“They’re not fans, they’re freaks”: CW’s Cult and how its pathologisation of fans can’t have won them favours in fandom

In the pilot episode of Cult, a midseason show on the CW Network in the US that premiered in February 2013 [1], a disembodied voice of a friend tells the lead female character, Skye, over the phone:

“They’re not fans, they’re freaks”

cultSkye Yarrow (Jessica Lucas, Cloverfield) is a production assistant on a TV show called Cult (featuring Alona Tal of Supernatural and Robert Knepper of Stargate Universe as actors in the show within a show) which has attracted a very large and passionate fanbase. Unfortunately, said fanbase may also have developed into a real cult and may be involved with a range of suspicious disappearances and deaths. An experienced production assistant, Skye was suspicious about the (unsanctioned) activities that the fans get up to in unofficial fansites and forums. In the following clip, she voices her concerns to one of the producers of the show, warning him of the “other”, “scary” fans who do not congregate at the official sites nor consume any of the official materials the producers provide for the “normal” fans.

Her concerns brushed off by the producer, Skye later agrees to help journalist, Jeff Sefton (Matt Davis, The Vampire Diaries) investigate the mysterious disappearance of his estranged brother, Nate, who is, incidentally, a fan of Cult, and have previously communicated to Jeff that fans of the show are “weird” and “dangerous” prior to his disappearance. As the duo delve further into the investigation, they are increasingly drawn into ‘mysterious’ world of Cult’s fandom, whose fans physically gather at an Internet cafe called Fandomain.

I followed the development of Cult ever since it was announced, somewhat mortified but curious by the show’s description and the way that the CW network, home to other popular shows such as Arrow, Supernatural and The Vampire Diaries, chose to promote it. I find it hard to reconcile the idea that a show which boasts lead casts from cult-favourite shows such as The Vampire Diaries and Supernatural would alienate the very demographics that they are presumably trying to court. Many TV critics who covered the initial promotion of the show posed the same question to Rockne S. O’Bannon, the show’s creator but O’Bannon continually profess that the producers are in the unique position of putting a “magnifying glass on the idea itself”, on questioning fandom and fans’ passionate attachment to a TV show at a time when the relationship between fans and producers are shifting, no doubt influenced by the proliferation of social media networks like Twitter and the supposed heightened interaction between fans and media industry professionals as a result of it. Indeed, Henry Jenkins (2006) has indicated that media companies “are giving out profoundly mixed signals because they really can’t decide what kind of relationships they want to have with [audiences]. They want us to look at but not touch, buy but not use, media content” (p. 138).  A correlation can be made here between Jenkins’ point about media companies and Cult’s producers, who want to draw audiences – particularly those who will become loyal fans and viewers – into the programme because it is tailor-made to fans’ genre interests, but at the same time, the producers seemingly only want certain types of fan engagement within a managed space like an official site or forum.

Distinctions are constantly being made by the main characters in the show on what they seem to define as ‘acceptable’ and ‘unacceptable’ forms of fandom. When Nate voices his fears about fans of the show, Jeff reminds him of his history of obsessive and addictive behavioural issues, and admonishes him for his “obsessions”, saying he is old enough to know better. Skye tells everyone who would listen to her about the dangers of unofficial fansites, and the unsanctioned activities (and thereby, un-managed discussions about the show?) that fans participate in, even going as far as to refer to fans having a “sick connection” with the mysterious goings-on in the 2nd episode. The fan practice of role-play is repeatedly referred to as “extreme” and “underground”, and when Skye and Jeff happened onto a venue for one of the games, they witnessed the suicide of one the players, right after she apologised for having participated in the event.  And as if these suppositions aren’t extreme enough, a subplot also shows fans killing off network executives who tries to intervene in the show’s production.

This brings to mind early works on fandom, where Joli Jensen observes “‘good’ audiences are passive and quiet and respectful (not active, vocal or critical);…while ‘bad’ affinities (fandom) are expressed in dramatic and disruptive ways” (1992, p. 20-21). With Cult, for me, this will forever resonate with the role-playing fan apologising for having participated in activities that Skye has repeatedly stressed as unofficial and unsanctioned before blowing her head off, effectively mirroring a scene from the show-within-the-show where a cult member kills himself after apologising to the two detectives investigating the case, one of whom happens to be a former cult member.

In interviews, O’Bannon, who previously created and produced Farscape, a science fiction TV show that ran from 1999 to 2003 on SyFy, insists that no single fan interaction has led him to the creation of Cult:

“The origin of the show actually did come out of my ‘Farscape’ experience where I witnessed the kind of incredible fan passion for a show and the ability of fans to kind of find each other through social media and connect up…[In] the instance of, ‘Farscape’ — which is a very kind of benign science-fiction adventure show, but it started me thinking what if the show were something with a little bit darker edge and what kind of fans would that then draw?”

O’Bannon’s justification here is interesting. Just how does O’Bannon and the producers think they can show fandom’s supposed darker edge (especially if said show is about a murderous cult?) without offending its core audiences? For it seems as if that Cult wants – and needs – to attract a passionate and vocal fan base equal to other genre shows it has been paired with at the network; but at the same time, the producers want to determine what kinds of fans they want to attract, i.e. praising those who remain at the official sites as “cool” and “amazing” but shaming those who become too emotionally-involved as “freaks” and “dangerous”.

Of course, Cult isn’t the first show to portray fandom unfavourably; nor will it be the last. Supernatural has at least 5 episodes across its 8 seasons that continually breaks the fourth wall, poking fun at the show’s fans and acknowledging a popular genre of slash fan fiction within the fandom commonly referred to as Wincest. Fan reaction to these episodes are often mixed, with some embracing the producers’ nods to fandom while others, as Laura Felschow (2010) argues, view it as “a betrayal, in that their privileged relationship and special interests have been exposed for ridicule or critique by any passive channel surfer who might happen to be watching”. But there is an important distinction that needs to be highlighted here: Supernatural’s producers (along with the cast and crew) have an established relationship with the fandom, of which the meta episodes are the results of this interaction. Cast and crew presence at fan “conventions are [also] useful illustrations of the kind of fan loyalty and high level of interaction that Supernatural has created” (Felschow, 2010). To date, and as far as I know, no other show that is currently in production has that many conventions that are often packed with both the cast and fan attendance as Supernatural.

On the other hand, Cult has none of the established relationship that Supernatural has built with its fans for the last 8 years. While it may be unfair to compare a long-running show like Supernatural to a newcomer like Cult, one only needs to look at the way the producers and cast of Arrow (which debut on CW in October 2012), and their interaction with the show’s fans to make another comparison. From the start, Cult tries to frame itself as a ‘cult show’, as if that in itself guarantees immediate fandom. “In [Catherine] Johnson’s estimation,” Felschow (2010) further argues, “programmes that utilises elements of…three genres [i.e. horror, science fiction, fantasy] are by their nature candidates for developing loyal and dedicated followings”. But this is by no means a guarantee of fan loyalty, particularly when the very fan who has the potential to become passionately engaged with the show is already pathologised and shamed from the very first episode!

It is easy to forget, with recent celebratory accounts of how fan-producer relationships are shifting as the media industry openly courts fans or seemingly grows more tolerant of fan presence, particularly in viral marketing campaigns (which isn’t surprising, since fans are providing free labour here), that there is still a stigma attached to being a fan, for being passionately or emotionally engaged with a fictional text or character. Matt Hills (2005) warns of the danger of viewing fandom as normative, urging scholars not to assume that negative stereotypes are no longer present. The fact that Cult was commissioned and made reminds us that media producers will continue to find ways to manage and contain fandom. However, the fact that the show was cancelled after 2 episodes had only aired should tell media producers that as much as they can tailor-made a genre show, call it a ‘cult show’ before it even premieres does not guarantee success. Especially when you’re pathologising an audience that you’re effectively trying to court!

[1] The show has since been cancelled due to dismal ratings.

Academic references:

Felschow, Laura. 2010. “Hey, check it out, there’s actually fans”: (Dis)empowerment and (mis)representation of cult fandom in Supernatural. Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 4. http://dx.doi.org/10.3983/twc.2010.0134.

Hills, Matt. 2005. Negative Fan Stereotypes (“Get A Life!”) and Positive Fan Injunctions    (“Everyone’s Got to be a Fan of Something!”): Returning to Hegemony Theory in Fan Studies. Spectator 25:1, pgs 35-47.

Jenkins, Henry., 2006. Convergence culture : where old and new media collide, New York: New York University Press.

Jenson, Joli., 1992. Fandom as Pathology: The Consequences of Characterisation. In L. A. Lewis, ed. The Adoring Audience: Fan Culture and Popular Media. London: Routledge.

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3 thoughts on ““They’re not fans, they’re freaks”: CW’s Cult and how its pathologisation of fans can’t have won them favours in fandom

  1. I watched Cult for the same reason, and with the same questions in mind – and came away with some of the same concerns. We explored the relationship between Supernatural fans and cast/crew/producers at length in our book “Fandom At The Crossroads: Celebration, Shame and Fan/Producer Relationships” and were struck by the persistence of shame in the so-called ‘dark corners of fandom’. Some of that shaming comes through on Cult in a way that it didn’t on Supernatural, because the SPN meta episodes that called out fandom also made fun of the cast, crew and show itself. It felt (to me at least) like affectionate poking fun, not shaming – at least through Kripke’s tenure as showrunner. Cult, as you point out, had no established relationship to draw from, so affectionate poking fun wasn’t really an option.

    This is also interesting to revisit now in the context of Amazon’s fanfiction commodification, which seems like a real-life attempt to encourage fans to write what The Powers That Be want them to write, instead of all that ‘scary’ stuff and free creative expression that flourishes on the internet’s oh-so-unofficial sites. At least if you want it published by them. It also reminds me of the careful policing and approval process for fan questions at conventions. I think that’s why Cult was fascinating as well as disturbing – it reflected some real life paranoia about fandom that still (unfortunately) seems alive and well.

    • Thanks for your comments. Cult was a great example of how a text can be used to shame fandom (or set back fan studies 20 years) – I used it as an example for a conference presentation earlier this year on the topic of shame and squee. Of which your book was a great source of reference, by the way! I debated including Amazon Worlds into the post, but I think that probably deserves a post of its own, especially when considered in terms of how Alloy Entertainment propose to ‘guide’ fans through the worlds they’ve optioned to Amazon.

      I always thought the SPN meta episodes offer hilarious views of fandom, and you’re right, they do poke fun at themselves as well. It’s almost felt less like shaming on their part, and more about laughing with fans about everyone involved. But I absolutely believe that an established relationship with the fandom is vital in this case. At least it doesn’t feel like we’re going into a show already surrounded by producers who are resistant towards fandom.

  2. Pingback: Show Notes: Fansplaining Episode 10: Fangirling Through Time – Tank Lady

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