Diana, Princess of Wales, died 25 years ago after a car accident in the tunnel of the Soul Bridge in Paris. Her death caused a wave of grief and media attention around the world. Much of the public criticized the royal family for what many saw as a callous response to the sudden death of the former wife of the Prince of Wales.
The shock over Diana’s death also sparked countless conspiracy theories. Decades later, many have not abandoned the idea that Diana may have been the victim of a plot.
Unexpected events, such as deaths or accidents, are fertile ground for conspiracy theories, which allow people to make sense of the chaos by finding evidence, coincidences, and a culprit.
Celebrity deaths have inspired a whole genre of conspiracy theories, most notably the death of Princess Diana. Although conspiracy theories about Diana’s death may be based on different specific details about the circumstances surrounding the deadly accident, many come to the same conclusion: that she was murdered by the royal family or British authorities.
I study conspiracy theories to find out why people believe them. One of the questions I ask myself is about the language of celebrity death conspiracy theories, and why it is so persuasive.
Conspiracy theories empower people, allowing them to become “do-it-yourself detectives”, or for that matter, “detectives” who approach a case having previously reached a conclusion. In celebrity deaths, it usually means their murder by someone who apparently benefits from the death.
An official investigation like Operation Paget, set up by the British police to investigate conspiracy theories about Diana’s death, wonders what happened. The conspiracy detective, on the other hand, wonders cui bono (who benefits).
The basis of many conspiracy theories is what is known as “teleological thinking.” This occurs when someone assigns a specific role or meaning to events or inconsistencies. Conspiracy theories leave no room for imperfect systems, human error, or random coincidences.
The circumstances of Diana’s death were confused and chaotic at the time, precisely because of the probable errors and human mistakes. For years, conspiracy theorists have raised questions about it like: Why did the ambulance take so long to get to the hospital? Why did the emergency teams clear the tunnel so quickly and why were the surveillance cameras not working?
A mind prepared to look for conspiracies will say that they were deliberate actions to worsen Diana’s condition or hide the evidence of her murder. The reality, as is often the case with conspiracy theories, is more mundane. The conclusion of the Paget report, based on all available evidence, was that Diana’s death was the result of a tragic accident, not a conspiracy.
When hard evidence is lacking, insider speculation can act as a substitute. For example, Mohammed Al-Fayed, father of Dodi (Diana’s lover, who also died in the accident), publicly accused the royal family of murder. This led to Operation Paget, which refuted these claims but did not, however, appease conspiracy theorists, who are wary of any official evidence.
Conspiracy theorists use different kinds of tests, including so-called premonitions and psychic predictions. Some claim that Diana foresaw her own death, based on the publication of a letter she allegedly wrote to her former butler, Paul Burrell, which read: “My husband is planning an ‘accident’ in my car.” . And Diana’s spiritual advisor claimed to have warned her that her brakes were going to be tampered with. Paget’s investigation found no evidence for these claims.
Before her death, in a 1995 BBC interview with Martin Bashir, Diana claimed that members of the royal house “see me as a threat.” As disturbing or shocking as these “premonitions” and insider testimonies may seem, none of these claims alone proves the theory that she was murdered.
The promise of the conspiracy
Theories about Princess Diana contain a key hallmark of the conspiracy: an inside group and an outside group. While celebrities like Diana and the royal family would typically be seen as part of the ingroup in contrast to the outside public, these labels mean something different in the context of conspiracy theories.
In this case, the internal group consists of the general public and Diana. They represent the good, with Diana characterized as a victim. On the other hand, the outside group – the royal family and the authorities – are the villains: a powerful and evil threat to the inside group. In the outgroup is where the conspiracy theorist can identify the possible culprits.
Diana conspiracy theories are often based on people not following procedure and comparing an alleged conspiracy to an ideal scenario (what should have happened). The conspiracy detective assumes that nothing goes wrong if there is no malicious intent. Uncovering the alleged lie, cover-up, or conspiracy is therefore a way for the victims and their allies (the ingroup) to regain power over the outgroup.
Conspiracy theories about the deaths of celebrities are often accepted by the general public because they allow a traumatic or confusing event to “come clean.” They give us a glimpse of a perfect world to aspire to, where nothing goes wrong and human beings make the best decisions they can at all times. And if the evil outside group hadn’t conspired to assassinate her, Diana might still be with us today.
Sarah Bennett, PhD candidate, School of English, University of Nottingham
This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original.
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