Some of us enter into intense, meaningful and sometimes obsessive, life-long relationships with the media products that we value, so much that these things take on far more significance in our day-to-day lives and our relationships and our sense of identity.
What is cult media?
‘A cult film, also commonly referred to as a cult classic, is a film that has acquired a cult following. Cult films are known for their dedicated, passionate fan base, an elaborate subculture that engage in repeated viewings, quoting dialogue, and audience participation’.
Cult consumers develop strong emotional attachments to their chosen cult media product, both in terms of the physical media products that they collect (DVDs, CDs, action figures) and in terms of the content, the stories and the characters of those media products. There’s often a deep-rooted emotional investment.
Cult consumers demonstrate a desire to learn as much as they possibly can about their chosen cult media text, a desire which the internet now fuels to the extreme.
We experience the same cult media product over and over in an almost fetishistic fashion: a process through which something is invested with powerful value and significance which compels the user to return to this product over and over again.
Connotations of Cult
- Cult = negative, mysterious and potentially dangerous.
- ‘I just don’t get it’.
- A waste of time and money.
- The main cult stereotype: odd, socially awkward, teenage boys.
- Although, Camille Bacon Smith (1992 – Enterprising women: Television Fandom and the creation of Popular Myth – Philadelphia: UPP) discovered that women are just as inclined towards ‘cult’ levels of interest in media products, but different ones to males.
- Cult = cool.
- ‘I get it and you don’t’.
- Understood as the opposite of mainstream media.
- Sleeper films: films that gain cult recognition over time, e.g. Withnail & I and Fight Club.
Withnail & I
This became a cult hit with British students who perhaps recognised some of the living conditions depicted in the film. However, the film achieved little box-office success on its original release in 1987, grossing a disappointing £565,000. It has gone onto have a strong cult afterlife on VHS, DVD and Blu-Ray and the UK Film Council re-released a digitally remastered version in 2007, which was re-shown in 50 cinemas around the UK.
Cult media defined as something that is in opposition to the mainstream is a strong draw for consumers. Many consumers like to think of themselves as more discerning and intelligent and special than mass audiences.
Many of us have enjoyed discovering a particular band or an obscure film that none of your mates have heard of. If our friends don’t like it – good – because its still ours and we ‘found’ it. When something makes that transition from cult to mainstream success, it can annoy us, because we feel like its become devalued and less special as a result of being opened up to the masses.
This transition between cult and mainstream highlights a problem about defining cult media. It cannot necessarily be defined purely as the opposite of mainstream since many media products that have devoted cult followings are now mainstream or have always been a part of the mainstream. Technically a product can be both mainstream and cult.
A further reason why cult is ‘cool’ could be because of the taboo factor. Many films that have controversial histories and that may have even been banned at some stage are not popular cult products e.g. A Clockwork Orange. The audience wanted it more once it had been banned – did the audience have something to do with its return?
Is Cult Status Defined by Audience?
‘Cult TV is defined not by any feature shared by the shows themselves, but rather by the ways in which they are appropriated by specific groups. There is no single quality that characterises a cult text; rather, cult texts are defined through a process in which shows are positioned in opposition to the mainstream.’ (Janovich, M & Hunt, N 2004. ‘The Mainstream, Distinction and Cult TV’, in S. Gwellian – Jones & R. E. Pearson (Eds) Cult Television, Minneapolis University of Minnesota Press, p27).
Hyper – Diegesis
Diegesis – the fictional world constructed by a media text, and all the elements that belong to it (characters, locations and so on).
Hyper-diegesis – ‘The creation of a vast and detailed narrative space, only a fraction of which is ever directly seen or encountered within the text, but which nevertheless appears to operate according to principles of internal logic’. (Matt Hills, Fan Cultures, London: Routledge, 2002, p137).
The opening sequence of HBO’s Game of Thrones helps to unravel this idea. There is so much world that could be explored in the show but isn’t.
(Whether of not you watch Game of Thrones, you have to appreciate that this is a very impressive opening sequence from a creator point-of-view).
The very dramatic world of Game of Thrones has the appeal of hyper-diegesis: it offers this vast fantasy landscape of places and peoples.
Coronation Street, on the other hand, is certainly not an example of hyper-diegesis. With the setting being a single street, there is very little potential for any extension of that dramatic world.
Hills argues that this hyper-diegesis really encourages cult followings. This is because there is so much diegetic space still left unexplored and unmapped. This keeps viewers intrigued and there is always something new to go onto to within the same programme/film/universe.
Encouraging Cult Status Through: Perpetuated Hermeneutic
Central mysteries in the plot or the world of the media text that are repeatedly referenced but are never fully resolved. Screenwriters would refer to these as ‘enigma points’ to generate viewer interest e.g Bad Wolf in season one of Doctor Who.
Encouraging ‘Cult’ through Media Branding
Some shows are branded as ‘a cult must-see’ before they are even aired. Fringe is an example of this. It uses things like cryptic messages spelled out in weird symbols shown before each ad break. Viewers realised that these symbols were being used in sequence as a code to communicate certain key words and clues about the development of the show. Despite being cancelled at the end of its fifth season, Fringe did succeed in attracting a very dedicated and immersed fan base – which is exactly what cult does.
So… Can We Have Mainstream Cult Media?
According to Matt Hills (‘Mainstream Cult’ in Stacey Abbott [Ed] The Cult TV Book (London: I. B. Tauris)) franchises like Twilight and Harry Potter work very hard to generate and maintain cult followings: on a massive, mainstream scale largely because of new media advances, most obviously the internet and the DVD.
The internet facilitates obsessive and immersive cult experiences, like researching every detail of the Twilight films and entering into long discussions with other fans. These sorts of cult-like experiences are now made available to mass audiences all over the globe through internet technology, rather than just select groups.
DVDs also encourage more intense, cult -levels of engagement through extra features, ‘making of’ documentaries and audio commentaries. If we listen to an audio commentary we’re not just watching a film or TV show on the surface level, as entertainment, arguably we’re nearing closer to cult-like interest and experience.
BUT are these texts really media cults or cleverly branded media fads? We’re encouraged as consumers to become obsessed with something briefly and then move on to the next thing.
Competing Definitions of Cult
- A media product that is not recognised by ‘the masses’. The opposite of mainstream.
- Cult status as something that is generated by audience activity: cult products as objects of ‘special devotion’. (Jon, E Lewis and Penny Stempel. Cult TV: The Essential Critical Guide, London: Pavilion, 1993).
- Cult status as something that is consciously and strategically built into the text by producers.