There’s an old saying that celebrity deaths always come in threes (old, that is, if you’re the kind of person who frequently reads or writes about celebrity mortality).
Sometimes it just seems to ring true. Back in June 2009, there was the funereal trio of Michael Jackson, Farrah Fawcett and Ed McMahon. When actress Brittany Murphy passed away in December of last year, followed swiftly by socialite Casey Johnson, the very morbid among us were trying to place a third. Some tabloids argued that though it happened several months later, Corey Haim’s death by overdose fulfilled that triumvirate.
Going back another year — to January 2008 — Brad Renfro, Heath Ledger and Suzanne Pleshette all died within a week of each other.
This week, people are again talking about the "rule of three" in relation to the deaths of Dennis Hopper, Gary Coleman and and Rue McClanahan.
Since then, the so-called rule of three has provided a tidy way for folks to try to make sense of celebrity deaths.
So, is the universe trying to tell us something when three people a lot of people happen to be familiar with pass away in close proximity to one another? Or, as human beings, do we try to rationalize the horror of death by imposing some kind of order on random tragedy?
"The concept of things happening in threes is deeply rooted in religious beliefs like Christianity, the Holy Trinity, the Three Wise Men, etc.," explains ‘Cult of Celebrity’ author Cooper Lawrence. "But the notion that bad things happen in threes is mostly superstition. Two deaths may happen and we add a random, close enough third to it. Or there are four, but we dismiss the third to keep to our ‘deaths happen in threes’ rule. The reason we do it is that once we have found the third we no longer have to wonder if it will be us. Finding a pattern to death helps us master our own mortality."
Bonnie Fuller, editor-in-chief of HollywoodLife.com, has a keen eye for celebrity trends, and she also debunks the myth of deaths happening in threes, but believes that the myth holds true for other celebrity occurrences — like pregnancies and marriages.
"I do think it is people trying to make a pattern out of terrible events, and there can’t really be a connection between people who have no relationship passing away," Fuller explains. "But there are occurrences that do become like these viral events, like celebrity marriages and vow renewals, engagements and pregnancies. But that is more about folks being inspired by someone and the idea catching on in Hollywood."
It’s interesting that in numerology the number 3 represents the number of communication, because a trio of famous people passing away really does seem to stir up a lot of conversation. But despite the number being significant in numerology, celebrity numerologist Glynis McCants says that deaths happening in three is indeed an old wives’ tale.
"It’s just never true that they die in threes. There are always more or less, but people try to fit it into a three," McCants explains. "But because three is the number of communication, it gets people talking and by talking people feel like they are able to control death. We like to believe, if it is three, we can handle it. It makes people feel safe, but unfortunately the rule just isn’t true."