It is hard to accept death. This is true in real life, and it is true for celebrities as well. It’s not a mystery why the psychological steps for dealing with death (you know: the ones that include anger, bargaining and depression) eventually end in acceptance. That’s where you’re supposed to end up. Sometimes, though, it doesn’t happen soon enough.
This is a list of celebrities who officially died, but were the subject of long-standing rumors that they were actually alive. In each case, some sizable (or at least some vocal) group of people believed the celeb might have lived on.
Where do these rumors come from? In a lot of cases, the people on this list died relatively young. It’s even harder to accept when someone dies before their time. In most of the cases on this list, there was some motivation for the person to fake their own death. A lot of times, fans speculate that they wanted out of the public eye, and faking their own death was the best way they could think of to get the privacy they wanted. Others on the list were trying to escape a legal problem or a threat to their life.
It would be easy to see these conspiracy theories as an outgrowth of the internet – lonely trolls stirring up nonsense online. But in fact, a number of these conspiracies predate the proliferation of the internet. Some even span back into the 19th century. Neither fame, nor the desire to see people cheat death, are solely internet phenomena.
15. James Dean
Yolo before yolo was a thing, the actor James Dean was the epitome of the Hollywood catchphrase “live fast and leave a good looking corpse.” Dean only had three major movie roles to make him a star (and two of those films were released after his untimely demise), but he has become one of the most recognizable faces in Hollywood history. The star of Rebel Without A Cause and East of Eden died in a car crash on September 30, 1955, at the age of 24.
Or did he? Some people have had their doubts over the years. Inconsistencies in witness statements, doubts about the inquest that was made into the crash and rumors about the photos of the stretcher that was supposed to have carried Dean’s body – all these contributed to talk that he didn’t really die in the accident. These conspiracy theories were never very coherent. It’s not clear why Dean would want to fake his own death, or who would have gained from the hoax. But such an early death for such a talented rising star is often hard to accept, fueling rumors over the years.
14. Amelia Earheart
Aviation was a big deal in the 1920s and 1930s. The airplane was a novelty in its early days, but first came into its own in World War I, with the exploits of people like the Red Baron. After the war, it became a breeding ground for public heroes, such Charles Lindbergh, who became a national icon for his 1927 solo flight across the Atlantic. Amelia Earhart was part of that tradition, becoming the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic.
In 1937, she attempted to circumnavigate the globe. She never made it. Her plane disappeared over the Pacific Ocean and she was never heard from again. The mysterious nature of her death led to rumors that she had survived the crash and had lived on as a castaway on a deserted island.
This particular not-dead celeb story might not be so far fetched. Just this month, there were reports that bones found in the 1940s on the Pacific island of Nikumaroro may have been Earheart, suggesting that she may have indeed died a castaway on the island rather than in a plane crash. However, the bones in question have since disappeared themselves, making a positive ID impossible.
13. Notorious B.I.G.
Christopher Wallace, AKA: The Notorious B.I.G., was one of the biggest names in rap during the 1990s. He and Tupac (more on him later in this list) were at the center of the East Coast-West Coast hip-hop war that eventually cost both their lives (allegedly).
Biggie released one studio album during his lifetime, the classic (and ironically titled) Ready To Die, which came out in 1994. The official story says that he was killed on March 9, 1997, gunned down in a drive-by shooting in L.A. – hostile territory at the time for a New York rapper like Biggie. His first posthumous album followed later that month, called Life After Death. Another one, Born Again, was released more than two years later, in December 1999.
A number of conspiracy theories have grown up around both Biggie’s death and Tupac’s subsequent murder. The weirdest of these involves the two of them living together in New Zealand. Though these are almost too strange to require debunking, the New Zealand Herald was forced to publish a story denying the rumors, saying that the source of the report was a fake story hackers placed on a PBS website.
12. Jimi Hendrix
Jimi Hendrix was one of the icons of his generation, a once-in-a-lifetime guitar prodigy. Like Biggie, and the other musicians on this list, his rabid fan base has refused to accept his untimely death. Late on September 17, 1970, Hendrix was found unconscious in an apartment in London. He was pronounced dead early the next morning, with doctors concluding that he died in a drug-related incident that led to him to asphyxiate on his own vomit. Hendrix was just 27 at the time. Despite this, conspiracy theories persist on the Internet that Hendrix survived into the 21st century, living in Hawaii with a wife and children.
11. Kurt Cobain
Here’s another rocker (and not the last on this list) whose death fans have had trouble accepting. Kurt Cobain was a generation-defining talent, making Nirvana not just one of the most popular bands of its time, but one which many believed epitomized the world view of its fans.
Cobain was always a troubled soul (that was part of his appeal), and it led him into depression and heroin addiction. On April 8, 1994, the world learned that Cobain’s dead body was discovered in his home. A coroner’s report later said that he had shot himself a few days before, setting the date of his death on April 5.
A number of conspiracy theories would later come up surrounding Cobain’s death. Some of these would implicate his wife, Courtney Love. Others would say that Cobain, tired of fame and the pressure of fans, staged his death in order to live in privacy. The latest version of this came up just this year, when a video circled the Internet of a Peruvian singer named Ramiro Saavedra, who looks similar to Cobain, singing the Nirvana classic “Come As You Are.” Nirvana eventually responded to the video with a sarcastic post on Facebook:
“It is true, Kurt is alive,” the post said. “He needed time to learn to play the guitar with his right hand. Finding left-handed guitars is not easy.”
10. Jim Morrison
Hard-living Doors frontman Jim Morrison died (officially speaking) on July 3, 1971. The 27-year-old “Lizard King” was found dead in a bathtub at his apartment in Paris. The cause of his death remains something of a mystery, though Morrison’s history of drug use (including heroin and cocaine) were well known.
The cause of death was given as simply “heart failure” (which is also basically the definition of death). Adding to the mystery surrounding Morrison’s passing was the fact that there was no autopsy, which many felt should have been standard procedure given that the singer was under 30 when he suddenly died.
There does seem to have been a mild cover up in the case, as those involved apparently tried to shield Morrison’s long-time girlfriend, who discovered the body, from any consequences that might have come if drugs were found to be involved. However, this sense of mystery, along with Morrison’s age and the fact that, leading up to his death, he had drifted out of pop music and into more esoteric pursuits, contributed to rumors that the rock star had not really died at all.
9. Michael Jackson
In some ways, pop star Michael Jackson is the epitome of the type of celebrity who ends up on this list. First, he died relatively young. The King of Pop passed away on June 25, 2009 at the age of 50, dying of an overdose of the drug propofol. Second, Jackson was famously reclusive, living in a mansion filled with the oddest of collections. After decades at the center of tabloid culture, including several well-publicized accusations of child abuse, the singer had become wary of the public spotlight.
In his (supposed) final days, Jackson was preparing for a comeback concert series in London. Online rumors have persisted that Jackson, not wanting to do the heavily promoted concert series, but not being able financially to back out of them, faked his death in order to ensure a long, private retirement.
Grand Duchess Anastasia of Russia is probably one of the most widely believed dead-but-not-really-dead stories of the past hundred years or so.
Anastasia was the teenage daughter of the Tsar of Russia when the communists took over the country. Along with her family, she was kept captive after the monarchy fell. Eventually, the communist leaders decided that the royal family was a liability in a country where a counter-revolution was still possible. So on July 17, 1918, the Tsar, along with his wife and children, were murdered by a death squad.
Except that a few years later, a woman named Anna Anderson claimed that she was in fact Anastasia and that she had survived by pretending to be dead before a kind guard noticed her and helped her to freedom. She held onto her claims from the 1920s until her death in 1984, though subsequent genetic testing showed it likely that she was not a child of Tsar. Still, the idea that Anastasia could have survived the slaughter captured the world’s imagination, prompting a live action film in 1956, a stage musical in the 1960s and an animated movie featuring the voices of Meg Ryan and John Cusack, in 1997.
7. Jesse James
In a weird way, fans of Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck know the story of Jesse James death as well as anyone. In fact, the 2007 biopic the two starred in together gives away the ending in the title: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. The official version has the famous outlaw Jesse James on the run from the law, holed up with gang members Charley and Robert Ford (read the movie title and you know where this is going). In an air of growing suspicion of betrayal, Robert Ford shot an unarmed James in the back of the head on April 3, 1882.
Despite Ford’s almost gleeful confession of the crime and traits on James body that helped identify it as him, rumors circulated that the era’s most famous bank robber was still alive. In these theories, the Fords helped James stage his death so that he could escape justice. This was encouraged for a while by the claims of J. Frank Dalton, who, in the late 1940s, said he was really Jesse James, coming out of hiding after more than 60 years. He died in 1951, his claims largely debunked. Though if he was James, he would have been almost 104 years old when he died.
6. Billy The Kid
Another Old West outlaw we’re not sure died when he supposedly died. The usual story of Billy the Kid goes like this: the outlaw known as Billy the Kid (he was probably born Henry McCarty in NYC) terrorized the New Mexico territory for a time, becoming a dime-novel anti-hero, before he was hunted down and killed by a former-associate-turned-sheriff named Pat Garrett. The official story has him dying in 1881.
However, over time rumors that The Kid didn’t die at Garrett’s hand began to spread. This would be popularized in a later generation by the movie Young Guns II, starring Emilio Estevez and Kiefer Sutherland. The film tells the story of Billy’s conflict with Garrett, but includes a framing device of an old cowboy who tries to convince a lawyer that he is really Billy The Kid. The movie is shown as the reminiscences of the old man, who tries to explain how he escaped Garrett and lived into old age. This is based on a number of cases of people claiming to be the former Billy The Kid, though these have been largely debunked over the years.
5. Lady Diana
When Lady Diana‘s death was announced on August 31, 1997, it shocked the world. The former Princess of Wales was one of the most recognizable people in the world. Her marriage to the heir to the throne of the U.K. was one of the most watched events in the country’s history, and her charity work and her style was a media staple during the 1980s and 1990s. Her divorce from Price Charles became constant tabloid fodder, as did her relationship with Dodi Fayed.
Diana was just 36 years old when the world learned that she, along with Fayed, had died in a car crash, while trying to evade paparazzi. All of this played into the doubts surrounding her death. Conspiracy theorists argued that the young, rich former princess and the handsome, rich heir faked the car crash so they could escape the press hounding them once and for all. In this scenario, they staged the accident in order to fool the world into thinking they were dead, so they could spend their lives together in seclusion.
4. Tupac Shakur
The Notorious B.I.G. isn’t the only famous 1990s East Coast-West Coast rap feud victim who people have long believed may have actually survived his supposed murder. Tupac Shakur is another high-profile rapper whose murder many people believe was staged.
Officially, Tupac died on September 13, 1996, after he was shot a few days earlier in Las Vegas. Pac was just 25 years old at the time. However, there have long been whispering that Pac actually secretly survived the shootings and has been living a secluded life ever since.
Part of the evidence that the rapper survived is his prolific posthumous output. There have been six studio albums of Tupac material that have been released since his death. The first of these was The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory, which came out a few months after Tupac supposedly died. The most recent was Pac’s Life, which came out in 2006, a little more than 10 years after the shooting.
3. Adolf Hitler
The official story goes like this: in the final days of World War II, with the Allies closing in on Berlin, Nazi leader Adolf Hitler killed himself, along with his wife (and his dog!), in a secluded bunker. The remains were burned and then later discovered in an artillery crater. Because his death had been so secretive, and because the remains were only partially intact, and because the area around the bunker was taken by the Russians (Russian leader Joseph Stalin was a paranoid person, not quick to believe Hitler was dead, and the other Allies were suspicious of the Russians), long standing rumors circulated that Hitler had faked his own death. The common conspiracy theory had it that Hitler made his way out of Germany and to South America, where a well-known enclave of Nazi fugitives immigrated.
There is little actual evidence of this, but the Hitler-is-alive theme remains around in popular culture. The laughable theory even made its way onto The Simpsons. In the episode where the Simpsons go to Australia, Bart is randomly making long distance calls. At one point the calls a car phone in South America where a person looking suspiciously like an older Hitler rushes to answer. The phone stops ringing before he can get there, and old Hitler says: “Ach! Das wagen phone ist ein… nuisance phone!”
2. Elvis Presley
Elvis Presley was known as the King of Rock and Roll. In the 1950s he helped create the style of music and remains one of the most loved pop musicians of all time. Elvis officially died in 1977 at the age of 42, but rumors started spreading almost immediately that the King was still alive. These were spurred by contradictory reports about the cause of death (possibly to cover up any drug involvement).
This was compounded by the fact that Elvis’ middle name was apparently misspelled on his grave stone. It was spelled “Aaron” instead of “Aron,” the way his family had traditionally spelled it. However, a clerical error when Presley was born meant that his legal middle name was in fact “Aaron” – the grave stone technically had the correct name, though it differed from the way his parents preferred it to be spelled.
Since his death, there has always been a large number of sightings of Elvis, taking place through the decades and across the country (and sometimes into other countries – there is at least one reported sighting in Ottawa, Canada).
1. Andy Kaufman
Comedian Andy Kaufman is the king of “they might still be alive” celebrities, because he seems like the person most likely to fake his own death, just for laughs.
Kaufman, who reached his biggest audience on the late 1970s/early 1980s sitcom Taxi, is one of the godfathers of alternative comedy. He specialized in stunts, often blurring the line between an act and real life. He would show up at scheduled comedy performances and read The Great Gatsby instead of performing his act. He would purposely break character during on-air live sketches. Most famously, he carried on a feud with wrestler Jerry “The King” Lawler that included what seemed to be real physical violence, although it was later revealed that the disagreement was entirely staged.
Kaufman died at an early age, succumbing to lung cancer in 1984 at just 35 years old. His early death contributed to the rumors that his passing had been an elaborate prank. Even in 2016, there were rumors that Kaufman was still alive. Andy’s brother Michael read a letter he said was from the famed performer to a comedy club audience and introduced a woman he thought was Andy’s 24-year-old daughter (who would have had to have been born after Andy’s supposed death). However, just a few days later, Michael Kaufman went on CNN to say he thought the letter and the woman were actually a hoax.
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