Why We Look at Celebrity Death Photos

In the media frenzy following the death of Whitney Houston, information has trickled out slowly, in often sensational individual pieces.

This article is from the archive of our partner .

In the media frenzy following the death of Whitney Houston, information has trickled out slowly, in often sensational individual pieces. She had died... She had possibly drowned in a bathtub... She had been photographed just nights before at a Hollywood club yelling and apparently bleeding from the leg... The question of foul play entered the picture briefly, but was quickly quashed... Houston had had a "premonition" about her death... Her daughter, Bobbi Kristina Brown, was hospitalized not once but twice following the news... And, finally, less sensational, and sadly, rather expected: Drugs and alcohol are suspected in Houston's death.

These facts (as well as "facts" that couldn't hold up) keep coming out via the press and are briefly amplified by social media. The truth is, we won't know the facts for a while, but tell that to a readership seeking to be titillated and disturbed by these pointless tidbits. (Need more? Houston's hotel room has been reoccupied.)

Yesterday, TMZ posted a photo of the Beverly Hilton hotel bathtub that Houston died in. The picture quickly circulated among the media organizations who publish such things; this blogger saw it in the New York Post. Despite a feeling of disgust, I clicked -- and felt immediately ashamed. Did I need to see the grainy picture of a tub in which someone had breathed her last, a tub with a gravy boat floating at the bottom, usually filled with olive oil, a "beauty secret," according to TMZ? No, I did not. And while I didn't take the photo, seeing it made me feel nearly as morally reprehensible as, one would hope, the person who did.

Haven't we been here before? In terms of celebrity deaths, neither the piecemeal dissemination of the details nor the tragic overtones have been unusual. Paparazzi photos of Houston before her death or the room she died in only differ from the photographers' primary bread-and-butter (i.e., photos of living celebrities, often in completely commonplace scenarios or activities) because they have to do with death. They're not news: They're death porn.

Can a picture of a dead or dying celebrity really be considered a method of "healing"? As Dodai Stewart points out in Jezebel, the National Enquirer's cover "re-enactment" of Whitney's death, which involved hiring a woman to stand in for Houston's dead body, is sick. Does it offer anything close to "closure"? Does the photo of the tub? Or Houston's last meal? Or images of the singer looking un-well before her demise? Yet there they are, cropping up on TMZ and The Post for all the world to see.

TMZ, of course, makes its money on such photos, and the site doesn't try to act like anything it isn't. Mainstream media outlets presumably republished these pictures to grasp at any pageviews that might arise, so hungry for clicks we all are nowadays. Equally hungry for something more—more outrage, moral and otherwise, perhapswe click, though we're likely to come up feeling emptier than before.

That humans are fascinated with death is nothing new. Like rubber-neckers passing a car crash, we stare and gawk and feel sick, sad, and secretly glad that it's not us or someone we love. This is even more extreme in the case of celebrities, who have lived their lives in a spotlight, their every hookup, "baby bump," divorce, and in the end, death our presumed property. What's missing is empathy, the understanding that while we may feel they're ours, they (and their families) deserve privacy in death. The end of a celebrity's life is not just this season's "tent pole event": It's really and truly the end of someone's life. What we can do, under the best case scenario, is grieve and try to understand why this happened. The worst case scenario has us judging, criticizing, and mocking.

An industry source told The Atlantic Wire, "I think it is very disturbing, this relish with which we all enjoy a celebrity divorce or, even worse, death. I'm not sure if this is driven by the media or the audience they are trying to please. When OK! featured an unconscious Michael Jackson on their cover the week the singer died, it didn't sell as well as the celebratory tribute magazines on sale at the same time. We live in an age beyond sugar-coating a celebrities life and demise, but I'm not sure we -- in the industry -- haven't gone too far in revealing the secrets of the stars."

At this point, pretty much everyone with an Internet connection has likely clicked on that tub photo, or chosen not to click. For most of us, it's another piece of "content," something for our eyes to briefly rest on before we click away to a kitten video or a news update about the election. But for Houston—and her family, friends, and fans—it's much more than that. When we forget that fact, we're denying Houston her humanity. We're also denying our own.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.