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The Psychology of the Appeal of Portrayals of Violence


In the following paper, I would like to dwell on the issue of the Internet rumors, Aretha Franklin’s death in particular. For this sake, I analyze the presentation of information on the three commercial sites. Furthermore, the essential features of rumors are outlined. The emphasis is made upon the fact that rumors, due to their salient characteristics, subconsciously slip into our mind and are practically impossible to eradicate as they play on human innate feelings.  

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One more thing that immediately catches the visitor’s eye is the design and features of the sites in question. Their layout is not simple and contains a lot of graphics. It is somewhat flashy and visually attractive to users. Such a bright design subconsciously attracts the audiences that think superficially and do not analyze what they are reading. If a person is distracted by the graphics and sound, that is, more senses are simultaneously engaged during his/ her work with the site, his/ her attention becomes dissipated. As a result of this, one is more prone to uncritical perception of unreliable information. 

Rumors about Aretha Franklin’s death have appeared on Twitter and “stories that the singing legend is no more have been spreading on the Internet like wildfire”. In December, 2010, the singer had to undergo surgery for an “undisclosed illness”, which helped her to lose 85 lbs.; since then, the headlines started highlighting the news that Aretha “was suffering from incurable pancreatic cancer”. Finally, Aretha Franklin, who is known as the Queen of Soul, was claimed to be dead.

The rumor has been debunked by the singer herself, as people.com states. She denied the fact that she underwent gastric bypass surgery to lose weight.  “Definitely not – and would not,” Franklin, 68, has told Access Hollywood in a two-part interview to air Monday and Tuesday. “I heard that [rumor]. I said, ‘That is crazy.’” (people.com) The point is that the singer refused to explain the reasons for a “mysterious surgical intervention” or at least name it, which gave birth to rumors. “But it definitely was not the bariatric or, what is it, gastric bypass. Yeah, I can’t even tell you the correct name of it,” says theQueen of Soul, adding, “It’s really not necessary to talk about one’s personal medical [health].” (people.com) As Franklin states, weighing less makes you feel lighter and having “more energy”. “The doctor did say to me, he said, ‘Mrs. Franklin, you are going to feel better than you have felt maybe in 10 or 15 years,’” she says. “'The surgery that you had is going to add 15 years to your life.’”

USATODAY.com continues debunking the rumor, telling that “In Franklin's case, the Monday mix-up may have been spawned by legitimate reports about the death of singer Teena Marie, who was frequently described as the Ivory Queen of Soul. Franklin is known as the Queen of Soul.” According to the anonymous source close to the Detroit singer, she is “home, alive, and recovering.” False death reports frequently emerge on Twitter; the recent victims were Bill Cosby and Morgan Freeman.

Very few of the majority is ready to acknowledge that he/ she is credulous. However, rumors infiltrate into our mind before we manage to analyze or doubt them. The most sticky rumors completely deviate common sense. Thus, what is it in the rumor that makes us blindly believe it? Essentially, a rumor is a piece of information that lacks any solid background; one passes it along due to the misinformation or desire to find out what has happened. To survive and spread, rumors should meet the following requirements: 1) tease our emotions and anxieties; 2) sound a bit shocking, at the same time supporting already existing beliefs; 3) be repeated many times (in this case, even a false rumor will be perceived); 4) reflect the societal current concerns; 5) be simple and easy to grasp; 6) reflect bad things about somebody we are jealous of. Finally, one may spread rumors just to show off his/ her daring.

It is common knowledge that a human eagerly believes negative things about people he/ she envies. This is the case with celebrities: the majority of population envies them because they are powerful, famous, and beautiful; they can allow themselves things that an ordinary person cannot. The more successful and beautiful the star is – the more vicious the rumors. Let us consider the following examples: “Jamie Lee Curtis is a hermaphrodite. Cher (or Janet Jackson) had a rib removed so she’d look skinnier. Catherine the Great died trying to make love to a horse.”

Barbara Mikkelson, running the popular legends-debunking Web site Snopes.com, describes the reasons for popularity of rumours as a delight derived from another’s misfortune: “People pass along rumours that they, on some level, tend to agree with, if there’s something in the story that they identify with, that they want to be true,” says Mikkelson. “We envy celebrities, and it’s just human nature to pull down what has been raised so high.” In our case, which celebrities’ misfortune can be worse than his/ her death? Surely, it is morally corrupt to derive pleasure from somebody’s death, but the notion of death is concrete and simple. Simplicity and concreteness make rumours stick.    

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No matter how horrifying the news of somebody’s death may be, the rumours highlighting it create an irresistible appeal for readers. To understand this, one should mention the reconsideration of the notion of “death”. The point is that death has lost its fundamental relation to the “real”, whereas cultures of rationality completely exclude the dead and the notion of death. At the same time, this process of exclusion has led to death’s imaginary reconfiguration, so that “death becomes the fantasy of life”. In this connection, the standpoint of Zillman and Goldberg is of high interest. Goldberg traces the domestication of death throughout history and claims that death in the twentieth century has taken on a new resonance, being removed from everyday life. Consequently, in turn, Zillman correlates the disappearance of the dead from everyday life with the intensification of interest in images of death and dying (Zillman, 1998).

All things considered, the rumour about Aretha Franklin’s death is not creative and has its all essential features. To begin with, it plays on our innate fear for death; nevertheless, in connection with celebrities, people gloat over this issue; and fear turns into delight. Secondly, the notion of death is too concrete and easy to transmit. Moreover, as the investigation has shown, the rumour appeared at the time when another singer was officially announced dead (thus, the rumour addressed current issues). Finally, the given piece of news was repeated many times, which is also a salient characteristic of a rumour.

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