The Phenomenon of the ‘Cult Films’

When you hear the word ‘cult’ the images that spring to mind are usually pretty dark. Ones of people who dress in their ‘mandatory gear’ each week to meet in small groups to perform strange, and often disturbing rituals…. I mean…. I guess that’s not to different than the fans of cult films these days as well….

I’m just kidding…. well not really…. but i can say this because, don’t worry, I have been one of those people!  But in all seriousness the phenomenon of the ‘Cult Film’ has become a major part of our society and wider pop culture. We see the films constantly referenced in the media, be it in other films, ads or television, to the social media we are producing ourselves like memes.  They are just something that we are expected to know and understand, even if we haven’t really seen it before. I would argue that ‘Cult Films’ have such a status in our day to day lives, that they are becoming cultural symbols that represent  an entire generation.

But why as an audience as we instantly drawn to these films? And why do we create these followings that begin to stand alone from the film itself?

Cult Films are “known for their dedicated, passionate fan base, an elaborate subculture that engage in repeated viewings, quoting dialogue, and audience participation.’” according to Wikipedia. Whats interesting here is that it is not up to the film makers to give the films this stats, but the fans and audience members who watch it.

But as an audience how do we decide what films are good enough to represent us, to be given that ‘cult’ status? Just because a film is given this status doesn’t automatically mean that we consider it to be of the best films ever made. In fact there are many equally great and sometimes better films that never reach that level. So what is it that clicks with us and makes us make that personal connection.

Rocky Horror is an excellent example of this and probably on of the most famously renewed cult films to date. When it was originally released in the cinemas in 1975 it was deemed a flop. Many people just didn’t get it! People didn’t understand what it was trying to achieve and there was enough promiscuous material to turn any ‘respectful person’ off the film. This is when they started showing midnight screenings, and many of the people who turned up felt they were outcasts in society, much like the characters in the movie. This is where its cult status began. As the movie gained more and more popularity with the midnight screenings a certain culture began to arise around them, along with what you would do at each one.

I went to a Rocky Horror screening in September at the Vic in Devonport and it was an interesting experience to say the least. I was given a ‘prop bag’ which contained rice to throw at the wedding, a newspaper to cover my head during ‘Over at the Frankenstein place’ as well as a party popper and a party hat. It was really fun to play along, especially with all the other members in the audience doing it all together. Another thing I noted was the sayings people were expected to shout at certain characters or at the screen at certain points, one being ‘boring’ every time the narrator showed up on-screen. There has even been a whole ‘script’ written around what to yell out at every point in the film, all created from audience participation.

But really what does this mean? Surely if they liked the movie they would just sit down and watch it right? Or are they making fun of something they don’t think is really that great? For me I think this level of participation comes from a shared love of the film. It’s not that they hate the film, they just love to take part in something they love so much, to be part of that culture, that environment with a bunch of other fans.

Now a lot of people argue if Rocky Horror is actually a good film, and many agree it’s not the most groundbreaking, amazing film that has ever been made. In a way its not even close. But that doesn’t matter! What makes a film a cult  film isn’t how good something is, but how much the audience loves to respond to it, be it in appreciation or hate.

Another example is the Room directed by  Tommy Wiseau, and is known as one of the worst films ever made. It was called the ‘Citizen Cane of bad films’ by one critic. As expected this movie flopped. The acting, editing, plot among other things just didn’t work. Yet today people love it. This film has been classified as a ‘Nana film’ something that is ‘so bad, its good’. People even have gone as far as having monthly screenings of this film, making hundred of dollars each month for cinemas all over the world. People even chuck white spoons at the screen much like the rice thrown in Rocky Horror. What interests me  about this film is the fact that we know it’s a terrible movie, yet we  still considered one of the greatest cult films of all time. But why? It brings us back to the fact that cult films don’t need to be good, they just need to resonate somehow with its audience, and the room being so bad seems to do this for its audience.

What I’m trying to show is that when it comes to Cult Films the content doesn’t need to be good, that’s not what really matters. It’s the experience of watching these films that appeals to the fans, participating and laughing or cringing at something together. It’s about that feel of community, of belong to something bigger than yourself, and of mutual respect. That’s why we love Cult Films.

An example I see in my everyday life is in the fan culture that has been growing on the Internet, particularly through sites like Tumblr. This is another way fans can meet, exchange experiences and jokes, and be a part of a wider community of something they all love. For me I first had this with Harry Potter. It was fun to be  constantly involved in something I loved so much, to feel as though I was participating  with groups of fans  about the content in the films and books.  In a way its like the participation of Rocky Horror or the Room, except now its done through a screen. We are all laughing at the same jokes, pointing things out and making funny edits online because as a group we loved the series so much that we loved to make fun of it, and participate in any way we could. Sure Harry Potter isn’t defined a ‘cult film’ specifically, but I feel it many similar elements to that of a cult film, particular in the way fans engage and respond to the content. People use sites like Tumblr to connect with other fans, to engage and build off something you like so much, and wasn’t that how cult film started out anyway?

For me, I believe that Cult films are embedded in our culture because we want to feel that sense of belonging, participating and being a part of something bigger than ourselves and cult films give us that. They have become so much more, a way to connect to others through  your mutual love or hate over something you both care about in some way or another. They are a way of creating that sense of connection to people in a world where we often feel isolated in our opinions, where for one night we can let that all go.

That is why I believe we, as a society are drawn to Cult Films, and why we will continue to elevate films to this ‘status’. They unlock something within ourselves that make them not only interesting, but a lot of fun. And really, isn’t that whats it’s all about.



efan2011. ( 2016, November 1). The Room you are tearing me apart- Full Scene ( Video File). Retrieved from

Flickr. (2016) What is Cult? Retrieved from

Google Images. (2016). Rocky Horror Picutre Show. Retirved from

Penn.Live.Com. (2016, November 1). ‘Rocky Horror Show’ Audience Participation Guide: A How To  (Video File). Retrieved from 

Unearthed Comics. (2016). Bite Club. Retrieved from





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