We live in an age of rabid fandom when people form extreme attachments to their favorite sci-fi and fantasy properties, particularly that titanic triumvirate of trilogies: George Lucas' Star Wars, the Wachowski brothers' The Matrix, and Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings.
You say you've seen The Phantom Menace 27 times? You're a rank amateur. You can dissect the relationship between the Oracle and the Architect with Talmudic precision? Big deal. You're translating all the Everly Brothers songs into Elvish? Still not impressed.
You're not a true devotee until your cinematic fixation consumes your life like the Wing Bowl-winner wolfing down a box of tenders.
The symptoms of severe sci-fi sozzlement include spending countless hours in chat rooms devoted to your alternative universe, collecting everything from action figures to mouse pads, and mastering more types of themed games - online, board and role-playing - than you can shake a light saber at.
But you're not really hard-core until you're costuming yourself to look like a clone of your favorite character. The ultimate act of identification, it's what sets apart today's ber-fans. They've walked a mile in Jango Fett's boots or Legolas' leggings.
Gone With the Wind was a pretty popular film in its time, but you didn't see thousands of people dressing themselves in Ashley Wilkes' Confederate uniform.
Jennifer Dryden is president of the Philly Outer Rim, a local Star Wars fan club. She's got a closet full of Princess Leia outfits, painstakingly handmade. "Costuming is a weird community," she says. "It's kind of competitive. And it's an addiction once you get started."
The filmmakers keep a tight rein on all licensed products (although Rings' Jackson is allowing some of the artisans who worked on his films to market a few replicas).
With no patterns in circulation and no off-the-rack ensembles available, resourceful costuming fans resort to other measures. When the movies' wardrobes go on tour - people pay to gaze at them - fans line up to take hundreds of digital pictures of the displays, which they then magnify and study at home, stitch by stitch. They also pore over the extended-version DVDs of the films as they are released.
This is where The Matrix can't match the other epics. Other than Neo and Agent Smith, whom can you dress up as? Let's face it, the people in Babylon were pretty bummy.
Age enters into this too. Star Wars has been around since the 1970s. And Tolkien's books have been campus favorites for even longer. In fact, allegiance to both is not uncommon. If there's a Luke Skywalker tunic in your wardrobe, chances are you've tried on an Aragorn cloak.
The Matrix is a recent phenomenon, and its fans for the most part are far younger. When you see a 14-year-old in sunglasses and a sharp suit, it's hard to tell if he's imitating Agent Smith or Agent Cody Banks.
Rings costuming is exploding, but its adherents are still light-years behind the Star Wars contingent, which is so large and regimented, it has two international organizations - the 501st Legion (whose members dress as the villains in the saga) and the Rebel Legion (the good-guy faction).
The Super Bowl for cinematic copycats of all stripes is Dragon*Con, the annual end-of-summer sci-fi convention that drew 20,000 fantasy lovers to Atlanta this year. Imagine Halloween to the nth power. "At night in the lobby of the Hyatt," Dryden says, "it is: 'See and be seen.' "
So if you haven't yet experienced the climactic Return of the King, by all means check it out. But don't be surprised if the guy sitting next to you is made up to look like a crazed wombat.
Orcs like popcorn too.
Contact staff writer David Hiltbrand at 215-854-4552 or email@example.com.