When an entire life is spent in the public eye, you can bet its death will be, too. In our culture, celebrities become myths and their every action made public, scrutinized, and mentally reformatted to fit the mythic narrative. That means that their deaths become mythologized, too, and that has led to a number of wild stories and theories about the circumstances surrounding the deaths. A lot of times, a single passing celeb will trigger a number of theories all their own. In our culture of heroes and icons that pushes a select few to its highest peaks, some spectacular falls are inevitable, as are the speculations about who pushed them off. Sometimes, speculation isn’t even necessary; sometimes it really was a push. No one, regardless of fame, is immune to brutal betrayal and random acts of violence. There is a huge and constantly growing number of celebrity deaths that have become, for good reason or not, suspect and therefore mythologized. Here are ten of those deaths, which remain- and likely always will remain- shrouded in mystery.
10 Natalie Wood
This is a very real mystery and prompted a very real police investigation. Celebrated film actress Natalie Wood died in 1981 while staying on her husband Robert Wagner’s yacht, alongside Christopher Walken, and boat captain Dennis Davern. What is known is that Wood died of drowning and hypothermia. What is unknown is everything else.
How she got into the water, why she got in, what preceded her entering the water, and who may have been involved are all unknowns. She did have high amounts of alcohol in her system, as well as a few common pills. And she did argue loudly with Wagner that night. She also, apparently, flirted with Walken earlier that night, possibly angering Wagner. Most mysterious of all is that Wood died of drowning while staying on a yacht, despite the fact that she was terrified of water and couldn’t swim.
9 Heath Ledger
Heath Ledger was a truly beloved actor, whose charm and down-to-earth personality made him a fan and industry favorite. On top of that, he could really act. So his sudden and premature death at age 28 surprised everyone and drew an unusual amount of attention and speculation.
At the time of his death, Ledger has just finished filming his scenes as the Joker in The Dark Knight, and the role had taken the actor to a dark place. To prepare to play the psychopathic clown, Ledger had locked himself in hotel rooms for months on end and scrawled out a maniacal, frenetic Joker journal that looks like the work of an actual serial killer. Though his death was ruled as an accidental overdose of prescription medication, Ledger’s fans have not stopped speculating if his take on the Joker was simply too dark for one man to handle, and pushed him over the edge.
8 Marilyn Monroe
Model and actress Marylin Monroe was peerless in her time. In the 50s and 60s, she was the world’s number one sex symbol. This ensured that her early death at age 36, no matter how cut and dry, was going to become a matter of worldwide conjecture. She officially died of suicide by barbiturate poisoning, but with no witness to the event and a lot of suspect connections in her time, the 60 years since her death have been filled with alternative theories.
Probably the most common thread among the various theories is Robert Kennedy, Attorney General and younger brother to President John F. Kennedy. Many have speculated that the two were having an affair and that either A) Robert killed her to cover up the affair, B) Robert killed her because she knew too many Kennedy family secrets, C) the CIA knew of the affair and killed her to get back at the Kennedys for the Bay of Pigs disaster, or D) the mob killed her to get back at the Kennedys for their war on organized crime. Though none are likely, it is hard to completely rule out any of them.
7 Jack Nance
David Lynch fans know and love actor Jack Nance for playing the starring role in Eraserhead and lovable old sawmill owner Pete Martell on Twin Peaks. At the end of December 1996, the actor died in a peculiar way that left many questioning the exact course of events.
On the 29th, Nance met friends for lunch sporting a nasty black eye. When questioned about it, Nance said that earlier, he had verbally assaulted a couple of young men and pushed one to the ground, who then punched him for it. Or, in his words: “I got what deserved.” Except that Nance was 53, in poor health, using a cane to get around, and had been drunk at the time. His friends did not believe he could have pushed a young, healthy man to the ground. He left, complaining of a headache, and the next morning he was found dead. Though the official cause of death is a subdural hematoma caused by the punch, the circumstances are suspect. For one thing, his blood alcohol at the time of death was three times the legal limit.
6 Diana, Princess of Wales
Princess Diana was loved by millions, partially for being British royalty, but partially for shunning that life; she disliked the pomp and glitz of her position and spend more time aiding charities than she ever did posing for photo ops with visiting dignitaries. Diana was like a royal and a real human being had a baby. Her death at age 36 caused widespread mourning, and due to its (and her) nature, spawned a large number of conspiracies.
Diana died in a car crash. She was in the backseat, while driver Henri Paul operated the vehicle. But leading up to the crash, professional driver Paul was acting anything but professional. He was drunk- more than three times the legal limit- and medicated, he was driving at more than twice the speed limit through a dark tunnel, and somehow no one he was driving was wearing a seatbelt. In addition, Diana herself had allegedly penned a letter some ten months before the accident in which alleged that her ex-husband Prince Charles was planning a plot to sabotage her car and kill her. Hmmmm.
5 Jimi Hendrix
For those who play guitar, and for most others with functioning brains, it is a fact that Jimi Hendrix is the greatest guitar player in history. In just four albums in four years, he completely changed public perception about electric guitars and what they were capable of. His death on September 18, 1970, at age 27 shocked the world and carries with it an unusual amount of disputed details.
His death was the result of asphyxiation on his own vomit from an overdose, but the forensic pathologist who completed the port-mortem examination ruled there was “insufficient evidence of the circumstances” to rule it suicide or homicide, leaving it an open verdict. The last person to see Hendrix alive was his girlfriend Monika Dannemann, who over the years has given literally dozens of different and conflicting versions of events on the night of Hendrix’s death. Her timeline of events changes from statement to statement, and her supposed location at key times throughout the night changes as often. It is certainly enough to raise some eyebrows.
4 Steve Irwin
The Crocodile Hunter Steve Irwin was loved by millions for his rugged charm and unmatched enthusiasm for conservation and education. It’s hard to imagine anyone more fun and upbeat who was also that knowledgable and capable in their field. On Every episode of his various shows, he would willingly put himself in dangerous situations with wild animals and always made a point to demonstrate his preparedness and carefulness when doing so.
That’s why it came as a shock when in 2006, he died from a stingray attack. Not only was Irwin an experienced expert in this type of animal encounter, but also stingrays are rarely aggressive and almost never kill. Irwin’s death by stingray barb to the chest has been called a one-in-a-million occurrence. In fact, it is so rare that Irwin’s death is believed to be the only lethal stingray attack ever captured on video.
3 Tupac Shakur
Tupac Shakur is one of the all-time hip-hop greats. His raps were poetic and substantive and often addressed deeply-rooted societal issues. His death at age 25 robbed the world of one of its great musicians and generated a lot of press. Yet it still remains unsolved.
Shakur was killed in a drive-by shooting in Las Vegas, Nevada. The perpetrators were never caught or identified. One popular theory is that Shakur was looking to leave his music label Death Row Records and its owner, Suge Knight, wasn’t willing to let all that money go easily. Though Knight was in the car with Shakur during the shooting, Knight was not hit once and received only minor injuries, while Shakur was hit four times, leading to his death. As one LAPD detective put it, “it came to Suge Knight’s attention that Tupac was going to leave Death Row Records – and the evidence shows you just don’t leave Death Row Records and get away with it.”
2 Notorious B.I.G.
Biggie Smalls, aka the Notorious B.I.G., was in many ways Tupac’s equal and opposite. Both were hugely skilled and popular rappers whose commercial careers were limited to the early 90s. Tupac was West Coast and Smalls was East Coast. Tupac was fatally shot four times in a drive-by in 1996 and Smalls was fatally shot four times in a drive-by in 1997. In both cases, the perpetrators are still unknown. Strangely, one of the most prevailing theories surrounding Smalls’s death is similar to Shakur’s, as well. It alleges that Suge Knight killed Smalls. This time, as retaliation for Smalls’s alleged involvement in Shakur’s death (implying Knight didn’t actually kill Shakur in this version). Sean “Diddy” Combs, the LAPD, and the FBI also feature prominently in a number of theories.
1 Elizabeth Short
The murder of Elizabeth Short is probably the most infamous celebrity death of all time. Though an unknown actress at the time of her death, the incident made her a household name- or at least her more famous, post-mortem nickname The Black Dahlia.
When Short was found dead, she was completely naked, cut into two pieces, and drained of blood. Pieces of her flesh had been cut off and an oversized permanent smile was carved into her face. The extremely brutal nature of the crime made it an overnight sensation, though it has never been solved. In the 70 years since the murder, a number of theories have been put forth, most notable among them accusing local physician George Hodel Jr. Interestingly, it was Hodel’s son, homicide detective Steve Hodel, that most convincingly points the finger at George Hodel. For further reading, look into the secret room George Hodel had built into his house…