Let Me Tell You a Thing on Popular Culture*

As this is posted, it’s 46 years since the launching of a pop-cultural phenomenon. Yes, I’m talking about George Lucas’ Star Wars. You can say it was a matter of ‘right place, right time,’ or clever marketing, or brilliant filmmaking and writing, or something else. Whatever the reason, the Star Wars saga has captured the imagination of millions of people, even people who aren’t science fiction lovers. Lines from the saga (e.g., ‘I am your father.’) have come into popular use, and companies have made fortunes selling everything Star Wars from soundtracks to costumes to action figures to video games and a lot more.

If you think about it, it’s not that common for something to become that much of a phenomenon, but there are other examples. Even in crime fiction.

Consider Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. Ever since the publication of A Study in Scarlet, people have been captivated by the stories. Even people who aren’t fans of crime fiction know who Holmes is, and ‘Baker Street tours’ are really popular, even among those who haven’t read the stories. The deerstalker hat has become a symbol for criminal detection; it’s become iconic. People all over know what it means. Let’s not forget, too, quotes such as the famous saying ‘Elementary, my dear Watson,’ which Holmes never actually says, but which has become mainstream. In fact, as you’ll know, Holmes became so popular that fans protested vehemently when Conan Doyle published The Final Problem. They refused to accept that there would be no more Holmes stories. So…Conan Doyle went with public opinion and brought Holmes back. We may not know exactly why Holmes became so popular when he did; there are probably a number of reasons. But I think there’s little doubt he’s become a cultural phenomenon.

The whodunit formula that’s been so much a part of crime fiction has also arguably become a cultural phenomenon. There are Murder Mystery dinners, weekends, cruises, and parties. There are murder games like Cluedo, and other games like Among Us that rely on the same detection skills. What’s interesting is that even people who don’t read crime fiction enjoy a game of Cluedo or dress up as a detective for a costume party. Perhaps it’s because we like the mental challenge of solving a puzzle. Perhaps it’s because we like to impose order on our world. Either way, finding out whodunit has become a part of everyday culture.

Another crime-fictional cultural phenomenon is arguably the serial killer character. Of course there have been real serial killers (did you know that there’s been a tentative identification of the so-called Zodiac Killer, who was active in the late 1960s?). But fictional serial killers have taken hold. You might not like reading about them, but filmmakers will tell you they sell tickets, downloads, and streaming subscriptions. Look at party costumes, memes, and even dolls, and you see the way in which the serial killer character has become almost pop-cultural. Lots of people know who Chucky is and who Freddy Kreuger and Jason Voorhees are, even if they’ve never seen the films and don’t care for serial killer stories.

The small town or village murder has also, I think, entered popular culture. Agatha Christie wrote several stories like that, and of course, she’s not the only one. Later, the context found its way into television series, for instance, Murder, She Wrote. That show became so popular that the setting for most of the series, fictional Cabot Cove, Maine, became a popular term to describe the sort of place where a hard-to-believe number of murders occur. It’s even a sort of code word for something that requires a little too much suspension of disbelief.

Other crime-fictional terms have also become a part of our culture. The word ‘gaslight’ for instance, means to make people doubt their own beliefs, and eventually even their own sanity. It’s an insidious psychological manipulation. The term came into common use after George Cukor’s 1944 psychological thriller Gaslight. In it, a young bride with a traumatic past moves into her husband’s home. Strange things start to happen, and she is slowly manipulated into believing that she must be having a mental breakdown. It’s a compelling film, and the term ‘gaslight/ing’ arguably moved into popular use as a result of it.

It’s not always clear exactly what makes a film, a character, a concept, or a word become a pop-cultural phenomenon. My unsophisticated guess is that it’s a combination of factors like timing, appeal, and so on. Whatever it is, it certainly happened in the case of Star Wars. And it’s nice to know that crime fiction has lent itself to pop culture, too. May the Force be with you!


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from dEUS’ Popular Culture.






12 thoughts on “Let Me Tell You a Thing on Popular Culture*

  1. Not just ‘May the force be with you’ but ‘May the fourth be with you ‘ is massively popular on social media too. And I sometimes think Agatha Christie invented the quintessential English village though Miss Read reinforced it ‘bigtime’. Our version of Cabot Cove is Midsomer from Midsomer Murders as a place you wouldn’t want to live. Do you ever wonder if these authors had any idea what they had started as they wrote their first books?


    1. Ah, yes, Midsomer! That’s definitely a place I wouldn’t want to live, Cath. It’s funny that Caroline Graham only wrote seven Tom Barnaby novels, and yet they spawned this popular culture show that’s lasted for a long time. And Murder She Wrote lasted twelve years. I’ll bet the authors didn’t see all that success coming, although I’d like to think they were optimistic. And yes, ‘May the Fourth’ is really popular , isn’t it? The Star Wars phenomenon is hard to believe…


    1. That’s exactly it, KBR! Some things take hold and you just don’t know exactly how it happened. I think it’s the same with books, too. Some are inexplicably popular, and others become forgotten.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Margot: You set me thinking. What came to mind was the Millennium trilogy by Stieg Larsson. It swept across the world. I recall people in Canada ordering from Sleuth of Baker Street the 2nd and 3rd books in expensive imported English editions as they could not wait for North American publication. I almost succumbed and then decided I could wait a few months but it was still hard to be patient! Lisbeth Salander became a famous character.


    1. You know, Bill, that’s an interesting point about Stieg Larsson’s novels. They really did develop a strong following. And of course the books led to the films, and even to some follow-on novels. And then there was an ugly inheritance fight over Larsson’s legacy. It’s interesting, isn’t it, how a series like that becomes part of the popular culture. For a while, wherever you went, there were references to ‘The Girl Who…’ Thanks for the idea!


  3. Ha, I vividly remember when Star Wars became a phenomenon. Being called Leah at that time became a curse, even if, as I constantly reminded people, it was spelled differently!;) I’d never really thought of crime fiction in the sense of a cultural phenomenon before, so I found your examples really interesting. It is odd how some things seem to take on a superstar life of their own even when they’re not necessarily better than other similar things. A case of appearing at the right time, I suppose. The most recent example over here is probably Happy Valley, a police series that it has seemed for the last few years that everyone has been watching and talking about, and it’s been breaking viewing records all over the place. Whether it will live for ever, like Prime Suspect or Cracker, or quickly fade now that it’s finished has yet to be determined…


    1. Oh, that name thing must have been difficult for you, FictionFan! I can just imagine… It is interesting the way the Star Wars franchise just took hold. As you say, some things become phenomena like that even though they’re not necessarily better than other films or book, etc. For some reason, everybody went mad about the films.. Maybe you’re right about the timing being just right. And thanks for mentioning Happy Valley. I’ve seen the show and I like it very much. It’s interesting how it’s caught on, too. Is it qualitatively better than other crime shows? Perhaps, but it’s a bit hard to say. I feel the same way about Peaky Blinders, which has become insanely popular here. There’s even the ‘Peaky Blinders’ haircut and those ‘Peaky Blinders’ hats. Interesting how that happens with some shows and films…

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