It's America's latest unaccountable phenomenon.
Edith Fore, the widow from Camden, N.J., known as Mrs. Fletcher, has become the current Queen of Camp by falling down in a low-budget commercial and crying out in nasal, slightly strangled, utterly uncoached tones: "I've fallen, and I can't get up!"
Mrs. Fore's dramatic line has saturated every corner of the culture. An American can hardly slip in public without hearing it. T-shirts with the slogan can be found in shops around Baltimore and the nation.
Life magazine pronounced it "the statement of the year." Two rap songs incorporate it. Comedians, radio disc jockeys and TV talk show hosts repeat it constantly. Madonna has used it on stage like a modern-day Mae West, lying down and cooing, "I've fallen, and I can't get up. But now that I'm down here . . ."
"It's an underground classic," says Michael Marsden, a professor of popular culture at Bowling Green (Ohio) State University. "It's one of those succinct, pithy statements that permeate the culture, like 'Where's the beef?' and 'Make my day.' "
"It's a curious celebrity," says Ted Bobrow of the American Association of Retired Persons, adding that he hopes people's responses don't cross the line into mean-spiritedness toward the elderly. "It's like something out of a John Waters movie."
The Mrs. Fletcher craze began when the commercial first aired last spring. Before that, Mrs. Fore had been an anonymous version of what she would depict: a woman recently widowed and living alone who'd fallen. She hit her head and was bleeding when she activated the personal emergency-alert device around her neck. By pushing the button, she transmitted a telephone alert to a monitoring station and was saved.
Lifecall, the New Jersey makers of Mrs. Fore's device, had decided about that time to feature a subscriber to their service in a TV commercial to get people to lease or purchase the device. An individual then pays a monthly fee for monitoring. Mrs. Fore was nearby, came across as sincere and got the nod. She says she received less than $1,000 and gets no residuals.
The company previously had used actors to simulate situations in which people might find the product helpful. They'd also used George Burns as a celebrity spokesman. The ads feature a telephone number for direct response, and are repeated often, usually late at night.
But while Lifecall claims to be the largest manufacturer of personal emergency alert systems, it wasn't until Mrs. Fore showed up -- looking sincere but slightly stage-struck; her stunt double toppling down the steps in creaky, self-conscious sections; her voice like a dinner-theater parody of distress -- that it worked its way into the national consciousness.
"People started faxing us comic strips from all over the country that used the line," says Mindy Cooper, Lifecall's advertising director. "Then Jay Leno used it on the 'Tonight' show."
Ms. Cooper says the company was shocked by the commercial's almost cultish popularity. But of the sales it has spurred, she added, "We are very pleased."
TV is full of the kind of B-grade commercials Mrs. Fore's seems to epitomize, all of them ripe for campy exploitation. Why has this one pulled away from the pack?
"In the tragic there is the comic," Dr. Marsden said. "It's a nature of the human condition. Some people say it's sick, but it's our way of coping with adversity."
"Everybody's had something like that happen," adds Ruth Anna Bartlett, 35, whose boyfriend got Mrs. Fore's autograph at an appearance in Atlanta. "He got drunk at a Halloween party, fell into a bush and honestly couldn't get out. It was hilarious."
A slight, soft-spoken woman, Mrs. Fore is amazed by all the attention. At the Limelight, a club in New York, a man hugged her so tightly he broke one of her ribs.
At Petrus nightclub in Atlanta, she judged a Mrs. Fletcher Fall-Off, in which people competed to imitate her. One man had her autograph a T-shirt he was wearing. She looked on with the smile of a mother trying to be polite around her son's weird friends.
"I'm not too crazy about the humor part," she admits. "But you can't stop the flow of what people think and do."