Participatory Culture in Cult Film

By Shelly Place


Introduction: Cult Films, Classics, and Audience Engagement

Some films enter and leave theaters with almost no long lasting impact. Though they can be extremely popular at the box office, after time they lose cultural relevance. In contrast, other films have been “kept alive” by continued audience engagement. However the way in which audiences continue engagement can vary. This is what sets apart a classic film like Gone With The Wind or It’s a Wonderful Life from a “cult classic” such as Troll 2 or Donnie Darko. The definition of what constitutes a cult film has been highly debated throughout the years. A content-centric approach defines cult films as those whose content transgresses from the mainstream. A more sociological definition is any film with a cult following. This argument contends that cult films are not defined by the content of the script itself, but by the way audiences react and interact with it. I take this argument further to say that cult films are defined by subculture.

David Lynch’s Eraserhead has maintained a large cult following since it’s release in 1977

When a film comes to have such importance to certain groups, distinct participation cultures with their own unique codes, hierarchies, rules, and ideologies emerge that separate them from other audiences. Using The Rocky Horror Picture Show as a basis for my analysis, this paper will discuss the key characteristics of film participation cultures and the processes by which they form and create their own specific subcultural identities. From there, I will provide some examples of media representations of audience participation and discuss the roles they play in giving the subculture meaning and establishing power relations between it and the mainstream media as well as within the subculture itself. Finally, I will offer a proposal for an alternative media representation of the audience participation subculture: A mobile app that would serve as a space for members of the subculture to organize, share, and interact with each other in a way that current media does not allow.

Alternative and Oppositional Readings of Media Texts

A subculture can be broadly defined as a group of people who share a common set of codes, rituals, values, and behaviors that are somehow differentiated from those of the dominant culture. Subcultures are often positioned in opposition to the mainstream and challenge societal norms. The media plays an integral role in the formation of subcultures. As people actively interpret media texts, they may take a dominant reading of them accepting the message the way the encoder (producer) intended it to be interpreted. However they may take an oppositional reading of the text and feel marginalized, disempowered, or detached from it. Those who take oppositional readings of the media text may seek other people who share similar interpretations as them and together seek out alternative media that speaks to their beliefs, values, and ideals better.

Fan Culture & Textual Poaching

Fans not only seek out new media texts to suit their needs and desires but may also alter media texts to better suit their ideological needs and desires. Media scholar Henry Jenkins calls this “textual poaching” because fans appropriate or “poach” media texts that they identify with and add new meaning and value to them through various kinds of engagement. Textual poaching blends the roles of consumers of media and producers of media. Its products can take many forms—fan fiction, fan art, role playing, and conventions are some common examples. By sharing their textual products with others, fans build communities where their behavior and value can be validated through social consensus. At the core of these “fandoms” is the “ability to transform personal reaction into social interaction, spectator culture into participatory culture” (Jenkins, 451). Thus, an individual does not gain higher status within their fan communities by simply watching a film over and over again, but by turning it into a social and cultural activity that can be shared with others.

Rocky Horror: The Paradigm of Audience Participation Films

A few films have inspired such deep social engagement by fans that distinct participatory cultures have begun to form around them. The most well-known example of these audience participation films is The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which gained notoriety starting in the late 1970s for its dedicated fan base and their elaborate participation and role-playing rituals. While the film flopped when it was first released in theaters, Twentieth Century Fox rereleased it as a midnight movie at the Waverly Theatre in New York City where a small, but dedicated fan base began repeatedly attending the screenings and eventually, interacting with the film. Through repeated engagement, distinct participation codes and rituals began to form. The audience participation became so elaborate with costumes, props, and even self-appointed “cast members” mirroring what the film actors were doing on screen that the media began to take notice, and theatre owners in other cities began showing the film too. Soon it had become such a cultural phenomenon that the term “Rocky Horror” came to refer to an entire subculture and lifestyle inspired by the film rather than the film itself (Midnight Movies). The Rocky Horror Picture Show earned the title of longest running theatrical release in film history (RHPS Official Fan Site), became huge international success, and inspired dozens of spin offs, tributes, remakes and re- appropriations. Most importantly though, Rocky Horror created an entirely new way of engaging with film that had never been done before in the theatre.

Stealing the Show: The Theatre As a Venue For Protest

The Rocky Horror Picture Show is an important cultural product because it suffices to show the way that audience participation around media texts can form new ideologies that are distinguished from that of the dominant culture. Fans use the content of film as raw material for the ideology of their subculture. As a media text, The Rocky Horror Picture Show has themes of overt sexuality, grostesqueness, camp, and bad taste. In that sense, the film can be viewed as an alternative media text that resists dominant beliefs about gender, sexuality, work, and lifestyle. But not only is the content of the text itself deviant—so is the behavior of the subculture that engages with it. The participation codes of Rocky Horror break the social norms of movie-going and encourages deviant behavior. During screenings, shouting, singing, dancing, heckling performers, throwing objects at the screen, the use of bells, whistles, and other distracting props—sometimes even underage drinking, drug use, and sexual activity—is not only prevalent but accepted and encouraged within the subcultural geography. Through collectively defiant behavior, the Rocky Horror fans reclaimed the theatre as their own, using it as a venue for social interaction and cohesion.

A rowdy RHPS audience

Through their refusal to accept their roles as passive audience members, Rocky Horror fans took the cultural authority away from the production studio and the theaters and “made the film their own”. Though this had not yet been done on such a level in the context of the cinema, the concept of reclaiming performance through unauthorized (or self-authorized) participation was not a new one. As far back as Shakespearean times, the word “groundlings” referred to the members of the audience at the Globe Theatre that were too poor to pay for seats and were forced to stand up at the front of the theatre. They became notorious for their misbehavior and were known to heckle and throw objects at the performers they didn’t like. In the days of vaudeville, this extended into what became known as “the peanut gallery”. The term came to refer to the people in the cheap seats who were usually poorer, younger, and more crass and outspoken than other sections and would throw peanuts and make humorous and insulting comments directed at performers. The groundlings and the peanut gallery provide early examples of marginalized audience groups “taking back” a performance through participation and show the power in performance that is defiant.

Performance, Power, and Subcultural Identity

Online blogs, rulebooks, and participation guides created by members of the subculture frame the subculture as one that is fun and lighthearted yet rebellious, incorrigible, and unrestrained. But while Rocky Horror screenings are acts of resistance meant to oppose the social expectations of the mainstream culture, fans simultaneously create their own cooperative criteria and establish their own social expectations. They emphasize the importance of participation and performance to outsiders and newer members and instruct them on proper “Rocky Horror etiquette” providing tips and commandments such as “Respect the cast and do not try to “steal the show” or out-do them. They have earned their right to be there and will not hesitate to yell at or call you names.” These fan-created rulebooks and participation guides have an agenda; Since the subculture’s survival is dependent on the continued performance of ritualized social interactions, their purpose is to usher in new members in a way that does not harm or interfere with the objectives of the subculture. Thus, the subculture self-sustains and self- regulates through the media its members produce. Erving Goffman gives us insight into the importance of ritualized performance in The Presentation of Self In Everyday Life. In the book, Goffman presents his sociological theory of dramaturgy, which argues that one’s identity is socially constructed through the performative actions that one takes. These actions are given meaning by the “audience”, the other people the individual interacts with in the external environment. “Actors” observe their audiences’ reactions and receive feedback on their social interactions and then incorporate this into their sense of self. Goffman’s theory is useful for understanding the Rocky Horror performance because it suggests that rather than having values, codes, and norms that remain static for the subcultures’ entire existence, the subcultural identity is one that is constantly being rehashed and in constant need of reconfirmation.


The Midnight Movie Phenomenon

Dick Hebdige helps us to understand how this concept of performance applies to subculture in his book Subculture: The Meaning of Style, in which he introduces the concept of subcultural style as a “spectacle”. Subcultural style, which can include clothing, music, dance, or any other form of expression, can be thought of here as a costume for the performance, a symbol of resistance. Subversive style is meant to violate the conventional codes and meanings of the overarching society, however, as Hebdige explains, mainstream media eventually normalizes this subversion by constructing images that become codified and serve to categorize and classify the dissimilarities (Hebdige, 85). The documentary Midnight Movies: From Margin to Mainstream, examines how a handful of transgressive films made in the 70s and 80s helped to create a new way cinematic experience and a new brand of viewership. The midnight movie phenomenon began when a select few cinemas in urban areas begin showing films that were considered too over the top or too outside societal expectations at midnight. The people who showed up to these films felt like they were a part of some special, exclusive, and even somewhat taboo and from there, a countercultural environment began to emerge. The documentary contains interviews with writers, filmmakers, theatre owners, and other first hand witnesses of the development of the midnight movie phenomenon that began in the 1970s such as transgressive filmmaker John Waters, Rocky Horror Show creator Richard O’Brian, and former owner of the historic Elgin Theatre Ben Barenholtz. The speakers do not apply genres to the midnight movies discussed and instead attempt to represent them as works that transgress genre and the codes and classifications of mainstream film. As one speaker puts it, “You can’t make a midnight movie intentionally. It’s the audience that determines whether it’s a midnight movie”. The rhetoric of the documentary suggests that unlike film genres, which contain codes that can be easily recognized and reproduced, midnight movies are a category of films that cannot be defined in terms of common cinematic tropes and symbols. The speakers in the documentary qualify the films as midnight movies by identifying them by the unique audience reactions and cultural impact they warranted. The films are represented as something outside of the common codes of language. Yet by the mere act of classifying these films as “midnight movies”, the documentary applies similarities to them and a label that homogenizes them. This waters down their difference and subversiveness. Thus, the documentary provides an example of how media representations of this breed of film participation culture, both provides the film and its subculture power through recognition while simultaneously neutralizing their power and appropriating them into the dominant culture by applying common terms.

Midnight Movies & The Mainstream: A Paradoxical Relationship

Sociology writer Sarah Thornton helps us to further understand the paradox of the classification of subcultures by the mainstream media. While subcultures position themselves outside of the mainstream media, they also rely on mainstream media to give them meaning and identity. Thornton argues that the media is “instrumental in the congregation and formation of subcultures” (Thornton, 121), and we can see how mainstream media was instrumental in the spread of the Rocky Horror subculture in Midnight Movies. The documentary provides news clips from the early 80’s when the Rocky Horror phenomenon was reaching it’s critical mass and the mainstream media began covering the Rocky Horror happenings that were going on in certain cities. Young people took interest and began proposing screenings in their own home towns. Meanwhile, the mainstream media also helped build an awareness of the subculture and its popularity amongst theatre owners, influencing them and making them more receptive to holding screenings in their own theaters as a business opportunity. This example shows that mainstream culture and subculture have a symbiotic relationship in that each relies on each other’s differences for self-identification. Therefore, all media representations can be thought of as a site of struggle for power and “cultural capital”, the non-financial assets that give someone power within the culture. Media representations serve as bids for power within subcultures and between them. Such struggles are visible throughout representations of the Rocky Horror subculture. The Official Rocky Horror Fan Site, for example, mediated by Twentieth Century Fox attempts to centralize the inherently fragmented of Rocky Horror communities by trying to provide a central place for fans to access participation guides, theatre listings, instructions for the Time Warp dance, and more. The website makes claims to its authenticity by claiming itself the “official” fan network of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. On the other hand, other fan created media express annoyance at these claims arguing that such attempts to set absolute rules destroys the spontaneous, dynamic nature of the Rocky Horror participation culture. Here we see an example of how certain entities attempt to gain authority within a subculture by claiming a hold on media representations and sites of social interaction.

Screen shot of 20th Century Fox's RHPS "Official" Fan Site

Screen shot of 20th Century Fox’s RHPS “Official” Fan Site


20th Century Fox's copyright claims

20th Century Fox’s copyright claims

Maintaining Autonomy & Authenticity Through Alternative Media & Personalization

It is for this reason, that media expert Stephen Duncombe stresses the importance of self-created media to subcultures. In his book Notes From The Underground, Duncombe argues that alternative media is imperative to successful subculture because alternative media allows for members of a subculture to define their identity and reality in their own terms rather than those of the dominant culture. He uses the example of zines and how they helped punks cultivate their identities free from the pressures of mainstream society. Through the act of self-publishing, producers of alternative media gain a stronger sense of self.

Media representations show us how media texts can become the raw material with which new identities, communities, and power structures are formed. Cult films and midnight movies are defined by how emotionally and intellectually invested people are in it. People participate and engage with films that they identify with in order to make the film seem more salient and better suit their ideological needs. However fan subcultures are not only formed through people’s engagement with the film, but how this engagement gets played out socially. Subculture is defined in part by the social construction and consensus of codes, hierarchical structures, rituals, and ideology. Therefore social interaction is necessary in order for the sustained production of subcultural meaning.

Media Artifact Proposal: An App for the Self-Organization of RHPS Fans

Henry Jenkins elaborates on the factors in a community that support and foster participation in Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture. He describes the need for low barriers to entry and open access to communication and tools for sharing. In order to for strong cultures to emerge media must foster a social connections. Jenkins also discusses how the emergence of new media and digital tools help to lower the barriers for participation and collaboration. Therefore, for my media artifact, I propose an app that would allow anyone to create a collaborative listing of cult film screenings and events.

A splash screen mock-up for the proposed RHPSP App

A splash screen mock-up for the proposed RHPSP App

Currently, screening listings for films like The Rocky Horror Picture Show or The Room are dominated by institutions or commercial entities such as production companies or theatre owners. An app that could give the fans the tools and power to self-organize would ensure provide a decentralized community network that is more shielded from external influences and hegemonic forces. Just as Duncombe spoke about zines as a representation of subculture for subculture, the app would provide a space for fans to construct authentic identities devoid of mainstream influences and foster community and collaboration.

Main features of the app would include a messaging and a public forum mechanism so that users are able chat and make public announcements and tools for sharing pictures, videos, and comments. The app could be used by fans to plan for upcoming events as well as share and reflect on past ones. By enabling fans to upload their own media, the app would encourage the archiving of the subculture’s activities. Archiving is extremely important to subcultures for gaining power. Due to its perceived authenticity, archived material can have significant cultural and historical value. Archiving helps preserve the culture of subordinate groups and makes it more resistant to hegemonic forces.

In order to address the hierarchical structures that form within Rocky Horror communities, I propose that the app include a gamification feature that would allow fans to have their status within the real-life community reflected in virtual community. One way to achieve this is to include a Foursquare style “check in” function. Since attendance and participation in Rocky Horror screenings is the most valued and encouraged form of engagement by the community, this gamification aspect would add an element of light competition and fulfill the fans desire to gain recognition for their involvement.

Due to the fact that movie theaters act as the main venue for subcultural activity for many film participation cultures, subcultures such as Rocky Horror are to an extent, somewhat geographic in nature. Therefore, a mobile app is well suited to address the needs of Rocky Horror communities as they vary by region without attempting to lump them all together into one. The end result would be a user-created, community-specific, virtual community that better reflects and serves the needs of subcultures.

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