The phenomenon of the celebrity death hoax is by and large a reasonably recent one. In the days of traditional print media, a death notice would have been much too risky to publish before it was thoroughly checked for veracity. Now, as social media dominates, false reports of celebrities’ deaths are all to common. With few notable exceptions, false rumours of various celebrities’ deaths originate online, usually on popular social media sites, and as a result they generally spread like wildfire.
A number of these hoaxes are designed as click bait, in order to trick readers into clicking on a malicious link or to generate traffic to a particular site, while others are started on fake news sites purely for the purposes of trolling the general population. Interestingly, a smaller number of far more amusing death hoaxes come about as a result of the misinterpretation of a badly thought-out headline or poorly-worded hashtag. The following are twenty of these mistaken claims or hoaxes that really took off, and had the world mourning a living favourite celebrity for a few moments.
20. Macaulay Culkin
In November 2014, Macaulay Culkin fell prey to his second death hoax, just six months after a previous rumour did the rounds. Reports all over the Internet reported that the thirty-four year old actor had been found dead in his apartment, and in a very short time an “R.I.P Macaulay Culkin” page had been set up and was amassing likes on Facebook. Culkin hit back at the rumours by posting a photo of him performing with his band on Twitter, with the hashtag “#imalive”. If nothing else, it ended up being good exposure for Culkin’s band, The Pizza Underground.
19. Britney Spears
Britney Spears has been the focus of numerous death hoaxes throughout her life. A rumour, spread in 2001, said that Spears and her boyfriend of the time had died in a car crash, aged nineteen and twenty. This rumour was started by two DJs in the US who appropriated the BBC logo to give their story gravitas, a stunt which was met with enormous disapproval. Another – more recent – hoax in 2013 suggested that Spears had once again died, this time of a drug overdose, which was quickly proven false.
18. Owen Wilson
In 2010, Owen Wilson was the victim of an intricate death hoax that indicated he’d met his demise in a snowboarding accident, which is a strangely popular celebrity death of choice in the rumour mill. In December 2010 a fake report told the world that while holidaying in Switzerland “Wilson lost control of his snowboard and struck a tree at a high rate of speed… Wilson was air lifted by ski patrol teams to a local hospital, however, it is believed that the actor died instantly from the impact of the crash”.
A rep reassured the population that the rumour was “absolutely false”, however, and Wilson has proven himself very much alive since.
17. Miley Cyrus
For such a young celebrity, Miley Cyrus has been the victim of more death hoaxes than you can shake a stick at. Declared dead in 2007 and again in 2008, the latter as a result of a car crash, Cyrus also met her end in 2012 courtesy of a Twitter account pretending to be the MTV News, who tweeted that the star had been found dead in her Miami home.
The fact that the link the page provided to the supposed details of the death took readers to an advert for anti-aging cream surprisingly did not entirely dispel the hysteria surrounding the claim. More recently, Cyrus was again twice reported dead, both times earlier this year. These rumours both originated on social media sites, presumably with the object of getting people to click on malicious or advertising links.
16. Justin Bieber
Another high-profile young star to become the victim of a death hoax is Justin Bieber. A Twitter-based rumour in January of this year declared the star dead as a result of a high-speed Ferrari crash. It has been generally decided that the whole hoax originated as a ploy to obtain retweets, in which case it was actually a complete success; the report was in fact trending on Twitter for some time.
A bleakly amusing twist of fate saw the worldwide broadcasting of the death of Cher in 2013. Not so much a hoax as a miscommunication, Cher’s apparent death came about as a result of Twitter’s reaction to the death of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher early in 2013. Thatcher, having been a figure of considerable contention in her political career, was subject to a custom Twitter hashtag as a result of her death, reading “#nowthatchersdead”.
This prompted mass confusion on the site, with many reading the hashtag as “now that Cher’s dead” as opposed to “now Thatcher’s dead”. Happily the mix up came to light without too much damage, and we can reasonably assume that Thatcher and Cher will never be mistaken for one another again.
14. Patrick Dempsey
Another victim of manic Twitter propaganda, Patrick Dempsey was said to have died in 2010 at the age of forty-six. Rumours of the Grey’s Anatomy actor’s death sparked panic amongst his fans when a fan site was hacked and ran false information that Dempsey had died in a car accident.
“RIP Patrick Dempsey” fast became a trending topic on Twitter, and caused short-lived outpourings of grief before Dempsey himself assuaged the rumours, tweeting “Hi I am back From the dead!”.
13. Paul McCartney
Spreading a death hoax in the pre-Internet days seems like an arduous task. However, it is evidently not impossible; a bizarre conspiracy that Paul McCartney had died circulated around 1966, with theorists insisting that McCartney had secretly died and had been replaced in the band by a carbon copy.
Apparently, the guilt became too much for the remaining Beatles and they began hiding cryptic clues in their songs, with cryptic messages revealed when songs were played backwards being a popular theory. The album cover for the Beatles’ Abbey Road also came under scrutiny, with some insisting that John Lennon wore all white to represent a clergyman, Ringo Starr was the mourner in black, George Harrison was the gravedigger wearing jeans, and Paul was the body wearing no shoes — he wouldn’t need them, being dead — who walked out of step with the others.
12. Paris Hilton
Once again it was a violent car crash that brought about the fictional death of a celebrity, this time concerning socialite and heiress Paris Hilton. In September of 2012, Paris Hilton was decreed dead online at the age of thirty-one, with the site necropedia.com detailing the mourning of her friends and family after the supposed incident. Her ‘death’ was also reported on another site which claimed that alcohol and drugs were not involved, and that Hilton had been driving a friend’s car at the time of the crash. Despite the fact that there was not a single piece of evidence to back up the claims, her purported death caused mass outcry for a while, until it was proven false by Hilton’s being depicted in various media still very much alive.
11. Will Smith
Early this year, actor Will Smith found himself in the unfortunate position of being subject to two simultaneous rumours declaring his death. A report, admittedly from a questionable entertainment website, circulated in January with a seriously-worded account of Smith’s death that was said to have happened on set: “Actor Will Smith died while filming a movie in New Zealand early this morning – January 19, 2014. Preliminary reports from New Zealand Police officials indicate that the actor fell more than 60 feet to his death on the Kauri Cliffs while on-set. Specific details are not yet available. The accident occurred at approximately 4:30 a.m. (UTC/GMT +12).”
At around the same time, another rumour of Smith having died in surgery — possibly related to his purported accident and possibly unconnected — was also doing the rounds. Happily, Smith is blatantly still alive and kicking.
10. Taylor Swift
Given the phenomenal success of her latest album, it’s a very good thing that reports of Taylor Swift‘s death two years ago were purely a hoax. In 2012 rumours circulated that the pop singer, aged twenty-two at the time, had been found dead in her home, once again courtesy of Twitter. A fake Twitter account, once again posing reasonably convincingly as being associated with MTV News, gave only vague details and still somehow managed to prompt an outbreak of mourning and condolences online. The rumours were soon disproved, and Swift has gone from strength-to-strength since coming back from the dead.
9. Norman Reedus
Rumours have plagued actor Norman Reedus this year. Reedus, appropriately enough star of TV series The Walking Dead, was reported to have died in mid-2014 in a car crash. The fake news went viral on Facebook and Twitter on May 30th, with an “RIP Norman Reedus” page being set up on the former. Reedus took a lot of joy in debunking the rumours via his Twitter, posting numerous updates which included a photo of him in the back of a broken down car, a photo from filming of The Walking Dead. A few months previously a rumour that Reedus had been fired from his role in the series did the rounds, which was also quickly disproved. Fortunately for Reedus, he will probably end 2014 still holding onto both his job and his life.
8. Will Ferrell
In an aptly ridiculous claim for such a comedic celebrity, it was rumoured that Will Ferrell had died in a paragliding accident in South California in 2006. The story circulated that a freak gust of wind had blown Ferrell and his companion off-course while paragliding, which had led to them losing control and crashing into some nearby woods. Detailed claims said that despite attempts to resuscitate the two, they died en route to the hospital due to massive head injuries and broken bones. The claim was quickly withdrawn, and was exposed by E!Online, amongst other sites, as being a hoax.
7. Jackie Chan
Jackie Chan is no stranger to death hoaxes. In 2011, a Facebook page entitled “Jackie Chan R.I.P 08/17/2011” garnered enormous amounts of likes after a rumour went around that Chan had died of a heart attack. Two years later he still wasn’t safe — in 2013, Chan quickly quashed online rumours of his death by posting a photo of himself to his Facebook page, holding a newspaper and pointing to its date — June 21st, 2013 — along with the phrase “If I died, I would probably tell the world! I took a photo with today’s date, just in case you don’t believe me! However, thank you all for your concern.”
6. Adam Sandler
According to the Internet, Adam Sandler has achieved the incredible feat of having died several times over the space of a few years. In 2013 a rumour pervaded the Internet that Sandler had died as a result of a snowboarding accident, in which he crashed at high speed into a tree while in Switzerland (apparently the template for this report came courtesy of a prank website that lets users choose a ‘death template’ and input a celebrity name — the snowboarding one seems very popular). Sandler had previously been killed off in less specific ways, rumours of which mainly gained momentum through statuses and commemorative pages on Facebook and via Twitter.
5. Betty White
It was once again a miscommunication that resulted in widespread belief that actress Betty White had died just a couple of months ago. Given that she’s ninety-two, the rumours were not unbelievable, but had only resulted after the misinterpretation of a cleverly-worded headline on a satirical news site. Empire News published a story saying that White “Dyes Peacefully in Her Los Angeles Home”, which prompted concern that the actress had actually died, as opposed to dyed her hair. The story spread hugely on social media such as Twitter and Facebook, meaning that it took a while for everyone to be corrected on the topic. Well done, Empire News.
4. Taylor Lautner
Twilight star Taylor Lautner found himself dead at the tender age of seventeen in 2010, according to an Internet hoax. Although you might think Robert Pattinson would be the obvious, and more famous, choice for a Twilight death hoax, Lautner was clearly foremost in the minds of the Internet population who decided to spread the rumour. In a move away from the hugely overdone snowboarding accident story, Lautner was accused of taking an overdose of cocaine. At the time, a rep for Summit Entertainment News (sort of) reassured the world that they were “almost 100-percent positive this is a hoax”, but thankfully Lautner has proved to be very much alive ever since.
3. Nick Jonas
One third of the famous Jonas Brothers, Nick Jonas, found himself dead twice within the space of a few months. In two particularly nasty death hoaxes in 2009, Jonas was first said to have died from pancreatic cancer in August, and just a few months later was reported dead as a result of a severe cardiac arrest due to complications with his diabetes in December. Happily, the young singer is still alive, and shows no signs of kicking the bucket anytime soon.
2. Lady GaGa
Pop icon Lady GaGa suffered several Internet-based deaths over two consecutive years. In 2011, Facebook spam claimed that Lady GaGa had been found dead in her hotel room in a report masquerading as the BBC news. She was then presumed dead in 2012 when “RIP Lady Gaga” began trending on Twitter. This time the rumour is believed to have stemmed from numerous fans calling the star a “really inspiring person” on the one-year anniversary of the release of her album Born This Way. She was also rumoured to have overdosed on drugs and alcohol which had led to her death, which this time sparked in the comments section of some of her YouTube videos.
1. Kanye West
Rumours of Kanye West‘s death in 2009 shocked the world when the superstar was said to have been killed in a car crash in Los Angeles, involving a Porsche and a Ferrari. “RIP Kanye West” began trending on Twitter and was the number one term on Google Search. This was compounded by a number of media sites reporting the fictional accident as truth, despite the total lack of any sort of proof. Judging by West’s high-profile marriage earlier this year, he is still very much alive.