Why dead celebs make us nostalgic

April 19, 2012 at 12:44 PM ET

Once again, a popular celebrity in the music industry has died, and once again Americans are awash in bittersweet nostalgia.

On Wednesday, it was 82-year-old Dick Clark, who, after being in ill health for years following a stroke, succumbed to a heart attack. In February, it was Whitney Houston and Davey Jones, the cute Monkee, who both died unexpectedly.

On the news of his passing, Twitter came alive with tributes.  “Dick Clark, you remain a part of us all,” an Atlanta man tweeted Thursday. “Thank you for the memories and the smiles.”

It doesn’t matter that most of the masses never met him, the grief is still real, experts say.  “The weird thing with famous people is if we follow their careers, we feel some sort of connection, even though they don’t know who we are,” North Dakota State University psychologist Clay Routledge tells

Their deaths remind us of how quickly the years have passed and of our own mortality. “Dick Clark's top 40 countdown was a part of my history,” reality TV star Bethenny Frankel tweeted. “My head & heart are filled with memories. New year's will never be the same.”

Related link: Dick Clark dead at 82

Like Frankel, you might remember those Rockin’ New Year’s Eves fondly but feel a bit of despair at the thought of never again experiencing them with Clark at the helm, says Frederick Barrett. Barrett, a doctoral candidate in psychology at the University of California, Davis, specializes in music-evoked nostalgia.

It stands to reason that people feel nostalgic when celebrities die, he says. Nostalgia not only pays homage to the late great’s memory but also helps fans cope with their feelings, Barrett says.

“One of the big triggers of nostalgia is negative emotion: sadness, a sense of loss, uncertainty,” Routledge says. “For the diehard fans, especially in the case of Whitney, their sudden demise is disrupting to our sense of a continuous, sort of predictable world.” So, he says, “people cling to the past, where they get a sense of warmth.”

Nostalgia bolsters one’s sense of social connectedness, says Timothy Wildschut, a University of Southampton, England, psychology professor who’s collaborated with Routledge.

“I would imagine that the news of Dick Clark’s passing evokes powerful nostalgic memories of New Year’s celebrations spent with close others,” Wildschut said in an email, “and that these nostalgic memories imbue one’s life with meaning.”

And nostalgia, apparently, does wonders for the bottom line. Sales of Houston’s, Michael Jackson’s and Amy Winehouse’s music soared posthumously.  “The Dark Knight,” the 2008 Batman movie that featured actor Heath Ledger, who suddenly died shortly before it opened, set a number of box office records.

Maybe publicity about the star’s death spurred people to take another look at their work, Routledge says, but it’s probably more than that.

“I think there’s this very existential component,” he says. People bought the music or saw the movie  to try to keep a part of the late star’s identity alive, Routledge says. “The part of them that was important, their legacy, lives on.”

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