Flipping through the television channels some years back, I stumbled upon a television news program which had devoted its entire hour to examining what has apparently one of the most popular religions in modern America.

One segment of the program which particularly fascinated me followed four members of this faith as they travelled about their own personal version of Mecca, pausing at various shrines to pay tribute to the object of their earnest devotion: a statue bearing his likeness, the palace in which he lived his fabled life, the holy raiments he wore. 

The quartet’s annual pilgrimage ended with a visit to the alleged burial place of the object of their affection, a soul-stirring scene in which one member of the group was shown with head bowed and eyes closed in humble and reverent supplication as her companions choked back tears.

So, you may well ask, were they Buddhists? Hare Krishnas? Scientologists? 

Actually, none of the above. The four individuals in question are among the thousands of devout members of the Church of St. Elvis the Aggrandized.

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Years ago, when I first mentioned that I planned to write a newspaper column on this particular subject, a co-worker warned me that it might not be such a good idea.

"You can say whatever you want to about school prayer or censorship or politics, or just about anything else," he pointed out. "But if you start messing around with Elvis you’re gonna make some people seriously mad. You just don’t understand the hold this man has on some people."

Well, that was exactly my point. I didn't understand. Still don't.

I have never understood why, all those years ago when he was in his prime, women would swoon at the very mention of his name. I mean, he was just a singer. Granted, a darned good one who deserves his place in history for successfully merging aspects of country, rock, gospel and blues, but so did Chuck Berry and Hank Williams. I don’t remember ever hearing of anyone swooning at the very mention of their names.

Most of all, I don’t understand why his so-called fans – those who have always claimed to love him with this quasi-religious fervor – do not demonstrate this great love by simply letting the man rest in peace.

Let me make myself clear: I don’t have anything against Elvis Presley. I have a number of his records myself.  Sure, he was talented. I’ll even concede -- again! -- that he deserves that special place in musical history, far more than many of the other recording artists who have followed in his footsteps deserve theirs. (In my lifetime we've gone from Elvis and the Beatles to Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga - THIS is progress?!?) Heck, I'll even go a step further and acknowledge that -- for the most part, anyway -- he was probably very much the “good boy” Ed Sullivan told us he was.

But all that doesn’t change the fact that he was JUST A SINGER. (Well, all right, if you must quibble: he was a singer-actor. Some have argued that any success the man may have achieved on the silver screen was, at least to some degree, in spite of his acting ability rather than because of it. I have to admit I haven't seen enough of his films to make a knowledgeable comment on this topic - although I also have to admit that I have always liked Charro.) And outside of selling a few million records, making a handful of mostly forgettable films and giving a few Cadillacs away, what was so great about him? 

Oh yeah, I forgot. He was “The King.” So sorry. An inexcusable fax paus on my part.

But hold on -- Nebuchadnezzar, Louis XVI and Henry IV were all kings, too. When was the last time you saw anybody swooning at the very mention of their names?

But you’ll have to pardon my ignorance on the subject. You see, I just don’t understand.

*      *      *

Fortunately, it is possible to enjoy Presley’s music, and even his films, and still not consider one’s self an Elvis fan in the truest sense of the phrase. 

It’s a good thing, too. Because Elvis fans -- the very devout ones, that is -- scare me. They really do. 

The woman who covers her wall with Elvis photos and kisses a plaster Elvis figurine before she goes to bed each night scares me.  The tourists who visit Graceland and spend $20 on a three-inch-square plastic box containing a bit of dirt from Elvis’ back yard scares me. The man who dyes his hair black, grows long sideburns, dons gaudy clothes and ekes out a meager living as an Elvis impersonator before screaming audiences of fellow Elvis fans scares me.

The folks that really scare me are the ones who believe that Elvis never died at all. He just staged a phony death so that he might escape the prison created by his fame, they tell us. Plus he didn’t want his fans to go through the pain of seeing him grow old. 

The truth of the matter is that Elvis is alive and well -- fat, bald and sporting a full beard and mustache, if certain stories are to be believed -- moving from town to town doing good deeds for those in need and fathering illegitimate children by the busload.

Well, it must be true – we’ve seen him! He stays here at the local Holiday Inn whenever he comes to town… I saw him at McDonald’s ordering a Big Mac just last week… my sister’s daughter’s best friend’s hairdresser said he stopped by the house and donated a big wad of money to help pay for her grandmother’s cataract operation. 

Give me a break, will you?

Elvis is DEAD, do you understand? Dead. Gone. Deceased. Pushing up daisies. Joined the Choir Invisible. 

But some fans simply cannot accept that. 

And that, to me, is scary.  

It’s scary because these individuals obviously feel a lack of any real meaning in their lives. And in looking for meaning, they have allowed their lives to be overpowered by this larger-than-life fantasy figure that Elvis has become. 

For all intents and purposes, they have withdrawn from reality. And that is more than just scary; it’s sad.

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The most unfortunate aspect of this deification of Elvis has been the concurrent commercialization of Elvis. 

Books, movies, documentaries and previously-unreleased recordings are one thing; slapping his name on some foul-smelling cologne is something else again. The contest sponsored some years back by the U.S. Postal Service to choose the official Elvis stamp was probably right up there with the $500 toilet seat when it comes to examples of wasteful government spending.

The fact that it is Elvis’ family and closest friends who have masterminded this descent into mythological meretriciousness, in my mind, borders on the obscene.

A tour guide at Graceland, interviewed during that aforementioned television program, said she felt that Elvis must be “looking down and smiling” at the legacy he’s left behind. 

Somehow I doubt that.

Somehow I get the feeling that if he’s looking down and getting a look at what the people who say they loved him have done to his memory, he’s shaking his head and wondering if it was really all worth it, after all.

And if, as some suggest, he did fake his death in order to get away from it all, I’ve got this wild hunch that he’s probably glad he bailed out when he did…