Elvis Cults

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Elvis Cults

It has been said that Elvis Aron Presley (1935–1977) is amazingly ubiquitous for a dead man. Mysteries abound—so, therefore, some Elvis devotees point to the hermetic truth that "l-i-v-e-s" is an anagram for "e-l-v-i-s." Similar sentiments have been expressed about other famous figures throughout world history—the most religiously and culturally compelling accounts involving the Jewish reformer known as Jesus of Nazareth. And therein lies the provocative and (for some) disturbing rub when attempting to assess the popular manifestations of the quasi-religious personality cult that has emerged since the ignominious death of Elvis in his Graceland bathroom in Memphis, Tennessee, on August 16, 1977. The diffuse cultural complex that can be designated as the "Elvis cult" has its roots in Elvis's checkered career as a rock 'n' roll musician and celebrity, but it only assumed obvious and compelling religious characteristics in the mid- to late 1980s, at about the time of the tenth anniversary of his death. It was then that multiple "resurrection" and "miracle" accounts were added to the evolving "sacred biographies" and devotional activities associated with him.

An analysis of the current manifestations of the Elvis cult both in America and throughout the world reveals several specific religious traits and themes. An important initial qualification concerns the evident sociological and cognitive differences that define two often antagonistic groups of Elvis followers, somewhat along the lines of "conservative" and "liberal" Protestants—that is, (1) the "true" fans or believers who constitute a loosely organized populist group of mostly "fundamentalist," "evangelical," or "literalist" devotees who seek a kind of "born again" experiential identification with Elvis, and (2) the "symbolist" devotees who passionately find ironic, satiric, or cultural truths revealed through the multivalent iconic power of Elvis. The first group is primarily made up of working-class people from the United States and other countries who contend most directly and tragically with the material and spiritual "hurt" of contemporary consumer culture. Many are older white women who have some specific memory of the historical "living" Elvis, but a younger generation composed of an ethnically diverse mix of women and men has emerged that knows only the presence of the "dead Elvis." While they are often members of conventional Christian churches, these devotees express their special Elvis religiosity both individually and within small voluntary "fan" associations. Their devotion tends to take the form of nostalgic remembrance via material icons, sacramental devotions, and ritualized pilgrimage to Graceland (especially during "death week" in August). Most distinctive is this group's patronage of multiple impersonators of the King (primarily in the guise of the jumpsuited Las Vegas Elvis), an incredible contemporary imitatio dei phenomenon that often has deeply religious trappings and emotions.

The other, more culturally eclectic group consists of various elite and "knowing" factions sharing an interest in "Elvis" as a symbolic metacommentary on various serious and absurd aspects of contemporary culture. This kind of devotion is seen in assorted artistic, playful, and humorous manifestations—especially via the Internet and in all sorts of other literary, cinematic, and televised forms (including semifictive tabloid media such as the Weekly World News, which regularly runs "stories" of Elvis sightings). There are also some partially organized mock ecclesiastical movements, some of which, such as the First Presleyterian Church of Elvis the Divine, have written scriptures ("the NIT or the New and Improved Testament"), a set of doctrines or "thirty-one Commandments," certain recommended rituals (facing Las Vegas daily; pork rind and Pepsi communion services), and various cyberspace activities. Finally, there are some interesting New Age appropriations of the Elvis cult that affirm both Elvis's real spiritual power and the esoteric and syncretistic symbolic nature of the movement. Much of this stems from the writings of Elvis's former hairdresser and confidant, Larry Geller, but it has recently given rise to the "spiritualist" speculations of the "near death" theorist Raymond Moody and the channeling experiences of the Canadian housewife Paula Farmer.

The complicated reality of the cult phenomena associated with Elvis Presley has taken many bizarre and often ludicrous turns during its ongoing life in American and world culture. But a recognition of the seriously playful and sometimes absurd nature of the Elvis cult during its recent efflorescence may constitute a realization that has some important bearing on the cultural dynamics associated with any emergent religious cult centered on the continuing mythological and ritual "presence" of a particular charismatic personality. The "founding" of a new religious movement (as well as the "charisma" and ongoing "life after death" of the "founder") is always a complex dialectical practice involving a deceased cult figure, the entrepreneurial "media," and various audiences (both hegemonic and marginal). In the final analysis and despite all the silliness, there is something quite significant going on—something that suggests important lessons about the redemptive role of "religion," "celebrity," and "humor" in a world making a confused passage to a new millennial age.

See alsoCult; New Age Spirituality; New Religious Movements; Religious Experience; Sociologyof Religion.


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Norman J. Girardot