It’s been 10 years since 18-year-old Marissa Cooper was tragically killed in a Newport Beach car accident. Still I find it hard to think about "Coop," as she was known to her closest friends, without an overwhelming sense of sadness.
Which might sound perfectly natural except that Marissa, for the uninitiated, wasn’t a high school BFF or even a casual acquaintance but a television character on the mid-2000s Fox network drama The O.C., played by Mischa Barton (who was most recently seen waltzing across screens on Dancing With the Stars) until the character's untimely demise at the end of season three. And as embarrassing as it is to admit, in the decade since Marissa took her last breath to the strains of Imogen Heap’s cover of "Hallelujah," lying in the arms of her on-again, off-again boyfriend Ryan Atwood (aka Ben McKenzie, who currently stars on Gotham), I've been haunted by her fictional death.
The concept of grieving for a made-up character is, to many people, absurd. Not only are there real tragedies in the world that are far more worthy of our tears but, since ancient times, philosophers and psychologists have argued over whether it's even possible to feel genuine sadness over something our brains know to be untrue. Good luck trying to suggest that to anyone who has invested hours of her life watching a television show only to see one of the series leads abruptly killed off. Last year, when Patrick Dempsey’s character on Grey’s Anatomy, Dr. Derek Shepherd (aka McDreamy), died after 11 seasons, fans — many of whom had dedicated more than a decade of their lives to following his onscreen journey — were devastated. And while some took to social media to lament their loss, no doubt few would have been willing to acknowledge the depth of their feeling in real life.
This is because mourning a fictional character falls under what psychologists call "disenfranchised grief." “Disenfranchised grief is grief that’s not considered ‘OK’ by other people," psychologist Christiane Manzella told Time in the wake of McDreamy’s demise. “Sometimes people have this strong feeling of loss or sadness but don’t know if it’s strange to feel that way. But the connection is real, and loss is loss.”
Referring directly to Dempsey’s character, Manzella added: “People pictured themselves with him. They cared about him and thought about him for 10 years. Of course they’re going to feel a sense of loss to this person they not only grew attached to but maybe even imagined themselves with.”
Television, more than any other medium, is adept at fostering this connection by bringing characters into the intimacy of our homes on a weekly basis for years at a time, giving us the opportunity to get to know them and develop feelings for them to the point where, even when we’re not watching those characters onscreen, we’re spending hours daydreaming about what they might do next and gossiping about them by the water cooler or online. (It will be interesting to see whether binge-watching shows on streaming platforms will eventually change this dynamic.) Consciously or not, when viewers enjoy a series enough to make time in their schedules to return to it each week, it’s often because they imagine themselves in a romantic or platonic relationship with the characters they’re seeing onscreen. Much of the magic of Friends, for example, was that the viewer was made to feel like one of the gang.
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In some cases, where a showrunner has created a particularly compelling protagonist, viewers may also identify with that character. This is precisely how I related to Marissa Cooper, whose turbulent interactions with her parents and lack of control in the world around her echoed my own. And while I may not have enjoyed Marissa’s opulent, sun-drenched Orange County upbringing, with her fancy cotillions and alopecia-afflicted ponies, I identified with her sense of impotent teen rage, making her death — which came when she finally seemed to have gotten her life together — all the more heart-wrenching. Given the show’s adolescent demographic, I wasn’t the only one who felt the same way. Ratings plunged during a Marissa-free season four, which limped along for just 16 episodes before the network finally pulled the plug. Twitter didn't launch until two months after Marissa died, but a cursory search today reveals that viewers still regularly lament her death on the social networking site all these years later.
In fact, despite that audience reactions to onscreen deaths regularly make headlines these days thanks to social media — in the past few weeks alone, fans of both The 100 and Empire have reacted angrily to the loss of important characters — there still doesn’t appear to be any more acceptance that the emotions people feel when they watch a beloved character die are genuine, even if those emotions may not be comparable in intensity to the grief someone might feel over a real person’s death.
If there’s anyone who's bucking that trend, however, it is — perhaps surprisingly — Game of Thrones creator George R.R. Martin, who regularly incurs the wrath of fans for introducing and developing much-loved characters only to kill them off. “Just as you grieve if a friend is killed, you should grieve if a fictional character is killed,” he has declared. “You should care. If somebody dies and you just go get more popcorn, it’s a superficial experience, isn’t it?”
In loving memory of Marissa Cooper 1988-2006.