The Psychology of Cult Classics

By E.E.C. Christman

Since its release 40 years ago, The Rocky Horror Picture Show has gone from flop, to cult classic, and finally, to cultural staple. As the undisputed queen of the midnight movie, theaters across the globe play it to houses packed with costumed superfans. The weeks leading up to Halloween are Rocky primetime. You’d be hard-pressed to find a place in America where you couldn’t catch a live show in October. It’s practically a rite of passage, especially in the LGBTQ+ community, even if some aspects of the film haven’t aged gracefully (see transvestite). The audience participation doesn’t end with the costumes and joining in on the songs. Seeing Rocky Horror Picture Show live is almost like watching a completely different film. The audience has their own script, full of callbacks, insults, and tongue-in-cheek jokes. They throw toilet paper and popcorn at the screens at the appropriate moments, shout “Ejaculations” instead of “Congratulations,” and in general, lovingly mock the characters on screen. This kind of live performance inspired similar rituals when The Room began garnering a similar cult following: throwing spoons at the screen, shouting “Who are you?” when yet another character appears, and singing the theme from Full House, to name a few. 

While The Rocky Horror Picture Show was the first cult phenomenon of its kind, it was far from the first cult film. The term became commonplace in the 70’s with the growing popularity of the midnight movie, but it had existed for decades prior to that. Pretty much from the first moment we started writing scripts and speaking in front of the camera,  we’ve cherished the gems and the trash. Why do we engage so much with so-called cult films? How can something be so bad, it’s good? And what makes these films so intoxicating to watch?

First, let’s establish what qualifies as a cult film. Some more general definitions include more mainstream movies that were box office bombs. The Big Lebowski would fit into this category, since the Coen Brothers’ dark comedy didn’t garner much attention until over 10 years after its initial release. More exclusive definitions require that the film be more transgressive and culturally subversive. But the one thing that makes a film truly cult-like is, of course, a cult following. The fandoms are ultimately what separates the cult classics from the vanillas. Think repeated viewings, quoted dialogue, and audience participation. We can trace the origin of the cult classic phenomenon to suppressed films that were kept alive by dedicated fanbases, the most famous of which were the works of infamous filmmaker Ed Wood. His most notorious movie, Plan 9 from Outer Space, won the dubious honor of “Worst Film Ever Made” in Michael Medved’s book The Golden Turkey Awards (1980). Medved also awarded Wood “Worst Director of All Time” posthumously. 

Michael Medved’s book sparked a renewed interest in Wood’s work, catapulting him into cult status overnight. In 1992, Rudolph Gray released his biography on the Golden Turkey director, and was quickly followed by Tim Burton’s biopic Ed Wood 2 years later–a cult classic in its own right. 

Unlike films like The Big Lebowski or Office Space, Ed Wood’s films leave very little room for argument: they’re bad movies. So why do we love them, and their larger-than-life director, so much? Jim Morton put it well in his essay from Incredibly Strange Films, where he pays homage to the late director: “Eccentric and individualistic, Edward D. Wood Jr. was a man born to film. Lesser men, if forced to make movies under the conditions Wood faced, would have thrown up their hands in defeat.” Wood was the son of a U.S. Postal Service custodian. He never knew success or wealth, and died in poverty. And yet he dedicated himself to his craft anyway. Lack of funds, lack of resources, and an endless stream of bad reviews never stopped him from doing the thing he had loved since childhood. In this short excerpt, Morton pinpoints not just the thing we love about Ed Wood’s movies, but about all cult films: earnestness. Plan 9 may be objectively low-quality, but it was made with love. Its director wasn’t trying to make a bad movie; he was being sincere. This is why movies like Sharknado never quite reach that same notoriety. These are essentially studio-produced bad movies; mass-produced midnight movies that are about as satisfying as plain rice. Its this sincerity, this total lack of guile that really propels a bad movie into the ranks of “So bad, it’s good.”

Take Tommy Wiseau’s The Room. From its off-kilter acting to its bizarre brand of storytelling, everything about it leaves new audiences stunned. It made a measly $1,800 at the box office in 2003, but is now shown monthly at movie theaters all over the country. Unlike The Rocky Horror Picture Show, fans of Wiseau’s film not only know it’s bad; they revel in it. Ross Morin, assistant professor of film at St. Cloud State University, called The Room “The Citizen Kane of bad movies,” making Tommy Wiseau the Orson Welles of the midnight movie scene. Which honestly isn’t a bad comparison. At least part of The Room’s success can be attributed to the strange magnetism of its creator. Wiseau has been known to attend viewings of his film, joining in on the festivities, answering questions, and even reciting Shakespearean sonnets. Not unlike his film, Wiseau is a weird but worthwhile experience all his own. 

Cult classics are as much about the people involved as they are about the end product. Ed Wood and Tommy Wiseau both shared a chaotic charisma that seeped into the viewer’s experience, either by the director literally being present, or by reputation. They possess a knack for drawing people into their weird tales. It’s that enthusiasm that keeps the audience enthralled, despite the relatively low-quality of their films.

For a movie to become a cult classic due to its poor quality alone, it has to be more than bad. Like the ouroboros eating its own tail, a movie can be good, or so bad it becomes good all over again. There is a divide between cult films. There are films that are subversive, strange, and generally perceived as good. Movies like The Big Lebowski and Harold & Maude would fall into this category. Both of these films are generally critically acclaimed, but made relatively little at the box office. On the other hand, we have films that are low-budget, fringe, and poorly received by all except the most diehard of fans. The Room, Birdemic: Shock & Terror, and Troll 2 are good examples of modern movies that are “so bad, they’re good.” 

Both kinds of cult movies succeed in subverting expectations and stand out against their more box office-oriented counterparts. However, where films like Terry Gilliam’s Brazil are considered by many to be masterpieces of the medium, no one would make such a claim about Troll 2. Yet these comparatively terrible movies garner fan bases that are just as dedicated, if not more so, as “The good cult classics.” A theater not far from my house hosts monthly “Hecklevision” screenings of such films, and they’re always sold out. The intense popularity of The Room proves that quality has very little to do with a movie attaining cult status; but why?

We’ve already established that sincerity is a big part of cult films; they are, by and large, unironic and earnest. They’re also subversive in some way, either by challenging cultural norms, Hollywood practices, or social dynamics. This is often why LGBTQ+ films like Hedwig & The Angry Inch, Far From Heaven, and But I’m a Cheerleader, which are all either directly dealing with LGBTQ+ issues or are strongly associated with them, wind up in the cult film category. Any media that focuses on the stories of the marginalized will almost certainly be pushed out of the Hollywood limelight. And with the cult phenomenon of films like The Rocky Horror Picture Show, the queer community already has a history of nurturing and uplifting cult films. Ed Wood himself has become something of a queer icon. Labeled as a “straight cross-dresser,” Wood undermined gender expectations by reveling in feminine clothes; he had a special fondness for anything made of angora. Modern fans speculate that he may have been closeted in some way, either about his sexuality, his gender identity, or both. 

Being uniquely bad is also a subversion in its own way; low-quality movies are breaking an established formula, albeit one of quality rather than subject matter. And there is something appealing about that, especially in an age of quality control and cookie cutter summer blockbusters. We relish the terrible because there’s nothing quite like it. Take Troll 2. Released in 1990, there is never any mention of trolls in the entirety of the film. It was initially titled Goblins, but distributors weren’t confident that the film would make any money as a standalone film. They made a last minute edit in order to trick audiences into thinking it was a sequel to the 1986 movie Troll. In the film, goblins feed unsuspecting humans a strange, green play-doh which transforms them into the goblins’ favorite food: a human-plant amalgamation. The goblins are adamant vegetarians (despite the fact that they literally eat people). The story was written by the director’s wife, Rosella Drudi. She based the goblins off of several of her friends who had become vegetarians, which “really pissed her off.” The cast was mostly hired based off of an open call on location, which resulted in one of the lead roles being given to a dentist named George Hardy. It was his first time acting. Several of the actors also had to do their own makeup and make their own costumes. Scenes were improvised on the spot, the actors teetered in that strange space between “over the top” and “wooden” delivery, and the special effects were horrible. The goblins were especially nightmarish, looking more like cheap Halloween costumes rather than primary antagonists in a movie. 

Troll 2 is a perfect example of “so bad, it’s good.” Everything about this movie is terrible, from development right up to editing. The plot is nonsense and everything is so cheesy; just when you think it couldn’t possibly become more surreal, something wild happens, like someone pissing on the dinner table or a scene that’s trying desperately to make a corn cob sexy. You can’t help but laugh at it. The child actor of the film went on to direct the critically-acclaimed documentary Best Worst Movie, which was about the film’s production as well as his own personal experience as a cast member. There isn’t anything on earth quite like Troll 2. And maybe that’s why it still has the power to fill a theater. It isn’t just a film; it’s an experience. 

So why do fans keep these films alive? Why do they continue to fill theaters and watch movies (often very bad ones) until they’ve memorized every line? There is a sense of belonging when you are a part of a cult fandom. When you quote the film to each other or host viewing parties, it’s like you’re a part of a group with its own code and secret knowledge. “These are my people. They get me.” 

Let’s return to The Rocky Horror Picture Show once more. For the LGBTQ+ community of the 70’s and 80’s, this was something they could gather around. This movie planted a flag in the ground and refused to leave our cultural horizon. It was more than a mere midnight movie; it paved the way for queer communities to be more out in the open and made room for films like Hedwig & The Angry Inch and Tangerine. Ultimately, it reshaped the zeitgeist by becoming a sensational underground hit. And that’s the true appeal of the cult classic: by being an outsider, it has the power to subvert, challenge, and even change our expectations. 

E.E.W. Christman is a horror & dark fantasy author. She received her Master’s in Creative Nonfiction from Ohio University before moving to the west coast. She now lives on Lake Sammamish near Seattle, WA where she spends her time stringing nonsense words together. Find her online at her website or on Twitter.

Also by E.E.W. Christman: The Gaslighting of Scream Queens