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Why Is Star Wars so Popular?

A psychologist looks at what makes the Star Wars story resonate with so many people

May 4th is Star Wars Day. It’s an unofficial holiday, but only “unofficial” because we don’t get an extra day off work for it. Disciples of the Star Wars film franchise treat this day with reverence. At some point you will very likely hear someone say “May the Fourth be with you.”

Please accept this as a term of endearment.

It’s a day where we drink blue milk, hit family members with glowing plastic sticks and watch particular films that we have seen more times than we can count, yet never grow tired of. At least, that’s how we do it in my house. I grew up on Star Wars and I am one of those who will never, ever, ever let it go. My children are fully convinced that Jar Jar Binks is a 4-letter word.

And I am one of the tame ones.

Star Wars changed the world. Well, at least the world of popular culture. It was the first epic science fiction space adventure to be told on a grand scale.

It was the first film to jump in to the marketing community. Since the first Star Wars movie was released in 1977 Lucasfilm has licensed nearly $25 billion worth of products from action figures to video games to books.

People don’t just want to play Star Wars; they want to LIVE Star Wars. In the 2011 census the United Kingdom had 177,000 people declare themselves Jedi (followers of Jediism) making it the 7th-most popular “religion” in the U.K.

That is some hard-core fandom right there. Of course you didn’t need me to tell you the story that took place in a galaxy far, far away is a massive entity across the globe. But even as a fanboy of the franchise there is something I have never been 100% sure of:


What is it about Star Wars that has captured imaginations for generations? For that explanation we enlisted the help of our own Jedi.

“Psychology overtly shaped Star Wars,” said Dr. Travis Langley, tenured Professor of Psychology at Henderson State University. Dr. Langley participates in several panels every year at San Diego Comic-Con and is the lead writer on the book Star Wars Psychology: Dark Side of the Mind. He believes Star Wars creator George Lucas had a plan and executed it brilliantly.

“George Lucas deliberately wove the most successful elements of heroic epics from throughout history into his story,” said Langley. “He'd had trouble finishing his original story until he happened upon the works of Joseph Campbell … including Campbell's outline of the Hero's Journey, which Campbell had based on Carl Jung's writings about the power of archetypes and myth.”

The Hero’s Journey is a pattern consisting of 12 steps a character goes through to become the tale’s hero:

1)    THE ORDINARY WORLD – The hero is just living a hum-drum life.
2)    THE CALL TO ADVENTURE – Something happens to force change.
3)    REFUSAL OF THE CALL – The unknown keeps the hero from pursuing the call.
4)    MEETING WITH THE MENTOR – A seasoned traveler enters the hero’s life.
5)    CROSSING THE THRESHOLD – The hero commits to leaving the ordinary world.
6)    TESTS, ALLIES AND ENEMIES – Sorting out allegiances.
7)    APPROACH – The hero and new allies prepare for a challenge.
8)    THE ORDEAL – The hero faces death or confronts a great fear.
9)    THE REWARD – The hero has gained something the ordeal, but is in danger of losing it again.
10)    THE ROAD BACK – The hero must complete the adventure.
11)    THE RESURRECTION – One more severe test, a possible moment of death and rebirth.
12)    RETURN WITH THE ELIXIR – The hero has been transformed.

Sounds an awful lot like the path of Luke Skywalker from the original trilogy, doesn’t it?

Langley says Lucas, who later became friends with Campbell, was combining pieces from history’s best heroic models and following the pattern.

“The cowboy movie, the Samurai, the rebel, the orphan who hears the call to adventure,” said Langley. “He was very conscious. Originally he had trouble finishing his story, until he started intentionally fitting it to the Hero's Journey. So that first story blended the things that had been brewing in his heart and head together with the things he'd discovered through Campbell and Jung but without overthinking it. Instead of being unconsciously influenced by the same things that nudged storytellers from throughout the ages, he consciously followed the model.”

He added a whole lot of very creative people and some pioneering special effects, a few lasers and lightsabers, and one of the most terrifying villains moviegoers had ever seen and Star Wars became … well, Star Wars.

But that was generations ago … so why does it have the staying power that it has? My kids watch them and even with all the technological advances in films they’ve grown accustomed to today (things that were really made possible by Lucas and his movie making advancements) they still love them. Why are these films, the original trilogy, so endearing? That explanation is not as easy to come by.

“I've had a lot of discussions about that. No one answer is complete, of course, but he clearly tapped into desires and interests that mean something to us at a very deep level. He pulled together all these various elements, openly borrowing from others and saying so outright, and did so in a way no one else ever had. He came up with a new recipe using the right blend of classic ingredients and some high-tech new ones.”

Tapping in to the desires and interests on a deep level is important here. In a 2014 interview Lucas himself was asked about Star Wars. The key to the answer came at the end of a very long explanation.

“Basically don’t kill people and be compassionate and love people,” said Lucas. “Basically that’s all Star Wars is.”

And that is something we can all believe in. May the Fourth be with you. Always.

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