The recent series of celebrity deaths in the news reminded me of the old superstition that deaths—particularly celebrity deaths—come in threes. My aunts firmly believed this. When two celebrities died in close proximity, they would immediately begin speculation as to who would be the third.
I tried to convince them how arbitrary and irrational this was. What if the third death had already occurred and had been mistakenly assigned to the previous group? How closely do the deaths have to follow each other? Days? Weeks? Months? Do the celebrities all have to be in the same field, or can, for example, an actor, a musician, and a sports figure qualify for the same group? How famous do they have to be? Do local celebrities count?
We humans are constantly seeing patterns that aren't there. There's a word for this: "Apophenia." The number three seems to be especially subject to apophenia, and there's also a word for that: "Triaphilia." I googled superstitions involving the number three and came up with quite a few, including the following:
- Unlucky events always happens in threes. (This would certainly include death.)
- It's bad luck to see three butterflies on a leaf.
- It's unlucky to light three cigarettes from the same match.
- If an owl hoots three times, there will be misfortune.
- If a cat washes its ears three times, you can expect a visitor.
- A three-legged dog brings good luck. (Although presumably not to the dog.)
Humor also tends to favor the number three—think of all of the jokes that begin, "Three guys walk into a bar..."—which leads me to the following. (Sorry, but you knew this was coming, right?)
Dick Clark arrives at the pearly gates, and Saint Peter says, "I'm sorry, but I can't let you in until your party of three is complete." So Dick has a seat, picks up the latest issue of "Good Heavenkeeping" magazine, and waits.
A day later, Levon Helm arrives. Saint Peter says, "I'm sorry, but I can't let you in until your party of three is complete." Levon says, "No problem," and sits down. He and Dick have a lot to talk about because, you know, they're both in the music business.
A little while later, they spot another guy hanging around the gates. "Who's that?" Dick asks Saint Peter. "Some actor," says Peter. "Been here since Friday."
So Dick goes over to the guy and says, "Excuse me, but are you a celebrity?"
"Why, yes," says the guy. "As a matter of fact, I am. I'm Jonathan Frid."
"Who?" says Dick.
"Jonathan Frid. You know—Dark Shadows?"
"That new Johnny Depp movie?"
"No, no—the 1960's soap opera.
"I was pretty famous back in the day."
"Did quite a bit of stage work, too. Perhaps you saw one of my one-man shows—Fools and Fiends or Fridiculousness?"
"I don't think so."
"If you'd like, I could give you a sample..."
At this point, much to Dick's relief, Saint Peter interrupts. "Will the gentleman be joining your party? If so, I can let you in now."
Dick and Levon look at each other, and Dick says, "Well...if it's all the same to you, maybe we'll just wait for Robin Gibb."
(I apologize—especially to Jonathan Frid fans. I was actually a big fan of Dark Shadows and Frid. One of my biggest thrills as a kid was seeing "Barnabas" in person when he came to Fort Wayne in 1969 to serve as Grand Marshal of the first Three Rivers Festival Parade. Rest in peace, Jonathan, Dick, and Levon!)