Elliott Smith, Anna Nicole and River Phoenix all have only one thing in common: they’re dead, and that means they’re featured in Alissa Bennett’s zine. Through a series of snarky diary-style confessionals, Dead Is Better harnesses Bennett’s celebrity death obsession into three issues full of drugs, crime and mystery. Jodi Arias, The Papin Sisters, Layne Staley—Bennett touches on all of America’s favorite casualties and their relationships with death. Part Answer Me!, part Teen Magazine, the series explores celebrity worship and society’s inability to look away from a crashing train. But it also examines the author’s connection to these troubled stars, both victims and perpetrators, in an unapologetic look at the complexities of the human psyche.
That’s the thing—even as I was trying to write this article, I got lost reading and re-reading Issue 3. Of course, the stories themselves are completely enthralling, but that’s not what makes Bennett’s work so addicting. With Dead Is Better, she approaches murder like a starstruck teen, somehow creating both empathy and excitement for even the worst villains. More importantly, she enters the darkest corners of humanity and holds up a mirror. In Bennett’s world, death isn’t nearly as scary as fame—it even comes with some benefits.
BULLETT caught up with the author to talk murder, suicide and Savannah. So basically, I fangirled for 40 minutes.
How did you decide which deaths to cover?
They choose me—they really do. But I think the reason why we’re attracted to celebrities is that they give us back to ourselves somehow—we find ourselves in these remote bodies. I have found that that can also be true with a death or a crime. There’s something within the narrative arc—some kind of profound empathetic connection. That’s the best way I can describe it. And I’ve also found that I’m just as able to empathize with a victim as I am with a predator, or a criminal. It’s really just about self-reflection.
It’s funny, everyone always thinks I’m so weird because I’m equally obsessed with all these stories.
It’s been really funny for me—I always print my email address in my zine so that people can write to me, because I love this idea of communing with a stranger. So I really encourage it and want people to email me, and I get a lot of letters like, “I never knew that anyone else had these feelings.” It’s beautiful—it’s a touching sort of tender way to connect to a stranger over things that you’re supposed to be ashamed of, if you’re interested in.
Do you have a favorite celebrity death?
I’m personally not into serial killers, because I think it’s so impersonal and there’s nothing there for me to really grab onto. In terms of celebrity death—it’s not a person that I was interested in during the course of his life at all—but Layne Stayley, the lead singer of Alice in Chains. It’s funny, because they’re not a band I was ever into, and I always thought they were kind of lame.
How did it get interested in all this stuff?
I’ve had a lifelong interest in this kind of material, but it has really radically altered since the internet improved. In the ‘90s, when I would have an interest in something like this, you would have to find it on TV or go to a library. I read a really amazing book called Suicide in the Entertainment Industry and there was an entry on Savannah, who’s a dead porn star. When I looked Savannah up on my Blackberry, one of the first places it lead me was FindADeath.com. Within FindADeath, there are also all of these forums, with these people who either appreciated the celebrity’s work, or were interested in their death, or knew the celebrity, or wanted to pretend they knew the celebrity.
So, is FindADeath where you get all of your information?
Finding these forums and understanding that there was this whole subculture of people primarily interested in the material, and that really opened that kind of research up for me. After I read Savannah’s entry, I started reading links daily and being like, ‘Who is this, and why does it have 50 pages on a death fan message board?’ It’s really exciting for me when you’re reading these chains of communication between strangers, and it gets to a point where someone steps in and says, “I can tell you what really happened.”
Has that actually happened to you?
In Layne’s FindADeath forum page, someone comes in and says, “I knew him. I’m going to send you pictures of his apartment, I’m going to tell you what really happened.”
But do you think any of these people are actually being honest?
I was talking to one of my friends on FindADeath, who had made this comment in 2008, that Mike Starr from Alice in Chains was the last person to see Layne alive, and maybe gave him an overdose, or left while he was overdosing. Then you jump forward several years, and Mike Starr, just before his death was at celebrity rehab, admitting the story. That lends a real level of legitimacy to these anonymous claims on the internet. It’s that whole kind of drama and operatic tension that I’m interested in.
How is that different than watching something like 48 Hours?
They all just have so much weird insider knowledge that nobody else would have. Maybe it’s true, maybe it isn’t. But it’s seriously compelling—as compelling as any really great piece of mystery literature. Also, with a lot of the crimes I’ve become really invested in, there’s always this moment when something switches. It can even happen where they’re alive when the forum starts, and then somewhere in the middle of the conversation, they die. Watching a narrative unravel in real time like that—it’s really incredible
Does it have to be a certain kind of death for you to write about?
There were definitely a couple in the second issue that were mysterious circumstances, like Susan Walsh. She was a stripper who was working as an intern, writing articles for the Village Voice. She did two very important exposes—one of them on the Russian underground that operated sex trafficking, and the other one she was working on when she disappeared. This was the 90’s, so there was a point in time when underground vampire culture presented itself as a legitimately threatening movement to society, and she disappeared in the course of writing this vampire underground text. She went to a payphone, and was never seen again, leaving behind a son she was really devoted to.
So you prefer the crime to be unsolved.
For the most part, I do like when there are unresolved issues. But I think a lot of the suicide/addiction stories I focus on, are my way of trying to sort out why something happens, or why it happened to someone I can relate to, but didn’t happen to me. That’s a big thing for me—identifying why we’re the same, but also why we’re different.
But is it death, in general, that fascinates you?
It’s more about unresolved narratives. That’s part of the reason I focus on suicide and overdose—because it’s not a natural death, which doesn’t interest me at all. With celebrities, there’s always going to be this feeling on the part of their fans, either ‘If I were there I could have changed it,’ or, ‘Why did this person who I loved so much have to do this to themselves?’ In the case of an unresolved crime or disappearance, there’s this feeling of why, but also how much information can we as a community compile to try to solve this? That’s why people love the Jon-Benet Ramsey case so much. Because it’s such a bottomless pit of details and people think, if they just reorient the details, they’ll be able to find the answer. But the reason it’s a perfect crime is because we never will. We’ll never know why Savannah shot her face off in her garage. Or what happened to Elliott Smith—we’ll just never be able to have a complete picture. But we can still try. I’m sort of like a filter—I want to see what everyone else has done, and then try to distill it.
Do you ever feel like guilty about what you’re doing? Sometimes I start to question why I’m fascinated with these things.
I don’t feel guilt about it, and it’s not a moral issue. It’s actually a very human interest—I don’t even necessarily think of myself as a particularly morbid person. But I am very curious.
As for as the actual project, why did you decide to do it as a zine?
I like that it’s sort of non-committal—zines are full of typos, they’re full of mistakes, they’re kind of impermanent. I like that it doesn’t have to be perfect, and when I have another idea, I can just write it. I write them pretty quickly, so I’ll usually spend four months thinking about what I want to write about and two months actually writing them. So it gives me like a lot of freedom, and I don’t feel like, ‘Do the best thing you’ve ever done because you’re never going to do anything else.’ Like, do an issue, and maybe someone will like this one better, or maybe someone will like another one better. Either way, it’s a low pressure way for me to work.
What are the reactions you’ve received from people?
I think some people look at me and don’t necessarily know that I did have a major teenage investment in punk, so when I write about this, people are like, ‘Oh what a poser.’ That’s something that can really upset me—when people think that I’m like, faking it.
Has anyone ever gotten upset?
I’ve had people who have known subjects I’ve written about and have come to readings and said, ‘I felt like I was in the room with her.’ That the rendering feels emotional, or sensitive enough that it doesn’t feel like I’m exploiting someone—that’s important. But I think, if someone didn’t engage with the material and just saw what the theme of what I do is, it would be very possible for someone to think that I was. I mean, I’m sure there are people that do think that. But I just think, read an issue and maybe you’ll change your mind. Part of the reason why I include so many embarrassing, personal details from my own life, is that I want to say there’s no hierarchy here. If I’m going to talk about the personal foibles of a stranger, I’m going to put my own out there, too—I will embarrass myself just as much as I’m potentially embarrassing someone I don’t know.