Walking in Memphis: The Religiosity of Elvis and Fans’ Pilgrimage to Graceland

RLG233 Group 2
9 min readNov 30, 2015
Exterior of Graceland, the home of Elvis Presley

Elvis Presley is known as one of the significant icons of the twentieth century. While he was alive, Elvis managed to create a big fan base for himself, one that grew even after his death. Elvis’ image was well received by most Americans, due to his struggles growing up. Our interest does not lie in trying to understand why Elvis’ image was so highly received, but how this image was commoditized. Even after Elvis’ passing, a lot of corporations are benefiting monetarily through Elvis’ image. We look to explain how Elvis’ image become commoditized through fandom. While also analyzing the elements that lead to Graceland to becoming a pilgrimage site.

A pilgrimage is defined as “a journey to a special place, in which both the journey and the destination have spiritual significance for the journeyer” (Pilgrimage, xvii). The pilgrim chooses to undergo a journey or quest in order to achieve an experience that will change the pilgrim in some way, often spiritually. The pilgrim, then, undergoes a journey over physical distance that parallels their journey of spiritual or intellectual growth. The pilgrim feels drawn to a pilgrimage site, and will often endure hardships to reach their destination. How, then, can we consider a seemingly secular site such as Graceland in Memphis, Tennessee a pilgrimage site? Davidson states that there are three central beliefs that cause people to embark on a pilgrimage: “the conviction that there are forces infinitely larger than ourselves that can influence our lives”, that we can have some sort of personal relationship with those forces, and that certain places allow us to be even closer to those forces. Those certain places become pilgrimage sites. Many Elvis fans, though quick to dismiss the label of religion, speak of him in terms that shows he had some transcendental power to affect the lives of the people who loved him. Even after death, his fans sought and still seek today a personal relationship with him, and many fans travel to Graceland in order to experience an even closer relationship with him. Graceland has become a special place for fans of Elvis, and there is a “religiosity” (Erika Doss) to the ways fans remember and continue to celebrate Elvis. Even with this simple definition, one can see how Graceland can be considered a pilgrimage site, but there are several other features that can be placed under consideration. A pilgrimage can be defined in many ways — for Graceland, it is a site that is “popular”, originates in that it houses “relics” (Elvis is buried in Graceland, and his home acts as a museum), visited year-long but with special significance during Elvis Week (August 8–16), is a relatively recent pilgrimage site, and is fairly “inclusive” in that it is open to the public, although it holds particular significance for die-hard fans. Graceland can be considered a “secular popular” site for pilgrimage (Davidson, 205). Graceland blurs the line between tourism and pilgrimage, although in today’s world it is not unusual for both secular and religious sites to have been commoditized to some extent.

Graceland as a pilgrimage site is contingent on the idea of the religiosity of secular objects, places, or people. The idea of Elvis worship as a type of religion is one that has been perpetuated more by the media rather than fans themselves. Most fans would deny they see Elvis as a religious figure or that they “worship” him in a traditional sense. However, it is clear that the Elvis fandom, and specifically Graceland, operates in a way that blurs the line between secular fandom and religious worship. Elvis Presley works as a negotiated image by his fans — they see in him what they want or need to. Perhaps this explains why his legacy is so enduring. By visiting Graceland, fans find “a place to find solace from the spiritual and emotional turbulence of the everyday world” (Davidson, 205). Another feature of a pilgrimage site is that the journey to that site is often difficult, and it’s “special or sacred character is enhanced … by the difficulties of the pilgrimage” (Doss, 86). Many fans travel from all over North America and save up money for years in order to afford the trip. Visiting during an especially significant time during Elvis Week further compounds the difficulty with the sweltering heat of Memphis in August.

There are many ways in which the tourist-pilgrims that visit Graceland operate in ways that have religious tones. Fans visit this site in particular because there is something special about this site — not only is this place where Elvis’ grave is, but it is also the site of his home. Therefore, fans can feel a closeness to Elvis following his death that they could not achieve during his life. As Doss states, “the desire to see and experience Graceland is akin to the desire to see and feel Elvis” (88).

It is also important, especially during Elvis Week, that fans come together to celebrate Elvis’ life and remember his death. The practices around this week are very ritualized and akin to the way a saint might be treated. Fan’s time together in Graceland, especially during Elvis Week in August is a time where they can share stories and come together, and when the pilgrim returns home again, they are revitalized in their (private) faith. At the end of the week, there is an all-night candlelight vigil that marks the anniversary of his death. The tone of this ceremony is very reminiscent of traditional religious services, such as mass and vigils.

Finally, many fans leave gifts at Elvis’ grave in the Meditation Gardens and at his grave. This is akin to a religious practice of leaving “ex-votos” at the burial sites of saints and other holy figures. “Ex-votos act as petitions or thanks for cures and healing” and “offerings of Elvis dolls and Elvis pictures … seem to have similarly powerful connotations” (Doss, 99–101). These offerings serve dual purposes — as gifts, but also as a symbol of the constantly renewing relationship fans have to Elvis. This relationship is renewed through the constant reiteration of Elvis’ image through material goods.

Elvis Presley’s grave in Graceland

Although Elvis was regarded as one of the most significant cultural icons of the 20th century, and was often referred to as the King. His image was one that was easily turned into a commodity due to his relatable past. Elvis grew up as an only child in a struggling, working class family. Having a past that is very relatable to many American families is one of the reasons why Elvis was so accepted. Previous studies have shown that people are more accepting of religious entities when they can relate to their struggle. Monica Miller made the case with rappers who use the struggle of Jesus Christ as a means to feel more secure, and gain a sense of belonging (Monica Miller). This can then be related to the Elvis’ case to explain always growing fan base. People identify with the struggle of his early life and thus support and accept him as the King (Doss). As a result of the commodification of Elvis’ image, Graceland was consequently commoditized as well. People look to celebrate the communion of Elvis through his material manifestations, and not through a sacred text. They seek to feel what he felt when he was alive through visiting his hometown, his homes, and his favourite restaurants, thus leading to the “sacrilization” of objects by his aura (Chadwick, 190). The commodification of Elvis’ image was also easily commodified due to the profound commitment of his fans. As seen above many of his fans would sacralize the spaces and places that Elvis had visited while he was alive. Through the Porter reading we became aware of what constituted an implicit religion. According to him, an implicit religion is one that is manifested by a profound level commitment.

Moving away from Elvis himself, and focusing on pilgrimage sites, we will look to understand why and how pilgrimage sites can be commodified. As discussed earlier a pilgrimage is a spiritual journey, that a pilgrim takes to change themselves spiritually. This definition works to perfectly describe Graceland, and the fans who visit it. Graceland can be seen as a spiritual journey because of the spiritual fulfillment that most fans feel after visiting it. Most fans feel as it they are closer to Elvis which allows them to feel a sense of fulfillment. Once having visited Graceland, fans from all over the world are able to relive many significant events in Elvis’ life, including his past homes, sites related to his films, concerts, and military career. Pilgrims are also able to visit the store Elvis bought his first guitar, and his favourite restaurant (Davidson). Graceland is thus commodified because it is essentially turned into a tourist attraction. Here we get a glimpse of the capitalist spirituality, this type of spirituality focuses on the individual and not the community, it is about profit and corporate success. This ideology claims that consumerism is the key to happiness. Through the commodification of Graceland we can see how this ideology works to take from the pilgrims to increase the wealth of the corporations involved through the image of Elvis.

As seen above the image of Elvis was highly received because of his life prior to the fame. Many then looked to Elvis to gain a sense of belonging, if they are also struggling. Elvis also became a symbol of hope for some, for people who were suffering the same fate as Elvis prior to his fame. Elvis for them became the symbol for the light at the end of the tunnel. Also by visiting Graceland, fans are able to find a place where they find “a place to find solace from the spiritual and emotional turbulence of the everyday world” (Davidson, 205).

Ultimately, Graceland can be interpreted as a pilgrimage site through the relationship that fans continue to have with Elvis, even after his death. The relationship between fans and Elvis Presley has been examined by many scholars since then. The more cynical among us might say this relationship is constructed primarily around the commodification of Elvis’ image. One cannot deny the large number of Elvis memorabilia that is still bought and sold today. Graceland, like many other pilgrimage sites, has been commodified to some extent by “the fierce mass-marketing techniques of his estate, Elvis Presley Enterprises, Incorporated” (Doss, 32). Not only must you pay to visit the site, but many travellers have to save up in order to afford accommodations in town. Similarly, other sites that claim a relationship to Elvis use that relationship to gain customers, such as is the case with “the sun Studio Café in Memphis, Tennessee, [which] still offers Elvis pilgrims the King’s favourite sandwich: fried peanut butter and banana” (Davidson, 100). Although commodification seems to be an inevitable aspect of pilgrimage sites today, this view takes some of the agency away from those who embark on these pilgrimages. In the case of fans of Elvis, this relationship is constantly replenished through the religiosity of the practices that surround this relationship, practiced at its most interesting during the journey of those fans who choose to travel to Graceland. “Elvis A.D.” (Plasketes) has been formed through a “deification” of Elvis that thrives through the reaffirming of this relationship. This relationship thrives primarily because of the religiosity of fans, not in spite of it. Each year, “an estimated 12 million faithful” (Plasketes, 24) feel compelled to visit Elvis’ home and grave. Whether you call them pilgrims, tourists, or fans, there is no denying there is something powerful about a relationship that has persisted for almost forty years after the death of the King.

Bibliography:

Chadwick, Vernon. In search of Elvis : music, race, art, religion. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1997.

Davidson, Linda Kay. Pilgrimage [electronic resource]: From the Ganges to Graceland, an Encyclopedia. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, LLC, Dec. 2002. Boulder: NetLibrary, Incorporated [Distributor].

Doss, Erika. “Believing in Elvis: Popular Piety in a Material Culture.” Business Perspectives, 2002, 30–37.

Doss, Erika Lee. Elvis culture: fans, faith, & image. Lawrence, Kan.: University Press of Kansas, 1999.

Plasketes, George. Images of Elvis Presley in American culture, 1977–1997 : the mystery terrain. New York: Haworth Press, 1997.

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