Notes Toward a Masochizing of Cult Cinema

The Painful Pleasures of the Cult Film Fan

by David Church Volume 11, Issue 4 / April 2007 31 minutes (7581 words)

The phenomenon of cult cinema is most often generated by the dual combination of a) textual peculiarities and b) specific audience reading/consumption strategies. While certain films (e.g., Repo Man, Alex Cox, 1984) may be seemingly tailor-made at a textual level to foster instant cult consumption (with varying degrees of success), a film’s true cult success typically depends upon the reputation and devotional activity (e.g., repeated screenings, spectator rituals, obsessive trivia accumulation, etc.) that it garners amongst select audiences over time. Violence and sexuality of a deviant or perverse variety are generally the key motifs in most cult films, as are other forms of taboo breaking and transgression that somehow set these films apart as “less accessible” to all tastes (typically through opposition to bourgeois social norms). Often situated both within and against low/mainstream/mass and high/elite/art tastes, cult films are also marked by “formal bizarreness and stylistic eccentricity” denoting a predilection for considerable excess (Sconce 1995, p. 386). [1] Excessiveness and eccentricity are also traits commonly attributed to cult movie buffs, and it is the particular devotion of the cultist that will be my primary focus in this essay.

My starting point will be an understanding of all film spectatorship as masochistic, a theory most usefully advanced by Gaylyn Studlar and Steven Shaviro. Following Deleuze’s early work, Studlar (1988) posits that the cinematic apparatus serves as a “dream screen” that causes regressive spectatorial pleasures hearkening back to the infant’s experience of perceived union with the pre-oedipal (or oral) mother representing plenitude. Existing prior to conceptualizations of castration, lack, and language, the pre-oedipal mother serves as a powerful figure capable of controlling the infant’s survival via control of access to the breast (or other forms of nourishment). The child’s position of submission and powerlessness evokes a masochistic unpleasure linked to fantasies of repetition and fetishism (from the constant fort/da action of the breast), continually delayed (orgasmic) gratification (through suspense), painful humiliation of superego constraints (to symbolically expel the patriarchal father whose genitality comes between mother and child), and a bisexual identification with the mother’s body. As a form of (un)pleasure open to male and female spectators alike, cinema unleashes these repressed desires for symbiotic re-union with the mother’s body as the spectator’s ego boundaries are temporarily dissolved and he/she is fixed in a submissive position of inability to control the dreamlike images being projected, while identification with onscreen characters remains bisexually fluid and constantly shifting.

Shaviro (1993) draws upon Studlar to argue against a psychoanalytic reading of spectatorship, contending that the simulacral nature of cinema involves a simultaneous absence (as mere light beams that deny the hyperreal image’s supposed relation to objective referents) and a more-than-presence (as images that affect us viscerally, shocking our senses). This paradoxical quality means that the spectator is continually bombarded by images without time enough to objectively interpret them as symbols. As Shaviro says, “The immediacy of the image short-circuits the processes of signification, while its simulacral incorporeality precludes any objective reference” (p. 28). By experiencing film sensorially, directly through the body, the spectator is put in a pleasurable position of forced submission to images and sensations that cannot be actively analyzed away, thus removing the viewer’s critical/analytical distance from the film. The image itself creates visual fascination, indifferently inviting the spectator’s gaze, but without the viewer mastering or controlling the flow of sensory information. By locating cinematic (un)pleasure within the body itself, there exists no aesthetic distance by which the spectator can truly identify with a character or become sutured into the narrative. This allows for a masochistic pleasure in dissolution of ego boundaries and a positive experience of abjection in the visceral affect of film upon the fragile human body. More recently, Patricia MacCormack (2004) has argued along similar lines in various essays about “cinesexuality” in cult films (especially Italian exploitation horror), using Lyotardian masochism to explore the pure visceral affect (and resulting lack of aesthetic distance between viewer and viewed) created by sexual and/or violent images that perversely exceed traditional binary oppositions, comprehensible narrative demands, and any potential appeals to mimetic realism—thus creating the spectator’s (un)pleasurable submission to images of on-screen surrogates being brutalized beyond belief (p. 110-11, 113).

In light of these theories on cinematic spectatorship in general, what speculations can be offered about the specific spectatorial phenomenon of cult films? The sort of prerequisite reverence and devotion given to cult films perhaps suggests a more masochistic example of spectatorship than that attending your everyday Hollywood movie (or whichever type of film to which cult texts are situated in opposition). By overvaluing the mother’s body (i.e., the breast) and turning it into a source of pleasure, fetishism serves as the primary force behind masochism. It is not difficult to see the obsessiveness of cult activity as a sort of fetishism [2], especially because fetishes serve as symbolic substitutes for the absent mother figure, and according to Studlar (1988), all film spectatorship is one such symbolic substitution in the form of scopophilia. Shaviro (1993) also notes that “Scopophilia is then the opposite of mastery: it is rather a forced, ecstatic abjection before the image” (p. 49), and this can be strongly seen in the cult viewing experience. Cult films are overvalued texts, viewed repeatedly and often ritualistically, and this special sort of spectatorship implies the repetition and forms of play in the masochistic fantasies described by Studlar. Given that film spectatorship entails a masochistic desire for symbiotic re-union with the powerful pre-oedipal mother, the cult viewing experience maximizes the effect of a powerful submission to the same text, not just once but numerous times—symbolically reenacting the repetitive fort/da union of the child and the breast. This desired re-union is especially indicative of cult films that somehow encourage spectators to lose their individual identities and merge with the film during the viewing experience, such as through mimicry, rituals, or spoken repetition of lines in time with the onscreen characters. [3] Although it requires a certain amount of active participation, such activity is all part of an overarching process of subservience to the text, for the cultist’s loyalty to a given film is proven by his/her obedience to prompts originating from within the diegetic world itself.

Umberto Eco (1986) observes that cult films have to “provide a completely furnished world so that its fans can quote characters and episodes” (p. 198). This bears a resemblance to Studlar’s (1988) discussion of films that create a masochistic heterocosm: a unique and “imaginary time and space to contain the violence and sexuality of masochism,” marked by an art or artifice that disavows verisimilitude in the context of play (p. 91). Whether in the cult conflations of high and low taste analyzed by Joan Hawkins (2000) or in the paracinematic excesses of the “badfilm” described by Jeffrey Sconce (1995), the distinctive, “completely furnished” worlds found in cult films are often filled with strange kinds of art and/or artifice, and marked by a similarly playful subversion of verisimilitude. Very few (if any) true cult films take place in a wholly realistic world, either through appeals to the fantastic, the grotesque, the surreal, or the ironies of camp, style, and excess. The fetishism surrounding cult films means that the entire diegetic world becomes imbued with a certain reassuring quality, with pleasure springing perversely from a multitude of things that might not otherwise provoke pleasure in a non-cult film.

Given the “excessive, dangerous, and even distasteful” content of cult films, Xavier Mendik and Graeme Harper (2000a) compare the cult viewing experience to an “ultimate” (male) orgasm brought about by “a combination of intense physical and emotional involvement,” representing “an unforgettable experience that remains imprinted on the cinematic thrillseeker’s imagination many years after the encounter” (p. 7, 11). However, this metaphor of cult as (male) orgasm rings somewhat false because orgasm implies a certain climax, completion, and even mastery—especially if it is, as they attest, the “ultimate” orgasm. On the contrary, the perverse thrill of cult viewing seems much closer to masochism’s fantasies of repetition, delayed gratification, and polymorphous non-genital sexuality. The pleasure derived from the cult text is extended indefinitely over repeated viewings at a relatively stable level (at least after the first few viewings), and although the “suspense” of the masochistic scenario is somewhat diminished in a film seen multiple times, the objective of that suspense—delayed gratification (i.e., delayed orgasm)—remains constant. The metaphor of orgasm might better fit those “normal” viewers who, unlike cultists, generally see a film only once (or even several times) before moving on to another, as if having exhausted and mastered the text by experiencing everything that it has to offer. Cultists, on the other hand, continually return to the same film because it offers particular pleasures unavailable elsewhere, and therefore they become almost slavishly devoted to the text in order to get that perverse “fix” that can never fully satisfy.

Barry Keith Grant (2000) argues that cult films “share an ability to be at once transgressive and recuperative” (p. 19) because the excessive and taboo-breaking qualities of the text are merely temporary, for social order is eventually restored at narrative’s end. As an example, he notes that ??Rocky Horror??’s campy, bisexual excesses are finally ended once Dr. Frank-N-Furter is destroyed at the conclusion, leaving the heterosexual couple Brad and Janet reunited. Grant explains that cult films also encourage viewers to “laugh at the normal, tame the Other, but nowhere see themselves” (p. 27), because typically caricatured representations of the Other serve to cast all characters along solid binary oppositions (e.g., normal/abnormal, establishment/anti-establishment, straight/gay, male/female, etc.), allowing viewers no solid points of identification in between. However, I would argue that the cult film’s taming of the threat of the Other makes sense because, compared to “normal” films, it makes the (m)Other seem so much more pleasurable and comforting. This is because the pre-oedipal mother is the child’s primary source of identification in the masochistic scenario, representing a developmental period before sexual difference is perceived and patriarchal law establishes her as Other. Because the cult text is already perceived as the Other of “normal” (i.e., patriarchal) cinema, the cultist’s devotion to that Otherly text rejects patriarchal law by turning the cult film’s supposed threat (of difference) into a source of (un)pleasure (representing a desired re-union with the powerful but nurturing pre-oedipal mother), without diminishing any of the text’s affective force. This seems especially true because concepts of the Other are constructed through the projection of fears surrounding the self’s loss of control.

While I think that identification with Otherly characters (e.g., ??Rocky Horror??’s Dr. Frank-N-Furter) can be, in fact, a seductive option for viewers (as evidenced by audience mimicry of those characters), the supposed difficulty in establishing a solid point of identification (between opposing binary poles) within the cult text merely serves to encourage a masochistic dissolution of the self (ego). With only the powerful film itself as a source of primary identification, the cultist is left at the mercy of the text, without the ability to control (via an onscreen surrogate) or make demands upon the images. As identification becomes more fluid and dependent upon the collective excesses of the text, sexual difference gives way to a sort of ambivalence akin to the child’s bisexual identification with the pre-oedipal mother. Because cult films typically privilege stylish spectacle, visceral excess, and shock value, they seem especially powerful deliverers of the sensorial viewing experience described by Shaviro (1993) as locating the unpleasures of spectatorship within the body itself, rendering spectators immobile and submissive to cinema’s bewildering flow of information. Even in films that foster ironic viewing strategies (e.g., the hilariously bad works of Ed Wood) [4], the resulting lack of aesthetic distance makes identification and suturing practically impossible, thus helping dissolve ego boundaries and establish a masochistic viewing position.

Though I will discuss bisexuality in more detail later, I should mention that in the masochistic scenario it is linked to a rejection of patriarchal law’s mandate of (phallic) genital sexuality, therefore symbolically dispelling the superego’s representation of the father who comes between infant and mother. Sconce (1995) describes how “paracinema” (exploitation film) cultists define their tastes as a sort of “counter-cinema” (e.g., through violations of continuity editing, suturing, etc.) opposed to both mainstream Hollywood cinema and elite art cinema—so perhaps we can see the ironic excesses of cult films as a repudiation of normative cinema’s patriarchal imperative toward Oedipal resolution in heterosexual family formation. In place of normative cinema’s identification with a male heterosexual protagonist in an Oedipally-based narrative arc, cult cinema is more prone to ironic (and/or camp) readings of such narratives, instead focusing on spectacle and excess—particularly when marked by alternative sexualities. Cultists typically refuse patriarchal imperatives, engaging in a (bisexual) polymorphous perversity by finding a plethora of unconventional and downright bizarre sources of fetishistic pleasure within the text—pleasures which can masochistically shatter a viewer’s preexisting schema for interpreting films. This is not to say that all cult films are politically progressive (nor do they all feature counter-cinematic elements), especially because, as Grant (2000) says, many end with a recuperation of the [superego] norms that have been previously transgressed. However, the fetishistic repetition of cult viewing makes it quite obvious that the transgression offered throughout these films is far more attractive than any recuperation at the end of a given narrative; it is not narrative closure that cultists are after, but the radical indiscretions leading up to that point. The myriad perverse pleasures of the text seem to exceed the ability of the narrative to contain them, ultimately leaving binary oppositions and generic tensions unresolved, thus encouraging repeat viewings ad infinitum.

Nathan Hunt (2003) observes that trivia allows cultists to “lay claim to having special access to, and hence dominion over, specific texts owing to their supposedly superior knowledge of them” (p. 186). Trivia indeed allows cultists to police the subcultural boundaries around their chosen text, but I would argue that this is less a process of establishing “dominion” over a text than a means of (sexual or sibling?) rivalry over who is the text’s more loyal servant. Focusing on Internet fan discussions of The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973), Julian Hoxter (2000) explains that “possession and control of knowledge about the cult object…speaks to a sense of insecurity and anxiety regarding the status of the fan before his [or her] object. In normal circumstances, the fan can only ever aspire to becoming, at most, a post facto addition to the cultural meaning of the film” (p. 178). As much as knowledge is used to possess the text, it also serves to possess the cultist him/herself, serving a role of “intellectual consumption as defense” (p. 179) against fears and feelings of inferiority created by the text. Using post-Kleinian psychoanalytic concepts of containment, Hoxter compares cultists to pre-verbal infants who must attempt to project their fears, anxieties, and unpleasure toward a good mother figure who serves to contain those feelings so that the child can learn to understand and control them, thus building up his/her ego. Serving this role is the film itself, a contained (and supposedly containing) experience onto which the cultist projects his/her anxieties “with the expectation of a moderated return” (p. 181). But when the film does not reciprocate, cultists turn to one another for “a sort of group containment in which the fans propagate their own security” through communally shared trivia and shared experiences (p. 180). However, Hoxter concludes that these fan networks are unable to be truly receptive containers because trivia is generally a superficial concern, not being used toward a greater or deeper understanding of a text.

Hoxter’s hypothesis suggests that the power of the cult object, like the powerful but good (i.e., nourishing) pre-oedipal mother, inspires in the cultist an unpleasurable sense of inferiority and powerlessness (as in the masochistic scenario), but the cultist’s repeated attempts to project his/her anxieties back onto the film come to naught because the text constantly (and unpleasurably) delays complete gratification and mastery. Even with the proliferation of knowledge gained by repeated viewings and the acquisition of trivia, there is something about the cult text that continues to provoke anxiety—though this is little wonder, given the primarily transgressive form and content of such films—and so the cultist turns to his/her fellow travelers, only to find that others are similarly unable to control and understand these shared anxieties. As a result, ego formation (or re-formation) does not fully occur after the film ends—and this radical challenging of ego boundaries, as in the masochistic scenarios described by Studlar (1988), perpetuates the anxieties indefinitely, stimulating more repeat viewings within the subculture [5]. Trivia therefore serves to bring viewers into closer proximity to the text, but without establishing dominion over it. As sociologists Patrick T. Kinkade and Michael A. Katovich (1992) note, “cult films allow deviation and yet engender conformity. Viewers experience alienation as a source of feelings of belonging, and find resolve in a lack of resolution” (p. 202). Trivia helps form a community of likeminded cultists as individualistic tastes (masochistically?) dissolve into a desire for collective oneness, but it is a community united in its various perverse submissions to a given text, using superficial knowledge to compete like jealous siblings for the attention (but not domination) of a cold and powerful mother figure in whose presence they can only pale in comparison.

On a textual level, many cult films often appear excessively sadistic, sexual, and exploitative (especially towards women)—notably in films that fall under horror, sexploitation, action, and other male-oriented genres. Mendik and Harper (2000b) argue that the cult audience for a horror film like From Dusk ‘Til Dawn (Robert Rodriguez, 1996) operates much like the diegetic audience within the works of the Marquis de Sade (specifically The 120 Days of Sodom), being “both enticed into its celebrations of evil and perversity before being shocked, misled, or violently forced to reflect on their gratifications from the narrative proceedings” (p. 238). This takes place through a process that positions the film-savvy target audience as “captive” spectators to a text which is overloaded with difficult and non-traditional information (in this case, originating from screenwriter Quentin Tarantino’s penchant for self-referential postmodern pastiche), moral ambiguity, and “sadistic” excess (simultaneously referencing creation and destruction). The viewer is free to seek pleasure from multiple sources (not just one aspect of the text) by drawing upon a compendium of filmic and extra-filmic (or more appropriately, intertextual) knowledge (i.e., trivia) with which to retrospectively interpret the narrative’s unexpected generic shifts and transgressive hedonism. Mendik and Harper conclude that when these sorts of individualistic reading pleasures coalesce at a communal level, a “cultifying” of the film occurs, and thus a new film cult is born from pleasures at a textual level.

While certainly not all cult films contain the degree of intertextual information and trivia as From Dusk ‘Til Dawn and other Tarantino-spawned cult items, the basic concept of “cultification” and its link to individuals’ varied pleasures in a cult text deserves more discussion. As noted earlier, knowledge is not used to establish ownership (as in Sade’s works) over the cult film, but rather to establish loyalty and achieve a closeness to the powerful text. As Kinkade and Katovich (1992) observe, “Cult members all revere one central focus, but develop several alternative interpretations as grounds for their reverence” (p. 198). Viewers are indeed “captive” before the spectacle, but the pleasure sought from multiple sources within (and beyond) the text is closer to masochistic fantasies of repetition and play than to sadistic mastery over the text. The cult film’s excessive and morally ambiguous enticements into “evil and perversity” invariably lead back to a masochistic impulse toward the powerful pre-oedipal mother who, by holding the child’s survival in her hands, represents the source of both creation and destruction (for the fantasy solution to masochistic desire is death). Being “shocked, misled, or violently forced to reflect on their gratifications” plays directly into viewers’ enforced submission to the machinations of an emotionally and viscerally manipulative text; even the disreputable nature of the cult text’s “gratifying” transgressions feeds back into masochistic fantasies of guilt and disavowal over having witnessed such socially verboten images. Cultists’ polymorphously perverse desires derive pleasure from intertextuality, generic shifts, and transgressive hedonism because the playfully “cultified” text contains numerous references to other instances of (cult) spectatorship. In this way, intertextuality (which overlaps with trivia) in the postmodern cult film merely amplifies the masochistic viewing experience by providing multiple strands of experiential (remembered) information connecting to a larger web of masochistically experienced cult films.

As Studlar (1988) points out, masochism is an entirely different perversion than sadism, not the opposite end of a spectrum (p. 13-14). The ostensibly sadistic fantasies found in many cult films can actually be read as projections of masochistic fantasies about destruction, abandonment, and even Oedipal rivalry, for fantasies from other developmental stages can co-exist with pre-oedipal ones, but are constantly undergirded by masochistic desires (p. 57). Shaviro’s (1993) analysis seems closer to the mark when he explains that,

The aggressive act of filming is only a detour en route to the passivity and self-abandonment of spectatorship. And violence against the Other is finally just an inadequate substitute for the dispossession of oneself. The reflections of masochistic spectacle create a space of superfluity, of violently heightened ambivalence, in which every exercise of power gets lost. (p. 62)

He uses cult horror films like Peeping Tom (Michael Powell, 1960), Opera (Dario Argento, 1987), and George Romero’s zombie series to conclude that viewers empathize with both the victim’s subjection and with the monster/antagonist’s passive compulsion toward violence (p. 61). Viewers may be “overtly appalled by the violence they are compelled to see, yet there’s a latent—secretly desirable—erotic thrill in the way these gory spectacles are being produced for them” (p. 50), held captive by the flow of images because “Violent and pornographic films literally anchor desire and perception in the agitated and fragmented body” (p. 55). Of course, Shaviro does not just apply this argument to horror films, but rather uses horror as a particularly explicit example of how spectatorship in general is masochistic.

Just as (cult/)horror viewers thrill to the sight of bodies such as their own being graphically abjected and torn apart (regardless of gender), I would argue that cultists are transfixed by the cult film’s spectacle of so much excess (whether violent, sexual, or otherwise)—as Grant (2000) states, a spectacle with already such an ambivalent relationship to the Other—and thrilled by the pleasure that such spectacle is just for them: a select cult audience who really “gets it,” not a wider, more mainstream audience. This is especially true of cult films that lean toward the paracinematic (or exploitative), for Paul Watson (1997) and Eric Schaefer (1999) each observe how all cinema is historically predicated upon an aesthetic of exploitation, both using Tom Gunning’s formulation of the early “cinema of attractions” as kindred to the exploitation film’s more direct address to the spectator (who is fully aware that the spectacle is being made for him/her) and its emphasis on spectacle over narrative and character identification. The concept of photogénie (an automatism, intentional or not, whereby the camera turns otherwise ordinary things into captivating spectacles) can potentially be applied to the extreme fetishism inherent in the spectacular excesses of cult films, especially due to the Surrealists’ interest in the photogénie of “bad” movies and the experience of photogénie as “intermittent intensities…that break free from the sometimes indifferent narratives that contain them” (Ray, 1998, p. 69). This is linked to the notion that photogénie, like masochism, is a fetish for the pre-oedipal mother, given that photogénie entails a pleasurably automatic submission to (and fantasy of fusion with) powerful images in the absence of words or language (Willemen, qtd. in Gorfinkel, 2000, p. 163). Because “every exercise of power gets lost” during the masochistic viewing experience, such a position exists above the logic of political correctness that so many cult films deliberately violate. [6] This begs the question of whether films that knowingly defy social norms can really be appreciated apolitically since they seem to be premised upon transgression. However, just as cult films do not appeal to all audiences and do indeed contain multiple textual sources of pleasure, there exist many ways to interpret these films by sidestepping issues of political correctness and instead focusing on the visceral affects of images upon bodies divorced from political considerations. For example, Tanya Krzywinska (2000) observes how disgust (a common response to various violent and sexual elements of cult films) blurs “the distinction between authenticity and artifice,” transcending traditional forms of representation because disgusting images evoke the same visceral response when viewed onscreen as when viewed in real life (p. 33, 38)—and therefore it seems obvious to me that willfully and (un)pleasurably submitting oneself to the often disgusting and otherwise transgressive content of cult films is a profoundly masochistic act.

As Carol J. Clover (1992) and others have argued, spectatorial identification often entails a bisexual, transgender fluidity, masochistically shifting from one character to another with little regard to biological sex—even in the most ostensibly gender-biased films, such as horror and rape-revenge pictures (many of which are also cult objects). Our empathies flow from one character to another, perhaps even more fluidly and liberatingly than Clover and many other theorists are willing to admit (due to the particular political concerns underlying their respective analyses). This masochistic bisexual impulse is not just restricted to character identification, however. Hawkins (2000) observes that cult films are generally dominated by the visceral affect associated with “body genres” (horror, pornography, and melodrama) (p. 4). Linda Williams (1999) explains how the spectacle of body genres manipulates the viewer into involuntarily imitating the pain, fear, or pleasure of the onscreen female body, becoming masochistically “feminized” in the process. While the homosexual connotations of camp readings (which often overlap with cult readings) and the theatrical performativity of spectacle tend to destabilize traditional masculinity, Moya Luckett (2003) analyzes Doris Wishman’s sexploitation films in order to argue in favor of a more radical take on gender in the cult film. “Often latent or found in inopportune places, femininity emerges as arguably the structuring force in cult films” (p. 142), she explains, additionally noting that the (male-to-female) sex change is “Perhaps the cult film’s central trope,” presenting “the ultimate correction of the pathological male body, the dominance of femininity, and the breast’s pre-eminent role in defining and revealing sexual difference” in its symbolizing of female power (p. 151). The breast attracts the gaze while the sex change repels it, and this tension between attraction and repulsion is “the core pleasure of many cult film genres, particularly horror, the educational film, the sex hygiene film, the vice and atrocity films” (p. 154). This tension would appear to be a particularly masochistic one, drawing upon various sorts of body genre affects, repeatedly engendering pleasure only to then destroy it. Elena Gorfinkel (2000) also examines Wishman’s work (focusing on 1974’s Double Agent 73), specifically utilizing Studlar’s theories to discuss exploitation films as a form of masochistic heterocosm that exists both within and beyond historical (and political) representation, using the masochistic aspects of photogénie as a potential key to “the space of cult film’s affective investment” (p. 169).

Studlar (1989) herself discusses cult films in an essay not devoted to masochism, arguing that “feminine” (but not necessarily female) figures typically unite revulsion and fascination in the cult film (thus arguing directly contrary to Luckett (2003). Although sexual perversion (e.g., taboo breaking, inversion of gender/sex roles) is playfully celebrated as an “outlaw sexuality” in cult films, Studlar argues that it is done so in a “de-eroticized” way, temporarily disorienting gender lines but not actually powerful enough to break down patriarchal law. Femininity instead becomes equated with a grotesquely perverse sexual difference, merely reinforcing gendered power relations. For example, she argues that in Pink Flamingos (John Waters, 1972), Divine parodies femininity to the point of inviting the audience’s ridicule, using disgust and grotesquerie to distance (heterosexual) viewers from the subversive potential of bisexual desire. However, I would argue that the disgust created by Divine’s grotesque appearance and actions is part of the masochistic process of submitting oneself to the visceral affects of cult films. Furthermore, the idea that Divine is not the film’s (anti-)heroine but rather the object of mocking scorn seems more of an “outsider’s view” of the film, not necessarily that of most cultists; fans of the film are more likely to laugh with Divine’s campy appearance and aggressively “proto-punk” mentality, not at them. The film’s pleasure derives not just from the character of Divine, but also from the liberatingly bisexual (not just “feminine”) and polymorphously perverse “transparent subculture heterocosm” that Waters creates, “where sexual perversity as social deviance shows up everywhere” (p. 5) [7]. Studlar also uses Rocky Horror??’s Dr. Frank-N-Furter to show how his stereotypically “masculine” power of destruction and seduction helps allay the threat of identifying with such a bisexual (or transsexual), and therefore “feminine,” character; she claims that ??Rocky Horror fans do not consciously identify with Frank-N-Furter’s “feminine” side (although I would say that this is what sets that character so seductively apart from other mad scientist villains in the first place).

However, in both examples, Studlar reductively replicates the same stereotypes that she wishes to denounce (after all, why can a woman not also seduce and destroy?), overlooking the very same qualities that make these cult films masochistic. As she admits, both Divine and Frank-N-Furter exhibit qualities befitting the film noir femme fatale (a figure she cites elsewhere as representing masochism’s dominating pre-oedipal mother); while Frank-N-Furter’s costuming evokes Marlene Dietrich’s roles for Von Sternberg (the focus of her study of masochism) and “the tantalizingly taboo possibilities of sado-masochistic bondage” (p. 10); and Divine’s repellant (and denigrated?) role may relate to “a helplessness first experienced in infancy, in the interaction with the controlling, powerful mother” (p. 8). Studlar’s political viewpoint seemingly will not allow her to fully acknowledge the masochistic potential of cult films, for her perspective presupposes that cult films univocally address potential viewers. On the contrary, the multiple and fluidly shifting points of (bisexual) libidinal investment and identification that spectators find in cult films are better analyzed, as stated before, through a less ideologically predetermined consideration of the visceral affects afforded by such socially disreputable sights. [8] Chuck Kleinhans (1994) notes of films like Pink Flamingos that camp “operates within the larger boundaries of a racist, patriarchal, bourgeois culture. That it defines itself in difference from the dominant culture does not automatically construct Camp as radically oppositional. Only an audience and the work’s exhibition context can complete that subversion” (p. 195). This statement seems also quite applicable to the overlapping concept of “cult,” for the (politically incorrect) cult text acquires so much of its meaning from the diverse, perverse, and often contradictory readings that spring from its audience, constructing a cult reputation as readings cannibalistically feed back into one another.

If, as Studlar (1989) says, cult films seem to denigrate femininity, it may be due to the aggressive symbolic return of the previously (but never permanently) dispelled superego/father within the masochistic scenario, an attempt to spoil the fantasy by reasserting patriarchal norms toward masculine privilege and phallic sexuality (Studlar, 1988, p. 25). This defense against feminization is evidenced in some cultists’ stance toward the object of their desire. Joanne Hollows (2003) and Jacinda Read (2003) observe how “cult” is a male-dominated phenomenon, self-differentiated from the supposedly “feminine” (passive) aspects of mass/mainstream culture through the active (“masculine”) process of selecting texts. High culture and academicism are also a source of contention for the cultist, for academicism is often linked to a political correctness (i.e., feminism) that would reject the disreputable pleasures of many cult films, while high culture is often viewed as more “effete” and unable to stomach the more visceral affects of cult films. Cultists therefore find themselves trapped between the supposedly feminizing effects of both high and low culture, typically resorting to a “laddish” (playfully over-masculine) opposition to femininity to dispel such threats.

However, I believe that while this laddish stance does indeed represent the flimsy reimposition of superego norms, the recuperative effects of such a position are overshadowed by the visceral pleasures and bisexual fluidity that cult films afford; as mentioned earlier, it is the transgressive potential of cult films that garners repeat consumption, not the recuperation of ego boundaries and superego norms at film’s end (especially when cult activities go on to permeate everyday life). Because both excess and consumption are associated with femininity, viewers who are repeatedly seduced by the extreme (feminine) excesses of cult films—not to mention the associations of homo- or bi-sexuality with the camp qualities found in many cult films—find themselves caught between femininity on all sides, but a laddish stance appears as more of a hysterical (feminine) response to this conflicted position than a truly masculine one. After all, this retreat to masculinity is merely a defensive tactic for disavowing the masochistic pleasures of giving oneself over to the cult text. Even if cultists may actively select the objects of their affection, they may just as well experience a sensation of being (passively) selected by texts—which thereafter begets the more active and aggressive championing described by Hollows. Read (2003), Hollows (2003), and Hoxter (2000) all compare cultists with male adolescents daring each other into a test of “hardness” by viewing the most strange and unwatchable images, but as mentioned earlier, submitting oneself to the disgusting and abject content of cult films is primarily a masochistic act. The underlying desire to allow such films to inflict the utmost visceral affect upon one’s own body does not depend upon gender, and any (masculine) competition (e.g., daring others to view more extreme films) made of this activity can only come later, as a means of establishing loyalty and subservience to the powerful cult film form in general. Consumption of cult films may outwardly appear as masculine territory, but the actual viewing experience is predicated upon a(n) (un)pleasurable feminization that is only defended against when the house lights come up again and gendered power relations resume in everyday life.

In saying this, I am not trying to laddishly “reclaim” the cult film in spite of its political incorrectness. Rather, I am merely offering that cult films contain far too many sources of pleasure and libidinal investment to be read as politically negative according to one ideological framework. As with camp and the Bakhtinian carnival, there are material and temporal limits to the transgressions of the cult film, but the recuperation of social norms (including patriarchal law) at film’s end is severely undercut by the spectator’s repeated pleasurable submission to transgressive excess upon subsequent viewings; the film’s preferred ideological reading is only one potential point of indulgence, but is often confounded by the (ironic) excesses of the text and experienced in dramatically different ways through the body. Following Shaviro (1993), we can see how the wild visceral spectacle endemic to cult films bypasses processes of solid character identification and aesthetic distance, making the film’s only exercise of power into that of the powerful text over the spectator. The cultist can potentially be socially and sexually liberated within the context of total submission to the masochistic fantasies perpetuated indefinitely by the cult film. Although masochism in the cult film experience deserves more in-depth analysis than the scope of this essay will allow, looking at the peculiar qualities of cultism has the potential to enrich our understanding of just what cinematic spectatorship can mean. By repeatedly uniting the viewer with both the film and a select subculture of fellow travelers, this particularly fetishistic mode of spectatorship offers a picture of viewers submissively offering themselves to pleasurable extremes again and again, temporarily pacifying strange desires that cannot be filled elsewhere in cinema.


1 Sconce’s discussion centers around what he terms “paracinema,” which can more broadly be described as exploitation film. However, it is important to remember that exploitation film is but a subset of cult cinema in general.

2 A good example of the fetishism surrounding cult films is a common obsession with seeing uncut versions of particularly violent and/or sexually explicit films. The fetishism of a whole film is such that even a few missing seconds of transgressive spectacle can become hugely overvalued amongst collectors and completists. Of course, in the case of exploitation films, this spectacle can be the impetus for viewing the film at all.

3 The Rocky Horror Picture Show (Jim Sharman, 1975) is of course the most dramatic example, engendering a whole variety of activities merging audience and film, whether as costumed reenactments of the entire narrative, the employment of props, collective dance sequences, ritualized outbursts and running commentary, etc.

4 “Badfilm,” such as the works of Ed Wood, Larry Buchanan, and many other exploitation filmmakers, is often described as “painfully bad” or “so bad it hurts.” Although ironic viewing strategies are often used to gain pleasure from the campy incompetence of such films, mockery (as through laughter or derisive remarks) of badfilm derives less from a supposed mastery or position of superiority over the text than a demonstrative disavowal of “pain” at the most atrociously inept moments, especially in the presence of other viewers. After all, spectators masochistically submit themselves to viewing these notoriously bad films with the expectation of enduring such painful cringe-worthiness. In addition, the rampant continuity violations, appeals to artifice, and privileging of spectacle over narrative in these films makes character identification or suturing virtually impossible, leaving the viewer adrift in an excessive text, powerless to control or logically organize the visceral images.

5 Studlar (1988) argues that the masochistic spectator still possesses “a measure of illusionary ego control over the autonomous fantasies presented,” but that “the spectator’s ego control cannot be threatened to the point of provoking psychosis in which the subject would begin to live out the make-believe” (p. 181). However, the process of (re-)union with the screen/text does sometimes involve a certain “living out of the make-believe,” as in cult films (like Rocky Horror) that encourage mimicry and ritual within the theatrical space. This degree of cult activity strongly hints at a dissolution of ego boundaries and a merging with the text/screen, for the spectacular excess of cult films strongly aligns them with fantasy (and not a sense of verisimilitude similar to everyday life). The sort of post-film “psychosis” described by Studlar may apply when cult activities do indeed become somehow integrated into the cultist’s everyday life beyond the cinema.

6 Many cult film theorists attempt to maintain some sort of critical and aesthetic distance from the object of their study, and so it has become almost a convention for theorists to explain their personal stake in such disreputable pleasures before going into a more “objective” analysis. In contrast, Shaviro (1993) champions looking at film without this clinical distance, instead fully embracing the visceral pleasures of spectatorship experienced through the body itself. Given the often contradictory and ambivalent nature of cult films, this may be the most useful way to read them.

7 One of the most telling scenes in Pink Flamingos does not even involve Divine at all. The villainous Raymond Marble exposes his penis to an attractive woman in a public park, but his attempts at shocking her only seem to entice the woman. After several more attempts, the “woman” lifts her skirt to reveal her own penis, thoroughly disgusting the heterosexual Marble. This sort of perverse reversal is indicative of the heterocosms typically found in Waters’ films. The fact that it is a feminine figure who performs that shockingly unexpected reversal is irrelevant when all characters in the diegetic world (regardless of gender) are capable of performing the most lewd and liberating acts of sexual perversion that their self-identity will allow—though of course it is the queerest characters who emerge as the most heroic, not “condemned” as Studlar seems to think. As spectators, we too are invited to reflect upon our own perverse desires and the delicious possibilities of unleashing them freely, hence one of the great pleasures of repeatedly revisiting this uninhibited sort of heterocosm.

8 In fact, the grotesque can be seen as a liberating figure because, according to Mikita Brottman’s (2005) study of “offensive films” (all of which are cult objects), the grotesque figure of the Bakhtinian carnival suggests a masochistic loss of bodily control and a “fearful desire to dissolve the contours of the self,” violating ego boundaries in its close relation to “fantasies about merging and fusion” (p. 46, 49). A reaction of either revulsion or laughter toward taboo-breaking grotesquerie releases a sense of repressed otherness linked to anxious ambivalence about the materiality of the human body (p. 12, 46). Since cult films are carnivalesque and often grotesque pictures that unite a select collective of cultists, the visceral affects that they cause seem especially suited to Shaviro’s (1993) theory of a masochistic spectatorship which finds abjection as a positive experience, delighting in film’s violent affects upon the fragile human body.

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David Church holds a Ph.D. in Communication and Culture from Indiana University, and is the author of Grindhouse Nostalgia: Memory, Home Video, and Exploitation Film Fandom (Edinburgh University Press, 2015). He has also edited Playing with Memories: Essays on Guy Maddin (University of Manitoba Press, 2009), and is currently at work on a book called Disposable Passions: Vintage Pornography and the Material Legacies of Adult Cinema.

Volume 11, Issue 4 / April 2007 Essays   cult cinema   film theory   gay lesbian   horror   psychoanalysis