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Fans Debate How They Should React To Actor's Death

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This piece originally appeared on July 07, 2006, on the Convergence Culture Consortium from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Sam Ford blogs weekly there about soap operas in relation to fan cultures and innovative storytelling and marketing campaigns, in addition to blogging about many other new media issues updated multiple times daily. You can visit his blog here.

A couple of days ago, I wrote about the death of As the World Turns star Benjamin Hendrickson and how, in the lack of initial coverage from most mainstream media, the fan community spread news about the particulars of his death virally and posted tributes to him in various places, includingYouTube.

Since then, shows such as The Insider and publications like The New York Post have covered Hendrickson's death, but the fans are still providing each other with important details and, as a group, trying to come to terms with the death of someone who they have watched perform consistently for the past two decades. What spurned much of the discussion was a claim made in the Post article and subsequently picked up by FOX News and others that, since the episodes currently airing feature his character Hal Munson at his daughter's bedside as she dies of complications from viral pneumonia, his depression about the death of his mother a few years ago was worsened by the material from the show and that it drove him further into depression.

Fans immediately saw the lack of logic in this claim, since the show is taped a month in advance or more. These fans have rightfully criticized these unsubstantiated claim from the magazine. Further, on the Media Domain board, a popular poster revealed that, during his year sabbatical from the show, Hendrickson had to have all of his teeth replaced by implants and learn to speak properly again. When he returned to the show, many of the fans noticed his slurred speech patterns and often questioned or commented on Hendrickson's health and the reason for his trouble speaking. According to this poster--MaryHatch--a close relative of Hendrickson's had said that his preoccupation with his appearance and speech helped drive his depression, not the content on the show, especially when Hendrickson found that some fans were speculating about his health and appearance online.

While the message boards at Media Domain are usually used to debate the show, over half of the debate has instead been regarding Ben's suicide and its repercussions. Since the show isn't recasting, how will his character leave the show? Will he be killed in the line of duty or perhaps will they depict his death from depression over his daughter's death, closely related to part of the reason the actor's death has been attributed to? And the fans are questioning their own implications in the actor's depression, especially since criticizing performances and even actors' appearances is a regular part of the discussion in online fan communities. Should fans feel guilty?

The rest of the online posts have been dedicated to online tributes to Hendrickson. Fans are organizing petitions to Procter & Gamble Productions to ask that an entire episode be dedicated to the Hal Munson character. Fans on the official PGP Soap Box fan message board are posting on a thread that will be sent directly to the family of Ben Hendrickson. And, off Newsday, fans are posting to a Legacy online guest book for Hendrickson. At this point, almost 600 fans have already posted their condolences from most of the 50 states and the Canadian provinces, as well as the Netherlands and elsewhere.

I've posted before about the power that these online guestbooks have given fans to demonstrate their dedication and concern for an actor. These new outlets give fans a way to organize and discuss their grief. Since this is an actor whose character they have grown close to over the years, how much of a right do they have to grieve? Is it considered obsessive fan behavior to be overly upset about Hendrickson's death? Is it okay to cry? Is it okay to send flowers? These online forums give fans a way to legitimately express their sympathies without seeming to overstep the boundaries of their relationship with the actor. And online fan communities give fans a way to organize, debate, and process their feelings about this tragedy collectively.

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