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summer/fall 2007 no. 9


Celebrity Aesthetics as Mortality Terror Management

by Daniel J. Kruger

Did you know that your academic productivity can be attributed to your subconscious desire to avoid thinking about your own possibly imminent death? Publications and other cultural artifacts are products of a compensatory psychological mechanism for ameliorating the psychological terror resulting from the awareness of one’s own mortality. Like cognitive dissonance and other paradigms before it, Terror Management Theory (TMT; Pyszczynski, Solomon, & Greenberg, 2002) is on the verge of becoming the latest mainstream psychological meta-theory for explaining a wide array of psychological and cultural phenomena.

Although some evolutionists have claimed that the phenomena cited by TMT are artifacts of coalitional psychology (e.g., Navarrete, Kurzban, Fessler, & Kirkpatrick 2004), TMT remains a powerful tool for dissecting cultural products and events. For example, witness the recent existential crisis of American celebrity singer Cher. Faced with the recognition of her impending senescence, “Cher is reportedly refurbishing her Gothic-style Malibu home and is emptying her closets of gowns and shoes. Also on the block are dozens of heavy crucifixes, wrought-iron furniture and paintings… Cher said she was inspired to redecorate following her [appropriately named] three-year ‘Farewell’ tour” (Associated Press, 2006).

We shouldn't be spooked by the fact that Cher is shedding her Gothic image and doing away with her Gothic Revival furnishings. Gothic architecture and furniture conjure up thoughts of churches, cemeteries, horror movies, and the ghouls and goblins of Halloween. Such artifacts are also prominent in morbid cultural phenomena such as the Addams Family. It is no mere coincidence that the character played by the female co-star of the Addams Family, who was also dark haired, tall, and wiry, was named “Morticia.” Cher’s guests will no longer have the impression that they have descended into the set of Beetlejuice 2.

“I have loved everything I ever bought,” Cher said in a statement, but “now it's time for them to go on.” The Associated Press (2006) reports that “Cher will relate personal stories of how she found each of the items for the auction's catalog. Stories make the pieces into ‘living entities,’ she said as she looks wistfully at them, knowing they'll be gone soon.” It doesn’t take a head shrinker to bring Cher’s un-encrypted thoughts into the light. Cher’s motivation to suppress thoughts of death is as transparent as an apparition.

There is another wrinkle in the story; Cher is rejuvenating her abode in a “Moroccan-Tibetan style.” Colorful prayer flags will give a welcoming wave to guests bedecked in bright red fezzes (sure to cover their receding hair lines). Of course, possibly the most salient artifact of Tibetan culture is the Bardo Thodol, the "Book of the Dead" which guides readers through the process of death and into the next life. “Out with the old, in with the new,” eh? Cher has finally realized that she cannot, in fact, turn back time. Her latest aesthetic incarnation reflects her preparation for reincarnation.

Of course, I acknowledge that my own motivation (however deeply buried) for sharing this revelation is not merely to eulogize Terror Management Theory, but to symbolically perpetuate myself into future generations. This raises the subject of memes, but as my time is up, we will need to preserve that discussion for the future…



Associated Press. (2006, August 3). Cher Cleans Neo-Goth House.

Navarrete, C.D., Kurzban, R., Fessler, D.M.T., & Kirkpatrick, L.A. (2004). Anxiety and intergroup bias: Terror management or coalitional psychology? Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, 7, 370-397.

Pyszczynski, T., Solomon, S., & Greenberg, J. (2002). In the wake of 9/11: The psychology of terror. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.




Daniel J. Kruger earned his PhD in Social Psychology at Loyola University Chicago and is currently a Research Scientist at the University of Michigan. His evolutionary research interests include: altruism, cooperation, competition, risk, life history, mortality patterns, mating strategies, and applications for social and ecological sustainability.


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