Cult Following

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Synonyms: cult hit, cult classic, cult show
See also: fan favourite
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A cult following is a small group of fans that are extremely dedicated to a particular work, which is referred to as a cult classic. In media and pop culture studies and articles, the terminology is most often used in the context of film and television shows. However, the terminology has also been used to describe fan followings for works in other mediums, such as video games.

Cult followings often form around works that failed to garner a larger fandom, often due to commercial or critical failure. One such example is the film Newsies; the film was a box office bomb and a critical failure but gained a cult following after being released on home video.

The development of a cult classic often has wide variation, with some media not developing a following until years later. Technology such as social media and home video, as well as changing cultural attitudes, may result in the development of cult followings years after release. One such example is The Thing, which developed a cult following after being released on home video. Film scholars and researchers attribute part of the film's initial failure to its nihilistic tone, which was at odds with the early 1980s economic recession and E.T. The Extra-Terrestial, which was released two weeks prior.

Definition & usage

The definition of cult followings and a cult work is often debated and unclear.

Mainstream media/journalists sometimes use the phrase and idea as a shortcut to describe something they don't understand, or to highlight the "strangeness" of others. "Cult Following" is also used in place of "fans" or "fandom."

The editor of TREKisM #54 (1987) wrote of the mixed blessing of the media spotlight on Star Trek: TNG and how reporters and other focus on the extreme fans:

The barrage of media coverage of STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION has provided a veritable smorgasbord of information, but it's a mixed blessing. ST fans are almost as popular a topic as the genre itself (in any and all incarnations). Press coverage usually includes buzzwords such as "cult following," "Trekkiemania," and focuses inexorably on the sort of fans who get married in Starfleet Dress and wear pointed ears in public. Put a mike in a reporter's hand and he'll head for the squealing fan every time. ENTERTAINMENT TONIGHT, which is understandably a first-rate news source since it is also produced at Paramount Studios, once again fell prey to this syndrome in their coverage on October 2nd. Just once I wish they'd interview fans who aren't screeching, wild-eyed, or covered in buttons and/or latex ears.

What many people may not know is that B & B inspired a loyal cult following which included conventions, fanzines, and merchandise that, for a short time, was second only to "Star Trek" in popularity. [1]

Despite a massive cult following and a seemingly endless syndication, Star Trek has never had high ratings and the producers have always been terrified of offending their limited number of faithful viewers. They may have tried to satisfy us by including a handful of evasive homosexual metaphors in their version of the future, but that type of representation only reinforces the notion that being gay in the 21st century is soooo controversial that it can’t even be talked about – not even three centuries later. [2]

Cult Classic or Small/Obscure Fandom?

(what is the difference)

A fan in 1982 wrote about a very unique Starsky & Hutch zine called Decorated for Death:

Gather round the trashfire, O my Sisters, and listen to this tale told of the Champion and the Other, Protectors of the City, how they killed, survived, and on a new dawning day fought their way to freedom. But first, let's talk about cult sources. Why is it that some TV shows such as STARSKY & HUTCH and STAR TREK, attract a fannish following, when other TV shows, even demonstrably better written, produced, and acted ones (PRISONER, I CLAUDIUS), don't? Why are there STAR WARS zines, and not 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY zines? Why did Jacqueline Lichtenberg's Kraith universe seize the imaginations of so many Trekfen in the mid-70's? Why do people keep on doing the Time Warp again? In other words, what makes for a cult movie or series or book—or zine? Oddly enough, one thing cult sources don't seem to be is literarily well done. A cult source can't be complete in itself; it seems to need to draw on themes and assumptions from its genre without actually referring to them. Most also have a lot of loose ends and even self-contradictions, which force the reader/viewer to resolve them to her own satisfaction, but the themes can't be too disjointed; the vision must be coherent over all, and have something to say. The story still has to make sense and be important. Starsky and Hutch, for instance, do love each other, but the series never specified in what sense, and in fact gave us the contradictory "Death in a Different Place" and the hanky hints. Spock has been a bone for fans to chew on for years — just how the hell emotional is he, anyway? A cult piece should be about a subject that hits us below the conscious belt love, human isolation (Spock in ST), home (WIZARD OF OZ), gaining freedom… Finally, a cult story must be different but identifiable, unique but only within a genre. STAR TREK is still science fiction, STARSKY & HUTCH is still a cop show, but each has a definite flavor that sets if off from other science fiction or cop shows.

So back to DECORATED FOR DEATH. I think this has all the making of a cult zine. [3]


Fan's interest in a cult show can sometimes help to grow its fandom to the point of shaking market structures, even leading to the revival of the content they acclaim.

An older example would be the movie Nosferatu. Based on Bram Stoker's Dracula, the film was lost for many years after a copyright lawsuit, but a small group of fans managed to get a copy that was remastered, and distributed elevating it to a cult classic.

Another example is Star Trek: TOS's cancellation. After intense fan campaigns, fans managed to turn a small series into a classic leading to a series of films, novelizations (tie-in) and consequently the elevation of the franchise Star Trek.

Another more recent example is Futurama, which was originally put on permanent hiatus after its initial 72-episode run. The series was revived in 2010, after strong DVD sales and consistent ratings.

Often a media with a large cult following can leave the cult context and become seen as mainstream due to its great popularity. An example is Spongebob Squarepants .

Achieving Cult Status

So Bad It's Good

A show or book or game may become a cult classic because it is so "bad," it is good. An example would be trash movies, like The Blub and Killer Klowns from Outer Space (1988).

Different Eyes, Different Package

A product may be "repackaged."

The second release of Gabriel Knight's The Beast Within received in a boost of Fannish activity after German Youtube web channel RocketBeansTV did a complete play through to the German dubbed version of the game as part of their Spiele mit Bart series in 2016 which resulted in various audiovisual memes and production of fan works, especially in Fan art. The game takes place in Bavaria and Munich and in the original version, some actors attempt to speak German in their dialogues, the results (weird stressing of words and a sub-par German localisation) lead to unwanted comedic effects which made the second installment to some kind of cult-hit in parts of the German-speaking Gaming community.

The 2009 teen horror film Jennifer's Body was originally marketed as "Twilight for boys" and failed to receive much acclaim or success, but is now viewed as a feminist cult classic due to a change in audience.[citation needed]

Due to Content or Presentation

Buckaroo Banzai combines and crosses genres (including science fiction, action/adventure, and comedy) in a way that was probably somewhat ahead of its time. It is fast-paced and crammed full of story details that require at least a second or third viewing in order to grasp what's going on. It didn't do well at the box office when first released, probably at least partly for these reasons, but over time has gained a small but very loyal cult following.

Leaving Cult Status

A fan's object of admiration and desire may start out as a cult, or underground, fandom, but then become more mainstream. One example is slash fanworks themselves.

From a fan in 1999:

As fan-fiction reaches a wider audience via the internet, slash is now written and read by males and females of all sexual orientations. In the twenty years since its inception, slash has established itself as a diverse and complex literary genre and has spawned many sub-genres and cult followings of its own. [4]

Examples of Use

Some things are notable [in the review by Ellison, clipping included in this apa]; the "cult" following, which I am beginning to suspect is synonymous with "women" (TV Guide referred to "cult" also, in reference to people who enjoyed watching "Cagney & Lacey" on TV), Also, the use of "mini-fandom" with regard to a fandom which is probably larger than SF fandom — and probably overlaps it quite a lot. [5]

The early issues of Dagon were knocked out on an old Corona typewriter as stick and paste jobs with editing courtesy of Tippex. I’d write most of the material, mainly gaming scenarios and filler that included articles on the Mythos and Lovecraft’s circle. By issue 11 I had started to attract a small cult following and word got around. [6]

Underscoring the growing popularity of German soaps, Santa Monica-based Aid and Abet has acquired rights to a gay storyline in pubcaster ARD's hit sudser "Verbotene liebe" (Forbidden Love).

Thanks to YouTube and an immense interest from the blogosphere, the storyline following Christian and Olli (also known as Chrolli) has attracted a cult following.[7]

Further reading



  1. ^ from a 2011 review of The Beauty and the Beast Companion on by A. Gammill
  2. ^ from Gay Me Up, Scotty: How Star Trek Failed To Boldly Go There (2010)
  3. ^ from S and H #33/34
  4. ^ from Two Men Are Better Than One: Why Women Like Slash
  5. ^ from K/S & K.S. (Kindred Spirits) #11 (1984)
  6. ^ Guest-blog: CARL FORD, August 26, 2010
  7. ^ Ed Meza. Aid and Abet find 'Love' - TV unit to remake German soap for U.S. auds, in: VARIETY, 16 February 2010. (Accessed 17 February 2010)

Works cited