Most people can recall where they were, or what they were doing, when they found out that their favorite celebrity died.
Those moments can be touchstones, shaping how we connect with pop culture, society and even grief.
But would you still remember that moment if it weren’t real?
An online prank that recently went viral on TikTok put that to the test as people recorded their parents’ reactions as they lied and told them their favorite celebrity had died. Celebrity death hoaxes have been around forever (sorry, Paul), but the trend finally arrived on TikTok.
The videos are short, and many found the visceral reactions satisfying: one woman reacting to the fake death of Ozzy Osbourne wailed for nearly 10 seconds in a single breath. The clip was viewed 15 million times.
Meanwhile, online reactions were mixed, from belly-aching laughter to intense criticism. Some called it “weird,” “wicked,” and “disgusting.” Others were fatigued after a holiday season full of actual celebrity deaths. Andy Cohen, who’s usually pretty unflappable on air, even cursed on live TV while railing against the trend.
This week, as kids resumed school or work, the pranks seemed to have waned. Perhaps enough parents caught on to the joke after hearing about it on TV or watching the videos themselves.
If you missed the trend altogether, here’s what you need to know.
What is the trend?
The prank requires a degree of intimacy. For the gag to work, one needs to know which public figure their loved one holds close to their heart.
Then, people approach them, start recording on their phones, break the fake news to the parent or anyone in earshot and capture their reaction.
Some videos abruptly end by just showing the immediate shock, while others pull back the curtain for a laugh or “just kidding” — transforming tears into a smile, or unleashing their parent’s anger.
The viral nature of the trend seemed to peak around Christmas and Christmas Eve, when children returned home for the holidays.
A parent could be slipping a turkey into the oven when their child appears to deliver the (fake) bad news.
“Kate Winslet dead at 47,” lied one user, while their mother froze in shock, standing in her kitchen decked out in Christmas decorations and a spread of food trays.
A part of the intrigue for some viewers is the voyeurism, finding out who these total strangers care about. They tended to be A-list celebrities, such as Denzel Washington, Taylor Swift or Oprah Winfrey.
Tiger Woods was a common celebrity used to prank fathers, in particular. One man, who was playing a golf simulation when hearing the fake news, dropped his club and crumbled to his knees, gasping, “Oh my God, really?”
The videos also revealed political differences with Donald Trump videos eliciting distress or celebration.
How did people respond?
Videos of the pranks have racked up millions of views and likes on TikTok and were shared widely among friends and family.
However, some were not amused and took to TikTok to share their disgust.
One user called the trend “insensitive,” while another asked people to leave the prank in 2022.
“These people have families, loved ones, who really care about them, and you’re doing a prank for likes,” said one user.
Grammy-winning musician Finneas O’Connell spoke out against the trend and said he “hasn’t laughed once” at the videos and called on people to stop.
“Your parents are showing vulnerability for a brief second, and you’re laughing at them,” O’Connell, who’s known for his work with sister Billie Eilish, said in a TikTok on Christmas.
What do actual celebrities think?
TV host Andy Cohen lambasted the prank on his show, “Watch What Happens Live.” Cohen has been the subject of several death-prank videos.
“I have no desire to experience people’s reactions to me dying,” Cohen said on Tuesday. “I am scared enough of dying in reality without having to watch bizarre simulations of it over and over again.”
When asking people to stop tagging him in the videos, he let out a curse word, and later added it was the first time he did so on the show.
Slater Vance, the 16-year-old son of Angela Bassett and Courtney B. Vance, joined the trend, telling his parents that fellow actor Michael B. Jordan had died.
In a now-deleted video, Bassett and Vance are seen leaving as they’re told the fake news. She turns around and approaches her son with her mouth agape. Bassett starred alongside Jordan in the 2017 film “Black Panther.” Many online criticized the stunt as insensitive given the 2020 death of “Black Panther” star Chadwick Boseman.
Slater Vance quickly issued an apology on TikTok, calling the trend “harmful” while also apologizing to Jordan’s family.
“I own this was a mistake,” he said. “And I hope this can be a teaching lesson to anyone else who uses social media as a tool and a source of entertainment to truly understand that your actions can have consequences that extend beyond you.”