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Celebrity Deaths: Is Three Really a Magic Number?

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By David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Rarely since Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper crashed and died more or less simultaneously in an Iowa cornfield on Feb. 3, 1959, has the Celebrity Death Rule of Three fulfilled itself with such swift efficacy.

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That's the old rule that celebrities die in threes. Between Ed McMahon's passing on June 23 and Michael Jackson's death on June 25, less than three days elapsed. Farrah Fawcett also died on the 25th.

Even in the face of such powerful evidence for the triplicity of bold-face morbidity, skeptics denied it. They blogged with learned-sounding certainty about how celebrity deaths, like all human demises, occur with random frequency. The skeptics were met with equal cogency by those who maintain that whenever a famous person dies, two more face imminent doom.

Some of this conversation took place at the Web site Threes.com -- a space devoted to the essential three-ness of the universe -- where a poster named Fletch said that after Fawcett succumbed, he and his lunchmates wondered who would be next. A poster named Brian retorted that the "celebrity death rule of three" has "all the scientific rigor of Alanis Morissette's 'Ironic.' "

Over at the site Polls Boutique -- dedicated to the essential pollability of the universes -- 57.75 percent of respondents answered "yes" to the question, "Do celebrities die in threes?" Sample comment: "I used to not think so, but now with the deaths of Ed McMahon, Farrah Fawcett, and Michael Jackson so close together, I don't know."

"People are dropping every day, unfortunately," says Michael Scott Eck, administrator of Threes.com, also known as the Book of Threes. "We want completion, we want to have the tragedy be finished. To put it into three-ness is to complete it."

Eck says we're wired to organize messy reality into threes. There are trinities everywhere, holy and otherwise. Time is past, present and future. There are three states of matter, three dimensions. Triangulation is how we get our bearings. So finding patterns in death is how we master our own mortality, says Eck, and three is the essential pattern.

Fine -- but how then to explain the death of David Carradine? He was found hanged June 4 in Bangkok in a reported case of autoerotic asphyxiation, but that's not all that needs explaining. Under the rule of three, he could have been No. 1, making McMahon No. 2 and Fawcett No. 3.

Or was Carradine No. 3 in a previous trinity of death? Or is Jackson No. 1 in a new series? Who's next?

Surely there will be another dead celebrity. There always is.

Much depends, however, on which departed souls count as celebrities, and on how much time may elapse between deaths in a valid triplet.

Fawcett and Jackson weren't the only people to die on June 25. So did Sky Saxon. He was the singer and bass player for the psychedelic band the Seeds, which had a '60s hit with "Pushin' Too Hard."


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