Werther effect

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Werther effect

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It would be difficult to find a novel of greater influence than Goethe’s “The Sorrows of Young Werther.” The novel, published in 1774, is about Werther who kills himself because of his love for Lotte, another man’s fiancee.

The story was based on his close friend’s suicide. However, the theme of the novel is really the breakdown of an intellectual rebelling against aristocratic rule and customs.

The novel was translated into five languages and swept Europe as the phenomenon of “Werther fever.” Men wore the same clothes that Werther wore; yellow vest and pants, blue coat and burgundy boots. Women wore Lotte’s white dress with a red band around the sleeves and neck, and wore a perfume named Werther.

The danger of this fever arose when suicides, mimicking Werther, grew increasingly in vogue among the youth. The sensational novel was found on the desk of a youngster who shot himself to death and in the pocket of another young man who drowned himself. Goethe, who became rich and famous thanks to the novel, lamented, “This small book is highly influential, almost like a monster.”

Two hundred years later in 1974, an American sociologist, David Phillips, coined the term “Werther effect.” It refers to the phenomenon of clusters of suicides happening or attempted after a person considered a role model or socially influential commits suicide.

Phillips analyzed suicides committed by famous people between 1947 and 1968 and confirmed that suicide rates increased dramatically during the two months following mass media reports of their deaths.

The World Health Organization announced a standard for media reporting of suicides a few years ago to prevent this effect. “If at all possible, minimize the reporting of famous people’s suicides. Do not show photos of the corpse, the site, or the suicide method. Do not simplify complex suicide motives nor express suicide as the solution to end pain.”

The “recommended standard for suicide reporting,” created by the Ministry of Health and Welfare, the Korean Association for Suicide Prevention and the Korean Journalists’ Association, is similar.

There were three cases of suicide by briquet gas poisoning during the Chuseok holidays. They seem to be victims of the Werther effect surrounding the late TV star Ahn Jae-whan, who committed suicide the same way. We lament our media’s reporting that did not follow the stated standards. We feel ashamed to think what Goethe would say about this phenomenon.


The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Cho Hyun-wook [poemlove@joongang.co.kr]
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