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.