Cult (status)

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The term cult in colloquial language (English formed in parallel) recognizes a quality that cultural phenomena (from television series, rock bands, authors, soloists, performances to branded articles or periods) can gain in a special circle of followers. The term is derived from the religious studies term cult , which is also used metaphorically for secular phenomena around which a cult is practiced.

Concept formation

The word is used in compound words such as cult film , cult band, cult author or cult brand and also in slang independently.

Iconic objects is usually the mass culture attributed that need not claim to be appreciated as an outstanding cultural achievements, but of a fan are worshiped communities and to the wide variety of myths are made. Accordingly, even very remote cultural productions can gain cult status. Among books that already have categories with " bestsellers " and " contemporary classics" that compete with the cult object, a special production of cult books has developed that are highly traded in insider circles for individual decades and here above all convey an idea of ​​deeper knowledge, which the ordinary reader, so the general hope as well as the general reading experience, can hardly get at their reading. The word is often used ironically broken: What is not openly recognized as bearing culture, finds a much more violent, cult- like protection of the fan base, which does not allow its taste for this item to be forbidden. That almost always implies that the fans are drawn considerably from circles who actually consume the high culture - here, however, profess a taste across all classes .

If this cult is about goods and not about people, it can be seen as a strongly developed form of commodity fetishism (so-called by Marxist critics) .


The phenomenon of cult films , cult bands and cult series emerged at the end of the 20th century after a long prehistory that has a line both in cultural criticism and in mass culture , as well as on the part of the audience groups who consume films, music and books.

The 1970s

The review system changed in the 1970s with a first generation of critics who did not distance themselves from the protest culture from which they came. A new phenomenon was added: The mass media spread series and films that were largely uncritical and popular across all, at the moment mostly young, consumer groups: Star Trek  - “Spaceship Enterprise” - was followed enthusiastically on television, regardless of the class. What was new at the end of the 1970s was the commitment of the new audience groups to their own spaces of experience in the popular and the trivial. What one had enjoyed here might be trivial, but it still offered far more food for thought and an incentive for - in an emergency, playful, but highly complex - occupation and identification than the high, demanding culture.

Objects from mass, consumer and subculture now gained cult status: followers who by no means defended this production as a revolutionary culture, as a culture that was just as demanding as the high one. The new phenomenon was shaped more by nostalgia and a private commitment to preferences and one's own past. At the same time, it developed its own subversion as an attack on the cultural differentiations and on the aspirations with which high culture justified itself. The boundaries between high and mass culture were called into question, not by attacking high culture according to its own regulations and establishing a new, again elitist art direction, but by simply not being committed to high culture. It still meant a slight revolt, since the commitment to the trivial at the same time undermines social dividing lines from top to bottom, appreciates material that finds taste in all classes.

Their own rituals of worship developed on the cult cultural assets: The Rocky Horror Picture Show was and is regularly attended by fan communities in special cinema screenings, in which their own ceremonies - such as the spreading of rice - are part of the accompanying program of the cinema audience. “Trekkies” - Star Trek fans - attend “conventions” in selected costumes, Star Wars fans have their own culture of mutual admiration for their object. The Tolkien community developed into a larger Lord-of-the-Rings fan community with the movies and role-playing games that made fantasy literature a new space for experience and communication on the Internet and in private play communities .

What these cult cultural assets have in common is that their own forms of worship develop around them, which facilitate encounters between fan groups from different backgrounds - they speak a common language and behave in fixed forms for the duration of the encounter. This has been successfully played out in the “Star Trek” marketing. In the end, it included the development of the Klingon language : the extraterrestrial species, which had initially been introduced as a dangerous threat, was expanded in the series at the insistence of the fan base in the 1980s and finally given its own language, which is published in book form by everyone can be learned and spoken. In this example, it is a special facet that James Doohan , the cast of the character Scotty , who enjoyed "cult status" himself, made the first contributions to the Klingon language before Marc Okrand developed the language for the film Star Trek III: On the Search for Mr. Spock further elaborated.

The cult is usually cultivated with humor and irony, which stabilizes the existing cultural differentiation: You know that you are worshiping what does not belong to high culture and playing this worship as a rather irrational “cult” - that preserves the boundaries , but also the fact that you transgress it with your own subversive taste decision.

The iconic market

The spectrum of cult phenomena broadened. Many cult films appeal to an “elite” of cineastes . Cult bands can justify themselves by stating that they are only retained in the cultural memory by a small and tenacious following. However, it is far more likely that mass products have gained and are gaining cult status, which were imprinted on the memory as typical of the time and created identity. Thirdly, certain areas of the cheap became cult among a following, which, with their appreciation of the trivial, made the subversion clearer. In the cinema, B-movies became cult, low-budget films ( films produced at low costs) whose plots involuntarily border on the grotesque, splatter movies in which the dismemberment of human bodies becomes a cult-driven obsession. Only with a new, subversive sense of humor can you seriously appreciate the bizarre goods - or with a solid interest in everything that these films involuntarily - because they are hardly reflected by their makers - about the time and the culture from which they come, their fears and betrayed suppressed longings and their never-voiced criticism. “ Trash ” gained cult status - material that, from the perspective of high culture, could be called “waste”. The Simpsons became a cult TV comic series in a satirical take on trash fashion; with their heroes from the lower American middle-class family, which tends towards any tastelessness, surpassed even more by the design itself "trashier" comic series Beavis and Butt-Head .

Skinheads at a concert

Dealing with the culture / cult spectrum in the right-wing scene developed paradoxically. The ideology of the Third Reich was unacknowledged as being petty-bourgeois in its attitude towards culture: the cultural achievements of the “white race” were claimed for themselves and at the same time the intellectual openness to modernity was despised as a betrayal of the great cultural achievements. The answer here was a return to a romantically transfigured folk culture. However, the peasant found only a limited part of the mass-produced cultural production. Kitsch, according to the intellectual classification, legitimized itself in homeland novels, perseverance films, premodern images for the living room - a commodity that was further commercialized in the 1950s and in the end was no longer able to signal a right-wing extremist counterculture. The right-wing scene of the 1980s and 1990s broke away from the petty-bourgeois consumer culture as well as from the high culture that National Socialism of the 1930s purported to defend. The identification with the outsider position of the allegedly underprivileged white race in fashions that had just developed in rejection of high culture became cult here. Punk , heavy metal , skin created designs here that could be expanded into right-wing extremist variants, the cult's own fashions. In the Anglo-Saxon cultural area, “ white trash ” became a border area to be activated by the new fashions, approaches to marginalized, underprivileged layers of the “white race”, who would presumably be better off in another state: a game with cultural material that one learns about from the culture supposedly excluded group now positioned with confidence.

Its own marketing was geared towards the new cultural phenomenon. It had to be possible to shorten the path from mass product to cult object such as trash. Very early - around the 1980s - the textile industry noted options here to shorten the lifespan of its products and increase their demand cycles : If jeans as cult items of clothing were worn to the point of disintegration, it made sense to prefabricate the disintegration and in this way the customer To save time in which his garment did not yet smell the beloved iconic item. In the extreme areas of the right-wing scene, brands were elevated to cult status, which then (repeatedly against the interests of the manufacturing companies) were used as identification signals, for example Lonsdale clothing items, as they visibly positioned the letters NSDA for NSDAP in the logo , or certain types of beer.

In the film and music industry, there was a deeper interest in the objects that had gained cult status. They were characterized by their own qualities - they were not smooth, offered secret space for identification, affected discourses of the trivial, allowed interpretations with their own inner contradictions that they raised in the midst of contemporary culture. Science fiction turned out to be a genre predestined for cult status. The viewer comes from the future. The past that he encounters with the iconic SF film is in part his own: He himself believed this future was possible. What looked breathtakingly modern in these films now seems funny from the temporal distance right through to the technical realization, while on the other hand the time did not develop as dramatically as predicted. In this encounter with the past, your current position in relation to the former dreams of the future gains stability and sovereignty in the end. Depictions of violence have cult potential, not least because they are more difficult to justify than other topics and here they justify a distanced view. An own language and topic of the cult was created with the special potential to market fashions and design . The sunglasses in Matrix (a film from 1999) are part of the iconic inventory of the cult film. Cult films of the last few years had in particular quasi-religious levels that allowed fan circles to link their own worship of the cult product to the cult offered - in the film, the cult was appropriately designed as an insider cult that could be connected in all ideological directions, which made it possible to play the game of the early To continue cult films and cult bands, which found only a few fans, in the simulation, one ultimately stays away from the masses here too.

A second level of direct production of cult products opened up by playing with the trivial. Pulp Fiction falls into this area, as do the film adaptations of the cult comics of the 1950s, which tend to manage the secondary marketing of the cult.

A third level opens up in dealing with the past of the cult goods that have now become established. Looking back to the 1970s or the GDR participated in cult fashion. Football has become a cult for the past thirty years - television made it easy because it didn't require fan group contact at first. The rediscovery of the “ miracle of Bern ” in the cinema falls into the production, which makes profit from the investment flowing into the new cult object.

The trash culture was not excluded from the marketing tendencies. The middle advertising campaign of the cigarette brand West is likely to be striking here , in which there were targeted encounters between representatives from established but inconspicuous customer groups with protagonists of obviously lower social status, who, however, took all freedom of their own taste in idols and fashions. The cigarette, which could be offered as a bridge, connected groups that otherwise remain indirectly connected with each other: the cult, culturally suspicious attracts, it secretly pleases, but those who are established would never even dress like that, let alone want to be like that as the character actors on the posters offered. One can surmise that the target audience of the campaign itself neither comes from the privileged class nor has the courage to be cult of its own, but would like to participate in the rise of the western consumer culture with its trendy products up to the upper class. The 2005 advertising campaign modified the game with protagonists who confess their own values ​​with beloved objects from the past - with an ironic break: They are in their mid-twenties who defend the late 1960s and early 1970s as their past and the cigarette of the year 2005 smoking.

The phenomenon of the cult is today endowed with its own language of characteristics. Products that were struggling with an aging customer base on the market have tried to rejuvenate themselves in recent years by orienting themselves towards cult culture. The Jägermeister advertising campaign caught the eye here with its marketing restructuring. On the one hand, the consumption of the article was redesigned: the bitters , which should allow older customers to consume a small amount of alcohol "for digestive reasons", became a party drink that can be enjoyed with ice and in various drink mixes. The brand design that was introduced, including its most important emblem, the stag's head, was retained as a hunting trophy. The marketing of the cult object, however, brought self-irony into play: The new advertising allowed exactly the laughter that the old one, in the worst case, involuntarily attracted. If the bill worked, customers who thought the product hopelessly outdated would discover it as antiquated and worth saving. Targeted campaigns like this contrast with inflationary marketing of things that are touted as “cult single” or “the new nibble cult”. At the end of postmodernism, a design of its own emerged: that of the retro wave, as it was expressed in car, radio and bicycle construction. In Germany, with the Ostalgie, there was also a self-deprecating appreciation of the lost GDR culture with its consumer goods. The phenomenon of the cult and trashy is today inhomogeneous and open in the definition process, with its original subversive manifestations and the tendencies on the part of providers to initiate and use market mechanisms. What is cult or trash for one, a sign of his unusual taste, evidence of his own cultural imprint, can be a sign of unreflected fashionable bondage for the other, just the opposite of his own taste. The phenomenon allows its very own cultural differentiation and examination.

See also


  • Francesco Farkas: Cult around brands and products. Basics, corporate benefits, examples . VDM Verlag Dr. Müller , Saarbrücken 2006, ISBN 3-86550-395-0 .
  • Klaus Schmeh The cult factor. 42 success stories from Rolex to Jägermeister. Redline Economy, 2004, ISBN 3-636-01082-4 . (describes 42 of the most important cult objects)
  • Rudi Steiner: The Lexicon of Cult Films. Classics, curiosities, disasters. Cinema phenomena with eternal fascination . Lexikon-Imprint-Verlag, Berlin 1999, ISBN 3-89602-216-4 .
  • cult! The magazine of the 60s - 70s - 80s. GoodTimes NikMa Verlag - Published twice a year.
  • Isabel Zydun: What Makes a TV Series a Cult? : Characteristics of cult series using the example of "Monaco Franze - The Eternal Stenz". Thesis, Master's thesis, University of Innsbruck 2016, full text