SHREWSBURY, Mass. It’s 4:45 a.m. Eastern Standard Time, an hour when most residents of this central Massachusetts town (pronounced “SHOES-bury” by natives) are still sleeping, but not Delores Buntrock, who has just turned on her aging Toshiba laptop to ready herself for the day’s work ahead of her. “I like to get a jump on the competition,” she says as she scours several websites that report on news from across the Atlantic. “You’ve got to get up pretty early in the morning to beat me to the punch,” she says with a cocky air.
In less than a minute she has stumbled upon a genuine find, but her tone of voice expresses dismay. “Oh no!” she cries, as if in pain. “Arch Fenster died in his sleep!” she says, then opens another window on her computer to find out who the hell Arch Fenster was beyond the few perfunctory words available on news sites. “Long time host of ‘Bob’s Your Uncle!’, hit television show of the 1950’s,” she reads, “Fenster perfected his comic timing in British music halls growing up as a member of his family’s traveling troupe, ‘The Funny Fensters.'”
“This is such a tragic loss!” Delores says before posting words of condolences on several social media sites where she and other “web ghouls” ply their trade, expressing excessive sympathy for long-forgotten B-movie actors, bass players in one-hit wonder bands and professional athletes who squandered big paychecks and ended up in the gutter. “My thoughts and prayers are with the Fenster family on what must be a sad day for them all!” she writes on her Facebook timeline, and within seconds she has accumulated several ambivalent “likes” for her posting.
“Really find it hard to ‘like’ given the tremendous joy that Arch must have brought to his many fans, but you know what I mean,” writes Ethel Gibbons, a “friend” in Ypsilanti, Michigan, who has never met Buntrock, but who nonetheless feels close to her soul mate halfway across the country and is thus willing to share her manufactured sadness over the death of an entertainer neither woman actually saw perform, except for a spot appearance in a Velveeta cheese commercial. “This has been SUCH a tough week,” she gushes, “what with Norm “Deuce” Cruller of Black Crud succumbing to armpit cancer.”
Indeed, it was just two days ago that Delores, Ethel and several fellow members of the “Baby Boomers Forever!” group on Friendspace were mourning the passing of Cruller, often referred to as the “Ringo Starr of Crud” because he was a last-minute replacement for Phil LeClair, the group’s bassist until 1964 when he refused to don a “Carnaby Street”-style outfit for a promotional photo. “Phil was surprisingly never bitter about the hand that fate dealt him,” says Mike Credenza of the 60’s rock nostalgia magazine “Hip!” “He used to say, ‘I made my bed, I guess I’ll have to lie in it,'” Credenza recalls. “Then he’d take some more drugs and stay in bed the rest of the day.”
“Web ghouls” are typically loners who lead lives of vicarious despair on-line due to the fact that people who know them personally got tired of listening to them. “It’s a product of isolation and the so-called World-Wide Web,” says Brook J. Othmer, a professor of sociology at the University of Illinois-Kankakee. “Where before people were pretty much limited to mourning family, friends and acquaintances, with the internet you can feel not just sad but desolated by the passing of somebody you’d never paid attention to until they croaked.”
But academic skepticism aside, Buntrock, Gibbons and others like them say they simply have hearts too big to limit themselves just to people they know when it comes time to mourn. “Yes people die all the time,” says Buntrock. “What’s important is that I be recognized on a frequent if not daily basis for the sensitive soul that I am.”