When grunge rocker Kurt Cobain ended a life of turmoil by putting a shotgun to his head, it seemed like the classic trigger for an explosion of copycat suicides.
Instead, at least in Seattle, there was a big increase in calls for crisis assistance and only one clear imitation suicide, according to a study published in the fall edition of the journal Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior.
More research is needed to determine whether that was also the case nationally because the local sample was too small to yield meaningful results, a leading scientist on the issue cautioned.
In a telephone interview Friday, David Jobes, a Catholic University psychology professor in Washington, D.C., and chief author of the study, said he was at a conference on suicide prevention when Cobain's body was discovered at the Nirvana singer's Seattle home on April 8, 1994.
"We just looked at each other and said, `This is going to be a disaster.' We were convinced," Jobes said.
The study cites the response by the Crisis Clinic in Seattle, the way news reporters covered the suicide and community efforts to prevent a ripple effect as likely factors in the outcome.
Although there's no way to know whether those factors actually prevented any suicides, "it looks almost causal," Jobes added.
"We were shocked. We were truly shocked by what didn't happen," he said.
Calls to the clinic increased in a pattern closely parallel to the rise in suicide frequency that some feared but that apparently never materialized, suggesting some callers might have otherwise attempted suicide, Jobes said.
Celebrity suicides spark national-suicide-rate increases averaging 1 percent for about a month and as much as 10 percent for superstars like actress Marilyn Monroe in 1962, said David Phillips, a sociology professor at the University of California in San Diego.
"I would imagine, in the case of Cobain, the effect might be the same size (as Monroe) or maybe a bit smaller," Phillips said.
In four weeks following Cobain's death, 18 suicides were recorded in Seattle and the rest of King County, including the grunge megastar and an obvious copycat, a 28-year-old Maple Valley man who had just attended a candlelight vigil a few days after Cobain's body was found.
Jobes said he lacked the resources for a nationwide study but suggested that if anyplace would have experienced copycat suicides following Cobain's death it would have been Seattle, where grunge music originated and Nirvana had its strongest following.