Cult media is a term that exists through the continuous evolution of its own definition. Although there exists no one fixed definition of cult media, several influential scholars have defined sets of criteria that function as a working definition of cult, which include the overlapping categories of audiences (Jenkins 1992, Janvocivh 2002), knowledge/trivia (Hills 2003, Hunt 2003), reception and practice (Hills 2002 and 2007, Jancovich and Hunt 2004, Sconce 1995), identification (Eco 1985, Jenkins 1992, Telotte 1991), and taste cultures (Bourdieu 1973 and 1984, Thornton 1996).
Eco (1985) produced the foundational cult classification system, outlining the baseline criteria functioning to transform a text into a cult text. First, the text must provide a fully developed world, allowing audiences the ability to quote pieces of that world, developing trivia games as an expression of their knowledge around the text. Secondly, the narrative and characters in the text should demonstrate some type of archetypal appeal, which allows for various levels of identification and association among audiences. Thirdly, the text should contain some level of imperfection, which lends itself to an alternate type of valuation.
Fourth, the text should have the ability to be broken apart, allowing for pieces to become unhinged from the whole. Audiences can then utilize those pieces as a type of selective memory around the text, and they can also use them as the building blocks for additional, and personalized, engagement. And lastly, the text should display a multitude of ideas, exhibiting a messy coherence, which can extend beyond its ideology to its actual production. From this basic matrix, Eco works to construct a type of classification system for texts who verge on cult status, as well as providing a framework for further theoretical development.
Le Guern (2004) takes this classification system and refocuses it to highlight the importance of the audience in the cult making process, and the affirmation that to assign anything as ‘cult’ automatically expresses a value judgment. This judgment is underscored by the privileged position granted to oppositional readings, as well as through the expression of cultural preference activated by placing the text into the cult
The adoration heaped on Ed Wood’s classically terrible film Plan 9 From Outer Space is an example of Telotte’s concept of cultists rebelling against mainstream taste culture.
canon (Telotte 1991). This positions cult texts as pleasurable transgressions against normative taste cultures.
It is specifically this transgressive appreciation as an act of independence against established taste cultures that works to draw audiences to cult media products. He says: “Cultists might well be said to love such differences, for to them they suggest something unusual, noteworthy, and valuable not just about the movies, but about their own character, too” (Telotte, 1991: 5). This demonstrates how cult audiences draw pleasure not only from transgressing traditional tastes cultures, but also by utilizing them as markers of identity creation.
This is valuation of transgression as an expression of the cultural capital of both the text and its audiences is a key factor in the epistemology of cult (Le Guern 2004). What differs between Eco and Le Guern is the latter’s focus on the role of the audience, rather than on the formal aspects of the text, which create it as cult. This audience based emphasis will become a critical component for contemporary iterations of the idea of cult texts.
Jenkins is perhaps the most well-known scholar to take up the mantle of audience empowerment and participation. Jenkins (1992) focuses on the participation of audiences as fans. Participation is what works to define media as cult; simply, it is what the fans do with the text that defines said texts as cult or not (Jenkins 1992). What they ‘do’ can be defined across a wide spectrum, but all of their actions rest on some kind of participation within a broader fan community. This emphasis on audience participation, both physical, emotional, and psychological, is the deciding factor on creating cult for theorists like Le Guern and Jenkins.
Matt Hills (2002) continues the exploration of the role of the audience in creating cult texts. Hills determines that cult status is often linked to an overly romanticized ideology, which views cult status through the lens of ‘uniqueness’ or ‘art’ (via auteur appreciation), which echoes Telotte and Le Guern’s claims of value (Hills 2002). In line with Eco, he sees a text’s messy coherence, which he defines as an endlessly deferred narrative, as critical to establishing something as cult. The endlessly deferred narrative allows for continued and uninterrupted fan participation and affect, creating and recreating the cult object.
Bourdieu, P. (1984) Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste (R. Nice, Trans.) New York and London: Routledge.
Bourdieu, P. (1973) Cultural Reproduction and Social Reproduction. In R. Brown (Ed.), Knowledge, Education, and Cultural Change (71-99). Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Eco, U. (1985) Casablanca: Cult Movies and Intertextual Collage. SubStance, 14:2, 3-12.
Hills, M.. (2007). Para-Paracinema: The Friday the 13th Film Series as Other to Trash and Legitimate Film Cultures. In J. Sconce (Ed.), Sleaze Artists: Cinema at the Margins of Taste, Style, and Politics (219-239). Durham: Duke University Press.
Hills, M. (2002). Fan Cultures. London and New York: Routledge.
Hills, M. (2003). Star Wars in Fandom, Film Theory, and the Museum: The Cultural Status of the Cult Blockbuster. In J. Stringer (Ed.), Movie Blockbusters (178-189). London and New York: Routledge.
Hunt, N. (2003). The Importance of Trivia: Ownership, Exclusion, and Authority in Science Fiction Fandom.” In M. Jancovich, A. Lázaro Reboll and A. Willis (Eds.), Defining Cult Movies: The Cultural Politics of Oppositional Taste (185-201). Manchester: Manchester University Press.
Jancovich, M. (2002). Cult Fictions: Cult Movies, Subcultural Capital and the Production of Cultural Distinctions. Cultural Studies, 16:2, 306-322.
Jancovich, M. and N. Hunt. (2004). The Mainstream, Distinction, and Cult TV. In S. Gwenllian-Jones and R. Pearson (Eds.), Cult Television (27-44). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Jenkins, H. (1992). Textual Poachers: Television Fans & Participatory Culture. London and New York: Routledge.
Le Guern, P. (2004). Toward a Constructivist Approach to Media Cults. In S. Gwenllian-Jones and R. Pearson (Eds.), Cult Television (3-25). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Sconce, J. (1995). Trashing the Academy: Taste, Excess, and an Emerging Politics of Cinematic Style. Screen, 36:4, 371-392.
Telotte, J.P. (1991). Beyond All Reason: The Nature of the Cult. In J.P. Telotte (Ed.), The Cult Film Experience: Beyond All Reason (5-17). Austin: University of Texas Press.
Thornton, S. (1996) Club Cultures: Music, Media and Subcultural Capital. Hanover and London: Wesleyan University Press.
Image Attribution: The image used in this post is in the Public Domain
Written by Dr. Alicia Kozma, 2017.