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A cult following comprises a group of fans who are highly dedicated to a work of culture, 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. Series such as Star Trek, Star Wars, Doctor Who, Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, Rocky Horror, Clueless, Ethel & Ernest, The Dark Knight, 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 still be considered a major success by small core groups or communities of fans devoted to such films.
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.
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 which, 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 help 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 spawned a successful media franchise.
Another cancelled series that has attained cult status is the NBC teen dramedy Freaks and Geeks which had an 18-episode run. Another series that was cancelled but gained a second life with cult status is the FOX teen medical dramedy Red Band Society which had a 13-episode run. Other examples include Firefly, Roswell, Community, Joan of Arcadia, Millennium, Twin Peaks, Veronica Mars, Invasion, Pushing Daisies, Gargoyles, Young Justice, Gypsy and The Adventures of Pete & Pete, which had short lives, yet achieved large fanbases.
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 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 which 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 which 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, and Yume Nikki (2004), a surreal free-to-play Japanese horror game.
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- Peary, Danny (1981). Cult Movies. New York: Delacorte Press. pp. 203–205. ISBN 978-0-440-01626-7.
- Manning, Richard (September 2005). "Throne to a loss". BBC.co.uk. Retrieved 18 November 2010.
- Nussbaum, Emily (June 2012). "Fantastic Voyage". The New Yorker. Retrieved January 7, 2017.
- Jeffery, Morgan (January 5, 2015). "The Prisoner: Cult classic TV series to be revived for new audio drama". Retrieved January 7, 2017.
- "Wentworth Prison: Prisoners return to cell block H". Daily Express. 31 August 2013. Retrieved 8 June 2018.
- "The Obscure Cult Game That's Secretly Inspiring Everything". WIRED. Retrieved 2018-03-11.
- "Giving Thanks: Two New Books on a Cult Classic Embody Gaming's Rich Culture". USgamer.net. 2016-11-23. Retrieved 2018-03-11.
- Frank, Allegra (2018-01-10). "A disturbing cult classic finally hits Steam, with a follow-up on the way". Polygon. Retrieved 2018-03-11.
- Jancik, Wayne; Lathrop, Tad (1996). Cult Rockers: 150 of the most controversial, distinctive and intriguing, outrageous and championed rock musicians of all time. Pocket Books.