Elvis: Sightings and Faith - Making Sense of the Seemingly Absurd

by Nigel Patterson, 2003

Most people think that the sightings of Elvis began in Kalamazoo around 1987. This is actually not the case. Sightings of The King started virtually the day he died. The sightings however only came to public consciousness after the Kalamazoo sighting by Louise Welling, an incident that was picked up by the tabloid press and initiated many years of follow up stories/sightings.

An interesting element of Elvis sightings is that there are in fact two distinct types of sightings and they serve much different functions. There are the 'Live Elvis' sightings and the 'Spirit Elvis' sightings. It is the former type of sighting that the media and public tend to focus on.

John Strausbaugh in his insightful book, 'E Reflections on the Birth of the Elvis Faith' (Blast Books, 1995) notes that the function of 'Live Elvis' sightings is simply to "perpetuate the lore that Elvis is alive and well."

Sightings in this category are typically fleeting and poorly photographed and as such Strausbaugh draws a reasonable parallel with sightings and photos of Bigfoot and UFO's. While Elvis sightings are now not as prolific as they were throughout the 1990s, when he is seen at places and in situations many find incredulous, at county fairs, in cafes or restaurants, at the local supermarket, buying petrol etc.

His presence being seen in such prosaic situations and places should not be surprising though. Where else would people see him but in settings where they live their lives? And as Strausbaugh theorises in his book, "these familiar settings serve a purpose: their banality lends acceptability and plausibility to the sightings."

The sightings are consistent with the findings of a number of anthropologists, everyday settings frequently occur in stories of the supernatural and unusual. Strausbaugh comments:

"A completely ordinary setting not only makes an incredible tale seem a bit more credible, it also grounds an extraordinary event in familiar reality."

There are obviously psychological forces present in 'Live Elvis' sightings. While they/we didn't realise it at the time, Elvis Presley in the 1950s and 1960s was incredibly important to youth. His importance went far beyond just his music...his was a major cultural influence.

Leonard Bernstein astutely stated: 'Elvis Presley was the singular most important cultural identity of the 20th century'.

Elvis opened the door to a bourgeoning youth culture, his impact changed the way teenagers talked, the way they dressed, the way they wore their hair. Elvis paved the way for the sexual revolution of the 1960s. And when he died the seminal psychological impact he had made on millions of fans had to manifest itself.

Strausbaugh comments: "The day Elvis died people were already insisting they would never let his memory die. Instinctively they knew in that instant that they had to preserve his memory and pass it on to future generations."

This is the reason for the world's ongoing interest in The King of Rock & Roll. It is the reason why he is seen at corner drug stores, why the number of Elvis fan clubs continue to climb 26 years after his death, why his latest album has alrady sold more than 10 million copies worldwide, and why Internet sites such as this one exist. We cannot let him go, nor can we let go of him!

One of the most interesting narratives in Strausbaugh's book is his commentary on the similarity between (or borrowing of) motifs in Elvis sightings to those present in the conspiracy theories surrounding the assassination of JFK and the deaths of Marilyn Monroe and Jim Morrison. Involvement of the CIA, a hoaxed death, possible murder, post-death sightings etc are all constants in these other deaths and the lore that has subsequently built up around them. But this is another story.

Spirit Elvis sightings function very differently to Live Elvis sightings. These experiences "elevate Elvis to a figure of myth and miracle, and tales of such sightings generally conform to the framework of folklore." The stories involve elements of magic, moral instruction and help.

In 1987 Dr Raymond A. Moody, M.D. published a remarkable book, 'Elvis After Life' (Peachtree Publishing). In it he recounted the findings of his research into spiritual Elvis sightings. The stories were to say the least incredible, but each of the people experiencing them fervently believed their experience was real.

In fact, many are hard to dismiss, like the Georgia cop whose estranged son had gone missing. Elvis came to the father in a dream and told him to go to a place in Los Angeles where he would find his son. The father travelled to the place and yes, he found his son!

Similarly, what do we make of the case of a self-centred Yuppie, fresh out of a horrendous divorce, who goes hiking alone on the Appalachian Trail to 'find himself'. During his adventure he meets a stranger by the name of Jo(h)n Burrows. Under the cover of a starry night Burrows tells the man of his philosophy, a mixture of Christianity and Buddhism, tough love and New Age mysticism. With the stranger's help the man slowly re-evaluates his wasted life and gains a greater understanding of God. When the man awakes in the morning, Jo(h)n Burrows (the mythical 'stranger ghost' has vanished. Some time later, the man sees a television program about Elvis and discovers that one of Elvis's aliases was...Jo(h)n Burrows.

Other examples of Spirit Elvis sightings or experiences are the well-documented 'poltergeist' type tales of Elvis records mysteriously melting on August 16, 1977 and Elvis figurines jumping off mantelpieces and shattering into a thousand pieces. A further variant is the 'it's a miracle' incidents where someone is saved from death or great pain. There are several documented accounts of children in a comatose state and thought beyond the reach of medical science who miraculously recover when an Elvis song comes on in their room.

EIN recently published a review of the book, 'Elvis Was My Speech Therapist' by James Lee Bradley, and the Bradley story is not dissimilar to the events we are describing here. And in 'Elvis After Life', Dr Moody includes the moving story of a 10-year-old girl suffering from Down's syndrome who just before dieing, beamed a big smile and said: "Here comes Elvis......Here comes Elvis."

An essential characteristic of stories such as these is that they are 'vague' and 'beyond empirical proof'. As Strausbaugh states: "They are a matter of faith." In this context it is not difficult to understand how many consider the ongoing fascination, devotion to and experience of Elvis as equivalent to a faith or religion.

Consider some of the structural iconic 'religious' elements: the High Priest/God (Elvis) ceremonial and symbolic garb/vestments (jumpsuits) worn by the Disciples/Minister's (impersonators); religious relics (memorabilia; records); annual pilgrimage to the places of worship (Graceland,Tupelo, shrines and fan club arranged memorial sites) and rituals (Giving of the Scarves).

Since Elvis's death in 1977 several organised churches or religions around his memory have been formed including The First Presleytarian Church of Elvis the Divine (now active on at least two continents), The First Church of Elvis and The 24 Hour Church of Elvis. In addition, at least six academic books have been published in the past decade examining the Elvis phenomenon as religion and the motivations of its followers ('Elvites').

As Strausbaugh notes, "Elvis left such a precise schematic for the Elvii and the faithful...".

While it is easy to dismiss the Elvis as religion, sect or cult concept, it is mindful to note that many other faiths and religions arose from 'pagan' origins and were also derided in their formative period. Christainity was once regarded as a "cult menace" while the Mormans endured much before emerging as a powerful religious movement.

And at any one time in history there have always been numerous 'grass roots' movements operating outside mainstram religion. For instance, the Roman Catholic church today continues to have to deal with its own long running, grass-roots bugbear, the 'Cult of the Virgin' (Mary).

The penultimate word should be left to John Stausbaugh: "Who knows what will become of the Elvis faith? ...it is a religion based on love of Elvis Presley and rock 'n' roll. Outsiders don't fear it, they just laugh at it. The fact that outsiders can't take it seriously may turn out to be its strength and its shield. Maybe by the time Elvism is taken seriously it will have quietly grown too large and well established to be crushed like the Branch Davidians."

Or will the 'mirror Elvis' ego-centric and self-defeating nature of many fans see the fragmented existence of their worship continually relegate their set of beliefs to the marginal fringes of contemporary society?

This edition of Spotlight on The King was prepared by Nigel Patterson - borrowing heavily from the stimulating work of John Strausbaugh

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