From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
A cult following is a group of fans devoted to a specific area of pop culture. Cult followings most often develop around television shows, films, books, and radio programs. Some comic books, video games, musicians and writers also gain cult followings. Non-media items may also have what could be considered cult followings, for example the Apple computers.
Cult followings are often dedicated enough that many people of similar interest are familiar with one another due to convention gatherings, concerts, message boards, Internet chat rooms, word of mouth, or shops featuring related items.
These dedicated followings are usually relatively small and pertain to items that don't have broad mainstream appeal. An exception is Star Trek, whose followers call themselves "Trekkies" or "Trekkers". Star Trek has an extremely large following but can still be considered 'cult' due to the intense loyalty the franchise inspires.
"Cult following" is also used to describe the more obsessive fans of established mainstream performers. For example, many persons have been interested in Michael Jackson's music or in Disney films, but some fans take their interest to extreme levels, hoarding vast amounts of collectables. Some such "cult fans" occasionally veer into obsessive-compulsive disorders or stalking; however, cult followings do not necessitate that individuals partake in cultish activities.
Cult followings establish their own canons and cherish the notion of cult classics, which are individual items with cult followings. Cult followings are usually generated through a film or television show having targeted a particular genre, typically fantasy, sci-fi, comedy or horror, but occasionally other types of films or TV series will produce a cult following.
While cult followings are unquestionably more prevalent among the uncritical, examples of this phenomenon exist in serious culture as well, especially among certain sub-segments of the public, such as gay men and other cultural minorities. Thus we find cults of certain writers, such as Yukio Mishima, Colette, or Simone de Beauvoir; composers like Erik Satie or Edgar Varèse; or performers, like Maria Callas.
A cult following is a group of fans devoted to a specific persons or cultural artifacts, examples are films, television or radio programs, novels, musicians, writers and film directors. These dedicated followings are usually relatively small and pertain to items that don't have broad mainstream appeal due to their underground subject matter or experimental style. In literature, one might refer to "cult books" or "cult fiction", in cinema, one refers to "cult movies", "cult cinema" or "cult films", in music one refers not to cult, but to "underground music", "alternative".
From cult and following. Cult is derived from Latin cultus, see cult (religious practice), many fans of cult items have a religious, idolatrous and fetishistic devotion -- appropriately so because the terms cult, fetish and idol have their origins in 'primitive religion.
The term "cult" first appeared in English in 1617, derived from the French culte, meaning "worship" or "a particular form of worship" which in turn originated from the Latin word cultus meaning "care, cultivation, worship," originally "tended, cultivated," as in the past participle of colere "to till the soil". In French, for example, sections in newspapers giving the schedule of worship at Catholic churches are headed Culte Catholique; the section giving the schedule of Protestant churches is headed culte réformé.
The meaning "devotion to a person or thing" is from 1829. Starting about 1920, "cult" acquired an additional six or more connotatively positive and negative definitions that are separately discussed in the article Cult.
There is not always a clear difference between cult and mainstream media. The film Pink Flamingos is known for its disgusting scenes, and only a small number of people are drawn to this movie. Therefore it can be classified as a cult movie. Franchises such as Seinfeld, Star Trek, Star Wars, Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, and The Rocky Horror Picture Show have core groups of fanatical followers but still attract mass audiences, so some (e.g. actor Bruce Campbell, see below), argue they cannot be considered true cult films. Professors Xavier Mendik and Ernest Mathijs, authors of 100 Cult Films, argue that the devoted following among these films make them cult classics.
Some cults are only popular within a certain subculture. The film Woodstock is especially loved within the hippie subculture. A Clockwork Orange has a cult following of punks, skinheads and other groups. Certain mainstream icons can become cult icons in a different context for certain people. Reefer Madness was originally intended to warn youth against the use of marijuana, but due to its ridiculous plot and cheap look, it is now often watched by audiences consisting of marijuana-smokers and has gained a cult following.
Actor Bruce Campbell (he himself called "The King of B-Movies", and maintaining a dedicated cult following for films such as The Evil Dead) once contrasted "mainstream films" and "cult films" by defining the former as "a film that 1,000 people watch 100 times" and the latter as "a film that 100 people watch 1,000 times".
Quentin Tarantino's films borrow stylistically from classic cult movies, but are appreciated by a large audience, and therefore lie somewhere between cult and mainstream. Certain cult phenomena can grow to such proportions that they become mainstream.
It often takes a few years before a cult starts to form around a particular film or band. Captain Beefheart's album Trout Mask Replica, Jim Carrey's film The Cable Guy and the TV series The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show were originally not very successful, but as time went by built up a cult following. In some cases this cult status is unexpected, like the Disney film Fantasia (1940), which was a flop at its release, but was re-appreciated by fans of psychedelica in the 1960s. Some films, especially from within the science fiction and horror genres, were produced with the specific goal of achieving cult status, like the drug oriented movie Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and most films by Terry Gilliam. Other examples which fall into the category of "intentional cult film" are Repo Man (1984), The Toxic Avenger (1984), the sequence of The Evil Dead horror films beginning in 1981, and Brazil (1985).
Many cancelled television shows (especially ones that had a short run life) see new life in a fan following. One notable example is Invader Zim, an animated show that aired for 2 seasons on Nickelodeon before being cancelled. The series enjoys a good life on DVD, and many specialty stores such as Hot Topic sell clothing and merchandise associated with it. Another examples are Roswell and Joan Of Arcadia, which had short life, but a large fan base until now. Long-running TV series such as The X-Files, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Chuck and Lost also have huge cult followings.
In a BBC review of Farscape episode "Throne for a Loss", Richard Manning, the review writer said "Farscape is now officially a cult series because it's being shown out of sequence." The episode in question was actually shown as the second episode, after the premiere; despite originally being intended as the fifth episode to be shown.
Anime, manga, kung fu films and kaiju are mainstream entertainment in Japan, but elsewhere are generally appreciated by a cult audience. Doctor Who is a prime time family show in Great Britain, but during a 15-year period out of production, gained cult status among fans; it is also a cult series in the US. Also, the animated pre-school show Pocoyo has attracted a reasonably large cult following among viewers older than its target audience due to the show's humour and its narrator, Stephen Fry.
Defining cult items
- Cult items are in the eye of the beholders.
- Cult items are may or may not be mainstream.
- Cult items attract obsessive fans
- Cult items generally don't gain that status until some time after their release.
- An item that attracts too large a number of fans cannot be regarded as a cult item.
- In fiction, items of certain genres (horror, science fiction) are more likely to be regarded as "cult" items.
- The attraction of cult items is sometimes totally different to the original intentions of the author.
- In fiction, cult items often contain "subversive" elements like references to homosexuality.
- Cult items are collectible and are avidly collected.
- Cult fiction
- Cult director
- Cult figure
- Cult film
- Cult movie stars
- Cult objects (product design)
- Cult radio
- Cult television
- A cult of personality is sometimes used to refer to a political leader and his following, voluntary or otherwise.
- Sleeper hit
- Underground music