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People Make Relationships With Characters

MANHATTAN, Kan. (UPI) — Celebrity deaths can strongly affect their fans, who often use social media to grieve the loss of people they’ve never met, a U.S. researcher says.

Richard Harris, professor of psychology at Kansas State University, said many people develop relationships with media figures in a manner similar to the way they do so in real life — a phenomenon referred to as parasocial interaction.

The one-sided relationship is most commonly observed between celebrities — or even fictional characters — and fans. A prominent example cited by Harris was the popular television show “Friends.” The show aired for 10 years and revolved six principal characters.

“Many people have probably spent more time with the characters on ‘Friends’ than they have with most of their real-life friends,” Harris said in a statement. “Of course they haven’t interacted with them — it’s very one-sided. People can, if drama is particularly well acted and written, identify with the characters. That’s a significant relationship.”

Spontaneous displays of grieving after the death of a celebrity are not new. Impromptu memorials appeared for Princess Diana, Michael Jackson and John Lennon following their deaths.

Harris said these losses have a distinct difference from the loss of a family member.

“We don’t have the social structures and support for grieving the loss of a media character or, in particular, a fictional character,” Harris said.

Social media postings can be therapeutic for some fans, and celebrities have even taken to social media sites to mourn the loss of fellow stars or influential people, Harris said.

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