
Now, these weren’t straight-up executions (although these happened as well), but rather they were forms of entertainment that allowed punishment and forgiveness. Gladiator battles were the quintessential representation of this culture. Convicts and slaves battled each other and animals to the death to win freedom and glory. There was a sense of redemption for criminals. If the person wasn’t strong enough they were destined to die. But there was also a sense of forgiveness. If you could battle your way out of something and provide a bit of ‘entertainment’, then maybe, just maybe, you could win your freedom and even fame.
This tradition carried on through western culture. But the sense of forgiveness and winning freedom became separate. Entertainers moved to entertain in other ways and the actual confrontation with blood and death on a public stage moved elsewhere.
We needed some way to get a fix of real death and violence, and to fill the hole we turned to public executions and crazy torture methods. Witch-hunts, inquisitions, public trials filled our desire for a bloodlust.
Crowds would gather to see these lost souls destroyed. It was entertainment and punishment. There wasn’t much room for forgiveness.
Burnt, tortured, humiliated. It’s almost absurd the creativity humans put into these actions. The sense of forgiveness here transcended mortality. If the public had made a mistake then one could be forgiven in heaven. The inquisition was the pinnacle of this twisted fascination with blood, torture, and death.
At around this point, I would say people started to feel that they ‘had gone too far’. They looked for more ‘humane’ and ‘scientific’ ways to kill people. Public executions remained but seemed to get a twisted efficiency to them. The French Revolution illustrated this new idea. It was a blood bath unlike anything humans had seen before. The guillotine worked on in brutal efficiency while people urged it on. The mob ruled.
But humans suddenly moved back to killing some celebrities. Monarchs were overthrown and beheaded. It was a taboo that had been breached again. These demigods who were supposed to be untouchable were proven to be (to our surprise) mortal.
With the reemergence of democratic ideals, society blamed their ills on their leaders and wanted some vengeance. Who else to punish but the monarchs? The sense of forgiveness was still absent in the public sphere. These people had to be guilty. They were the cause of all our problems.
This killing, questioning, and blame rolled onwards. Democratic ideals began to shape public trials, but unraveled at the turn of the century with the World Wars and the eventual killing of millions of people. Humans had no one to blame but themselves. We had realized we had become numb to the idea of death and saw the horrors for what they were.
At around this time, Hollywood and Mass Media began to really take off and public executions ceased to exist (although executions still exist). People needed to escape from reality; it was too hard to cope with.
Society became strangely fascinated with public figures. Today we have magazines, talk shows, and blogs dedicated to these celebrities. People want to become these illusions and superhumans. We dazzle at photoshopped images and plastic lifestyles and look down at anyone who doesn’t meet these crazy standards.
We want to know everything there is to know about celebrities. But these celebrities have become our fallen monarchs and instead of blaming them for our ills we look to them for forgiveness and to shape our reality. For this reason, we hold them to absurd standards and revel at their social destruction before the public eye, and become fixated when they perform like the superhumans that they aren’t meant to be.
These celebrities become our ideals and part of our lives and no matter how crazy of a lifestyle they lead; it is viewed as a great tragedy when a celebraty dies. All their mortal flaws become forgiven in death. Part of our fake reality dies and it’s something we can’t ignore, but we want to.
I don’t mean to trivialize anyone’s death, but society does it to many people daily. In a time when thousands of people are dieing everyday in wars and poverty, humans have looked to our made up world for escape instead of acknowledging the ugliness and truth around us. We don’t want to have anything to do with actual death. Everything is good or evil; there is no middle ground. Ignorance is truly bliss.
Violence still permeates our culture, but it is in forms outside of the ‘real world’. Instead of seeing real death and war on T.V., we transfer the violence to fictional movies and video games. One where the good guy always wins and if you lose, you can just hit the reset button.
Like the Romans and the Greeks we are fascinated with death, violence, and fame, but the things we revere are fiction.
Best not think about it; it may bring up some hard thoughts.