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The Beatles Aren’t Bigger Than Jesus (Or Even Moses) at the Movies

Culture is self-referential. We’ve essentially been telling the same story for generations. But even beyond that, certain historical figures, events, characters and stories persist.

How can we track these? One way is to look at what we’re referencing in films and television shows. A rudimentary approach to this is to look at IMDb.com, which allows the site’s users to tag keywords to films in its dataset. And though this is interesting on the whole, there’s a style of keyword that was of particular interest to us, and that’s “Reference to ___,” where the blank includes anything or anyone from YouTube to Jesus Christ.

IMDb catalogs 305,000 feature-length films, 1.7 million television episodes and about 308,000 shorts. We pulled this data in January for FiveThirtyEight’s Vanity Fair feature, so there may have been shifts in the numbers in the interim. In our dataset, 9,600 unique “Reference to ___” tags appeared a total of 51,000 times.

I pulled the list of keywords with this style to see which ones were the most pervasive in the IMDb dataset. I plan to look later at individual categories — for example, who are the most commonly referenced politicians, artists or religious figures? — but for now, here are the top 20 referenced people or things in movies, television shows, and other media cataloged by IMDb.

Reference Keywords
1 Jesus Christ 1,449
2 God 1,235
3 William Shakespeare 880
4 Satan 421
5 Adolf Hitler 379
6 Bugs Bunny 270
7 Barack Obama 257
8 Abraham Lincoln 246
9 Facebook 203
10 Elvis Presley 183
11 Daffy Duck 178
11 Porky Pig 178
13 Hamlet 161
14 Moses 145
14 The Beatles 145
16 Napoleon 144
17 John Wayne 139
17 YouTube 139
19 Saint Paul 132
20 Adam and Eve 131

We’re seeing a lot of biblical names here — timely, given that “Noah” will be out in theaters Friday. But if anything, John Lennon’s old boast doesn’t hold up. No, the Beatles aren’t bigger than Jesus.

Walt Hickey was FiveThirtyEight’s chief culture writer.

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