Cult Media is commonly referred to as a form of media that gains a cult following, such as a dedicated fan base. Forms of ‘cult’ media normally contain lots of quotable dialogue as well as an elaborate fictional world that the story is based in. ‘Cult’ media can be defined in various ways ‘cult’ can be defined by textual analysis, through an analysis of fan practices or even the popularity and success of a text. Despite the multiple definitions and textual examples it still is not clear as to what makes a media text a ‘cult’ media text.
Undoubtedly when looking how a text can be considered ‘cult’ media one must take into consideration the consumption of the media texts such as the way it is received by audiences, commonly referred to as ‘fandoms’. Matt Hill’s view that texts can be defined as cult ‘through an analysis of fan practices’ is also shared by Mark Jacovich and Nathan Hunt as they state ‘Cult TV is not defined by any feature shared by the show themselves but rather the way they are appropriated by specific groups.’ This suggests what makes a media text a ‘cult’ media text is in fact the audience themselves. A clear example of this in television is through the show Doctor Who. Cult consumers are normally defined as an audience with a deep seated emotional attachment to a show, and due to the shows longevity on Television it’s gained a large cult following over its 50 plus years on and off air. Fans of the show collect toys, DVDs and even attend exhibitions (such as the ‘Doctor Who experience’ in Cardiff) all relating to the show. Fans have even written their own stories about the show which can be seen online normally referred to as ‘fan fiction’. Some fans even do impressions of the characters and make their own audio book stories online, such as ‘Doctor Who: The Twelfth Day (Fan-Made Multi-Doctor Christmas Special)’ which can be found on YouTube. Furthermore there is an online website dedicated to the show called ‘The Doctor Who appreciation society’ (http://www.dwasonline.co.uk/). The site offers ‘a monthly magazine which itself is the longest running Doctor Who magazine, regularly offers members access to discounted and signed items of merchandise and there is a discount available at organised conventions and social events.’ This show is a clear example of media text becoming ‘cult’ due to its audience as they have responded to it in such a dedicated and devoted fashion. There are many other forms of cult media such as: Star Wars, Star Trek, Game of Thrones, Lord of the Rings and Pulp Fiction that all have similar examples of audiences responding to the media texts. Many media theorists agree with this view, Pearson (2003) states ‘The common characteristics are not found in the text but in their viewers.’ With all this evidence it can be argued that what makes a ‘cult’ media text is the way the audience (fandom) of the text respond to it.
Nevertheless ‘cult’ media cannot be defined without analysing the texts themselves such as what are their similarities and differences, as well as seeing if there are certain characteristics shared by certain texts that make them ‘cult’. Many similarities can be seen when looking at mainstream cult media texts an example of this is Hyper-diegesis which is described by Hills as, ‘The creation of a vast and detailed narrative space, only a fraction of which is ever directly seen or encountered within the text.’ A clear example of this is again in Doctor Who as the universe inside the show (‘Whoniverse’) is very vast. As the show implies, there are various planets and adventures the Doctor has been on however the show only shows a handful of them, this allows for the rest of the universe to be explored through other elements of the media. An example of this regarding Doctor who is the ‘Big Finish’ audio adventures (https://www.bigfinish.com/hubs/v/doctor-who) which are a series of story’s on audio book that take place in the same universe as Doctor Who but don’t follow the plotline of the show. Furthermore this creates more similarities between forms of ‘cult’ media as they all usually fall into similar genres like sci-fi and fantasy as these genres are easier to create large fictional worlds in. Jones (2002) mentions this, ‘The overwhelming majority of those series that evolve substantial creative fan cultures belongs to the fantastic genres of Science fiction, fantasy and horror and their fictional geographies are alien, haunted, visually inscribed as strange and mysterious.’ Another similarity in these texts are the enigmas that are constructed to encourage the audience to discuss and ask questions regarding the texts. Doctor Who again is a good example of this as it creates both short and long term mysteries for the audience to figure out. The short term enigmas are usually solved quickly, only encouraging audiences to watch maybe a single episode or series however others encourage endless viewings. Hill references Doctor Who doing this ‘Who is the Doctor in Doctor Who.’ This is the shows definitive narrative and is one enigma the show may never answer as it rarely reveals a lot about the Doctors past and if it does its usually in small quantities. This ensures audiences always have a reason to discuss the show and create stories round its diegesis which is one of the many reason the show has become part of ‘cult’ media. These enigmas are seen in all forms of cult media as Abbot refers to these enigmas also while referring the TV show ‘Lost.’ ‘The series narrative is essentially based on a puzzle to be solved, offers possibilities for audiences to create their own stories around Lost’s diegesis.’ Shows like Game of Thrones and films like Star Wars as well as Harry Potter all have large expanded universes that span outside of their source material, as well as both short and long term enigmas that hook their audiences and create fandoms. Moreover, all of this evidence shows clear similarities in different forms of ‘cult’ media showing how texts can be created to be part of ‘cult’ media. The media being constructed this way is precisely what makes them a form of ‘cult’ media and suggests it may not be the fans that make a form of media ‘cult’ but the way the texts themselves are constructed.
Alternatively despite similarities between ‘cult’ media texts that suggest they can be constructed to be ‘cult’ there is also evidence that shows there are clear differences between ‘cult’ texts. ‘Cult’ media can often be defined in two ways one side is the “cool” side of cult media, texts that aren’t considered mainstream. An example of this are sleeper films such as ‘Donnie Darko(2001)’ and ‘Within Nail and I(1987)’ that achieved little box office success but achieved a ‘cult’ afterlife. This suggests what makes a media text ‘cult’ is due to it being the opposite of mainstream. Jachovich and Hunt talk about this. ‘Cult texts are defined through a process in which shows are positioned in opposition to the mainstream.’ Doctor Who can relate to this also as according to Abbott when the show first debuted back in 1963 “The original series of Doctor Who was not promoted by the BBC as ‘authored’ or ‘quality’ TV but its fans nevertheless built up detailed knowledge of what they perceived as quality” This is an example of a show gaining ‘cult’ status despite lack of mainstream promotion. Alternatively Abbott continues to say “By the time of Doctor Who’s return it having been off air as a regular TV show since the eighties the show was widely publicised.” Showing how the show has been considered as both mainstream and non-mainstream but in both cases has maintained ‘cult’ status. Furthermore as the show has been a major success for 50 plus years and is a well-known TV show it shows a text can be both mainstream and considered ‘cult’. However the ‘fandoms’ of the mainstream side of ‘cult’ media tend to have negative stereotypes that relate to them. For example the stereotypical Doctor Who fan would be seen as an awkward nerdy teenage boy. Evidentially the definition of ‘cult’ has varied and changed over time however the appeal of ‘cult’ texts seems to remain the same as despite Doctor Who debuting in 1963 it still has a strong cult following today. This suggests that one can have both indie and mainstream ‘cult therefore what makes a text ‘cult’ relates more to the audience’s reception as despite obvious differences in mainstream and non-mainstream texts the texts are still considered ‘cult’.
In conclusion, based on the existing research on ‘cult’ media one must agree that the audience’s response to a media text is what gives the text ‘cult’ status. This alone can be seen by the dedicated and passionate responses shows like Doctor Who gets from its ‘fandom’. This response is a common similarity that can be seen in various forms of ‘cult’ media showing how clearly a common feature of a ‘cult’ media text is a strong audience. However, one cannot ignore that shows can be constructed to an extent to attempt to create a strong following seen by the similar elements in texts such as hyper-diegesis and enigmas. Nevertheless a text ultimately gaining ‘cult’ status is down to the audience’s response as there are clear examples of different texts being ‘cult’ despite being very different, seen by the examples of indie and mainstream ‘cult’ media. Moreover a text cannot be considered ‘cult’ without a strong audience response, therefor one must suggest the primary factor in making a media text a ‘cult’ media text is the audiences response to it.
Written by Jon Rossiter
‘Cult TV is not defined by any feature shared by the show themselves but rather the way they are appropriated by specific groups.’
‘The common characteristics are not found in the text but in their viewers.’ Pearson (2003)
‘The series narrative is essentially based on a puzzle to be solved, the puzzle narrative invites an active speculation on the part of the audience, offers possibilities for audiences to create their own stories around Lost’s diegesis.’
‘The original series of Doctor Who was not promoted by the BBC as ‘authored’ or ‘quality’ TV but its fans nevertheless built up detailed knowledge of what they perceived as quality’
‘By the time of Doctor Who’s return it having been off air as a regular TV show since the eighties the show was widely publicised.’
Abbott, S. (2010). The cult TV book (Investigating cult TV). London: I. B. Tauris
‘A monthly magazine which itself is the longest running Doctor Who magazine, regularly offers members access to discounted and signed items of merchandise and there is a discount available at organised conventions and social events.’
‘The creation of a vast and detailed narrative space, only a fraction of which is ever directly seen or encountered within the text’
‘The ‘brand’ Doctor Who has never become absent from the programs cult fans’
Hills, M., & Ebook Library. (2002). Fan cultures (Sussex studies in culture and communication). London ; New York: Routledge.
‘The overwhelming majority of those series that evolve substantial creative fan cultures belongs to the fantastic genres of Science fiction, fantasy and horror, their fictional geographies are alien, haunted, visually inscribed as strange and mysterious.’ Jones (2002)
‘Through an analysis of fan practices’
‘Who is the Doctor in Doctor Who.’
Hills, Matt. “Defining Cult TV: Texts, Inter-texts, and Fan Audiences.” The television studies reader (2004): 509-10.
‘Cult texts are defined through a process in which shows are positioned in opposition to the mainstream.’
Jancovich, M & Hunt, N 2004. ‘The Mainstream, Distinction, and Cult TV’, in S. Gwellian-Jones & R.E. Pearson (Eds) Cult Television, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, p. 27
‘Doctor Who: The Twelfth Day (Fan-Made Multi-Doctor Christmas Special)’