If you don't worship Star Trek, then you must worship the Force. But maybe you're a vampire adept, or a member of the Batman congregation? Fans' faith in their franchises gets as intense and bloody as zealots' faith in religion.
The Ancient Books
Like all great religions, the franchises have mysterious histories, preserved in decaying books and obscure pamphlets. The thread that unites all of them is an overarching tale of social outcasts who find holy books that show them the light, and lead them to secret congregations where mystical debates and opinions are exchanged.
Almost century-old pulp magazines like Weird Tales and Amazing Stories brought the faith to tiny towns via drugstore displays and dark bookshops. Comic books with stories of the Superman and the Batman converted the faithful four generations ago. Stories of Conan, John Carter of Mars, and Flash Gordon were passed around and taught the agnostic about a world where science triumphed, the stars promised endless new worlds to explore, and plainfaced secretaries could transform into superpowered, beautiful Amazons out to save the world.
Converted by these ancient books, the earliest fans began to build the franchises that would transform their visions of other worlds into the pillars of new belief systems.
Now, how could these faithful convert the masses? Surely not with horses and swords. This crusade would use the tools of pop and new media. And by new media, I mean movies and television. The heroes and monsters who began life on the pages of cheap magazines became the technicolor astronauts of movie serials like Flash Gordon, Universal's monster movies, and later of mind-bending 1950s scifi movies like Forbidden Planet and The Day The Earth Stood Still.
Popular writers like Ray Bradbury and Isaac Asimov introduced a new version of the holy writ, but congregations expanded after exposure to the giant shiny spectacle of spaceships and robots on screen. No need to murder or shun the non-believers. By the 1960s, all you'd need to do was hand them a Marvel comic or show them an episode of Twilight Zone and they'd come around.
A Vast Congregation Breaks Into Sects
The church of franchise reached mega-church dimensions in the 1970s, with the rise of Star Trek, Star Wars, and Doctor Who fandoms. For the first time, the scifi and pulp world began to fragment into sects. Where once fans had all met at the same conventions to share the same stories, now factionalism had begun. People went to Star Trek conventions, and called themselves Trekkers instead of just fans.
Apocrypha and Idol Worship
Inevitably, as factionalism increased, apocryphal books and idol worship ran rampant. No longer were fans satisfied with the stories given to them from on high. Instead they had to write their own. Slash fiction featuring the romantic adventures of Kirk and Spock spread like blasphemy through the pure heart of fandom. And then came the Doctor Who novels and radio adventures.
Fans began to speak in terms of canons. There were the canonical texts of yore, and then the non-canonical fanfic tales and paintings and videos that flooded conventions with stories that Stan Lee and Gene Roddenberry never intended.
In the Age Of The Web, this situation has reached a fever pitch with Harry Potter shippers and fanfic writers taking the ancient tomes into their own hands and making them into whatever they like. Harry Potter having sex with Draco? The Supernatural boys having sex with Captain Jack? Me having sex with Doctor Who? Anything goes. Fandom becomes Babylon.
Of course the Sodom and Gomorrah of fandom today must be purged, must be forced to recognize the canon for what it is - and to recognize their true gods once again. That's why big content owners like Paramount, LucasArts, Marvel, and others must scourge the fans with legal threats when they publish blasphemous fan art and stories. No longer is fandom what the fans create! You may only have the truly authorized books and stories from science fiction if you pay for them, just as you pay tithes, or shell out for indulgences, or write a check to your favorite televangelist.
Some fans have begun to rebel against the power of this new Hollywood church, fighting legal threats and celebrating independent comics. Others fight among themselves, unsure where to turn. Thus we saw the great Twilight Rebellion of Comic-Con 2009, where protesters held signs that read "Twilight Ruined Comic-Con," the way Christians once held banners that read "The End is Nigh."
Religion As Franchise
Those who run franchises today are savvy enough to know that they're dealing with religion from the start. Shows like Supernatural, Battlestar Galactica, Buffy, and Star Trek have all dealt head-on with religion. And their congregations have only grown. Meanwhile, the Jedi Religion is one of the fastest-growing in the world (at least according to census reports).
In the end, religious fervor is good for the pocketbook of the culture industry. The more we worship, the more we are willing to pay for action figures, for DVD box sets, for expensive reissues and signed first editions. These things are trinkets for our shrines, outward signs of our devotion. And like all religious objects they are dosed with a symbolic meaning that goes way beyond their unbroken plastic seals. They ward off what hurts us in the world. They promise better things to come.
Star Wars loft via eyeSPIVE.
Battle droid action figures via monsterbrick.
Harry Potter shrine via BoogersHondoFido.