By Will Thompson
After last month’s introductory column, my email inbox was flooded with queries that could be summed up in the following questions: Why engage with cult media? Mainstream media creates high-dollar content, and I don’t have to dig around for someone to curate it for me or curate it for myself.
Here is my answer (in the form of a question and an eventual answer):
Ever sit down to watch the latest house-flipping show? Or maybe the latest sitcom with a dopey dad, a loving-yet-wise mother, some kids and a quirky neighbor or three?
Ever look at someone and wonder, why do you only wear horror movie T-shirts? One could ask the same question about someone who is into tattoos, jam bands or action figure collections. In essence, being into something off the beaten path that others might find odd, or even offensive.
To return to the TV shows, we’ve all seen “that” TV show before — shows that follow a predictable pattern varying just enough to keep us entertained, but not strain our brains. You’ll never sit down to watch the latest episode of the home design show “Love It or List It” to suddenly find they’ve added “Light It on Fire” as an option, sadly.
After several seasons of binging “that” sitcom, though, you’re bored. You’ve seen the formula one too many times. You’re sick of these people and their houses that are way out of your price range or those dumb sitcom characters who couldn’t self-reflect their way out of a cardboard box. It’s too predictable, and real life isn’t as perfect as these shows would have us believe. Perhaps you’d like something that more closely reflects reality.
Back to the person in your life with the weird interest you don’t understand. If art is to express the vast array of human experiences, it makes perfect sense that someone will express something you simply don’t understand, find repulsive, think shouldn’t be shown to the world, etc. People have experiences like that everyday. For every nine people who grow up having formative experiences around the biggest sitcom of the day, there is one who bonds with someone over Norwegian black metal, a gross-out movie, a love of tattoos, a pile of action figures. You get the idea.
This one-in-10 person goes to school. Maybe no one else likes Norwegian black metal. But one day, he or she runs into someone wearing a doom metal band T-shirt. These two form a club, a cult, if you will. In high school, these two meet the punk kids, and they can all agree on Iron Maiden. The cult grows.
It makes perfect sense that those who feel isolated from mainstream society would develop a strong, cult-like devotion to whatever it is that makes them feel less alone in the world. It’s why we have comic book conventions, and even those are pretty mainstream these days. This whole thing is really about seeing yourself represented and connecting with other people who share your experiences.
Which is why the formulaic TV shows (and movies, and, and, and …) all work. They’re all based on the most generic patterns possible, and there’s nothing wrong with that. We all need a “Star Wars” or “Modern Family” to gather around. While we need our little cults, we also need to be part of the collective, the big group. We need to be ourselves and we need to be one with others.
At the end of the day, we all want to come home and spend time with the most comforting, least-offensive media possible. For some, the most offensive thing imaginable is to watch what everyone else finds normal because, to them, normalcy is offensive. Society shoves that which does not conform to the side because nonconformity makes society and survival not so streamlined. However, don’t let that stop you from checking out what that weirdo you know likes. You’re probably missing out on something pretty cool.
This week, I’m introducing an extra credit section, where I’ll recommend something cult-y you can easily engage with.
Extra credit: ’60s psychedelic pioneers the United States of America’s first and only album from 1968 is psych rock with early synthesizer, no guitar and alternating male/female vocalists. It’s available wherever you stream your music.
Thompson enjoys putting somewhat carefully chosen words in relatively meaningful order. He has been to college. He lives in Lewiston and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.