Gregory L. Reece / Religion

Elvis Religion: Pilgrims and Shrines

Gregory L. Reece.

Elvis Religion: Pilgrims & Shrines

The phenomena associated with Graceland, especially those surrounding the candlelight vigil of Elvis’ death, have led some to make rather direct comparisons between Elvis fans and religious pilgrims. One of the earliest and most influential proponents of such a view is Ted Harrison, whose book Elvis People: The Cult of the King advances the claims that the phenomena associated with Elvis fans resembles those associated with a cult, and this Elvis cult may one day become a full fledged religion (1992:9). The aspects of the Elvis cult as identified by Harrison are several, and are probably familiar to many readers, considering that they have been the focus of both serious journalism and scholarship as well as of media sensationalism and out-right parody.

First, Elvis is referred to as the ‘King’, a term with clear religious connotations within the Christian faith where Jesus himself is referred to as the ‘King of Kings.’ Second, fans recount Elvis’s life story in much the way that early Christians told the story of Jesus and wrote gospels. This re-telling of the life story of Elvis included tales of his good deeds, often associated with the giving away of Cadillacs and his kindness toward his mother, as well as stories of his own religious faith and devotion. Third, Elvis fans attribute a sacred character to certain objects associated with Elvis, thus granting them the status of relics and icons. Fans collect Elvis souvenirs, often purchased at Graceland Plaza, and in extreme cases even collect items from Elvis’s personal life such as toenails and his used water cups. Fourth, Elvis impersonators constitute a form of priesthood for Elvis fans. Dressed in the vestments of the religion, they mediate between fans and the spirit of the King, incarnating Elvis through their re-enactments of his performances. Fifth, Elvis fans participate in charitable activities in Elvis’s name. These often focus on Memphis area hospitals. Sixth, Elvis is said to be alive, even after his death – in some cases by those who would attribute this life to a spiritual presence and in other cases by people who actually claim to have seen Elvis physically alive. This claim presents an interesting parallel to the disagreements between the early followers of Jesus as to whether his resurrection was physical or purely spiritual. Seventh, Elvis fans make pilgrimages to Elvis shrines, namely his birthplace in Tupelo, Mississippi, and Graceland in Memphis, Tennessee. The Graceland shrine is of particular importance as it is the place of his burial and the scene of the central liturgy of the Elvis cult, the candlelight vigil.

Other authors have followed Harrison and made very similar claims about Elvis fans. John Strausbaugh suggested that Elvis fans are creating another indigenous American religion, like Black Islam or Mormonism (1995,: 10). He identifies several facets of Elvis devotion that seem to support his claim. While many of Strausbaugh’s claims are simply restatements of Harrison;s observation concerning the social behaviour of Elvis devotees, Strausbaugh is also interested in the content of the beliefs concerning Elvis held by fans and followers. According to Strausbaugh, Elvis devotees believe that:

  1. Elvis is a mythic King who has left the presence of his people but is not really dead.
  2. Elvis is a supernatural being who watches over them from above and may intervene on their behalf.
  3. The nature of Elvis has been revealed through miraculous cures and visions.
  4. Elvis will return to earth or be reunited with his followers in heaven. (Strausbaugh 1995: 11-12)

For both Harrison and Strausbaugh, Graceland stands as the central point of the Elvis cult. It is the axis mundi of the Elvis universe. It is the place where Elvis lived, the place where Elvis died, and the place where Elvis is buried. It is a gathering point for Elvis fans from around the world, and the location of the most moving of all tributes to Elvis. Elvis researcher Erika Doss agrees with this appraisal of the centrality of Graceland in the development of an Elvis religion. She also, however, reveals one of the most crucial problems associated with this understanding of the phenomena. Namely, most Elvis fans, most people who visit Graceland, even most people who participate in the candlelight vigil, would not be comfortable in describing Graceland as a religious shrine.

Religious terms like ‘pilgrimage’ and ‘shrine’ are generally not part of the average Graceland visitor’s vocabulary, and many fans might be offended if they heard these words used in relation to their visits to the site. Still, Elvis’s estate has become the object of veneration for thousands of fans who visit it every year, and for thousands more who wish they, too, could go to Graceland. (Doss 1999: 85-86)

In other words, Doss recognises that in interpreting Graceland as a shrine or sacred space she is offering an interpretation that most fans and visitors to Graceland would reject. Yet, oddly enough, she insists on the aptness of the interpretation, nevertheless. This is a problem that she recognised time and time again. For example, she claims that fans engage in specific rituals during Elvis weeks, but notes that most fans would fail to see these activites as rituals. What, we may ask, are these rituals that fans participate in, apparently in ignorance? What are these cultic observances that are at the heart of Elvis faith? Doss offers a list, more detailed than that given by Harrison or Strassbaugh, and because it is more detailed, also more telling. We are told that Elvis fans:

  1. Take the Graceland tour.
  2. Attend fan club meetings and collectors auctions.
  3. Engage in charity work.
  4. Attend benefit concerts for local hospitals.
  5. Donate blood to the Elvis Presley Trauma Center.
  6. Attend lectures and memorial services.
  7. Attend impersonator contests.
  8. Visit local landmarks associated with Elvis.
  9. Write on the Graceland wall.
  10. Drink iced tea at the Graceland Plaza restaurant.
  11. Eat at the Shoney’s fried chicken buffet down the street from Graceland (Doss 1999: 91-92)

This, it seems to me, is a very odd list. If one is trying to demonstrate, against the protest of participants, that the events surrounding the observance of Elvis’s birth and death constitute some sort or religious rituals, this list of what Elvis fans actually do in Memphis does not strike me as all that convincing. Doss’s list sounds more like the kind of things that one does at academic conferences or at business or hobbyist conventions. If these activities constitute religious rituals, then so do the convention activities of accountants, comic-book collectors, academics, and booksellers. Yes, it is true, visitors to Graceland, especially the diehard fans who come in August and in January, participate in very similar events year after year. In that very loose sense of the word I suppose that we could say that they, therefore, participate in rituals. It seems to me, however, that we have now loosened our definition of ritual to the point where it no longer serves as an indicator of religious phenomena. By these standards almost all human behaviour is ritualistic behaviour. Consequently, I remain unconvinced that the religious hypothesis is bore out and that a new cult or religion is in its infancy at Graceland.

Image courtesy of Dr Gray.

Gregory L Reece is an independent Alabama-based writer and scholar with special interests in new religious movements and cult beliefs. His books include UFO Religion, Weird Science, Creatures of the Night and Elvis Religion, of which this is an extract.

Works mentioned:
Doss, Erika. (1999). Elvis Culture: Fans, Faith, and Image (Lawrence, KA, University Press of Kansas)
Harrison, Ted. (1992). Elvis People: The Cult of the King (London, Fount)
Strausbaugh, John. (1995). E: Reflections of the Birth of the Elvis Faith (New York, Blast Books)

2 thoughts on “Elvis Religion: Pilgrims and Shrines

  1. Some of us of course just buy the records. Elvis was charismatic. Unfortunately many confuse this with heroism. The belief that an artistic talent makes someone a special human being occurs not just in pop music but also literature eg Mailer and Hemingway. This phenomenon tempts intellectuals just as effectively as it does the daft.

  2. Elvis was a very special person, he was not just a singer/entertainer, he was a wonderful human being , he gave so much to others far less fortunate than himself, he knew exactly what it was like to have nothing. He gave 50 charities $1000 a year, that was worth way more back then, he bought houses, cars, paid hospital bills, gave away millions of dollars worth of jewellery, I could go on but a true Elvis fans knows exactly how much Elvis gave, he was almost broke when he died and that is only because he gave most of his fortune away.

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