"Star War" fan Phuc Tran, a Latin teacher and co-owner of Tsunami Tattoo, shows off Princess Leia tattoo at his home in Portland.

“Star Wars” fan Phuc Tran, a Latin teacher and co-owner of Tsunami Tattoo, shows off Princess Leia tattoo at his home in Portland. Whitney Hayward/Staff Photographer Whitney Hayward/Staff Photographer

The debut of “Star Wars” in 1977 meant a whole new world of imaginary play for millions of youngsters, where battles involving lightsabers and starships replaced games of cowboys and Indians or cops and robbers.

To 5-year-old Phuc Tran, who had come to Carlisle, Pennsylvania, just a few years earlier from Vietnam with his family, “Star Wars” meant safety, comfort, acceptance and a doorway into a strange new culture.

“As an immigrant in a small town, mostly white, it was such an important way to connect with kids for me. It was an equalizer,” said Tran, 42, a Latin teacher and co-owner of Tsunami Tattoo in Portland. “I couldn’t speak the language well, didn’t share the culture, but I liked ‘Star Wars.’”

The power of “Star Wars” to affect people’s personal stories in profound ways sets “Star Wars” apart from other pop culture franchises. During the past four decades, the stories and characters of the six films – plus novels, comics and animation – have become part of America’s cultural mythology. First-graders pretend to be Luke Skywalker or Darth Vader at recess. People who’ve never seen the films use terms like “Jedi mind trick” or “the evil Empire” in everyday conversation and can hum John Williams’ triumphant theme music in their sleep. Family and friends bond over it. Grandparents who saw the first film plan to bring grandchildren to see the seventh film in the series, “The Force Awakens,” when it opens Thursday.

The combined revenue generated by all things “Star Wars” is estimated at more than $40 billion, with more than $30 billion of that attributed to merchandise – the lightsabers, T-shirts, action figures and trinkets that allow people to return to the stories again and again. Even in recent years, with no movies fueling sales, Lucasfilm has reported $1.5 billion in merchandise sales annually.

That’s a powerful testament to the popularity of the story and characters. But while some of the film series’ staying power is connected to marketing and merchandise, critics and fans say the “Star Wars” story itself is at the core of the movies’ ability to connect to people emotionally.

THE POWER IN THE STORY

The story is an easy one to latch onto, because it’s not based on our world or our time, making it ripe to live and grow in people’s minds, said Chris Taylor, author of “How Star Wars Conquered the Universe: The Past, Present, and Future of a Multibillion Dollar Franchise.”

A central theme is “the Force,” an unseen guiding power that characters turn to in times of peril. This appeals to people on a spiritual level, Taylor said. It is described in the films as an “energy field created by all living things” that surrounds and penetrates everyone and “binds the galaxy together.”

“It’s an idea that, whatever your religion or beliefs, you can layer the idea of the Force on top of it,” he said. “It’s a conception of God that even appeals to atheists.”

Lucky Sinakhom with his family (from left) Alec Hudson, Lee Sinkahom, Ronin Sinkahom, 7, and Jesse Sinakhom, 15, at Lucky's Tattoo Company in Portland. Alec and Ronin both have Autism spectrum disorder, and have been better able to verbally communicate through watching the "Star Wars" movies. Ronin was recently gifted a stuffed Darth Vader, and Lucky said Ronin has been able to sleep in his own bed for the first time by being comforted by Darth.

Lucky Sinakhom with his family (from left) Alec Hudson, Lee Sinkahom, Ronin Sinkahom, 7, and Jesse Sinakhom, 15, at Lucky’s Tattoo Company in Portland. Ronin, who has Autism spectrum disorder, was recently gifted a stuffed Darth Vader, and has been able to sleep in his own bed for the first time by being comforted by Darth. Whitney Hayward/Staff Photographer Whitney Hayward/Staff Photographer

Lucky Sinakhom, 42, and owner of Lucky’s Tattoo Company in Portland, credits “Star Wars” with helping to widen the worlds of his 7-year-old son and 23-year-old stepson. Both have been diagnosed with autism, Sinakhom says, but their passion for a galaxy “far, far away” helps them to share experiences with their family in ways that may have not been possible without “Star Wars.”

“I don’t know what exactly has my boys so taken with the movies,” said Sinakhom, who lives in Cumberland. “They’re not exactly verbal enough that we can talk about it. I just know they love it and I love it, and it’s one thing we all enjoy.”

Sinakhom grew up in St. Louis as a fan of the first three “Star Wars” films. He had always been a science fiction fan, and “Star Wars” and other stories helped fuel his passion for art, which led to tattooing. He met his wife, Lee, on a blind date. And “Star Wars” helped the couple hit it off.

“She was the only woman I had ever met who knew more than I did” about “Star Wars,” he said.

At the time, Lee’s son, Alec Hudson, was 7. Being autistic, he can get “emotionally overloaded” by people and sounds. Right away, “Star Wars” was common ground between Sinakhom and Alec.

Sinakhom and his wife had two more children, and the youngest, 7-year-old Ronin, is also autistic. He often hums “The Imperial March” or cuddles up in bed with a Darth Vader doll. Sinakhom says those are examples of how “Star Wars” helps Ronin and Alec focus on the kinds of interactions with people and surroundings that can be difficult for people with autism.

“That’s what’s ironic. It takes me from reality to fantasy, but it takes them from fantasy to reality,” he said.

Tran, who has two children, has attachments to “Star Wars” based both in reality and fantasy. As a teacher of language, he has made a study of the grammar of “Star Wars” characters, specifically how the evil Darth Vader uses mostly the subjunctive mood, which allows for “what might have been” allusions. The subjunctive is seductive, Tran said, as evidenced by Vader telling Luke, “If you only knew the power of the Dark Side.” But in his native Vietnamese, Tran says, there is no subjunctive, and so expressing oneself is more about stating facts, much like Yoda does: “Do or do not, there is no try.”

For Tran, the films also are a reminder of the great gift children have of being able to love something for the sheer joy of loving it. It’s a gift not every adult feels free to recapture, he said. “Star Wars” is a way to rediscover “the incredible joy and incredible authenticity” of loving something completely without worrying about what society thinks, he said.

SKIPPING SCHOOL, CAPTURING MEMORIES

Chris Brown of North Yarmouth treasures the memory of his older brother skipping school with him and driving him to see “Return of the Jedi” in 1983.

Brown, 46, said the first “Star Wars” films were special to him, his brother and his friends because it helped validate their love of “geek” culture. At the time, reading comic books, playing Dungeons & Dragons, or building spaceships with Legos were not exactly mainstream activities.

So it was “super special” for Brown and his brother to leave school early one day and drive to a mall near their home in Utica, New York, so they could be first in line for the latest installment of “Star Wars.” Films weren’t hyped then the way they are now, and there were no midnight showings, no ordering tickets online months in advance.

Fueled by their excitement, Brown and his brother got to the mall way before the theater opened. They bought their tickets as soon as someone appeared at the cash register, then browsed the mall until showtime.

“There was nobody else in line, but it was such a big deal to us,” said Brown, chief financial officer of the Maine-based Bull Moose music stores.

Such a big deal that 30 years later Brown talks about that trip to the movies with his own sons, ages 10 and 14. He uses it to illustrate the kinds of things a good brother does.

Comedian Karen Morgan of Cumberland was a teenager when the original "Star Wars" movie was released and said she saw the movie more than 20 times in theaters. She collected cards from the movies and saved 26 ticket receipts and dated each one.

Comedian Karen Morgan of Cumberland was a teenager when the original “Star Wars” movie was released and she collected cards from the movies and saved 26 ticket receipts and dated each one. Whitney Hayward/Staff Photographer Whitney Hayward/Staff Photographer

Karen Morgan, a comedian who lives in Cumberland, didn’t skip school to see “Star Wars,” but she did break a few rules – maybe laws – in the throes of her excitement over the film.

Morgan was 13 when first “Star Wars” opened in 1977, and she went to see it in a theater near her home in Athens, Georgia. The story, space battle scenes, special effects and music hit her in a way no other movie ever had. She rode her bike to the theater a lot during the rest of that year. She saw the film at least 26 times. She knows because she saved 26 ticket receipts and dated each one.

“I remember watching those ships coming over my head, with that music, and it just mesmerized me,” said Morgan.

Still, seeing the film 26 times wasn’t enough. She decided to sneak a cassette recorder into the theater and tape the audio so she could listen to the film on the days she could not see it. Now her son, Mac, is 13 and a big movie fan. The two are planning to go to see “The Force Awakens” together. Morgan is excited to renew and re-examine the magic that so enthralled her as a teenager in 1977.

But thanks to DVDs and Netflix and the like, there are plenty of legal ways for her to do it.

Declan McMahon, 12, and his father Tim McMahon dress as a Stormtrooper and a Jawa at their home in Portland. Tim made Declan's costume by hand, and the father and son regularly attend "Star Wars" meet-ups in costume.

Declan McMahon, 12, and his father Tim McMahon as a Stormtrooper and a Jawa. Tim made Declan’s costume by hand, and father and son regularly attend “Star Wars” meet-ups in costume. Whitney Hayward/Staff Photographer Whitney Hayward/Staff Photographer

STORMTROOPERS BRING SMILES

Some people dress up as Santa Claus this time of year because they love to see the looks on people’s faces.

Tim McMahon, who works in workforce planning for L.L. Bean, gets that feeling all year long. He’s a white-armored stormtrooper in “The 501st Legion,” a national group of “Star Wars” role-players who describe themselves as “The World’s Definitive Imperial Costuming Organization.”

McMahon, 43, has made many friends in the group over the years. And now his 12-year-old son, Declan, takes part in Legion events with him.

McMahon and his son dress up for Portland Sea Dogs baseball games, concerts and charity events. Parody song specialist Weird Al Yankovic has some “Star Wars”-related songs, so when he performed on the Maine State Pier in July, McMahon and his son got to be on stage with him. In full uniform.

Wearing the white plastic stormtrooper outfit, which can cost around $1,000, is like “walking around in Tupperware,” McMahon said.

“I can’t really see below my sternum,” said McMahon.

But if he bends down, he can see all the smiling faces he and his fellow “Star Wars” costumers are responsible for.