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Do Celebrities Always Die in Threes?

Photo Credits: Yui Mok/ PA Images/ Getty Images/ Cropped, Bruce Glikas/ Getty Images/ Cropped, and Ian West/ PA Images/ Getty Images/ Cropped
Photo Credits: Yui Mok/ PA Images/ Getty Images/ Cropped, Bruce Glikas/ Getty Images/ Cropped, and Ian West/ PA Images/ Getty Images/ Cropped

Have you ever thought when a celebrity dies that there will likely be more to come? You wouldn’t be the only one. In fact, many believe that there is a rule of threes that surrounds celebrity deaths. It may be a mere coincidence but there is certainly some compelling and extensive evidence that when someone famous dies there will usually be two more that follow shortly after.

‘The Summer of Death’

The summer of 2009 was given the nickname “The Summer of Death” due to the sheer number of celebrities who ended up in the obituary section. While there were many big stars who died, perhaps the most surprising were Ed McMahon, Michael Jackson, and Farrah Fawcett, whose deaths were extremely close together – the first on June 23 and the latter two both on June 25.

Farrah Fawcett smiling at the camera while wearing a pink shirt and jeans.
Portrait of American actress and model Farrah Fawcett, one of the celebrities who died during “The Summer of Death,” 1975. (Photo Credit: Hulton Archive/ Getty Images)

It’s thought that McMahon died from old age at 86, as his health had been slowly declining and he’d had frequent hospitalizations. Fawcett had also been sick for some time before her death at age 62 when she lost her fight with cancer. Jackson’s death at age 50 was undoubtedly the most unexpected. He overdosed on medication, largely at the fault of his doctor who was eventually convicted of involuntary manslaughter.

While these deaths certainly had a profound effect on the public, the entire list of celebs who died shows just how the summer of 2009 earned its morbid nickname.

And (not) a happy New Year

For many, New Year 2016 was anything but happy after three well-known celebrities lost their battles with cancer within the same week. First, David Bowie died on January 10, only three months after learning his cancer was terminal. As he decided not to share this news with the public, it came as a shock to the world when they saw the headline that he had lost his fight. Yet the devastation was far from over.

Portrait of David Bowie painted on a wall, with a pile of flowers and notes in front of it.
Painting of David Bowie on a London wall which turned into a shrine to the artist shortly after his death, January 12, 2016. (Photo Credit: In Pictures Ltd./ Corbis/ Getty Images)

On January 14, Alan Rickman, best known and loved as Professor Severus Snape from the Harry Potter films, also died from cancer. His death prompted an outpouring of love and remembrance from former cast members, many of whom said he was one of the greatest actors and people they knew. On the same day, Céline Dion announced that her husband René Angélil, a music producer, manager, and singer, had died from throat cancer.

Another memorable set of threes

The year 2016 also saw another sad trilogy of prominent celebrity deaths. Actor Alan Thicke, singer George Michael, and actress Carrie Fisher all passed away unexpectedly in December. Thicke, best known for his work on the ’80s sitcom Growing Pains, collapsed on December 13 while playing ice hockey with his son. He died later that day from an aortic dissection at the age of 69.

George Michael
Singer George Michael poses at the “George Michael: A Different Story” Photocall during the 55th annual Berlinale International Film Festival on February 16, 2005 in Berlin, Germany. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

Star Wars icon Carrie Fisher experienced a medical emergency aboard a flight on December 23 and died four days later at the age of 70. And George Michael, who was 53 years old, died at home on December 25. Oddly, one of his most beloved songs was “Last Christmas.”

Harry Potter heartbreak

Most recently, the rule of three tragically seems to have come into play with some beloved actors from the UK, including two from the Harry Potter franchise – as if losing the on-screen Severus Snape years earlier wasn’t enough. Within the span of a month in late 2022, the world lost The Sorting Hat and Hagrid, played by Leslie Phillips and Robbie Coltrane. In addition, Angela Lansbury, the highly acclaimed British actress, also died.

Robbie Coltrane and Ralph Fiennes in black suit jackets smiling to the press.
Robbie Coltrane with his Harry Potter co-star Ralph Fiennes at the premiere of Great Expectations, October 21, 2012. (Photo Credit: Eamonn McCormack/ WireImage)

Lansbury died on October 11 from what appeared to be natural causes, followed three days later by Coltrane on October 14 after he experienced multiple organ failure. Both were fondly remembered for their acting careers and their beloved personalities.

November 22, 1963

One of the most prominent death trilogies in modern history took place on November 22, 1963. On that day, the celebrated writers C. S. Lewis (The Chronicles of Narnia) and Aldous Huxley (Brave New World) both passed away. However, the news of their deaths was overshadowed by another tragedy: the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

JFK and first lady Jackie Kennedy riding in the Dallas motorcade
Texas Governor John Connally adjusts his tie (foreground) as US President John F Kennedy (left) & First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy (in pink) settled in rear seats, prepared for motorcade into city from airport, Nov. 22. (Photo Credit: Bettmann / Contributor / Getty Images)

There’s a novel about the day, entitled Between Heaven and Hell: A Dialog Somewhere Beyond Death with John F. Kennedy, C. S. Lewis, & Aldous Huxley. Peter Kreeft wrote the book about the three men meeting in Purgatory and having a discussion about faith.

A New York Times study

Despite these compelling examples, there’s no rule that celebrity deaths happen in threes. In fact, the New York Times examined extensive data from their obituary archives in 2014 in an effort to “bust” this myth.

the front page of the New York Times
The front page of the New York Times is displayed in a newspaper rack at a convenience store in Des Plaines, Illinois, U.S., on Thursday, Aug. 27, 2009. (Photo Credit: Tim Boyle/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

They found 449 celebrity deaths (defined by obituary length) since 1990. In 75 of these cases, two celebrities had died within three days of each other. But there were only seven times that three famous people had passed away within a five-day period, or “what you’d expect by random chance.”

More from us: Celebrities We Lost in 2022

Their conclusion? “Despite the all-too-human desire to find patterns in life, there really are none here.”

Rosemary Giles

Rosemary Giles is a history content writer with Hive Media. She received both her bachelor of arts degree in history, and her master of arts degree in history from Western University. Her research focused on military, environmental, and Canadian history with a specific focus on the Second World War. As a student, she worked in a variety of research positions, including as an archivist. She also worked as a teaching assistant in the History Department.

Since completing her degrees, she has decided to take a step back from academia to focus her career on writing and sharing history in a more accessible way. With a passion for historical learning and historical education, her writing interests include social history, and war history, especially researching obscure facts about the Second World War. In her spare time, Rosemary enjoys spending time with her partner, her cats, and her horse, or sitting down to read a good book.