The History of Horror’s Cult Following

There’s merit in even the worst horror films for cult fans.
By  · Published on October 24th, 2017

There’s merit in even the worst horror films for cult fans.

Cult films are a phenomenon that crosses many genres, but their role in horror is perhaps the most interesting. Within a genre that celebrates the strange and campy, there are films that either overexaggerate the conventions of horror or completely dismantle them. They gain specific followings thanks to what makes them stick out from popular horror films. We’ll look at the history of cult cinema and why it is so popular among horror fans.

Surprisingly, cult cinema began in the same place as its opposite, academic film studies. Mark Jancovich outlines the history of cult movies in his social examination of the genre, “Cult Fictions: Cult Movies, Subcultural Capital, and the Production of Cultural Distinctions.” With the decline in moviegoing as a whole in the 1950s, many theaters began to convert to art cinemas in order to remain open. These theaters were mostly contained in New York City but did appear in other metropolitan areas and college towns. They focused on art films rather than mainstream Hollywood movies and played to a small audience compared to regular, nationwide theaters. Repertory cinemas also began during this time, especially within college film societies. Their point was to show classic films and examine them within a specified repertoire.

Both of these institutions became hotbeds for studying film beyond Hollywood. While academic film studies grew in the direction of avant-garde films and European cinema at that point, a large interest also grew in underground films that weren’t held to as high of a regard as what was considered “academic.” Even films that were failures in their original release were given another chance with repertory cinemas, which kept forgotten films alive with new audiences. The films played at arthouse and repertory cinemas only reached a small demographic, but a dedicated one that helped conceive what we consider a cult following for these underground films.

The introduction of midnight viewings at movie theaters in the 1970s also helped further cult cinema, especially within the horror genre. Popular midnight showings included Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and a number of other horror films. A specific, active community grew from their love for gory art films and the campiness of early horror.

‘Night of the Living Dead’

The appeal to the unpopular films lies in what makes them bad movies in the eyes of Hollywood. Aesthetics of low-budget productions are as celebrated as that of art cinema within fans of cult cinema because they challenge mainstream cinema as well. In many cases, the root of why fans love a cult film is its flaws. Jancovich connects cult fandom to the influence of French structuralism, which sparked the celebration of even the worst films by those at Cahiers du Cinema.

Failure to achieve greatness or even mediocrity in such a catastrophic way makes cult films fascinating. It’s why The Room is so well-known among movie fans. The films that attempt to start out as non-progressive, but present their message horribly are looked at with the same fascination. A great example of this Reefer Madness, a film made by a church in 1936 as an attempt to prevent marijuana use. It’s so ridiculous that it grew to become a comedy within the marijuana community, propelling its cult status.

The distinction from mainstream movies is what draws people to underground film in the first place. Film fans are hardly satisfied with passively watching whatever is most popular; they seek out the unique and underappreciated. Enthusiasts have been appreciating rare films long before cult fandoms, but that inception of a community is what made it important. The sense of community has been made more available thanks to the internet.

Finding people who appreciate a niche within a genre is easier than ever. However, its also muddled the idea of what it means for a film to have a cult following as well. If it is so easy for people to post their love for a film and find other people who feel the same way, then what does it take to create a small, dedicated following like Rocky Horror Picture Show still has to this day?

That could possibly lie in what fans love about the film. Normally what contributes to making a film a cult classic is entirely different from what the film intended to do. Films that were meant to be taken seriously, but are watched like a parody often create that specific and passionate following. There are also passionate fans who are dedicated to preserving cult horror films that define a specific time in horror. Fans of Suspiria are focused on preserving an uncut rare version of the film while screening it across the country to other hardcore fans of their film’s unique use of color. It’s never entirely possible to predict if a film will become a cult classic before it does because of this. I’m sure Jennifer Kent never intended for the character of the Babadook to become an icon for the LGBT community, but it somehow it did.

‘The Babadook’

What makes cult horror films so fascinating is that the genre itself celebrates the qualities of a cult film, the campiness or ridiculousness of a movie. With horror fans, there is always the need for something different, something that will terrify us in a way we aren’t used to with classic horror films. There is still the desire to go beyond the very present horror conventions and cult films enable a somewhat guided introduction to horror’s underbelly. The repertory cinema attitude is present in the horror community as well. We return to our favorites around Halloween, despite their awful acting and laughable practical effects.

Thanks to the low-budget nature of the genre, this allows amateur and indie filmmakers to make unconventional horror films that could gain a following close to that of a studio horror film. Most horror films made throughout the year never make it to theaters, but find a specified audience anyway. Netflix’s significant selection of the Cult Horror and B-Horror subgenres are proof of that. Despite the lack of artistic value attached to the genre as a whole, there are active horror fans everywhere.

This Halloween, consider watching some cult classics like Plan 9 From Outer Space or Alice Sweet Alice if you’re tired of classic or popular horror movies.

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Emily Kubincanek is a Senior Contributor for Film School Rejects and resident classic Hollywood fan. When she's not writing about old films, she works as a librarian and film archivist. You can find her tweeting about Cary Grant and hockey here: @emilykub_