explainer

Naya Rivera's death, the 'Glee curse' and why we turn tragedy into myth.

Last week, after days of searching, Naya Rivera's body was recovered from a Southern California lake.

The 33-year-old Glee star was first declared missing on July 8 after her four-year-old son, Josey Hollis Dorsey, was found asleep in a boat on Lake Piru.

"[Josey] and Naya swam in the lake together," Ventura County Sheriff Bill Ayub told media. "It was during that time that her son described being helped onto the boat by Naya. He told investigators he looked back and saw her disappear under the surface of the water."

Authorities believe Rivera "mustered enough energy to get her son back on the boat, but not enough to save herself".

Ayub confirmed there was no sign of foul play or suicide, and this was just a tragic accidental drowning.

In the days after Rivera's death was confirmed, the 33-year-old's co-stars and friends shared their tributes to the actress.

"Rest sweet, Naya. What a force you were. Love and peace to your family," fellow Glee star Jane Lynch wrote on Twitter.

Chris Colfer, who played Kurt Hummel on Glee, also shared a tribute to the actress on Instagram, writing: "Her beauty and talent were otherworldly. She spoke truth to power with poise and fearlessness. She could turn a bad day into a great day with a single remark. She inspired and uplifted people without even trying. Being close to her was both a badge of honour and a suit of armour."

As the tributes continued to flow in, however, fans and media publications alike began linking the tragic accident to the so-called 'Glee curse.'

Naya Rivera played cheerleader Santana Lopez on Glee. Image: Netflix.  

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Over its six-year run and in the five years since the last episode aired, the wholesome family show has been plagued by drug abuse, divorce, domestic violence charges, and death, leading fans to speculate that the show is "cursed".

The Glee curse phenomenon first began in July 2013, when Cory Monteith, who played Finn Hudson on the show, was found dead in his hotel room in Vancouver.

The 31-year-old, who was in a relationship with his co-star Lea Michele at the time, had reportedly struggled with substance abuse since his early teens.

His death was ruled to be accidental, the result of a toxic combination of heroin and alcohol. 

Cory Monteith died in 2013. Image: Getty. 

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Just three months after Monteith’s death, assistant director Jim Fuller passed away from suspected heart failure, leaving cast and crew devastated. In February 2014, production assistant Nancy Motes was found dead in a hotel room from a drug overdose.

Then, in January 2018, Mark Salling, who played Noah 'Puck' Puckerman in the series, was found dead in Los Angeles. 

The 35-year-old died by suicide while awaiting sentencing after pleading guilty to child pornography charges. 

Mark Salling. Image: Getty. 

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Of course, the idea of a TV show or film being cursed isn't unique to Glee.

Just last week, the so-called 'Mythbusters curse' re-emerged after former host Grant Imahara suddenly passed away.

It's understood the 49-year-old died following a brain aneurysm. 

"We are heartbroken to hear this sad news about Grant," a statement from a Discovery Channel representative read.

"He was an important part of our Discovery family and a really wonderful man. Our thoughts and prayers go out to his family."

Grant Imahara in 2014. Image: Getty. 

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Following the death of the electrical engineer, fans began discussing the recent death of Jessi Combs, who was a guest host on the TV show – linking the deaths of the two former hosts as evidence of the "curse".

On August 27, 2019, Combs, an American professional racer, was killed in a land speed record attempt accident. 

The 39-year-old had appeared on a dozen episodes of Mythbusters while Kari Byron, a regular cast member, was on maternity leave.

Jessi Combs passed away in 2019. Image: Getty. 

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The show's cast and crew also faced hardship in 2009, when Erik Gates, a regular contributor to the show, died aged 47.

The rocketry expert passed away after falling through a skylight while working on the roof of an office building.

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For decades, Steven Spielberg's 1982 film Poltergeist has been dubbed "cursed".

During and after the filming of the horror movie series, four cast members died.

Heather O'Rourke, who began playing Carol Anne Freeling at six years old, died in 1988 at just 12 years old during an operation. It was believed that she had been suffering from a congenital intestinal abnormality.

Dominique Dunne, who played O'Rourke's older sister, Dana Freeling, died aged 22 in 1982, after being strangled by her ex-boyfriend.

Another cast member, Julian Beck, died by suicide after being diagnosed with stomach cancer in 1983, while actor Will Sampson died in 1987 after undergoing a heart-lung transplant.

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The examples of "cursed" TV shows and films are endless. But why do we so often turn tragedy into myth?

Listen to Mamamia's daily news podcast, The Quicky, below. Post continues after podcast.

With Glee, for instance, more than 1,000 people appeared or worked on the show during its six season run.

Due to the sheer size of the cast and crew, it's almost inevitable that some form of tragedy would have occurred within that group of people.

After all, if you were to work in any industry at a company with more than 1,000 employees, you're bound to find examples of tragedy or deaths among them.

Speaking to Mamamia's daily news podcast, The Quicky, psychologist Amanda Gordon explained how our brains often turn tragedy into myth, such as within the example of Naya Rivera's recent death.

"It's our brain at work – and it's not the rational part of the brain," Gordon explained.

"If we, as human beings, had to interpret each detail of our world as it occurred as an individual, independent event, we'd never get anything done. We would never be able to process if something was a threat or whether something was safe," she continued.

"Instead, our brains have evolved to allow us to fit things into categories and patterns to make sense of them. Human beings are very pattern-making creatures. We try to make a pattern to make a meaning out of something."

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As human beings attempt to make sense of the deaths within the Glee cast, they often try to create patterns – such as attributing the deaths to a so-called curse.

Naya Rivera and Lea Michele on Glee. Image: Fox. 

"There might be other explanations for the situations that these people have found themselves in [rather than a curse]," Gordon said. 

"Overall, it looked like bad things happened to people who were meant to be charmed. And if you can believe in the charm, you can believe in the curse."

Online, fans have also begun rejecting claims that the cast of the show are "cursed".

"I don’t think people mean to be insensitive when they say something like 'Glee is cursed' but honestly... don’t. The show isn’t cursed – and blaming tragedies on 'a curse' is vile," one fan wrote.

"Please stop talking about the 'Glee curse'," another wrote. "We shouldn’t be saying they’re cursed, we should be recognising their strength. The cast have gone through so many tragedies and they need support."

What do you think about the Glee curse? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.

If you think you may be experiencing depression or another mental health problem, please contact your general practitioner. If you're based in Australia, please contact Lifeline 13 11 14 for support or  beyondblue 1300 22 4636.

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