True, lurking around this Virtual Valhalla cannot compare with the atmosphere of hanging out next to Jim's real grave with other Doors fans, most of whom were not born when their hero took that ultimate bath. Where do you put your joss sticks? And poking around the official Elvis shrine (http://www.elvis- presley.com) is not a patch on the King's real home. For diehard fans, the idea that you can "worship" your chosen star on the Web is sacrilege. But that has done nothing to dent the growing popularity of virtual shrines. When The Independent did a search, it found thousands devoted to celebrities such as Tom Cruise, Madonna and Cindy Crawford running on computer servers across the globe. Although Hollywood stars account for the vast majority of virtual shrines, Web worship is not just an American phenomenon.
Neither are shrines just for celebs, dead or alive. There is no priestly committee to vet entrants into the virtual hall of fame, so anyone can be venerated in cyberspace. Yes, dear reader, in the democratic world of the Web, even you can have your own shrine, however unremarkable your life.
Many of the personal sites running on the Web servers of Internet service providers have just that feel. They have addresses like "members.aol.com/xxxx3333" and typically consist of an author's mug shot, followed by a limp biography and a pseudo-intellectual quote. They must get very depressed at the trickle of visitors they receive.
But why do people create Web shrines to celebrities? What possesses them to put so much electronic effort into eulogising people they have almost certainly never met? Many virtual shrines are labours of love, rivalling sites created by teams of Web designers in their complexity and size - pages and pages of trivia, picture files, sound clips and all kinds of special effects.
Most Web shrine creators seem to be school or college students. Few of these sites are run by official fan clubs. In a survey of virtual shrines, Computer Life magazine equated the practice with teenagers plastering their bedroom walls with posters of sports or movie stars. "The obsessions themselves are not new, only the medium is." The Web, it said, has become "just an enormous virtual bedroom".
Whoever is being venerated, the aim is always the same. The worshipper is saying: "This person is cool and I want you to know I think that and you must think that, too." The Web allows anyone to push this belief to a worldwide audience, institutionalising it and turning it into a kind of religion. Many virtual shrine creators hope that the star they are worshipping will eventually notice and, who knows, send them an e-mail!
But for students using university Web servers to host their shrines, it is not easy getting attention. As soon as they graduate, their shrines disappear. The two movie star lists at GTN Hotlinks (http://www.gtn.net/movstar1.htm and http://www.gtn.net/movstar2.htm) try to keep pace with these moves. They have links to almost 400 virtual shrines, for stars ranging from Pamela Anderson to Kate Winslet.
Rock shrines also tend to melt away, especially if record sales decline. But stars such as Jimi Hendrix seem to shine for ever. There are hundreds of Hendrix shrines, plucking over every last bit of his life. Among music stars who are still alive, Michael Jackson initially appears to top the rankings. But on closer inspection, it seems that many of these sites are anti-shrines, dedicated to destroying his reputation. So that makes Madonna the winner in the rock category by default.
Sports stars are nowhere near as popular as movie or music stars, perhaps because their fans tend to be more locally or regionally focused. This applies to even the biggest American sports stars. For instance, Michael Jordan has hosts of shrines set up by American basketball fans, but very few British ones. One exception is Diego Maradona, who has a global following. Check out Tribute to Diego Armando Maradona (http://www.geocities.com/Colosseum/1862/maradona.html).
Some of the most obsessive shrines are those devoted to cult-celebs such as the Princess of Wales. Di's global following stretches from Britain to Israel to Argentina to Korea. As well as bulging picture galleries, many sites offer a facility for sending messages to the Queen of Hearts. "This page is dedicated to the beautiful Princess Di," declares the Israeli- run Princess Diana page, "with best wishes for future happiness." The site claims 40,000 visits a month. So great is the cyber-worship of Diana it looks set to last long after she dies - and even increase, if the number of virtual shrines devoted to that other cult blonde, Marilyn Monroe, is any guide. At the moment, Marilyn is narrowly ahead in the all-time rankings.
The Virgin Mary herself cannot begin to compete with this level of devotion. But there are plenty of shrines dedicated to her. "The Apparitions of the Virgin Mary in the 20th century" (http://members.aol.com/bjw1106/ marian.htm) lists all the places she is known to have appeared.
Hard as they try, political leaders do not seem to inspire serious devotion in cyberspace. Even figures such as Maggie, Marx and Mao do not appear to have virtual shrines. Perhaps their admirers are embarrassed. At least there is a site "in honor of the greatest president of this century" - Ronald Reagan (http://www.dnaco.net/bkottman/reagan.html). "We fight the tide of liberal lies," the page declares. Good capitalist that Ron is, this shrine would not be complete without its gift shopn