Essays and Theories

Evolutionary Psychology and Hollywood, Part II:
The Creation of the Celebrity and the Fascination of the Morbid.
William A. Spriggs
March, 1998

"It is a point to remember that of all the ironies about Diana, perhaps the greatest is this: that a girl given the name of the ancient goddess of hunting was, in the end, the most hunted person of the modern age."

Charles, Earl of Spencer, addressing the funeral service for his sister, Princess Diana.  Westminster Abbey, September 6, 1997

When we think of Hollywood celebrities, we usually visualize glamorous and handsome people exiting from limousines, their symmetrical, blemish-free faces smiling and culturally desirable body shapes, draped in the latest fashions, greeted by flashing lights of photographers. Although not a product of Hollywood, the Princess of Wales certainly qualified as a celebrity in life and even more in death. She was one of the most highly visible inhabitants on the planet. From her introduction to the world as a beautiful, innocent virgin, to loving mother of two young sons, to worldly and and seductive spokesperson -- Diana held us captive with her every movement.

Diana’s life was the perfect embodiment of the classical myth of the princess who found her Prince Charming. To us commoners, it was like a long-ago story retrieved from our childhood memories, lifting us from our daily harsh realities. After her divorce, Diana devoted herself to charity work and endeared herself even further to us. It has been estimated that close to 1.5 billion souls witnessed her funeral that was televised on September 6th, 1997, and most assuredly she will live on as a modern day saint.

Why do we create celebrities? Why is it that we are so fascinated by the Madonnas, the Whitney Houstons, the Cindy Crawfords, the Brad Pits, the Kevin Costners, and the Michael Jacksons? Why is there such a need to read, see, hear, discuss, and debate the comings and goings, sexual status, mating possibilities, fashions, financial ranking, personal hygiene, posture, political associations, charity donations, friends and associates, living arrangements, and in extreme cases -- what the celebrity was seen eating on a particular moment of a particular day? Why do we care if harm or happiness lies before their path?

What is behind this internal drive deep down in all of us to know this information? What has been fixed in our genetic make-up that is behind this cultural creation over the thousands of generations since our ancestors emigrated out of the plains of Africa? In our need for this information, did we feed the media institutions that gladly charge us to keep the information flowing? In our fervent support of these media outlets, have these industries created falsehoods and exaggerated the truth to keep us buying more of their products? Was our evolutionary past the ultimate reason for Diana’s death?

To find the answer to these questions we must go back to our primate beginnings, for it is there, on the plains of Africa and the slow migration north, that most likely formed the bulk of the emotions of behavior that we all share today. No one who was alive then recorded in written form the events that unfolded, so we must proceed with caution and try as best as we can to reconstruct these behaviors.

There are those in science that say because of the lack of solid physical evidence, these reconstructed theories are therefore untestable and hence unscientific. That is correct. But like our brain’s need to make sense of an optical illusion, or solve a math problem, we want answers to every question we face. We can’t help it because it is our computational, modular mind we inherited from our ancestors that begs for the best possible answer before taking that next step, which in that early environment, could have proved fatal. So how do scientists proceed? They gather knowledge of primate and human behaviors; they make close, unbiased, accurate reports in neuroscience, anthropology, and sociology -- in short, they combine all the interdisciplinary sciences that affect human behavior -- plus a bit of imagination and common sense. And how will we know which speculations are correct? We will never be 100% certain of reconstructed behavior mechanisms, but it is common sense behavioral reconstructions at their best that will determine the best theories and speculations for future generations. It is with the passage of time and the acceptance of the speculative reconstructions that will determine if particular theories will remain standing.

Let’s imagine for a moment. I want you to close your eyes and imagine that you are in your ancestral past -- say some 45,000 years into the past. You are sitting in a tree and preparing to fix a bed made of tree branches. You are naked. Your body is covered head-to-toe in a thin layer of a tough fur coating. There is no television, no radio, no roof over your head, no walls to confine you; there are no highways, nor cars to travel them. There are no movies to go to, no frozen foods to eat, no newspapers or magazines to read, no telephones on which to chat with your friends. And horrors! -- no malls to cruise and no internet to surf! Good lord, what’s a person to do? Well, guess what? You have just answered the question, "why we create celebrities?" Because one of the major activities that our ancestors most likely did besides eating, grooming, sleeping, mating, forming alliances for status maneuvers, was watching and evaluating the activities of the higher-ranking members within their hunter-gatherer bands. Other members of the group were probably watched, but not as intensely as the high-rankers, for it was these individuals who were able to obtain resources that were advantageous their survival, and if one observed very closely one also might be able to learn their techniques. Being able to duplicate their behavior may somehow, someday, make one high in status also, and that would greatly increase your chances of survival and the passing along of one’s genes.

To help in their observation of the comings and goings of these high-rankers, our ancestors were equipped with all the latest devices: they had eyes, ears, and noses to gather environmental information for analysis. (they also had tongues for taste, and could feel for touch, but they didn’t need those to follow up on their fellow clanspeople -- those are for close-up and personal items of survival information related to the self).

The celebrities of Hollywood today are simply the equivalent of the high-ranking members of our ancestral clans of long-ago. Does such a claim seem to push the envelope of logic? Consider this: you have to keep in mine that Homo sapiens time in the upright position and our ability to use consciousness to ponder the world and the universe only represents less than 1% of the timeline since we broke from our primate ancestors some four million years ago. Back then, controlling the information about the whereabouts of a large stash of bananas could easily be the equivalent of being a major movie star today (ever hear of inflation and perceived value?). The Hollywood stars of today appear to us to have all the advantages of their rank that we also seek because of the perceived value of their lives. Glamorous life styles, large and beautiful homes, expensive clothes, and pretty or handsome mates. We think that we want the same things because it is obvious in our culture that having these things is better than not having them. There are no television shows that trumpet the achievements of the poor and non-famous. In my opinion, that is what is wrong with our society, as I know that there are enough resources to go around for all.

The Hollywood celebrity we admire helps to make our every day life seem a little better. We need these people because we can substitute them in our minds for perhaps a few hours every week. They also push the outer edge of the envelope of social behavior and beat a path for us to follow. Perhaps that is why we watch them so closely. They help to shape new tastes because they are in demand, and because they are in demand, they attract our attention.

Now I would like to answer the question raised by the media in the wake of Diana’s death concerning the tabloids. Did the media create the hype over Diana, or did the public, by buying and reading the tabloids, contribute to the feeding frenzy that contained the hype? I am afraid that the answer is that, we the humans, with our innate evolutionary need to know the comings and goings of this high-ranking soul, are the ones who hastened her death by wanting the information be given us by the predatory news hounds that chased her. If we did not fatten the purses of the beast, it would have had no reason to continue to devour that which was in its path.

In the second part of this essay, I want to dwell on the morbid. What is our fascination with the morbid and why do we need to focus on things horrible and matters sexual? And why do we seem to dwell on large scale tragedies while millions of small tragedies out number the large ones? Last night a Chinese airliner went down and killed all 200-odd souls aboard. The news was carried in all the various media outlets -- television, radio, newspaper, and internet news outlets. Yes, the event was tragic, and should have been part of the news, yet many more people were killed last week (about 450) on America’s highway, yet not one word was mentioned about that more cumulative tragedy.

In December of 1996, just after the Christmas day celebration ended, a tragedy occurred in Boulder Colorado in which a six year old girl whose passion was participating in beauty pageants was brutally murdered. The media was all over this one and the event still carries immediate resonance with the public whenever additional news breaks occur. Why is it that hundreds of little girls are murdered each year in our country due to parental abuse or gang-related activity, yet little is reported on these almost identical tragedies?

I believe that the answers lies in several components of the universality of biological knowledge. Ever hear the expression: Sex and Violence sells? Just the other day the magazine Rolling Stone had a traveling display of all of its covers in Boulder, and the curator of the traveling show was interviewed on the local radio station and was asked what Rolling Stone covers sold the best. His reply: "Those that focused on Sex or Death." From an evolutionary perspective, this is a no-brainer. Sex is pleasurable for most people, (although males seek the behavior almost twice as often as females). It is a behavior that is considered positive in terms of reward, and as such, we tend to gravitate toward obtaining the behavior. It is considered a plus, or a excitatory behavior attachment (+) in artificial intelligence terms. And of course, the ultimate, unconscious reason we seek sex, is that the function will pass our genes into the next generation.

As for death, which also includes the subjects of blood, violence, war, pestilence, etc., it is a negative behavior that should at all costs be avoided. It is a negative behavior in terms of pain and punishment, and it carries a negative, inhibited behavior attachment (-) in artificial intelligence terms. And, of course, the unconscious, innate reason we avoid death is that we will no longer be able to pass our genes. We seek information on matters sexual to continue in this wonderful voyage we call life to pass on our genes, and seek stories on death to analyze all possibilities in avoiding the final curtain which would sink the voyage.

One of the most important elements in the fascination of the morbid and matters sexual is the universal knowledge of these subjects to every one on the planet. The Queen of England and the crack drug dealer in Los Angeles can both relate and understand the subjects of sex and violence because they have such an enormous impact on our lives. We carry with us in our genes the innate messages to recognize and understand all the variants of the two subjects. Hence you can see why there will always be a limited audience for, say, a lecture on quantum physics or discussion of neuropeptides. From the media’s point of view, at least, the more complicated and intellectual the subject, the smaller the potential audience. The answer, for the media, is to ignore the complicated and the intellectual and report on things physical and innate. The media is driven by statistical numbers that reinforce the preoccupation with the morbid and the sexual. Hence, a larger audience share means that they can charge more for their commercials; hence more revenues for their network, which of course filters down to the individuals at the various stations, which means more resources in their pockets, which of course, increases their chances in the game of survival and the passing of their genes. It also reinforces the reporters at the bottom to find stories that will please the executives at the top of this cultural hierarchy.

The third part of the spread of the morbid in the media has to do simply with the competitive nature of the business, and the individuals within that industry. "You gotta be pushy to get the story," and old newspaper chum once told me. Since audience share depends on whether you have the story that interests the largest audience in the shortest possible time limit, you have the chemistry for a feeding frenzy when reporters gather to cover a "interesting" story. Of course it doesn’t help when we, as the audience, tune it to the channel and support the very efforts that seem to fascinate and appall us both.

OK, so now we understand why death and matters sexual seem to appeal to a large audience, but why the specifics, such as the Jon Benet Ramsey case and not a story about a little African-American girl that was shot because she was in the crossfire of a gang shoot-out in Los Angeles? For this, we must locate the executives who occupy the hierarchies of media control. It is these managers who choose which stories they feel will result in the highest ratings. In other words, the culture that controls the media most likely will defend, promote, and disseminate information in a top-to-bottom broadcast that benefits its own interests or fears the most. In the case of Jon Benet Ramsey, it is the little white girl who met with the foul fate that concerns the controlling culture the most. Some day soon we will realize that we are all created equal and that fortune and misfortune is news to us all.

Origin: March, 1998

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