The recent news of Naya Rivera’s sudden and devastating death at California’s Lake Piru sent shockwaves through pop culture and social media over the past week. The popular memory of the deaths of fellow Glee cast members Cory Monteith and Mark Salling – as both had also died unexpectedly in their thirties – quickly resurfaced as a point of comparison. This series of young lives from the original Glee cast cut short, within a brief span of seven years, has prompted many on social media to refer to the once-popular musical dramedy as “cursed”. Such a theory has not been reserved for fringe internet conspiracists, but published in major, often right-wing media heavyweights such as Perez Hilton, the New York Post and Daily Mail.
The idea of “cursed” Hollywood productions is no new conspiracy. Within the decade of Glee’s original airdate, there was extensive material on the internet hypothesising a curse on the set of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008). The theory cited the deaths of actor Heath Ledger and Special Effects Technician Conway Wickcliffe during production, in addition to Morgan Freeman’s subsequent car accident.
Such theories even existed pre-internet, with the earliest known theories dating back to the 1980s. Some fans of the Poltergeist film trilogy claimed of a supernatural connection between the tragic death of 12 year old actress Heather O’Rourke and the real-life murder of her on-screen sister, Dominique Dunne — deemed too tragic to be mere coincidence.
From the bat, a connection between the tragedies of Monteith and Rivera, and Mark Salling’s suicide — triggered by an upcoming sentencing for his possession of child pornography — boasts neither account for nuance nor taste. This rather crude comparison, loosely drawn together by a recurring theme of death, fails to account for the key element that Salling’s death was rooted in – his sexual abuse towards both children and adults. Portraying Salling as a poster boy for the devastation that suicide brings erases the dire circumstances and untreated mental illness that accompanies the vast majority of those who take their own life. To conveniently forget the underlying cause of Salling’s death is to use a facade of simplistic tragedy – a narrative that cannot account for his sexual predatory.
Moreover, to imply that Rivera and Monteith were ever on the same moral wavelength as Salling, who was charged with possessing manuals on how to sexually abuse children, is deeply insulting to their memory. Rivera, who died saving her son from drowning, and Monteith, who lost a lifelong battle with addiction, deserve far greater public gravitas, with recognition of their heroism, a stark contrast from Salling’s depravity. Salling’s death, in part, meant that his victims and their families would never be granted justice through his sentencing that never occurred. For Rivera and Monteith, the loss that accompanied their passing was from the friends, family and fans who cherished them for their talent and kind hearts.
Even with Salling out of the narrative, those perpetuating the idea of a curse must answer the question – what do you think binds together the deaths of Rivera and Monteith, both announced on July 13th? Is it the curse of the number 13? Does a supernatural force have a grudge against Glee? Are you implying Ryan Murphy is to blame? An explanation would require substantial evidence, as well as the impossible task of being neither pedantic nor insensitive.
It may be extraordinary for Naya Rivera, who, as Cory Monteith’s mother Ann McGregor described, was “cherished” and “adored” by Monteith, to be found on the seventh anniversary of his death. This, however, does not equate to a singular, supernatural cause.
Alex Winter, an actor since childhood, known for the Bill and Ted franchise and director of the upcoming Showbiz Kids documentary, criticised the idea of a Glee curse. “You can look at the entertainment industry and say, ‘These kids don’t make it’.” Winter notes, “but that’s statistically not correct. It’s a societal problem – it’s not an institutional problem”.
Winter, who notes that the average graduating class would likely face the same number of tragedies as a large ensemble cast, makes an essential point. It is easy to view in hindsight any overlap between young famous people within their short lives, but anything particularly unnatural has no sufficient evidence. Lack of safety measures, from support for addicts in an increasing American opioid crisis, to absence of protective staff at a notoriously dangerous lake at the height of a global pandemic, play a role in both deaths.
While indicative of a neglect from higher levels of governance, this coincidence does not translate into a curse. Young, successful stars, armed with extraordinary wealth and opportunity, have more chance of falling into deadly cracks. This isn’t something paranormal to despair at, but a revelation of a solution to prevent further tragedy. To honour the memories of Naya Rivera and Cory Monteith, we must acknowledge the real root of their loss, rather than looking to conspiracy.