Elvis died before I was born, so to me he's always been more of an icon of cultural history than a superstar attracting throngs of screaming girls.
I learned otherwise, when I spent a summer in Memphis. It was 1999, the summer before my senior year of college, and I was an intern in the features department at the Commercial Appeal.
Toward the end of July, my editors started handing out assignments for "Elvis Week," the week around the anniversary of his death. My story was a look at Elvis on the web, where I found a number of wacky fan sites and the First Presleyterian Church of Elvis the Divine. It's a spoof, but it got me thinking about the devotion of Elvis fans, who maintain a sort of adoration usually reserved for saints or other bona fide religious figures.
On the night of Aug. 15, at the urging of co-workers, my friends and I wandered down to Elvis Presley Boulevard to the annual candlelight vigil, and were amazed, bewildered and kind of weirded out by what we saw.
The blocks in front of Graceland were closed off. In the street, adoring fans had established shrines, with candles surrounding pictures of the deceased King. Elvii (we decided that was the plural of Elvis impersonators) mingled with the crowd. A somber, silent line of people snaked up the driveway of the mansion toward Elvis's grave. It was all so bizarre, we had to get in line.
Lining the driveway were big flowered wreaths, like the kind usually seen at funerals. They came from all over the world: from New Jersey to Brazil. As we approached the grave, the grief was real. Middle-aged ladies still cried as if he had died two days ago, not 22 years. They left flowers and teddy bears. We didn't quite know what to do, so we stopped and tried to look appropriately mournful.
The vigil went on all night, and does every year. Last night's 30th anniversary attracted more than 50,000 people, who made this pilgrimage to honor their hero. The candles, the tone, the pilgrimage, the emotion -- without a doubt it was the most religious, non-religious event I have ever attended.
Plenty of folks smarter than me have studied this phenomenon of celebrity worship, but it make me wonder why? Why do we cling to dead celebrities, and how do we choose which ones get this sort of treatment?
Photo: Since my pictures were pre-digital, here's one from the AP. Paulette Stone of Jackson, Mo., lights candles at a street shrine to Elvis Presley on Elvis Presley Blvd. in front of Graceland during the vigil marking the 30th anniversary of his death. Presley died Aug. 16, 1977. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)