What is cult?

❉ Alun Harris asks the ultimate question…

When I mentioned to a work colleague that I was contributing to a website celebrating cult music, films, TV and literature he paused, frowned, then asked, “And what does that cover?”

“What I said – anything cult,” I replied.

“Yeah, but what’s cult? Who decides what’s culty?”

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What is cult?

I paused and was about to reply with a devastatingly witty and insightful reply when I realised I couldn’t. I have no idea what constitutes cult. Well, I have now, obviously, otherwise this would be a bizarrely pointless exercise in you reading these words (although some would snidely observe that that’s the very definition of the most obscure of cult items), but I had to think about it.

Doctor Who is a cult series, yet it’s currently more popular worldwide than it ever has been in the past. It’s mainstream now. It regularly wins its timeslot wherever it’s shown in the world. It’s a top 10 series. That’s not cult. That’s mainstream. But it’s still a cult TV series.

Star Trek is arguably one of the most successful programmes of all time (certainly as a franchise – TNG was beloved by people in the USA when it was first shown) and every Star Trek film has been a financial success. We’re told that obscurity, the unpopular and the overlooked are the beginnings of what constitutes cult. Star Trek is none of these things – it’s a mainstream hit. Look at the anticipation building for the new series which won’t even start until next year.

Twin Peaks is coming back. That’s a cult, isn’t it? Because it’s weird and it’s made by David Lynch and it’s got dream sequences, backward talking dwarves and garmonbozia. But I remember Twin Peaks being massively successful back in the day. Is Twin Peaks cult?

Okay, so we can say that Star Trek is cult because of the fans, because of the way they venerate the series, and cosplay, and go to conventions. But Harry Potter fans cosplay too, and Harry Potter is an enormously popular and successful franchise, so it can’t be cult. (It particularly can’t because if it was then Twilight would be cult too, and I know that that’s not right.)

If you name a film or a TV series or an artist then I can tell you if they’re cult or not. But I can’t tell you why. It’s just a sense. And your cultdom can change. Can the Rocky Horror Show truly be a cult when everyone has heard of it (even if they’ve not seen in) and it’s being remade for mainstream TV in a mainstream TV slot. That’s not cult behaviour, and yet the Rocky Horror Show is practically the definition of cult.

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When introducing Moviedrome, Alex Cox said “What is a cult film? A cult film is one that has a passionate following, but does not appeal to everybody. James Bond movies are not cult films, but chainsaw movies are. Just because a movie is a cult film does not automatically guarantee quality: some cult movies are very bad; others are very, very good. Some make an awful lot of money at the box office; others make no money at all. Some are considered quality films; others are exploitation. One thing they do have in common is that they are all genre films […] for example, gangster films, or westerns. Cult films also have a tendency to slosh over from one genre into another, so that a science fiction film might become a detective movie, or vice versa. They’re also generally cheaply made. Most of the films in this season cost under $2 million. Some of them cost a great deal less. They share common themes as well, themes which, I would suggest, are the common themes of all drama: love, murder and greed.”

It’s generally agreed that for something to be cult it must be: popular only to a small group of hardcore devotees; must be transgressive in some way; must be something without mass appeal. (Which automatically excludes Star Wars, and that’s a very Culty film).
Rescuing something from obscurity seems to be a good way to help something achieve cult status; Quatermass and the Pit may have been staggeringly popular in the late ‘50s, but its star has waned and the story is now all but forgotten. Fans of this seminal piece of television regard it today as cult TV.

A very wise media commentator (Umberto Eco) observed “What are the requirements for transforming a book or movie into a cult object? The work must be loved, obviously, but this is not enough. It must provide a completely furnished world so that its fans can quote characters and episodes as if they were aspects of the fan’s private sectarian world, a world about which one can make up quizzes and play trivia games so that the adepts of the sect recognize through each other a shared expertise. – Umberto Eco, “Casablanca: Cult Movies and Intertextual Collage,” 1984

And there we have it. It’s the fans that make something cult. It’s the fans who decide how much love to bestow on something. Harry Potter, as culty as it may seem, won’t last as a cult – the fans will grow up, move on to other things and the films will take their rightful place as classics. But not cult classics.

Fans who don’t give up on something – that makes a cult. Fans who embrace something that the mainstream disregarded as too weird, too transgressive, too subversive – that’s cult.

I can’t give you checkboxes to complete to see if a film counts as cult, but I can tell you instantly by my gut reaction if it does. And that’s because it’s me who decides what’s cult. And you. All of us. We decide what’s cult or not, by virtue of the love we give something. It’s not a definition to be applied by the critics, or film theorists, or cultural observers. It’s us. We decide what’s a cult object or not, and it’s because we know instinctively. We do this, because We Are Cult.

5 Comments

  1. Really interesting posts! I’m thinking about what Alex Cox said – “it does not appeal to everybody.”
    So, can we include a TV series like Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones?
    It’s weird because I’m not sure about them. However, I would call films like The Breakfast Club, Fight Club, Snatch and Pulp Fiction “classic” cult films, but I don’t know whether it’s because I’ve been told they’re classics or I can tell they’re classics. Does that make sense?
    I’m still a little confused. Haha!

    • Both Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones are too massively successful and popular to count as cult (when a surprising number of people are calling their daughters Daenerys you’re too mainstream to be considered cult. Not to disparage either – there’s nothing wrong with not being a cult TV series), whereas I can see arguments for cult status for all the films you named. Not that being a classic gives you cult status. Casablanca’s a classic, but it’s hardly a cult film.

  2. The thing that’s missed here about Star Trek is that, in its original 1960s run, it was not a big hit. It was, in fact, very much a “cult” show.

    Popular with college students and young adults, perhaps, but not a ratings powerhouse. The people who were watching were fervent, writing letters en masse to save the show from cancelation not once but TWICE. After cancelation, the fans kept the show alive with fanzines, fan fiction, and (of course) conventions and cosplay.

    The show became more popular than ever AFTER it was canceled, as the syndication ratings grew and grew throughout the 70s. The rest is history: many movies, many books, an animated series, and four (soon to be five) spinoff TV series. 50 years, and Trek’s influence — on pop culture, science, and even politics — remains.

    So Trek has been, and is, popular. But even so, it’s never had the mass appeal of, say, Star Wars. Every Trek fan has his or favorite shows and films (personally, I like Deep Space Nine best — DS9 fans being something of a cult within the cult), as well as ones they don’t like (I never warmed to Voyager, and I detest the recent “AbramsTrek” movies), and debates over the merits of each can become spirited, or even heated.

    Star Trek, quite simply, is the very definition of “cult.”

    Good luck with this site! I look forward to visiting often.

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