Legendary American singer Elvis Presley is heralded not only as the major innovator, “The King,” of rock ’n’ roll but also as a godlike figure inviting comparison with Jesus—complete with alleged healings and resurrection-like appearances. Looking at this mythology in the making can provide
insights into the mythology that developed around the central figure of Christianity two millennia before. Here, we analyze Elvis’s developing myth, study a recorded séance, visit two sites—one where Elvis’s apparitions have been reported (figure 1) and another where the apparitions sometimes eat (figure 2)—and consider other sidelights.
Elvis Aron Presley was born January 8, 1935, in East Tupelo, Mississippi. Influenced by the music around him (including that of the Pentecostal church he attended with his parents), he went on to blend largely white country-and-western music with predominantly black rhythm-and-blues to help create a new American pop-music genre, rock ’n’ roll. With songs like “Heartbreak Hotel,” “All Shook Up,” and “Jailhouse Rock,” plus more than thirty movies (beginning with
Love Me Tender in 1956), he became a superstar.
However, by the late 1970s, Elvis’s performances were deteriorating, and his overweight appearance had begun to draw jokes. In 1977, allegations of drug abuse and odd behavior surfaced in a book by three of his former employees titled Elvis: What Happened? Before the star could respond to the charges, he was discovered dead on August 16 at his Memphis, Tennessee, mansion—Graceland. An autopsy revealed that drugs were a contributing factor (Collier’s Encyclopedia, s.v. “Elvis Aron Presley”).
Along with countless others, I can still recall where I was when the news came of Elvis’s death. I was in my apartment in West Los Angeles (where I was working as an armed guard while attending Paul Stader’s Hollywood Stunt School). As I noted in my personal journal for that Tuesday: “While [I was] writing, there was a knock at my door. I found a young man—about 19, drunk, beer can still in hand, tears streaming down his face—who told me Elvis had just died. That incident is evidence of the impact he had.”
Others, however, reacted with much deeper emotion. Many of Elvis’s followers began to exhibit a “deitific regard” toward the dead star (Banks 2004, 222), prompted in part by Elvis himself. Before his death, the biography Elvis: What Happened? reported:
While the rest of the world recognizes that Elvis Aron Presley is something more than an ordinary human being, the one person who believes that most passionately is Presley himself. He is addicted to the study of the Bible, mystical religion, numerology, psychic phenomena, and the belief in life after death. He firmly believes he has the powers of psychic healing by the laying on of hands. He believes he will be reincarnated. He believes he has the strength of will to move clouds in the air, and he is also convinced that there are beings on other planets. He firmly believes he is a prophet who was destined to lead, designated by God for a special role in life. (West et al. 1977, 157)
Now, following Elvis’s death, grandiose claims began to proliferate. Someone noticed that “Elvis” is an anagram of “lives.” Parallels have been drawn between Elvis and Jesus:
- For example, Elvis was said not to be buried in his grave but to be hiding elsewhere (Southwell and Twist 2004, 20). (In Matthew [28: 1–15], when Jesus’ tomb was found empty, the chief priests told the soldiers to say, “His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.”)
- After his death Elvis was reportedly witnessed boarding an airplane (Southwell and Twist 2004, 20), and there were subsequently “numerous accounts of ‘Elvis sightings’ in malls, burger restaurants, and airports throughout the United States” (Banks 1996). An Elvis Is Alive Museum was even created by a Baptist minister with displays of photographs, FBI files, and other memorabilia that supposedly provide evidence that the singer never died (“Elvis Is Alive” 2008). (In the gospels, after his resurrection, Jesus made appearances to his disciples and many others [e.g., John 20: 19–29; 1 Corinthians 15: 4–8].)
- In time, Elvis’s mythological status began to include “tales that recount his healings of illness, blindness, and sorrow through dreams and his music” (Banks 2004, 222). (As related, for example, in Luke [4:40–41; 18:43], Jesus went about healing the sick, the blind, and the possessed.)
- On the wall around Graceland, Elvis’s followers have written inscriptions: “Elvis, we believe always and forever”; “Elvis, you are my God and my King”; and “Elvis, every mountain I have had to climb, you carried me over on your back” (Banks 2004, 222). (The New Testament contains passages such as these: “The grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus” [1 Timothy 1:14] and “I rejoice in the Lord…. I can do all things in him who strengthens me” [Philippians 4: 10–13].)
- Great numbers of the faithful—some 10 percent of the American public—have visited Graceland “as a place of pilgrimage” (“Elvis Presley” 2008). (Christians make pilgrimages to Jerusalem and other sites associated with Jesus in order to venerate him.)
- There have even been “weeping” effigies of the star, like a plaster bust owned by a Dutch Elvis impersonator (“Weeping” 1997). (The phenomenon of weeping icons—rife with misperceptions and pious hoaxes—is frequently associated with Jesus, Mary, or a Christian saint [Nickell 2004, 324–330].)
The “Elvis sightings” are especially persistent. They stem from the notions of conspiracy theorists who believe the star faked his death. The “evidence” is generally laughable. For example, on his gravestone, Elvis’s middle name appears not as Aron but “Aaron,” as it if were “a method of saying, ‘It’s not me’” (Brewer-Giorgio 1988, 55). In fact, although it is clear he himself used “Aron” (probably for its similarity to the name of his stillborn twin, Jesse Garon Presley), the more common spelling often appears and may even have been the original form (Brewer-Giorgio 1988, 50–61; “Elvis Presley” 2008).
Nevertheless, a still-alive Elvis has reportedly been seen by thousands of eyewitnesses. Critics, on the other hand, have suggested that the sightings can be explained by glimpses of Elvis impersonators (“Elvis” 2008) or even simple look-alikes. Some modern sightings—which emphasize Elvis pigging out on fast food—are obviously satirical (“Elvis Sighting” 2008) and examples of jokelore.
Other close encounters of the Elvis kind involve his ghost or spirit allegedly communicating with others through such means as automatic writing (in which Elvis guides the sensitive’s hand), séances (spirit-communication sessions often held by a “medium”), and astral encounters (achieved through out-of-body experiences). All of these have been utilized by one Dorothy Sherry, “a simple housewife” who has been billed as a “psychic go-between” for Elvis. “Ghost hunter” Hans Holzer tells her story in
Star Ghosts. He insists: “Dorothy Sherry has never met Elvis Presley. She has not been to any concerts of his, does not collect his records or consider herself a fan of his” (1979, 61–62). Yet he says her contacts with Elvis are among the most “evidential” of his career.
Why, Sherry can even be possessed by Elvis, or at least Holzer claims (though shows us no photos) that he watched “the usually placid face of Dorothy Sherry change to a near-likeness of Elvis” as the star supposedly “controlled her.” Elvis then provided statements “in rapid succession which left no doubt,” Holzer insisted, “about his identity and actual presence in our midst” (63). Through Sherry, Elvis not only provided information supposedly unknown to her but revealed to her that, in her words, “he had known me in a previous life, and that I had been his wife” (67). “Dorothy,” Hans Holzer tells us, “went astral traveling with Elvis practically night after night” (68).
We thus receive the distinct impression that far from being uninterested in Elvis, Sherry is obsessed with him. Moreover, she has several traits that are associated with a fantasy-prone personality (such as professing psychic powers, having out-of-body experiences, receiving messages from higher entities, seeing apparitions, and so on) (Nickell 2001, 215; Wilson and Barber 1983).
Holzer does concede: “Although I haven’t the slightest doubt that Dorothy never read any books about Presley, nor any newspaper stories concerning him, the fact that these sources exist must be taken into account when evaluating the evidence obtained through her entranced lips” (1979, 62). Indeed, Holzer must know that the very sources used to authenticate spirit communication may be used by a medium (consciously or not) to glean the information in the first place. Alleged psychics and mediums have long made a practice of conducting secret research using the results as evidence, convincing the credulous of their paranormal ability. (For example, according to his former secretary, notorious medium Arthur Ford [1897–1971] traveled with a suitcase crammed with notes and clippings about whomever was to attend one of his séances [Christopher 1975, 143–144].)
In fact, some of the very information Dorothy Sherry offered as coming from Elvis’s spirit (for example an incident about a friend’s leg injury [Holzer 1979, 64]) was readily available in the book Elvis: What Happened? (West et al. 1977, 165). Moreover, some of the alleged information is doubtful. Sherry has Elvis telling her his mother had a weakness for drink, “a fact which has never been publicized for obvious reasons,” says Holzer (1979, 65). Actually, the allegation had indeed been made by “some Presley detractors” but was emphatically denied by Elvis’s close companions (West et al. 1977, 139). In any event, why would Elvis—otherworldly or not—choose to reveal derogatory information about the woman he regarded as a saint?
Holzer’s use of “psychics” in ghost-hunting was once examined in the Journal for the Society for Psychical Research. The reviewer found that Holzer’s verification methodology was so unsatisfactory as to “cast considerable doubt on the objectivity and reliability of his work as a whole” (qtd. in Berger and Berger 1991, 183). I myself have reviewed Holzer’s work and reached a similar conclusion (Nickell 1995, 61–63).
Among the places Dorothy Sherry claims to have astrally traveled with Elvis is the Las Vegas Hilton. His spirit reportedly haunts “numerous locations” in the building (“Haunted” 2008), and the site is listed in Dennis William Hauck’s Haunted Places: The National Directory (1996, 262). (Again, see figure 1.)
In hopes of catching a glimpse of the specter, I visited the Hilton during a stay in Las Vegas. (Although I was there to receive an award, I decided to make the trip a working one as well.) I was accompanied to the famous hotel and casino by colleague Vaughn Rees (then with our CFI/West office in Los Angeles).
We prowled the spacious resort’s byways but were unable to see the King’s ghost. A security guard discounted the idea that Elvis haunted the site. So did an information agent, who responded, “Absolutely not!” She told us she had worked there for thirty-five years, extending back to the time when Presley actually performed at the hotel. (She added that her father had once received a Cadillac as a gift from him.) Yet she stated that she had never experienced—nor even heard of—Elvis’s ghost haunting the premises. Here, as elsewhere, it seems ghosts are only likely to appear to those with vivid imaginations.
Figure 2. The author at an Elvis-Eats-Here site (a restaurant at Underground Atlanta), part of American jokelore.
However, on one occasion I was challenged to explain a “spirit” photo of Elvis and his twin Jesse that supposedly depicted their visages and hands. In the photo, they appeared in mist behind an erstwhile Elvis impersonator who purports “to host the soul” of Jesse (“Best” 1994). The singer made highly emotional claims about the picture (a rejected shot from an entertainment magazine’s photo session). He called it “miraculous” and “supernatural.” However, I explained otherwise when he and I appeared together on the radio show The Night Side with Richard Syrett (CFRB Toronto, February 25, 2001).
I had in the meantime investigated the case with photo expert Rob McElroy. We learned from those on the photo shoot that the “mist” was cigarette smoke blown in blue light for effect. The photo effects were “an accident,” according to the art director. It was she who actually snapped that photo while a writer at the shoot darted in and out of the scene to adjust the singer’s collar. “I always knew it was me,” the writer admitted. The glitch was affected by the combined burst of light from the electronic flash and the slower (1/4-second) exposure from the camera’s shutter. The result was that the singer’s right hand and face were both sharp and blurred and that the intruding writer’s underexposed hand and face appeared as extra images (McElroy 2001). Not surprisingly, perhaps, the singer did not accept this explanation.
The impulse that prompts Elvis encounters is the emotional unwillingness of fans to accept his death. This is the same impulse that has helped fuel the Elvis-impersonator industry,2 just as it made possible the impostors of an earlier time who claimed to be the “real” death-surviving cult personalities of John Wilkes Booth, Jesse James, or Billy the Kid (Nickell 1993). However, no credible evidence that Elvis survived has surfaced since his reported death at age forty-two. And as the pathologist who performed the autopsy on him is quoted as saying, “If he wasn’t dead before I did the autopsy, he sure was afterwards!” (“Elvis” 2008).
Although his rocky life shows he was in many ways ill-suited for stardom—let alone mythology or, heaven forbid, deification—Elvis Presley does remain a larger-than-life figure for his influence on pop-culture and, especially, for music that will no doubt last for generations.
I wish once again to express my gratitude to Mel Lipman and the American Humanist Association for their coveted Isaac Asimov science award. I also want to thank Vaughn Rees and CFI Libraries director Tim Binga for their tireless help and John and Mary Frantz for financial assistance in my investigations.
- Interviews by Joe Nickell (with Vaughn Rees), March 7, 2004. The information agent wrote her first name, “Roseanne,” on a hotel business card but did not otherwise want to be identified.
- The “Elvis impersonators” phenomenon actually started years prior to the star’s death (“Elvis” 2008).
- Banks, Amanda Carson. 1996. In Brunvand 1996, 221–222.
- Berger, Arthur S., and Joyce Berger. 1991. The Encyclopedia of Parapsychology and Psychical Research. New York: Paragon House.
- “Best epiphany.” 1994. Hamilton This Month (now Hamilton Magazine), summer, 40.
- Brunvand, Jan Harold. 1996. American Folklore: An Encyclopedia. New York: Garland Publishing.
- Christopher, Milbourne. 1975. Mediums, Mystics and the Occult. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company.
- Elvis Presley phenomenon. 2008. Wikipedia. Available online at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elvis_sightings (accessed August 4, 2008).
- Elvis Is Alive Museum again for sale on eBay. 2008. Buffalo News, September 23.
- The Elvis Sighting Bulletin Board. 2008. Available online at http://www.elvissightingbulletinboard.com (accessed August 4, 2008).
- Holzer, Hans. 1979. Star Ghosts. New York: Leisure Books.
- McElroy, Rob. 2001. Report of February 18, together with interview notes, etc., in author’s extensive case file.
- Nickell, Joe. 1993. Outlaw impostors. In Stein 1993, 112–113.
- —. 1995. Entities: Angels, Spirits, Demons, and Other Alien Beings. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.
- —. 2001. Phantoms, frauds or fantasies? In Hauntings and Poltergeists: Multidisciplinary Perspectives, ed. James Houran and Rense Lange. Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Co.
- —. 2004. The Mystery Chronicles. Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky.
- Southwell, David, and Sean Twist. 2004. Conspiracy Files. New York: Gramercy Books.
- Stein, Gordon. 1993. Encyclopedia of Hoaxes. Detroit: Gale Research.
- West, Red, Sonny West, and Dave Hebler. 1977. Elvis: What Happened? As told to Steve Dunleavy. New York: Ballantine.
- Wilson, Sheryl C., and Theodore X. Barber. 1983. The fantasy-prone personality. In Imagery, Current Theory, Research, and Application, ed. A.A. Sheikh, 340–387. New York: John Wiley and Sons.
- Joe Nickell, PhD, is CSI’s senior research fellow and author of numerous books. His Web site is http://www.joenickell.com.