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A cult following refers to a group of fans who are highly dedicated to a piece of artwork in various media, often referred to as a cult classic. A film, book, musical artist, television series, or video game, among other things, is said to have a cult following when it has a small but very passionate fanbase. A common component of cult followings is the emotional attachment the fans have to the object of the cult following, often identifying themselves and other fans as members of a community. Cult followings are also commonly associated with niche markets. Cult media are often associated with underground culture, and are considered too eccentric or subversive to be appreciated by the general public or to be commercially successful.
Many cult fans express their devotion with a level of irony when describing entertainment that falls under this realm, in that something is so bad, it's good. Sometimes, these cult followings cross the border to camp followings. Fans may become involved in a subculture of fandom, either via conventions, online communities or through activities such as writing series-related fiction, costume creation, replica prop and model building, or creating their own audio or video productions from the formats and characters.
There is not always a clear difference between cult and mainstream media. Works such as Star Trek, Star Wars, Doctor Who, Fawlty Towers, Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, The X-Files, Back to the Future, Avatar: The Last Airbender, Rocky Horror, Fight Club, and Mean Girls attract mass audiences but also have core groups of fanatical followers. Professors Xavier Mendik and Ernest Mathijs, authors of 100 Cult Films, argue that the devoted following among these films make them cult classics. In many cases, films that have cult followings may have been financial flops during their theatrical box office run, and even received mixed or mostly negative reviews by mainstream media, but are still considered a major success by small core groups or communities of fans.
Some cults are only popular within a certain subculture. The film Woodstock (1969) is especially loved within the hippie subculture, while Hocus Pocus (1993) holds cult status among American women born in the 1980s. Certain mainstream icons can become cult icons in a different context for certain people. Reefer Madness (1936) was originally intended to warn youth against the use of marijuana, but because of its ridiculous plot, overwhelming amount of factual errors and cheap look, it is now often watched by audiences of marijuana-smokers and has gained a cult following.
Quentin Tarantino's films borrow stylistically from classic cult films, but are appreciated by a large audience, and therefore lie somewhere between cult and mainstream. Certain cult phenomena can grow to such proportions that they become mainstream.
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Many cancelled television series (especially ones that had a short run life) see new life in a fan following. One example is Arrested Development, which was cancelled after three seasons and, because of the large fanbase, returned for a 15-episode season which was released on Netflix on May 26, 2013. Futurama is another series that was originally put on permanent hiatus after its initial 72-episode run. Strong DVD sales and consistent ratings on Cartoon Network's Adult Swim block led to four direct-to-DVD films that, in turn, led to the revival of the series in 2010 on Comedy Central following Adult Swim's expiration of the broadcast rights. Space Ghost Coast to Coast had a cult following throughout its eleven-season run on television, and helped pave the way for later shows of similar style, which also had cult followings, specifically Aqua Teen Hunger Force. Star Trek: The Original Series was cancelled after three seasons, but in broadcast syndication it gained a more substantial following, ultimately spawning a successful media franchise.
David Lynch's Twin Peaks ran on ABC for two seasons from 1990 to 1991, initially garnering high ratings and critical acclaim. However, as time went on, viewers wanted to know who killed Laura Palmer. Eventually, the killer was revealed (against Lynch's wishes), and the show's quality began declining, with ratings following. Eventually, the show was canceled, but not before ending on a cliffhanger finale. The next year, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me was released in theaters. Initial reaction to the film was mixed, as it didn’t directly address the cliffhanger, and several key cast members were missing. It wasn't until 2017 that Twin Peaks returned as a limited series on Showtime, ending the longest hiatus in television history.
In a BBC review of Farscape episode "Throne for a Loss", Richard Manning said "Farscape is now officially a cult series because it's being shown out of sequence". The episode in question was actually shown as the second episode, after the premiere, despite originally being intended as the fifth episode to be shown.
Series often considered cult classics include the long-running BBC series Doctor Who (1963–present), the ITC sci-fi thriller series The Prisoner (1967–1968), and the Australian soap opera Prisoner: Cell Block H (1979–1986).
Some video games, often those with unique concepts that fail to gain traction with the mainstream audience, attract cult followings and can influence the design of later video games. An example of a cult video game is Ico (2001), an initial commercial flop that gained a large following for its unique gameplay and minimalist aesthetics, and was noted as influencing the design of Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons (2013) and Rime (2017), among other games. Other games that have cult followings include EarthBound (1994), another unsuccessful game that later resulted in the creation of a "cottage industry" selling memorabilia to the EarthBound fandom, Yume Nikki (2004), a surreal free-to-play Japanese horror game, and Spec Ops: The Line (2012), a critically acclaimed third-person shooter, developed by Yager Development GmbH, which took inspiration from Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now and sought to portray the "Horrors of war" and the deep psychological impact of armed conflict on soldiers. The game received mixed praise as critics denoted the flaws with general combat mechanics such as the cover system and overall generic and stale gameplay, but commended and lauded the well-developed characters and narrative, with the goal of breaking conventions and telling a grittier tale in stark contrast to most other shooter games of the time.
One of the earliest cult classics in rock was The Velvet Underground's 1967 debut album, The Velvet Underground & Nico. While hugely influential, it originally flopped commercially and alienated radio stations, music retailers, and magazines, who found its content too controversial to market. Over the next decade, it received greater recognition from rock critics, who helped make the album more popular. The Zombies' 1968 album Odessey and Oracle was also originally a critical and commercial flop, failing to chart despite its single "Time of the Season" becoming a surprise hit the following year. While the Zombies disbanded just before its release, the album's status grew as a cult classic in the following decades. David Bowie's 1970 album The Man Who Sold the World also did not impact the record charts on its original release while receiving mixed reviews from critics. After Bowie achieved mainstream success in the early 1970s, its 1972 reissue reached number 24 on the UK Albums Chart, but only 105 in the US. The Man Who Sold the World's influence on future musicians, such as The Cure, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and Gary Numan, as well as the dark wave genre, lent it a cult following in the music scene.
Punk rock has produced several albums with cult followings. The Ramones' 1976 self-titled debut album sold poorly and was critically overlooked on release. It was hugely influential on the then-young punk movement, however, and eventually sold well enough to earn a gold sales certification in 2014. In 1977, the British punk band The Clash released their self-titled debut, attracting a small following. The greater success of their next few albums drew further interest to the first album, which eventually earned a gold certification in both the UK and the US. The British post-punk band Magazine also released their debut, Real Life (1978), to little popular success, reaching only number 29 in the UK. Its subsequent acclaim as an innovative and influential work in the burgeoning post-punk genre earned it a reputation as a cult classic. In 1982, the American hardcore punk band Bad Brains released their self-titled debut exclusively on cassette, struggling to gain an audience in the vinyl-dominated marketplace. The appearance of the single "Pay to Cum" on the compilation album Let Them Eat Jellybeans! (1981) helped Bad Brains develop a following in the UK, while the album's musical innovation and growing influence later ensured it a cult-classic status among followers of hardcore punk.
Some alternative albums have also developed cult followings. The American industrial rock band Nine Inch Nails released their 1989 debut Pretty Hate Machine to modest success on the Billboard 200, peaking at number 75. It developed an underground popularity in subsequent years and sold enough to receive a platinum RIAA certification in 1995, becoming one of the first independently released albums to accomplish the feat. Also in 1989, Nirvana's debut album Bleach was released to some positive notice from critics, but failed to impact record charts, until the band's massively successful 1991 album Nevermind drew further interest to it.
The R&B singer Bilal's second album, Love for Sale, became a cult classic after leaking in 2006 and being notoriously shelved by Interscope Records. The musically experimental album quickly developed a following and acclaim online, becoming what The Village Voice writer Craig D. Lindsey called "the black-music equivalent of Fiona Apple's once-shelved (and also notoriously bootlegged) album Extraordinary Machine".
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