Unusually for a Friday morning, I’m surrounded by Sith Lords.
Since the first days of Darth Vader in the original Star Wars film, the visual cues for the film’s anti-Jedi villains – dark clothes, some sort of facial covering, red lightsabers – have been instantly recognisable, the characters firm favourites with any right-thinking young kid planning a stick fight in the back garden.
With their billowing black capes, lurid skin tones and impassive stares, they make for a striking physical presence in person – even in this case, when they’re all waxworks propped up in various positions at London’s O2 arena.
“It’s fun to be bad,” Sophie Desbiens, Communications and Museum Relations Director for X3Productions tells me during my tour of the Star Wars Identities exhibition, which in part delves into the psychology of darker impulses like the ones that encouraged these fictional characters onto their evil path.
“It’s fun to be different. It’s fun to be on the outside – and it’s mostly fun to be somebody you’re not allowed to be. That’s what I think.”
I’m asking about the appeal of the Dark Side because despite appearances, these stand-ins are not the closest thing to real Sith Lords we have in our own not-very-far-far-away galaxy. Back in 2015 I spent some time tracking down and interviewing “real” Jedi (in other words people who followed some sort of unofficial religion or belief system based on the fictional code from the Star Wars films), and amidst all the ritual, factions and disagreements of those groups I’d learned of a small fringe who had opted to follow the tenets of the Sith instead.
Some of the Sith costumes at the Star Wars identities exhibition
The Sith, if you’re not aware, are a creation of the Star Wars films that largely function as the evil enemies of the Jedi, the laser sword-wielding warrior-monks who protect the fictional film universe. But now there are REAL Sith in the world, and the idea of this fascinated me. Obviously some of the appeal in adopting their ideas lay in the fact that it’s more entertaining to root for baddies, as Sophie had suggested – but what else could someone get out of wilfully misunderstanding what writer Zack Handlen once called a “morality test for six-year-olds”?
“There are always people who like the macabre,” cultural historian and anthropologist Matthew Kappell suggests when I ask about why someone would choose a Sith over a Jedi lifestyle. “And you can’t have a religion without people disagreeing with the basic tenets.”
“It sounds perhaps like a playful response to the Jedi group,” added Kingston University Professor of Film and Cultural studies Will Brooker when I contacted him in 2015. “Anyone who actually tried to follow the Sith as depicted in the films would, I assume, attempt to connect with feelings of hatred and anger, and seek political power.”
In practice, it’s a minuscule number of people following these ideas as religion – while few reliable statistics exist for Jedi or Sith followers, as a broad idea of scale the UK’s 2001 census counted around 16,000 (mostly joking) people in Scotland who named their religion as Jedi, with only about 30 saying Sith or Dark Side – but they do exist, lurking on the internet in areas that members of the largely well-meaning Jedi community are warned to avoid, or ignore completely.
“Our official standpoint is that it really doesn’t exist at the moment, and people are just trying to be negative, just to cause havoc,” says Daniel Jones, the founder of a fairly mainstream branch of the real-world Jedi religion called the Church of Jediism.
“More often than not, they’re just people trolling. They’re just trolling us, trying to get a reaction out of the church, trying to get a reaction out of members.”
Church of Jediism co-founder Daniel Jones
But even the most cursory search reveals that this isn’t exactly true, with a few dedicated online communities serving the Sith community. These aren’t people who worship every day, believe in the force or even dress in robes (though as with the Jedi religion, a minority do) – these are just people who found something in the code of fictional space-ninjas that appealed to their lives, and I was interested to find out what that was.
It was via one such messageboard that I first got in touch with Kaos, a fairly senior figure in his branch of the Sith movement whose real name is Kurt.
“I kind of fell into it,” Kurt tells me when I finally reach him on the phone, after a night shift left him oversleeping. “I always liked villains. Not necessarily because they were villains, but because they were very interesting. They were intricate. It seemed like they were just more human.
“They made mistakes, and I really sympathised with that. I make mistakes all the time – I do stupid stuff all the time. I’m that.”
In practice, Kurt informed me, being a Sith isn’t about worshipping evil or fighting Jedi – it’s essentially a positive realisation technique, perfect for achieving your business or personal goals and made possible by the “Sith Code” created by the fictional Darth Bane (below).
Peace is a lie. There is only Passion.
Through Passion I gain Strength.
Through Strength I gain Power.
Through Power I gain Victory.
Through Victory my chains are Broken.
The Force shall free me.
“Obviously we don’t build a Death Star or anything,” Kurt tells me evenly. “What it really represented apart from all the genocidal stuff was being successful.
“The difference between the two is that Jedi seem to have made Jedi their goal, right? Their goal is to be a Jedi. For a Sith, it’s just a toolbox. A toolbox for progression of what you want to be.
“It’s not religious certainly. I’m an atheist. I’m sure it has religious overtones for some people.”
“The Jedi seem to be – in the American sense – liberal in that they tend to believe in community,” Kappell tells me. “Whereas the Sith tend to be relatively individualistic, kind of like the American Libertarians. They actually believe they will be doing good by promoting selfish behaviour.”
“I think it’s fair to say we’re libertarian – that’s interesting,” Kurt agrees. “I’ve never looked at it from that point of view, but I guess it fits.”
Sith Lord Darth Maul from 1999’s Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace
Of course, Kurt is very much the friendlier face of Dark Side practitioners on the internet. One man I contact claims to be able to destroy minds and injure people using telepathy, skills that he believes the government has tried to introduce society to through the Star Wars films. Others perform vaguely Satanic rites on YouTube, or declare support for Isis and spell out their plans for world domination on sites that bat off attempts at contact (unless you fancy buying one of their high-priced textbooks).
“Yes, I’ve come across them,” Kurt laughs when I bring up the latter group. “They want to take over the world, and they’re dead serious about it.
“I’m well past my teens. So where that might have been fun at one time to contemplate or something, I’m 35, I’m a little more realistic about my goals in life.”
Still, even among Kurt’s circle, not all are as light-hearted about their beliefs. After an online interview with a different member of the group goes slightly awry, I find my user account and all record of our conversation deleted, and there’s a macho hostility running through their chats with each other that will be familiar to most modern internet users.
“I can imagine that real-life Sith might be a little like the ‘Red Pill’ movement, which encourages alpha-masculine behaviour and self improvement, but I think that would be a selective interpretation of what Sith means in the film saga itself,” Brooker told me in an earlier interview, and this seems broadly accurate. On the Dark Side messageboards themselves, discourse seems more or less limited to an endless circular discussion about who has the best interpretation of loosely-defined Sith values, in a digital chest-bumping display that’s a familiar sight from many a reddit thread.
Other Sith may be more active in the community – several accounts suggest that Jedi groups often include one or two self-described Sith, with the main difference from the Jedi being their dress sense – but for the most part, this online one-upmanship seems to be how real-life Dark Side practitioners enact their beliefs.
Now, that’s not necessarily a bad thing – I’d rather people were channeling negative impulses to open gyms and become dentists rather than enacting actual evil or trying to melt my brain using their thoughts – but it’s not exactly the secret dark heart of Star Wars fandom that you might expect, as Kurt admitted.
“I think people do think we’re sort of a cult,” he mused when I asked him what he thought the public perception of his group was. “And it’s funny because we’re not, like, we’re thinking ‘what bad can we do today?’ and dwelling on the darkness of society and life. All the clichés.
“We’re not clichés – we’re actually very un-cliché.”
And frankly, I can’t begrudge them their choices – because when the end of the interactive Star Wars exhibition came and I was offered the choice of joining the Dark Side or the Light, I too chose the path of evil.
C’mon – outside of internet chatrooms, bad guys do have more fun.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi will be released in UK cinemas on 15th December