Original article at Columbia News Service (archived here).
The reviews are coming in:
Elizabeth Taylor hasn’t been this popular since “Cleopatra.” The Rev. Billy Graham, who was recently ranked the most influential preacher in the world, has another No. 1 ranking – one that he’d rather not have. And Fidel Castro, after many near misses in the past, might finally accomplish this year what many have long hoped for him.
Strange as it sounds, people are rooting for them to die this year.
Celebrity death pools have become extremely popular in recent years, offering its players a macabre hybrid of fantasy sports and celebrity watching. March Madness, meet Cadaver Craziness. But death pools are nothing new. The Web site eGameGazette.net says that in 1591, Pope Gregory XIV expressly forbade all bets within the church relating to when the pope would die and who would be the next pope, under the threat of excommunication. The pope was, understandably, worried that certain bettors might take it upon themselves to improve their odds, either by tampering with papal elections or, worse, ending a pope’s reign prematurely. Perhaps not coincidentally, Pope Gregory XIV died 10 months and 10 days after assuming the papacy.
References to death pools also exist in the works of Mark Twain and Guy de Maupassant, a 19th-century French writer, and in 1977, the Albany Times Union ran a story about a 1930s death pool in New York in which 100 names of famous figures were drawn up on pieces of paper and randomly distributed to the participants.
The modern incarnation of the celebrity death pool is much more sophisticated.
Stiffs.com runs the 12-month Lee Atwater Invitation Death Pool, named after the late Republican political operative who happened to be the only name the site’s co-founders got right during its initial foray into celebrity death pools in 1990. Stiffs.com’s first game took place on paper in 1993, and it went online in 1996. This year, its pool has more than 1,100 entries, a shade off the all-time high in 2005. The entry fee is $15, and the top prize is $3,000.
Players list 10 celebrities they think will die within the calendar year, ranked by the likeliest to die. Points are awarded based on the number of correct choices. (The rankings come into play only in case of ties.) It even has a fame committee, made up of the commissioner’s friends, family members and acquaintances, to determine whether someone is famous enough to merit being included in the game.
Another site, Ghoulpool.us, has more complicated rules, taking into account the age of the deceased and cause of death. Drug overdoses, for instance, are worth 15 points; suicides are worth 20; and accidental deaths, such as “drowning, choking, accidental gunshot, overprescription of prescription drugs given by a doctor (a.k.a. the Michael Jackson Rule),” are worth 25.
As such, someone like Rose Kennedy, who died from natural causes at the age of 104, would have been worth only 10 points (although players who used her name would be eligible for additional points based on where they ranked her on their list and how many other people played her). Meanwhile, Selena, who was 23 when she was murdered, would have been worth at least 100 points.
The site has 38 players this year, down from 50 a year ago. The entry fee is $25, and the top prize is 65 percent of the total pool, with additional prizes given for everything ranging from first actor or actress to die to the first confirmed death of the year.
Of course, death pools aren’t exclusive to the Internet. Every September, as the school year is about to get under way, Elizabeth Wands, a 27-year-old teacher from Massachusetts, makes her picks and pays her $10 entry fee for the faculty’s celebrity death pool. “We started doing the death pool two years ago because one woman I work with suggested we do it like a fantasy league, so that all teachers could participate in something,” said Wands, whose league stipulates that you must name someone who is not on life support or in a coma and that at least two or three people in the league must know the name of the person picked. Wands said she prepared for her pool by researching picks with her brother.
Research is the key not only to doing well in a death pool, but also to how sites like Stiffs and Ghoulpool can avoid Internet-gambling regulations. “The rules are clear that this is a game of skill, not a game of chance,” said Kelly Bakst, a 44-year-old computer consultant who is the current commissioner and administrator of Stiffs.com. “The people who win are the people who research their picks long before they do it. That’s not to say that you can win without doing research. It’s just that your chances of winning are significantly less.” Bakst pointed out that, given his age and health problems, Billy Graham has been the most popular pick since the site went online. Of course, he is still alive, demonstrating that research can take you only so far.
“I came up with different rules because I wanted there to be more skill involved” so that players could be rewarded for their hard work, said Rich, the 44-year-old salesman who runs Ghoulpool and asked not to have his last name printed because of the nature of his work. “The people who do the research, those same people place in the top five year after year.”
Another common thread is making fun of celebrity obsession. “Celebrity is such a fleeting concept, but it’s kind of ridiculous by its very nature,” explained Bakst. “What better way to make fun of them than to do it after they’re dead?”
Ron, a 38-year-old computer programmer who runs TheDeadpool.com, said that since he started his site in 2003, four or five people have quit because they felt bad after their first celebrity died. “I understand why they quit,” said Ron. “In fact, I use it as a recruiting tool. When you get your first points, maybe you’ll get a thrill and then feel upset about it. Either way, you’ll feel things you’ve never felt before.”
Jim Houran, a social psychologist who has written and lectured extensively on celebrity worship and mental health, sees celebrity death pools as dark comedy but cautions that they can be an extension of the very celebrity worship they seek to satirize. “It’s also a way for people to feel connected to celebrities and try to get to know them on a personal level,” said Houran. “They think they have insight into how they really are, and that extends to guessing when they might die.”
Houran said he thinks that death pools are not in good taste and border on being mean. “I don’t think it’s kind to find entertainment at someone else’s misery. When I say it’s dark comedy, I’m being kind,” he said.
Still, that won’t deter the death pool administrators from having their fun. “I think people are going to die regardless,” said Rich of Ghoulpool. “If it’s a way for people to talk and have something in common, then I don’t see anything wrong with it. I mean, we’re not killing anyone, right?”