No doubt you’ve seen the slogan “I Believe in Sherlock” somewhere. Maybe on a shirt, or a hat, or some graffiti. As a poster, or fanart, or a short-story with the title “I Believe in Sherlock Holmes”.
The truth is, it would be hard not to have run across the mantra somewhere. But, even if you’re a Sherlock fan, you may not know exactly where it came from, what it meant, or how prevalent it really was.
Good. Because this gets bizarre, real quick. The phrase “I Believe in Sherlock Holmes” was a fan response to the season two finale of BBC’s Sherlock that took off in an incredible way—it became a phenomena in real life, outside of the fandom.
And, to add fuel to the fire of curiosity—this isn’t the first time Sherlock Holmes fans have done something like this. We’ll get to that in a minute.
For now, let’s get into the history of the “I Believe in Sherlock” movement.
“The Reichenbach Fall” – Season 2, Episode 3
Alright, folks, raise your hands if you remember the now-famous second season finale of BBC’s Sherlock.
That’s not enough hands, but don’t worry— we’re happy to take a trip down awesome-episode-memory-lane.
Spoilers ahead for anyone who hasn’t seen Sherlock’s season two finale! Beware!
In “The Reichenbach Fall”, Holmes is pitted against his arch-rival, Jim Moriarty. By this point in the series, John Watson’s blog has garnered a loyal following of Sherlock Holmes fans in the show’s universe. BBC used the show’s modern setting superbly, and had Moriarty pit Holmes’ followers and the media against him, claiming that Holmes was the mastermind behind every crime he’s solved. He even goes as far as to say that he, himself, was hired by Holmes to play a villain.
Equal parts brilliant and diabolical, right?
Well, at the end of the episode, Moriarty gives Holmes an ultimatum—die or have all his friends killed. So what does Holmes do?
He chooses death (or so it seems).
In the aftermath, the public at large begins to doubt Holmes, and one of the only people still on his side is Watson. The media is calling Holmes a fraud, and his reputation begins to unravel.
That’s where our story enters real life, courtesy of a Swedish fan of the show…
“The Reichenbach Fall” aired on January 15th, 2012. The next day, a Swedish fan of the show by the Tumblr name of Earl Foolish decided to start a movement.
This was her proposal:
Imagine being a Sherlock fan in the show universe. You’ve been following John’s blog, stalking Sherlock a bit at crime scenes, try to be within earshot so you can hear him do his deductions. You’ve got cutouts from the papers. Then the news reach you. What do you do? Some would believe the papers, but not everyone would buy it. And they would do what they could to clear his name.
This is my take on what I would like to propose as a tribute campaign, to show our love and support. Yes, in real life. We put ourselves in the mindset of the in-show fans, and we take a Bad Wolf/Who Killed Amanda Palmer twist on it. Guerilla art/campaigning…
Let’s scribble on cubicle doors, back of bus seats, lamp posts. I won’t tell anyone to do anything illegal, but graffiti like in the pictures would be amazing. Paint on t-shirts, make buttons, go to the beach and write in the sand. Take photos of what you’ve done, put on twitter or tumblr and tag it!”
Brilliant idea, right? You aren’t alone…
Everyone else thought so, too. You see, this would normally be the part where we explain the slow, gradual increase in popularity of the meme. We’d outline the history and so-on, and it would take paragraphs.
It’s not necessary, here. “I Believe in Sherlock” exploded. The post got more than 10,000 responses on Tumblr within the first few days, and quickly spread to Twitter and Livejournal. The responses ranged from graphics and flyers to printed T-shirts. Variations on the mantra formed, including “Moriarty was Real,” “I Believe in Jim Moriarty,” “Richard Brook is a Fraud,” and “Fighting John Watson’s War.”
It even spawned a tongue-in-cheek counter-movement, titled “Richard Brook is Innocent,” inferring that Holmes is the fraud Moriarty made him out to be. But, that’s not all…
T-shirts became widespread, flyers were posted up in subway stations, and people even started putting up graffiti with the slogan. Criminal offense or not, it was awesome. In fact, there’s even a Google Maps overlay available on the #BelieveinSherlock Tumblr that shows where some recorded instances of the slogan popped up.
Oh, yeah. And this reference gets meta. The first episode of season three kicked off with an in-show depiction of the real-life movement to the in-show death of Sherlock Holmes.
It was referenced out of the show, too. The American show Elementary name dropped the #IBelieveInSherlock meme beautifully in the Season 1 Episode 15 “A Giant Gun, Filled with Drugs” in which Rhys says “On top of all this, there was a legitimate backlash against the movement. Given how quickly Earl Foolish posted her response to the episode, some claimed that this whole movement was nothing more than a publicity stunt engineered by BBC. Most of the evidence supporting this claim, however, is circumstantial. But, if it was a marketing stunt, it was a brilliant one. Personally? We think it’s a legitimate movement.
But, are you ready for the crazy part?
Like we said before: This isn’t the first time this has happened.
There must be something magical about the character of Sherlock. We’ll talk more about that in a minute, but first, let us explain what we’re talking about:
“The Reichenbach Fall” was a modern retelling of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous short story “The Final Problem.” The details are different, but the story is the same. Holmes goes up against Moriarty and both (apparently) die, plummeting to the bottom of the Reichenbach Falls. Originally, Doyle did this because he was tired of writing the character. He wanted to be a fancy literary author, and didn’t want to be stuck doing Sherlock Holmes short stories his whole life.
Well, guess what happened after he killed Holmes off?
There was a public outcry. Twenty thousand people canceled their subscriptions to The Strand, the magazine that published Doyle’s stories. Petitions were signed, and “Keep Holmes Alive” clubs popped up to socialize within the Fandom and protest Doyle’s choice..Threats and hate-mail piled into the magazine’s offices and thousands upon thousands of people wrote Doyle directly, demanding that he undo Holmes’ death.
The character’s death was reported across the world… as front-page news. Newpapers all over England posted obituaries for Sherlock Holmes – dragging him inexorably into the real world and causing many Victorians to believe that Arthur Conan Doyle himself had died. The early 1930s only ramped up this desire to believe – or make believe – that Sherlock Holmes was real, seeing a flood of publications based on the premise that Sherlock Holmes was a nonfictional character, including S. C. Robert’s fake-scholarly work Dr. Watson: Prolegomena to the Study of a Biological Problem, with a Bibliography of Sherlock Holmes (1931). Many of these books were carefully written and cited to maintain a scholarly tone, epitomizing sober journalism. Sherlockians decided to play a game of virtual reality, sharing in the fantasy that Sherlock Holmes had lived (and died) alongside John Watson and Arthur Conan Doyle.
It all sounds familiar, doesn’t it? As a matter of fact, what happened in 2012 simply seems like… well, a modern retelling of what happened in the 19th century.
So, this begs the question… why?
The death of Sherlock Holmes—his literal death the first time, and the death of his reputation the second— has resulted in public outcries nearly unheard of in the realm of fiction and fandom. They represent a fading of the line between fictional worlds and characters and our very real actions and emotions.
Truth is, you could probably write entire sociological, critical, and psychological dissertations on this phenomenon. We imagine that there’s a lot to be said about the fact that Holmes’ physical death caused the first, while the death of his public persona sparked the second, but we don’t have a whole book’s worth of space to talk about this. Frankly, we’re already over our ‘ideal blog length’ limit and decided just to blazingly ignore that.
Instead, we’re going to give our theory about why people react so strongly to the detective Sherlock Holmes.
Obviously, there’s a craft element. In both cases, the stories told are well-crafted and gripping. People love them and don’t want them to end. But, unwanted endings abound in media, and rarely is there a response like this. Besides, the most interesting part of all of this is the fact that people reacted to Holmes’ death like they have to the deaths of war heroes and celebrities; They reacted like he was real.
And we think this is because of the character himself. More specifically, it’s about what he represents.
You see, Holmes is a superhero that could exist in real life.
Holmes can’t fly. He can’t block bullets or heal or shoot lasers from his eyes. He’s just really damn smart. And that, to us, seems within our reach. We think that maybe, if we worked hard enough, we could be just like him.
In other words, perhaps Holmes represents what all of us could be. Maybe that’s why people react so strongly to his death. Holmes’ death is the death of an ideal. Really, his death is the death of the hero all of us want to be, and the death of a hero that, because he is grounded in reality, we all love in a very real way.
Honestly? The history books. As well as any number of academic papers and pop-psychology books. There’s a lot to be gleamed from the fact that there’s been a public response to Holmes’ death twice. One-and-a-half centuries apart.
But, the meme itself has run its course. You can get all the branded memorabilia, but seeing as that point in the show is over, we probably won’t see a resurgence in the meme until Holmes’ next death in some other adaptation.
3/19/2018 – This article has been edited to correct the statement that contemporaries to Arthur Conan Doyle wore black armbands in public to mourn Mr. Holmes’ death. However popular this account, there is no evidence to back it up and it must be considered apocryphal.
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