Part of the problem in understanding differences between “normal” movie fans and “cult” movie fans may be in how the term “fan” has been defined. The traditional definition usually places the word as a shortened form of “fanatic,” as Reysen (2006) defined the term as “a person who is a devoted and ardent admirer” (p. 1; see also Cavicchi, 1998, p. 38; see also Brown, 1997, p. 13). However, while acknowledging the “fanatic,” Cavicchi (1998) also sees the root term emerging from sports journalists in the 1880s and 1890s, deriving the word from “the fancy,” as in “all who ‘fancy’ a certain hobby or pastime” (p. 39). This second definition places the term fan into a whole different context than the latter: fanatic, which is zealous and deviant overtones vs. the fancy, which seems much more genteel and acceptable. It seems much more socially acceptable to “fancy” movies, but less acceptable to be “fanatical” about them.
Jenkins (1992), in his study about television fandom, gave fandom five levels of activity, ranging from how fans become emotionally involved while critically examining texts (p. 277), to forming a functioning alternative community (p. 280), which offers an alternative reality to willing fans. Jenkins’ writing about fandom has evolved over time, as have cultural studies. In an essay for his book Fans, Bloggers, and Gamers: Exploring Participatory Culture (2006), Jenkins said that Textual Poachers was a product of its time. Jenkins calls himself part of a “second generation” (p. 11) of scholars who were negotiating a way to come to grips and include their own fandom into the academic experience, which until that point came from a more “objective” point of view. In Convergence Culture (2006), Jenkins notes that the role of a “fan” in this current age of technological convergence has changed and that they are “encouraged to seek out new information and make connections among dispersed content” (p. 3). This seems to represent a shift – from “poacher” to “producer” – yet the model of fandom he wrote about in 1992 is still valid. In fact, he notes that within many fan and academic communities, Textual Poachers is “one of the things you read when you want to be integrated into the fan community” (p. 14-15).
This fifth level of fandom, the alternative community/reality that Jenkins models in Textual Poachers, could be said to define “cult” fandom. Cult fandom, it seems, emerges as something altogether different from “normal” fandom. Matthew Hills (2000) notes that “cult fandoms… must be carefully distinguished from wider discussions of fandom within contemporary consumer culture” (p. 73). Cult fandom, according to Hills, exists beyond reason and its fans project the self to “create cultural identities out of the significance which certain texts assume for them, rather than out of rationalist or cognitive mechanisms of interpretation” (p. 73, italics in text). In other words, “cult” fans take the extra step of not only emotionally and critically examining texts (Jenkins), but also to place themselves into the text to create a new identity (Hills).
The religious connotation of the term “cult” is not accidental. Cavicchi speaks about fans’ “conversion experiences,” drawing on the work of William James’ outline of Protestant Christian conversion and applying it to Bruce Springsteen fans (p. 43-51). Hills (2002) expands on this lead, but only slightly, when he suggests that cult fandom is a part of “neoreligiosity” (p. 117). This neoreligiosity does not refer to fans replacing “classic” religion for their beloved text. Instead, “fan culture’s neoreligiosity occurs as an effect of fan discourses and practices, rather then relying on a preceding essence/ontology of religion and its supposed functions in society” (Hills, 2002, p. 119). In this case, cult fandom’s “neoreligous” practices form somewhat organically out of the significance of the text, not from a religious structure seemingly in place. This seems to somewhat contradict Jenkins’ notions of fans being brought into a culture with already formed interpretive practices. While it is clear that research seems to separate “cult” fans with “general” fans, two overarching themes seem to rise between both groups: a level of identification and a sense of community.
Fans identify with the objects of their fandom. Hills calls this identification the “projection of the self.” Other studies have looked at how identification plays a role in fandom. Lynn Schofield-Clark (2003) studied teens and their identification with the television show Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Brown and Fraser, in their examination of Elvis impersonators, trace part of their celebrity influence models through identification theories (Fraser and Brown, 2002). This identification comes partly through parasocial interaction, or “the apparent face-to-face encounters with media characters and audience members” (Auter, p. 173). As parasocial interaction (“apparent face-to-face encounters”) increases, so does identification. It would follow then that the more times one sees a movie, this type of interaction would increase as well. Cavicchi (1998) alludes to parasocial interaction and identification when discussing how Springsteen fans relate to the singer. Pattacini (2000) does something similar in his study of Grateful Dead fans. Identification is key to persuasion, particularly for public opinion formation and making predictions in behavior change (Brown and Fraser, 2004, p. 101).
While fans are individuals, the activity of fandom seems to clearly revolve around a community. While traditionally, a community was defined by physical location, the advent of the Internet and the proliferation of high-speed access has changed that definition. Now, communities seemed to be defined more by shared interest, or like-mindedness. This “newer” definition of community particularly takes root online and has seemed to open the way for new areas of study, including fan communities.
Bell, in a study of Harry Potter fandom, uses McMillan & Chavis’ psychological sense of community to help define its parameters (Bell, 2006, p. 5). This sense of community is contained in four elements: membership, influence, integration and fulfillment of needs, and shared emotional connection (Obst, Zinkiewicz, Smith, 2002, p. 87). These four areas were considered for this pilot study.
Brown, in his study of comic book fandom, said that the “well-defined community” (p.13) of comic fans allowed insight into the “complex and structured way in which avid participants of popular culture construct a meaningful sense of self” (p. 13). Shefrin (2004) calls the bridge between fandom and the texts they identify with as “congruencies” (p. 261).
While it seems like cult fandom offers intrinsically different levels of interaction, both for the self (projection) and community (us vs. them), is it really all that different from what one may consider “normal” fandom? That is partially what this pilot study hopes to begin to address. For purposes of this pilot study, “fan” refers to anyone who says they have a liking toward a movie in a general way, while “cult fan” refers to anyone who says they have an affinity toward a specific movie text. While this distinction may seem to be more open-ended and less specific, these general definitions allowed for the people participating in the survey to identify their own level of fandom. Since both types of fandom refer to levels of identification and community, allowing the participant to set specific parameters within the broadened topic gave the participant freedom, which may lead to a greater willingness to share within the survey.