March 29, 2008

Celebrities Dying In Threes

Stupid Question ™
March 1, 2004
By John Ruch
© 2004

Q: What’s the basis for celebrities dying in threes?
—T.M., Columbus, Ohio

A: I trust you will not be insulted when I say this question cannot be answered literally because it is essentially meaningless.

Of course, I recognize the superstition you’re referring to. But when you try to pin it down by asking what is meant by “celebrities” and “threes”—poof! All the meaning disappears.

And clearly, celebrities of any stripe do not all keel over in trios. It’s ridiculous.

In short, there is no basis for it whatsoever, beyond a misunderstanding of statistics and a slew of other mental errors.

In cultural terms, I can’t trace any origin to the superstition. It’s tempting to toss out some watermark like “The Day the Music Died,” when 1950s rock stars Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. “Big Bopper” Richardson died together in a plane crash.

But it’s much older and even less rational than that—as old as misunderstanding statistics. There is similar talk of deaths within families coming in threes, or bad incidents in general coming in threes. The number three has longstanding significance in magical thinking (it’s just big enough a number in a sequence to stop looking like a coincidence, even if it is).

It must be noted that the vast majority of people who quote the superstition do so relatively tongue-in-cheek for an extremely mild thrill or conversation-starter. That doesn’t make the thinking any less sloppy, of course.

And, inevitably, there are those who take it seriously. One apparent near-true believer who blogged away on the subject up through 1999 gives a good case study in the mental screwiness involved.

For example, what did he consider “dying in threes”? For him, it was three deaths occurring “generally less than a month from the first to the last” (and that’s not even a calendar month). Generally? Could it be more vague? What could slip through such a wide net?

And what did he consider a “celebrity”? People “somehow equivalently famous or otherwise linked.” Somehow?

Here was his first trio for 1999: King Hussein of Jordan, Watergate figure John Ehrlichman, and movie critic Gene Siskel! Equivalently famous?! Somehow linked?! And they died over a two-week period.

You see the real pattern here: Data being altered to fit a hypothesis, and not vice versa. Thus, dying in threes will always be “proven.”

Naturally, because time is linear, people will always die in a sequence from which you can always count three in a row. Similarly, people die in twos, tens, and ten millions, from that perspective. They certainly all die in ones.

Therefore, the question is, over what time period a sequence of deaths is to be considered significant. This is where things instantly disintegrate, because almost everybody has their own definition. Under a month? Within a week? One every day for three days? You can take your pick—which is to say, it’s a bunch of nonsense.

Personally, I would insist on three in one day to even approach an impressive statistic.

I won’t even get into the time zone and international dateline problem.
Back to the definition problems: “celebrity.” What does it mean? It’s an increasingly broad term, now encompassing reality TV stars, well-known criminals and, in my almanac at least, a new influx of Cuban musicians.

This whole notion of celebrity deaths is in fact a weird reification of fame—that it is not what people achieve that binds us together or lends meaning to their lives, but simply that they are “well-known” to varying degrees and durations.

There are more “celebrities” than ever before, and the number is continually growing. Therefore, what would be truly astonishing is if celebrities never died around the same time as other celebrities. There’s so many of them, and they’re dying all the time. (And, of course, thousands of non-famous people die at the same time a celebrity does—is the same force cutting them down, too? Do celebrities die in threes and take 30,000 with them?)

Let’s not forget the really big question: Even if celebrities dying in threes is considered a given, what are we supposed to take it to mean? That there is some inane brand of fate that counts in multiples of three? That would be so stupid it seems hardly worth knowing. Clearly, what is involved here is a love of occultism for its own sake.

Let’s get to some real stats. My “World Alamanac” for 2004 has a listing of deaths of presumably famous people running from Jan. 1, 2003 through October of the same year (up against its publishing deadline).

September 2003, you may recall, brought much of this “dying in threes” talk over Warren Zevon, John Ritter and Johnny Cash, who died within five days of each other. (At least three other famous people died during the same stretch, but weren’t as beloved, so apparently didn’t count.)

Over the almanac’s 10-month period (304 days), there were 105 celebrity deaths. That’s an average of nearly—drum roll, please—one every three days. (I doubt, by the way, that this average is consistent enough over the years to be any sort of basis for the superstition; clearly, those who repeat it have not done any statistical analysis at all.)

Is this relationship to the number three mystical? No, it just shows there is a very large absolute number of “celebrity” deaths in a given year. We should expect many of them to happen almost simultaneously. Fifteen celebrities died in January 2003 alone.

The three-in-one-day superstition became a hard reality once in that 10-month period: May 14, when Dave DeBusschere, Wendy Hiller and Robert Stack all died. And anybody who can identify all three of those “celebrities” deserves the grand prize on “Jeopardy!”

Naturally, two-in-one-day was much more common, happening 16 times. Did you know diet guru Robert Atkins and oil billionaire J. Paul Getty Jr. both died on April 17? Spooky! But then, Tex McCrary and Foday Sankoh also both died on the same day (July 29). Is there a single person on Earth who knows who both of them were? Not so spooky.

As all the fans of this superstition amply demonstrate, they only count celebrities they’ve heard of.

Overall, the deaths over the 10-month period were fairly evenly distributed, as would also be expected statistically. There was no fickle finger of fate at work—just the fickle perceptions of the superstitious.

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