Sunday, August 26, 2012

Cult Classics and Those Who Follow Them

cult* noun

  1. a particular system of religious worship, especially with reference to its rites and ceremonies.
  2. an instance of great veneration of a person, ideal, or thing, especially as manifested by a body of admirers.
  3. the object of such devotion.
  4. a group or sect bound together by veneration of the same thing, person, ideal, etc.
Often times, when we think of a cult we envision bizarre, dangerous events involving sweat lodges or followers drinking tainted kool-aid. Or maybe you just think of Tom Cruise and that crazy You-Tube video. That's all well and good when we're talking about the spiritual realm, but when it comes to pop culture and literature, the idea of a cult takes on a whole different meaning. (See #2 above.)

The current Dr. Who crew.

I recently read an article in Entertainment Weekly✝ dispelling some of the myth and magic behind the scenes of one of the longest running shows on British television (49 years!), Doctor Who. *and a loud roar goes up as the Who-obsessed fans shout their praise* I, myself, have a few fuzzy and warm memories when it comes to Doctor Who. We didn't have cable growing up (heck, we were lucky to have a TV at times!) so as children, we were left with a lot of daytime soaps, TGIF comedies and PBS on the weekends. My stepdad had a penchant for the Who-man, and occasionally I'd sit in on a time travel or two. My dislike for anything sci-fi must have started there, because I remember a lot of eye rolling on my part. The point I'm getting at here is that cult classics tend to have an amazing, and yet very loyal following. If it's still on PBS today (and I have no idea if it is) then I'm sure my stepdad is still cozying up to the tube all these years later, watching it.

Original U.S. cover
Cult classics aren't instantaneous and for the most part, the show, film, or book can fizzle overnight. One of the most fascinating stories translated to film is Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Although Dahl's fantastical story of a boy who enters into the secretive chocolate factory of Willy Wonka has always been considered a children's classic, the 1971 film starring Gene Wilder as the eccentric Wonka was released to very little fanfare and bland reviews alike. Dahl disowned the film and was very disappointed with the rewritten script. Not counting the 2005 remake of Tim Burton and starring Johnny Depp, the story and the first film went on a slow burn of collecting rabid followers. By the mid-80s, VHS was big and the film was rereleased and eventually repeated in regular broadcasts for television. This little children's classic of Dahl's went on to become one of the top 50 cult classics of all time.

But what does it take to become a devoted cult follower? I think EW's article, "25 Best Cult TV Shows from the Past 25 Years"** says it best:
❝No, cult TV isn't for everyone, even when it wants to be . . . Yet the fan communities they inspire endure, their members known to one another by secret handshakes or catchphrases and unresolved debates, bonded by nostalgia and martyrdom, and sustained by a new media world where no show ever truly dies -- it just gets streamed in perpetuity on the Interwebs.❞
Cult classics don't die, because they can't. For some reason they seem to reach out to generation after generation. My belief is that it takes a very special individual to obsessively follow a piece of culture to the point of distraction. I've sat through Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and fan-obsessed series like Firefly. They're watchable, but nothing so special as to stop me in my tracks when I run across them on TV. But those who do connect fall wholeheartedly into the storylines and eventually show up at Comic-Con dressed as Mal Reynolds, the captain of the ramshackle Firefly crew. These fans know what they like and aren't afraid to express themselves.

Some more recent trends delve into the world of Fantasy *and a roar goes up as Game of Thrones-obsessed fans shout their praise* and Dystopia. While some classics last for a season and then die, there are those who have lasted longer than some of our times here on earth. (Hello, Doctor Who! I'm talking to you!) In the years since it debuted on television, Lost racked up a rather eclectic audience prepared to wait out the original creators' visionary take on the project. Those who couldn't take the mythological madness into which the show descended didn't return until the ending, wanting to know what all that complex storytelling was about in the first place. To this day, fans are split on that final episode, some enjoying the thought of purgatory while others think they wasted a perfectly good hour every Thursday night.

Sometimes this is why fan fiction and unauthorized sequels fail to pan out. (Although, don't tell E.L. James that -- she's laughing all the way to the bank.) Many of us are just itching to rewrite the ending on something, but we know if we did that it wouldn't read anything like what the author had in mind. If the original storytelling doesn't have the feel of the original author, like in the cases of Scarlett and Rhett Butler's People, then the audience isn't going to buy it. They're looking for that special "something" that just doesn't add up when another writer takes over the reins, especially if the original is already a classic and has a strong following.

Whatever floats your boat -- whether it be an underrated book, a long-ago film, or a recently pulled TV program -- do you consider your consumption of entertainment to border on, or maybe even fall into, the cult category? 

*According to
✝Collins, Clark. "The Doctor Is In." Entertainment Weekly 3 August 2012: 29-35. Print.
**Franich, Darren et al. "25 Best Cult TV Shows from the Past 25 Years." Entertainment Weekly 3 August, 2012: 36-43. Print.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Dearest Sister Mary Mary.
    This is a fun topic! Cults have existed since the Romantic Movement. Lord Byron was a cult figure (and so was his work) during his lifetime. We are much more aware of cult following in this day and age when Internet and social networking makes it possible to acquire info on whatever it is that you are following. Fanfiction is a way to promote a cult; you are creating your own data and making it available to a willing public.
    The term “cult status” was very fashionable when I was growing up in the 60’s and 70’s. Not only did it apply to current TV shows like M.A.S.H or “Happy Days”, or films like “Easy Rider”, but to forgotten items from the past. I remember in film class in college I was told that Val Lewton’s work had been despised in his day but decades after he had resurfaced as a “cult figure.”
    I couldn´t tell then, if I was a cult follower. I didn´t know I was a “windy” (yes that is what GWTW fans are called nowadays) and it took me a while to realize that a “trekkie” was not someone who liked to go in long walks. What amazed me most was that Star Trek (the original) was a short-lived program with mediocre ratings, and yet its very name is now synonym with “cult”.
    I have loved recent films, TV shows and books that have reached the cult level, but I don´t consider myself a devotee. I got hooked on “Lost” around the Third Season (the same with “True Blood”) and had to update myself watching reruns. But I could say “Game of Thrones” has me on the “cult follower level”. Being a “thronie” is very rewarding; it has broadened my social circle in the net, and rejuvenated me in the process, so I could say falling into these sorts of “cults” is a positive experience

    1. Funny, I didn't know a GWTW fan was called a "windy", but it makes sense! I do believe that falling into these sorts of "cults" can be positive experiences, but at what point can it border on someone losing complete touch with reality? This makes me think of the recent movie theater shootings in Colorado and how crazed the shooter was. Was his obsession with a certain comic book character what caused him to act out in such a way? I have no idea, but it makes one wonder, I think.

      The truth of the matter is that I'm not really a die-hard follower of pop culture (although I love to read the ins and outs of the industry). On the other hand, I find those who are extremely fascinating!

    2. Crazy fans are a phenomenom that is connected and yet disconnected from the cult culture. You can tell they are border cases when they cease to interact with other "culties" and make their devotion a thing of their own. What I love most of being a "cultee" (i'm making up words)is connecting to those that share my fascination.
      I just learned about "windies" last week. I´m surprised to see that there are so many GWTW fans navigating about, and some are quiet young

  3. The cultiest of cult classics must be The Rocky Horror Picture Show. I have enjoyed it when I've seen it but never got as obsessed with it as some of my friends. (I can sing "Let's Do The Time Warp Again" with them, though!) I am a HUGE Firefly fan, as is my family: we own the series, which is only fourteen episodes, and watch it over and over. We make Firefly in-jokes to each other. We also love the Dr. Who reboot (never watched the original) and Star Trek DS9 and TNG.

    What I've noticed about cult shows and those who watch them (and books, to a much lesser degree) is that it's almost as much about the group who share the obsession as it is the product itself. My nerdy friends and I share memes on Facebook related to our shows all the time, and we get such a giggle out of it -- more than we would if *everyone* shared the joke. The fact that only hardcore fans get Firefly references makes it more fun to drop those references ... like a secret code. "You are my people," it says. My daughter wears a "The Angels Have The Phone Box" t-shirt to school and random strangers will come up to her and practically hug her: she is instantly identified as a member of the Dr. Who Crew. I see this sort of in-group thing a lot more with her and her friends than among adults: this is not surprising. She's a teenager, and group identity is paramount at that age.

    It's like a positive sort of stereotyping: a way to instantly put people in categories, but nice ones: if someone is a Firefly fan, there is a very, very good chance we will like each other. There are so many other little cultural things and attitudes that go along with "Firefly fan," that I get a lot of information along with that simple little characteristic.

    1. Just out of curiosity, Stephanie, if another director other than Joss Whedon rebooted Firefly and the original flavor was a bit off, would you still watch it? What I find crazy about Dr. Who is the longevity of it, going through many characters and many different visionary takes on the show.

      It's true what you say about how these fan clubs become inner circles of secret talk. I find it fascinating in the pop culture we live in today! I'm always amazed at how rabid Comic-Con attendees have become!

    2. I think it would depend entirely on how I felt about the reboot. I would probably have an initial negative reaction if it was different from Whedon's vision, but I might be able to recover from that. Every time we get a new Doctor, I feel pouty and am determined to hate him. First I hated David Tennant, then he was the best Doctor ever. Then I hated Matt Smith, and now I love him. Each actor has brought a different edge to the Doctor, and it's hard to adjust to that at first, but they've all been amazing. Their brilliance as actors and the integrity of the show carries me through that first negative reaction.

      I loved TNG and DS9 but I never got into Voyager. So there are limits. :) And if you can believe, I've never been to a Comic-Con. Bad geek, I know!

  4. Very interesting subject, Sister Mary!

    As someone who didn't grow up in the US, I'm having a hard time distinguishing cult films/shows vs. insanely popular ones. For example, are Twilight, Harry Potter, Star Wars and Lord of the Rings considered "cult films" or just popular? What about Seinfeld, Friends, The Big Bang Theory, The Simpsons and Married with Children? Is it a characteristic of the term 'cult' that these films/shows be originally obscure/unpopular and THEN gain a following? Where do John Hughes' films stand?

    1. Some of the shows/books you mention do fall into the cult phenomenon. Most cult classics start out with little interest or little fanfare. As far as I understand, Twilight, Harry Potter, and Star Wars all fall into that category. George Lucas' space fantasy was expected to be a flop before it ever hit the theaters. I guess he showed the critics! More pop culture shows you mentioned are a little iffy. I can see The Simpsons as a cult classic, but at the same time, it's never left the air (a bit like Dr. Who, I guess). I think it depends on how the audience would classify the shows in question.

  5. Great analysis. When I think of cult classic, the Rocky Horror Picture show comes to mind almost immediately.

    1. I agree with you completely, Michael!


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