Myth, Ritual, and People Who Love Star Trek

Curator's Note

What is it about Star Trek? Why are Trek fans so obsessive about the universe that Roddenberry built?

The popular media would have you believe that Trek fans are a cultural fringe group.On a slow news day, send a camera crew out to the nearest convention and get some shots of these nut-cases strolling around in their funny costumes.

Even a cursory review of the history and anthropology of human rituals, however, should caution us against such a dismissive attitude toward fandom behavior. By immersing themselves so thoroughly in Star Trek, fans are doing what their ancestors have done for countless millennia: They are participating in a mythological narrative that has profound meaning for them

The work of Carl Jung and others has demonstrated the importance of the archetypal content of mythological narrative for the human psyche. Narrative motifs such as the Reluctant Hero and the Trickster recur in myths and legends in a myriad of different cultures.

Humans have never been content simply to tell their great mythological narratives. We have also been persistent in our pursuit of rituals which help make our narratives present realities in our lives. For Jews, the celebration of Passover is not simply the commemoration of a seminal event in the history of their faith. The holiday of Passover is designed to place celebrants symbolically into the Exodus narrative. Similarly for Christians, the Lord’s Supper places them at the table with Jesus the night before the crucifixion. We don’t just remember the event; we become part of the story.

In the clip which accompanies this paper, we see images of Star Trek fans observing rituals that give them roles in the Star Trek narrative.   They don Starfleet uniforms, make themselves up to resemble Klingons, and speak in Star Trek jargon.   One group of Bajorans goes so far as to honor the religious faith of Bajor, paying homage to Benjamin Sisko as the Emissary of the Prophets.   I believe that there is something more significant going on with these fans than playing dress-up for the weekend.   They are entering the mythological universe of Star Trek.   This is not to say that fan rituals are somehow equivalent in all respects with established religious rituals, but it is to say that the ages-old impulse to create ritual is very much in evidence with Star Trek fans. 

Star Trek has emerged as a narrative with a mythological significance for our culture.   Gene Roddenberry foresaw the joys and the challenges of cultural diversity, and provided us with a mythic narrative to help navigate the exhilarating and confusing waters of life in the most diverse civilization in human history. Great mythic narratives inevitably spawn rituals.  The rituals of Trek fandom are manifestations of a universal human phenomenon.   They are evidence not of the mental instability of Trek fans, but of the enormous mythic power of Star Trek and its enduring value as an epic narrative for our time and our circumstances.

Comments

Ian Peters's picture

Ritual and Fan Practices

This is a great post, Curtis, and you draw some very interesting comparisons between fan practices and religious rituals. This is particularly relevant as Dragon*Con is currently winding down in Atlanta, where fans from all over the country come together and engage in these sorts of rituals (related to Star Trek, Star Wars, and other areas of fandom). Mythic narratives and the rituals that are created around them is at the very heart of fan studies.

While reading this post, I’m also intrigued by how these ideas can be applied to other areas of fandom - ones that might even move beyond science fiction programs like Star Trek.

Thank you so much for such a thought-provoking piece!

Curtis Webster's picture

Rituals In Culture

Ian:

Thank you for your kind comments.  The genres of science fiction and fantasy are areas where I think we tend to see fan ritualization emerge most clearly, but the phenomenon crops up across all segments of the culture.  Another huge area of fandom ritual, for instance, shows up in the world of sports.  Fans dress up in the uniforms of favorite teams and players as a way not just of identifying with the team, but as a way of participating in the team’s successes (or of suffering in its failures).  Soap opera fans will talk about the characters in their favorite soaps as if they have some personal stake in the resolution of the characters’ problems.  This doesn’t mean that they have become delusional and can’t separate the fantasy of TV from the reality of … well, reality.  It is another manifestation of that almost primal urge to participate in narratives that have meaning for us.

Curtis

Kayley Thomas's picture

Fan Rituals and Relics

You have some great insights here! So much of fan culture is built upon ritual, and certainly we can see it represented in a strongly visual way in science fiction fandoms like Star Trek, with the convention an arena in which to perform. There remains in the video and your discussion the sense of an overwhelming desire to belong, to have a place in the universe - a community that is accepting and inclusive, with these rituals functioning as a means of affirming that acceptance and renewing the commitment, perhaps.

I’d be curious as to your thoughts on fan relics, in relation to this sort of religious framework - what about private, individualized fan practices? Memoribilia collections, ritiualized DVD reviewings and traditions associated with them, etc. How might they fit into the age-old desires you’re connecting with here?

Nice work!

Curtis Webster's picture

FAN RITUALS AND RELICS

Thank you, Kayley.   I will be looking forward to your contribution later on this week.

I think you raise a fascinating topic about which I am hoping some research might be available.  Communal rituals, as you point out, serve both to put the fan into the narrative and connect the fan with a greater community.  Individual rituals may serve the same functions, but with different levels of emphasis.  If an individual has a ritual of, say, watching a particular TNG episode on his or her birthday, there isn’t the overt communal sense involved in dressing like a Klingon at a convention and walking around with other Klingons.  But every time I watch an episode, I do have a sense of connection with the rest of the Star Trek community, even though no one else might be watching that particular episode at that particular moment.  

I think that most religious traditions have communal rituals and individual rituals.   There are practices for communal worship and practices for individual devotion.  Something similar may hold for fandom.  There are things we do with others.  There are things we do alone.  We need both.

I’ll note here that that there is a risk that any ritual, no matter how brilliantly inspired in the inception, can become pretty bland when it is repeated for the sake of being repeated.  Perhaps it is the individual ritual that helps keeps us fresh (and ultimately suggests new communal rituals).   Today’s transformatively inspirational ritual can become tomorrow’s hollow exercise in repetition.

David Gregory's picture

Myth, Ritual, and People Who Love Star Trek

Great stuff so far, everyone! Thanks especially to Curtis, but also to Kayley and of course Ian for your posts.

I’ve been nodding my head and grinning as I’ve read these, having just returned from Dragon*Con 2010, a weekend of rituals of my own.

Looking forward to the rest of this week!

DG  

Jack Walsh's picture

re. sports fandom

Curtis, the parallel you draw to sports fandom has become very pronounced at Dragon*Con in recent years as the Con fans share space with the fans of two out-of-town teams who come to play a pre-season football game in the Georgia Dome. Amid the con-goers, you see large clusters of people in team colors spouting their own ritualized slogans and whatnot. I think a few are in on the joke - realizing that their own fan eccentricities are just as strange as those of the Trekkers - but most are not. Along with all the costume photos I took of the Con this year, I took one of three fellows standing in a row with identical haircuts, khaki shorts, loafers, and Carolina blue shirts. I couldn’t resist documenting their costumes, either.

Bethan Jones's picture

Fan Rituals in The X-Files Community

This was an enjoyable read, and a lot of interesting points have been raised. I’m particularly interested in Kayley’s comment about fan relics and how they fit into the ideas you raise, Curtis. A quote of David Duchovny’s, talking about the internet and its role in bring X-Files fans together, seems rather fitting in this context:

"My initial response — and I still hold this to be true — is that [the internet] takes the place of some of the functions of a church in a small town: A place where people come together, ostensibly to worship something. But really what’s happening is you’re forming a community. It’s less about what you’re worshiping and more about, ‘We have these interests in common.’…When I was at Comic-Con it felt the same as the small-town church thing. I’m not denigrating ‘The X-Files,’ but that fellowship isn’t essentially about the show. The fans came to Comic-Con to honor us but I think they’re honoring us because we inspire them to have a certain kind of fellowship."

Certainly, as an X-Files fan, I’ve found being involved in fandom very much like being a part of a community. Even if the show is the only thing we have in common, there is a sense of fellowship and acceptance. And the rituals that some (if not most) fans have - like watching the episode How The Ghosts Stole Christmas on Christmas Eve and timing it so that the midnight chimes in the episode go off at midnight in the ‘real world’ - foster that sense of fellowship and connectivity. While that is usually an individual ritual, it offers a connection to the wider community of fans in that I know I’m not the only one watching that episode at the same time.

Daryl G. Frazetti's picture

fans and myth

Great post Curtis. We certainly do come at this from similar perspectives.  I think the anaology you make between fandom and religion helps solidify the claims that there are deeper issues - that Trek is indeed progressive myth.  Fans, like religious followers, or members of any culture who play out their lives based on their past mythologies, need to perform certain rituals in order to access the myth.  Trek as myth certainly requires participation in order to fully comprehend the myth and access the messages.  Trek differs in that it is again progressive myth, meaning , fans are seeking something outside of mainstream culture, on a global scale.  They not only reach out to Trek for this, but also go so far as to identify with various cultural groups within Trek - ie the Bajorans as you mention.  Fans find ideologies within Trek that they identify with and incorporate into their own lives. By dressing as these characters, they are able to better access those which they more closely identify with. They are able to more fully participate in the narrative, or more specifically, perhaps the sub-narrative, again, analogous to religious groups and practices.

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