What Makes a Cult Media Text?

There is no universal outline of what must be included in a “cult” text which creates major difficulties in discussing what makes a “cult” media text. This essay will be exploring elements that make up media texts such as audience reaction and fan practices, longevity, secondary texts and the texts themselves. “Cult” texts exist in all aspects of media including TV, films and games. The popular fantasy horror television programme Supernatural, which first aired in 2005 and is still on air today in its 12th season, has become the longest running American fantasy series, is a prime example of what typically would be considered a “cult”’ text. It will therefore be the central textual example being focused on.

According to the English Oxford Living Dictionary a “cult” is a devotion directed towards a particular figure or subject with misplaced or excessive admiration for a particular thing. It also features a popular or fashionable thing among a section of society which can clearly be seen in relation to media texts through the prominence that TV and film have in our society. From merchandise to fan fiction and events such as Comicons, dedicated to the praise of “cult” media texts, society has adopted “cult” behaviour towards media texts.

Hills partially defines “cult” media texts as the text itself and the “qualities shared by cult programmes” (Hills, 2003: p.509).  This allows the term “cult” to be used much in the same way as we use genre terms such as horror or science fiction to describe a group of texts with similarities. A quality within the texts that allows us to title them “cult” texts is the hyper diegesis (Hills, 2002: p.137) which is a detailed complex world that the creators design for these programmes. The programmes are often about horror, science fiction or fantasy because these are worlds with rules that we are unfamiliar with and that “tread between fantasy and reality” (Smith, 2010: p.6). A cult text creates a world the audience must come to terms with and invest in to produce strong emotional attachments. Supernatural is a clear example of a cult text because it is set in a realistic and familiar world the audience can relate to; close enough to our reality that they can become engrossed in the programme. The “cult” is created by the inclusion of fantasy creatures such as vampires, ghosts and other supernatural creatures, the hyper diegesis which makes new rules and norms for the audience to learn.

Textual analysis dictates that qualities are built into a programme to try and achieve “cult” status. There are usually either two characters of the same gender with a close relationship such as siblings, or two characters of the opposite sex creating sexual tension and attraction that is not acted upon (Hills, 2003: p.512).

Firstly, an example of a same sex relationship can be seen in the programme Supernatural which focuses on the relationship between two brothers; Sam and Dean. Building this relationship into the plotline is a convention of a “cult” text to add more detail into the world created and a sense of familiarity for those watching.  As dictated by Uses and Gratifications theory (Ruggiero, 2000: p.10) this fulfils the audience’s need for reinforcing personal identity as they watch the relationships. It confirms within their own minds what they value, for example the strong family bonds shown between Sam and Dean and other relationships featuring characters such as their father. Sociologists suggest that viewers engage in cults because small groups share the same values which are expressed through rituals and symbols (Durkheim, 1959: p.63). In Supernatural the use of nicknames between Sam and Dean, such as “bitch” and “jerk”, seems unpleasant and aggressive on the surface but the semiotic reading of this within a family environment shows a sense of teasing and a comfortable relationship. It is also a form of escapism for the audience who observe these interactions and the hyper diegesis of the world, allowing them to focus on fictional lives rather than their own. This creates strong emotional ties with the programme and replaces relationships that are absent in their own lives. The relationship portrayed is close and intense which many can relate to, thereby creating a sense of trust which allows the audience to emotionally invest in the programme. This shows the text itself, and the content intentionally included, has the ability to affect how an audience reacts and therefore create a “cult” media text.

Secondly, the opposite sex relationship includes something of the “norm” expected by society and removes an element of fantasy to bring the programme a step closer to the real world; an aspect that arguably makes it a “cult” text. However, the opposite sex relationship is not consummated because that would be too familiar to the audience and similar to a nuclear domestic relationship. Normality is a threat to the fantasy world and therefore creating a suburban domestic relationship would compromise this ulterior world. An example of this can be seen in Supernatural where Dean has short flirtatious relationships with female characters. Also in the BBC series Dr Who, the main character of The Doctor has female companions such as Rose, Clara and Martha, as well as the recurring character of River Song. These relationships create longevity as regular fans become “cult” viewers when they are caught by the suspense of what will happen next. These relationships provide something for fans to “root for”, thereby creating further intensity between the audience and the programme. This is called Perpetuated Hermeneutic (Tulloch and Alvarado, 1984: p.30) where mysteries are continued throughout the series to keep viewers invested in the outcome of the programme. This can be used in relationships by creating a “will they, wont they” debate or for a wider story arch throughout a whole series. An example of this can be seen in Supernatural where the first two seasons focus on who killed the brothers’ mother which is a question posed to the audience in the first episode. This technique is used again during series one with the mystery of what happened to the father. Both scenarios leave the audience with lots of unanswered questions. Perpetuated hermeneutic being encoded into the text itself is a factor that contributes to creating a “cult” media text and creates an intense audience invested in the programme.

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