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Psyching Out Star Wars

Laura Kennedy

Forty years ago this week, the lines began to form around the block for Star Wars—a film that went on to explode not just box office records, but make a profound impact on culture.

When the very first Star Wars film premiered in 1977, even director George Lucas had his doubts about the sci-fi adventure. But audiences thought otherwise, embracing the films and its sequels with a lasting devotion. The Star Wars universe had recognizable, relatable archetypes exploring the light and dark side of nature.

Eric Wesselmann and Scott Jordan are psychology professors at Illinois State University whose research often explores the psychological depths of popular culture. Jordan noted that the appeal of Star Wars is rooted in the psychology of belonging to something bigger than yourself, and finding a story for yourself within a larger story. And while we watch in awe Luke Skywalker's heroic journey, ultimately we relate more to Han Solo and what he represents.

"The great thing about the Han Solo character is that he is just your average Joe amidst all this high level political/religious controversy," said Jordan. "He's the Everyman—with a gun. You need Han Solo to tell Everyman's story in the midst of all the turmoil. He provides the Everyman perspective, as well as the Everyman comic relief."

As for Luke, his appeal comes from our search for our place in the world—or the universe.

"Especially when we're young," said Wesselmann. "There's lots of forces around us that we can't control. Luke is really struggling to find who he is and what he wants. I think a lot of us relate to that, and then he gets to find out that he has cool special powers. So for a lot of youth who are feeling this way, this idea that they can have something that makes then unique, even if it's in a fantasyland, it's something that resonates with a lot of people."

Luke's power comes from his ability to use the Force, which has both a light and dark side. It's Luke's father, Darth Vader (Oops! Spoiler!), who utilizes the dark side of the Force, which can be thought of as a kind of Id.

"From a very basic Freudian perspective, the Id is a savage driving force, " said Wesselmann. "It's our desires unchecked by society. Throughout the series, what a lot of the Jedi Knights talk about is trying to avoid extremes in terms of emotions, either positive or negative. The idea of balance comes up a lot. Darth Vader is being driven by the extremes in his life." 

Geek culture embraced Star Wars and helped to make the films hugely successful. But something more happened within the fandom of the films. Fans created an off-screen culture to explore their fascination with the Star Wars galaxy.

"There are two main connections from this that we can draw," said Wesselmann. "There's one's connection to the material—it could be Star Wars or your favorite sports team. But there's also the connection to those around it. It's that idea of belonging with something greater than yourself. Just simply knowing that someone else digs what you dig—that's a connection and we're hardwired to connect to others. This is an easy way of doing that."

Eric and Scott discuss Jediism.
Scott and Eric talk about the issues with the prequels.

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Reporter, content producer and former All Things Considered host, Laura Kennedy is a native of the Midwest who occasionally affects an English accent just for the heck of it. Related to two U.S. presidents, Kennedy appalled her family by going into show business.