The Uncomfortable Cult: How Novelty and Subverted Expectations Generate a Cult Following in Contemporary Fantastic Television – Patrick Porter

It has been suggested that cult shows have a large percentage of viewers who are avid fans and these fans have relatively high visibility compared to the fans of other shows. These ‘avid’ fans, as opposed to ‘casual’ or ‘devoted’ viewers are the hardcore cultists who ‘love’a television show to the extent that their devotion is drawn to the attention of the wider community. The questions that arises from this observation are: Why do these shows attract so many avid fans, and how are their activities responsible for their visibility? In this essay, Patrick Porter seeks to identify some of the textual elements that have been made visible by the recent emergence of demanding shows such as Buffy:The Vampire Slayer and Farscape.

It has been suggested that “what distinguishes cult shows from more typical fare is that a relatively large percentage of the viewers are avid fans and these fans have relatively high visibility compared to the avid fans of other shows” (Reeves, Rogers and Epstein 1996: 27). These “avid” fans, as opposed to “casual” or “devoted” viewers are the hardcore cultists who “love” a television show to the extent that their devotion is drawn to the attention of the wider community. The questions that arises from this observation are: Why do these shows attract so many avid fans, and how are their activities responsible for their visibility? It is certain that there is no single answer to this question as the variety of cult texts is overwhelming. Furthermore, each text is idiosyncratic, and most likely carries with it a different catalyst for cult activities. This essay, therefore, will seek only to identify some of the textual elements which have been made visible by the recent emergence of demanding shows such as Buffy:The Vampire Slayer and Farscape. In particular their seemingly endless innovation may well be responsible for their avid following. If this innovation is the spark which ignites cult activity, then it is also appropriate that this essay explores some of the resulting activity which fans the creative flames. This activity binds the cult experience together and contributes to a more visible fandom.

That said, the impetus for an intimate union of text and audience is one that has been busily debated by critics, and an enormous variety of plausible explanations have been put forward. It is more than likely that all of these explanations are at least partly true, for each cult media experience is unique, as is each individual audience member. The one constant for all cult experiences is this: the audience member gets enormous pleasure out of it. The driving forces behind this pleasure are inherent to each individual text. As such, cult audience members can be fans of a variety of texts for a variety of reasons. The pleasure they get from the text is derived from a different source in each case. The texts, and the sources of enjoyment, are as diverse as the individual audience members who form the cults around them. The cult experience may be participatory but it also highly personal.

My own personal experiences with cults may shed some light on the matter. I can’t speak Klingon, but I can tell you the episode titles of all of the episodes in Buffy’s season five, and embellish this information with rumors of season six’s developments. I don’t know who killed Mrs Flanders, but I do know why Farscape’s John Crichton has been acting so strangely since the episode “Crackers Don’t Matter”. I am a viewer of Star Trek and I’ve seen many episodes of The Simpsons, but I am a fan of the cult television experience that is Buffy and without seeing more than a handful of Farscapeepisodes I am rapidly being absorbed into that cult too. This raises a more personal second set of questions to those posed in the first paragraph. Why are some cult experiences more accessible to me than others and why am I so attracted to these shows? Why do I actively seek other fans with which to share my experience?

The answer, I believe, lies in the way in which both Buffy and Farscape are constructed. There is something similarly inherent in both Buffy and Farscape that is conducive to establishing a particular type of cult following.  Star Trek and The Simpsons also have active cult followings, but the attraction that these shows hold for their devotees is borne out of something different to that which spawns my own love for Buffy or Farscape. Star Trek: Voyager and The Simpsons are constructed in a way that facilitates a pleasure that is derived from the safety and comfort provided by a visibly formulaic construction. Within the parameters set by this formula various unexpected events can take place, but by the end of each self-contained story the status quo has been re-asserted, and the beginning of the next episode will bring with it the comfortable reassurance of normality. Buffy  and Farscape, however, while still formulaic, are more visibly characterised by perpetual change, subverted expectations and experimentation. The audience thus inhabits an uncomfortable space that ensures they must continuously re-evaluate their position in relation to the series. These viewers (myself included) have become, as a result of this process, unwittingly drawn into a position of intimacy with these shows, and, paradoxically, it is the viewers’ discomfort and the salve that group interaction can provide for this discomfort that are very often the source of their ‘cultish’ pleasure.

Initially, this investigation must focus on the notion of a ‘cult’ film or television series and its identifiable characteristics. Perhaps the most useful definition of a cult text is that espoused by J.P.Telotte. Tellote’s arguments on cult film take as their starting point the suggestion that “the cultist loves films ‘beyond all reason’”(Telotte, 1991:7). Furthermore, the cultist is defined by their differences from other film-goers. Their attachment to a cult text is derived from a “love [of] such differences, for to [cultists] they suggest something unusual, noteworthy and valuable not just about the movies, but about their own character too” (1991:7). This notion of difference is important to this particular discussion because of its relation to two associated terms: novelty and distinction. Distinction is important here because of its use by theorists such as Pierre Bourdieu and more importantly John Fiske in their discussions of cultural capital and texts. John Fiske’s writing on the cultural economy of fandom utilises Bourdieu’s idea of cultural capital, which “like money, distinguishes between those who possess it, and those who do not” (Fiske, 1992 :31). He suggests that the deployment of cultural taste, as practiced by fans, is a complex process reliant on accumulated knowledge about a particular text, an investment in the text that results in a fan’s ability to distinguish himself or herself from the so-called mainstream. Moreover, Fiske writes:

Fan texts have to be ‘producerly’ in that they have to be open, to contain gaps, irresolutions, contradictions, which both allow and invite fan productivity. They are insufficient texts that are inadequate to their cultural function of circulating meanings and pleasures until they are worked upon and activated by their fans, who by such activity produce their own popular cultural capital. (Fiske 1992: 42)

This “producerly” nature of texts allows fans to take the text apart, explore its components and fill its gaps, and this in turn can perhaps facilitate the feeling, suggested by Telotte, that there is “something unusual, noteworthy and valuable” about it. Umberto Eco seems to share this notion of a producerly text, writing that a cult movie must necessarily be “ramshackle, rickety, unhinged in itself”, but also “should display not one central idea but many” (Eco 1986; 198). To this list of imperfections I would like to add one other idea: a cult text must be novel.  Cultists must feel that not only can they inhabit the text via entry through its imperfections, but it must be new in some way; it must be fresh and distinct from all that surrounds it. By virtue of this textual distinctiveness, the cultist too can celebrate their own differences. Telotte’s writing echoes this idea, whereby difference (or novelty) comes to be a textual and social position that cultists crave, “for the cult audience implicitly desires something unavailable in the undifferentiated world; and the cult promises a meaning different from that handed down or sanctioned by society and its privileged institutions” (1991:12).  Something new, then, can act like a cultural beacon which offers the opportunity to express difference through association.

John Tulloch suggests “the success of a programme (its audience size, its longevity) must depend on [another type of success] (its tension between novelty and sameness)” (Tulloch, n.d: 8) The difference between a cult show and an ‘ordinary or garden variety’ show may rely on the degree unto which novelty wins out over sameness. Reeves, Rodgers and Epstein observe how the original series of Star Trek developed a strong cult following by “emphasising novelty rather than familiarity and hailing the audience as a ‘bold’ new experience” (1996:27). Moreover, in doing so it provided “meanings and pleasures not normally associated with watching television [and] this vision rewarded a level of audience engagement and identification that transcended casual viewing” (1996:27).This point is also made by Chris Gregory (2000;107). While recent Star Trek incarnations such as The Next Generation and Voyager have settled into the realms of familiarity, their predecessor has contemporary equivalents in the form of shows such as Buffy and Farscape.

Interestingly, the novelty offered by these two examples (Buffy and Farscape)is not merely due to the fact that we haven’t seen anything like them before, but because they perpetually re-invent themselves and test their own boundaries. Voyager still offers novel experiences within its familiar contextual framework, but it can be argued that its cult following may be partly derived from its television lineage and its sense of familiarity. It is a variation on a theme and as such it doesn’t challenge its audience like these other shows do. Voyager undoubtedly offers opportunities for further study, but it is the peculiarly challenging nature of Buffy in particular which occupies me here. I am preoccupied with a particular type of cult attraction arising from exceptional novelty, one which Star Trek:The Original Series and Buffy seem to share, but which does not seem to be an inherent part of shows like Star Trek:Voyager.

While the cult attraction for these two types of program may be different, they do share some similarities. Cult television generally (in all its forms) seems to offer at least some level of novelty. When compared to cult film, cult television is unique in that it dangles this carrot of novelty in front of us for a much longer journey. It can, in fact, offer us a perpetually novel experience. While cult film aficionados can relive their film’s originality over and over again, the cult television viewer literally gets something new each time they watch. Moreover, each episode is essentially part of the same, much larger text and as such carries with it the aura of an authentic and coherent experience. Each new episode is not like Shock Treatment (Sharman 1981), the sequel to The Rocky Horror Picture Show (Sharman, 1975), regarded as a potentially suspicious attempt to ‘cash in’ or mass-produce a cult experience. While a Rocky Horror fan can enjoy a new experience each time they participate in a midnight screening, the text itself has less and less potential to surprise each time it is watched. For television cultists videos mean that even when the particular series ceases production they have the ability to watch each episode independently as a composite part of the overall series narrative. This also allows the cult audience member to re-arrange the series in any fashion they wish. Indeed, each watching experience is simultaneously enhancing the meta-textual experience for each audience member as they relate what they have learned from one episode to the occurrences in another episode. This can facilitate a perpetual reinvigoration of the experience as each individual viewing adds something new.

However there is little doubt that the most exciting experience for a cultist would be watching the next installment of a series for the first time. The ability for a television show to capture and maintain an audience is a necessary aspect of the industry. While it may also have a large audience of casual viewers, Buffy’s ability to attract and maintain a hardcore cult audience has become evident–even renowned–in recent years. Buffy’s appeal as a cult text can be attributed to several identifiably novel attributes. Most of these attributes can be categorised according to the way in which they (deliberately) subvert audience expectations. Buffy offers:

A unique blend of multiple Genres: Horror, Comedy, Drama, Soap, Science Fiction, Action, and others.

A  playful re-arrangement of various generic syntactic and semantic elements for humorous or shock value.
The inversion of various socially accepted ‘norms’.
A self-reflexivity manifest through self depreciation.
Narrative and stylistic experimentation.

Unexpected character development, or, in other words, a thwarting of teleological expectations.
Subversion of established series history.

Before addressing each of these points individually, some interrogation of the idea of expectation must be undertaken. Audience expectations are generated by a complex web of cultural influences. Genre theory provides some useful modes of thinking about the way in which the audience is conditioned to expect certain things from a film or television series. These expectations can be based on previous experience of film and television generally, but also based on their previous experiences with a specific text. Many theorists have conceptualised the relationship between audience and production as a contract or negotiation (Altman 1989 Jenkins 1995, Neale 1990). Rick Altman writes about a stream of genre theory which focuses on the “audience’s ritual relationship to genre film” (1989;94). In a passage that could be describing the processes contributing to cult formation, Altman writes:

by choosing the films it would patronise, the audience revealed its preferences and its beliefs, thus inducing Hollywood studios to produce films reflecting its desires. Participation in the genre film experience thus reinforces spectator expectations and desires. Far from being limited to mere entertainment, film-going offers a satisfaction more akin to that associated with established religion.(1989:94)

If film genre processes are akin to organised religion which “reinforces expectations and desires” then it seems appropriate to suggest that cults–in both the epistemologically religious sense and the film/audience sense–are generated by the search by pockets of society for ‘religious’ alternatives which question the ‘expectations’ and ‘desires’ of the establishment. Steve Neale argues that genre is best understood as a series of processes which may be “dominated by repetition, but they are also marked fundamentally by difference, variation and change” (Neale 1990; 56). If novelty can be thought of in terms of “difference, variation and change” then perhaps those films or television series that are most different or novel are the ones which are immanently suitable for a cult following. A text’s originality can be celebrated and embraced as eccentricity by an audience which is seeking difference. Even an old, established, and relatively standard text such as Casablanca (Curtiz, 1942) can be rendered novel by its temporal translocation to the present.  Its originality is at least partially borne out of its stark difference from the contemporary texts which surround it [1] .

As far as television series go, the ability to maintain an adoring audience, to present it with a rejection of the ‘ordinary’ and to offer relatively radical alternatives is something that can be a perpetual process. Buffy provides the perfect example of this, acting almost like a manic microcosm of the genre formation process by which the viewing experience is kept fresh through repeated experimentation and change. Where it differs from genre formation is that contrary to genre’s gradual process which changes expectations over a period of time, Buffy actively subverts expectations in rapid and often radical ways.

As previously outlined, Buffy’s subversion of expectations takes on many guises. One of the most notable of these is that of generic hybridity. Buffy is a comedy/horror/fantasy/science fiction/action/drama. Its absurd full title Buffy:The Vampire Slayer attests to the primary juxtaposition of comedy and horror, two genres which initially appear to be mutually exclusive. This juxtaposition of various genres contributes to the stylistic novelty of the show as these genres are each expressed through script, music, mise en scene and camera work in a fashion that often highlights the constructed nature of each genre. 

This generic manipulation–and its resulting transparency–work to great effect, injecting both humor and surprise into the show. Joss Whedon, the series creator, claims that “genre busting is at the heart” of Buffy (Whedon, 2000). The inspiration for his show came from the archetypal horror image of a little blond girl who goes into an alley and gets killed. In Whedon’s universe this girl is the armed and dangerous heroine who gets the bad guy. Whedon, on the DVD commentary over the show’s first episode, claims “the mission statement of the show [is]: nothing is as it seems”(Whedon, 2000). This idea bears fruit in “Welcome to the Hellmouth’s” very first scene. Crawling through a window of the high school, a teenage girl and boy appear to be seeking a location for a sexual rendezvous. The girl seems nervous and at first we are lead to believe that the boy has somehow coerced her into being with him, but moments later the girl’s face changes and it is revealed that she is a vampire as she bites the boy. This kind of subverted story-telling is effective because we as viewers have come to recognise horror’s generic language: the boy is the one we are supposed to be wary of, not the girl.

This rearrangement of generic language is also manifest in the various villains. The Master in season one is a hideous vampire who looks a little like Nosferatu’s(Murnau 1922) vampire, but who is strangely elegant and possesses a dry wit. The villain for season two is none other than Buffy’s vampire-with-a-soul boyfriend turned bad, who plays the role like a manipulative lover. The season three bad guy is the town’s Mayor, a wholesome, clean, upholder of ‘American family values’, whose one desire is to transform into a snake-like demon and eat the town. Season five’s nemesis is a demon/human hybrid created by a hyper-rational arm of the United States Government who coincidentally likes the Beatles song “Helter Skelter”. Season 6 gives us none other than a narcissistic fashion-obsessed Hell Goddess who shares a body with a male doctor… the result being that he occasionally wakes up in a dress.

Again I draw on genre theory, namely Altman’s concept of a genre process whereby new meanings are created by the rearrangement of various syntactic and semantic elements (1989). By placing various identifiable semantic elements together –for instance the Mayor’s wholesome American values and his demonic side—Buffy produces new syntactic bonds between these elements, thus transforming the meanings attached to them. Wholesome American values become somehow horrific and comic simultaneously. The ironic coupling of these two strange bedfellows redefines our expectations of both Buffy and of horror generally.

Similar new meanings are created by the inversion of various social ‘norms’. In the episode “Gingerbread”, the teenage heroes of Buffy are persecuted by their own parents who are being manipulated by two ‘children’. These children are the figures behind the Hansel and Gretel folk story, but we are later informed that they are actually an ‘empath demon’ who thrives off death and insecurities. The witch in the original story was in fact the innocent victim. In one fell swoop Buffy questions the wisdom of parents and re-writes mythology. Another episode, “Band Candy”, depicts the adults of the town reverting to adolescent behavior, thus acknowledging that their ‘wisdom’ is not inherent as many children suspect, but an acquired thing. This episode is a grudging apology for the hypocritical “do as I say not as I do” aspect of all parent/child relationships. It is the teenagers in this episode who keep their heads and maintain relative order. Significantly, these two episodes are unusual; the presence of parents (and adults in general) is rare in Buffy.

The wise ‘children’ and absent parents of Buffy’s Sunnydale are an extrapolation of the new tradition established by films such as Nightmare on Elm Street (Craven, 1984), where parents are presented as ‘other’ and therefore monstrous, or are simply ineffectual (Gary Heba 1995: np.). Recent films have trained us to expect such things, especially from the horror genre. However, rarely has this phenomenon been seen on television, and rarely have horror’s adults been given such varied treatment. Indeed, while Buffy’s parents are usually absent they are at least human, and their ‘otherness’ is rendered ambiguous by the show’s uneven application of any metaphoric alignments. Buffy seems self aware in as much as it shares unashamed similarities with films such as the Elm Street series, but avoids completely replicating them.

The series also manifests a self reflexivity through self depreciation. It is not afraid to laugh at its own absurd nature. In both “Gingerbread” and “The Prom” the adults and children respectively acknowledge that ‘weird things’ regularly occur in their town. The humour derived from such an acknowledgment springs from the audience’s awareness of their own necessary suspension of disbelief as time and time again monsters attack, spells are cast and so forth.

This suspension of disbelief is necessary for the show to delve into narrative and stylistic experimentation. Episodes such as “Hush”, where the townspeople’s voices are stolen by eerily silent ghouls known as “the gentlemen”, is notable for its ability to tell the story without any character verbalization. “Restless”, another highly experimental episode, is composed entirely of absurd dream sequences replete with intertextual references. “The Body” is a highly emotional episode in which Buffy deals with the discovery of her dead mother’s body and her friends and family deal with their grief. It is notable for its absence of a musical score, and its unusual point of view camera angles. More than this, it keeps any fantasy elements to a minimum, so that we are watching a naturalistic drama for much of the episode, but then shocks us by including a vampire attack in the last scene.

Even the less innovative episodes seem intent on tripping us up. Character wise, Buffy often thwarts teleological expectations. We expect characters to develop one way, but they often go in completely unexpected directions. Midway through season four Willow unexpectedly meets and falls in love with another woman, Tara, after two seasons of torrid heterosexuality with Oz. Even Cordelia and Xander, the school bitch and class clown respectively, are perplexed by their own strange attraction for one another. That their initial lustful kisses were inserted randomly in scenes accompanied by a sudden upswelling of ‘romantic’ music underscores the show’s own acknowledgment that this is an unusual coupling. Equally mystifying for the audience is the culmination of the affair between Cordelia and Wesley in “Graduation Day”; they don’t get together in a scene which is the antithesis of Xander and Cordelia’s kisses. Their kisses are clearly unpleasant for both of them, instantly dispelling any romantic tension. Character deaths are also unexpected. Whedon comments that he initially wanted to put the character of Jessie into the first episode’s opening credits, knowing full well that this character would die several episodes later. “I thought that would shake people up and really confuse them”(Whedon 2000).

Whedon’s penchant for “shaking up” his audience is also clearly demonstrated by the way in which he subverts established series history. Nothing can be taken for granted in the Buffyverse. We know that Buffy is an only child when she arrives home at the end of “Buffy vs. Dracula” and finds her 14 year old little sister Dawn waiting for her. Similarly, the arrival in town of another slayer (Kendra, and later Faith) also contradicts the notion that there is only one “chosen one”. While both Dawn and the extra slayers are given an explanation, the initial shock from both these events is still significant, and quite obviously contrived.

Farscape also indulges in similar tactics. Anna L. Kaplan, in Cinefantastique, calls it “addictively unpredictable”. The show, which has gained a cult following in the USA and UK, places a human, John Crichton, aboard a living ship with a band of very different alien fugitives. Kaplan, who is herself clearly a fan writes:

There are no rules. The show goes where executive producer David Kemper and his writing staff, directors and actors want it to go. You can never predict what is going to happen, or what tone the episode will be, or whether any of the characters you’ve come to love (and, at times, loathe) will make it through the hour with their skins intact (2001: 27).

There are many examples of Farscape’s unpredictability. For instance, the second season finale which was initially to feature Crichton’s death was rewritten on a whim to kill Crichton’s love interest Aeryn instead (Kaplan 2001: 75). “Crackers Don’t Matter”, a turning point in the series where Crichton is driven mad, was written to “solve a production problem” and “was not supposed to exist” (Kaplan 2001: 65). A second season episode is titled “Won’t Get Fooled Again”, which is reflective of the parallels between the audience and Crichton’s response to the events in a previous episode called “A Human Reaction” in which Crichton (and the audience) believes he has returned to Earth, only to discover it is an illusion. David Kemper, one of the show’s producers thinks of each episode as a “surprise present” to the audience, adding “don’t be surpised if things happen that you don’t like.” He decrees “you just don’t like it because you are not used to it, but you will be” (Kaplan 2001:75). This is a philosophy that has been embraced by both sets of producers on Buffy and Farscape. It is like a biblical utterance from on high, wrested from the secret religious tomes of each cult.

Both Farscape and Buffy perpetually challenge their audiences, a tactic which may have two very different effects. It will undoubtedly alienate some audience members, but will also force others to cling protectively to the show like a half-scared passenger in a rollercoaster. If expectations have been subverted, then part of this protective reflex is the old cliché that there is ‘safety in numbers’. Not only does interaction allow fans to indulge socially, but it also allows them to formulate protective strategies against the bombardment of uncertainties presented by this new breed of television.

Trust seems to play a large role in the perpetuation of cult followings for these shows. Fans have largely learned to accept that the producers will always come through, that they will indeed grow to ‘like what they think they are not used to’. Despite this, these show’s cults have grown around a desire to anticipate the next move and to share any knowledge that might contribute to the cult’s readiness for the future. The form that this interaction has taken on the internet is that of the ‘message board’, also sometimes called a ‘spoiler board’. A ‘spoiler’ is information pertaining to an episode or event which is still to come and thus might ‘spoil’ the surprise for those who haven’t yet seen it. At the time of writing the “Buffy Cross and StakeSpoiler Board at is already engaged in speculation about the series’ season six, and includes ‘threads’ on the ‘clues’ that the shows producers have left on official web sites. I also personally know of an Australian Buffy fan who has downloaded the entire transcripts of all the episodes from season five, which is yet to finish screening here. The impetus behind such activity seems to be a combination of both the desire to be knowledgeable and a joyful impatience. Such knowledge gives her a type of cultural capital which she displays around less knowledgeable fans, but it also facilitates conversation with viewers in the USA who have already seen these episodes.

Other fans wait until the show returns, filling their time with speculation, but also with continuous re-watching and evaluation of previous episodes. Many ‘threads’ are about “favourite” moments, “funniest scenes”, “favourite characters” and so on. This retrospective analysis allows the cult to re-live the series, and the fresh perspectives gleaned from interaction imbues the show with renewed novelty. In re-living these past moments, fans also stock up on knowledge which may be deployed in order to make sense of any future developments.

Additionally, this dialogue also reinforces the distinction associated with the cultural capital which fans have accumulated. More and more they can feel that they somehow are distinct and transgressive in relation to the ‘ordinary’ viewers. Indeed, they ‘own’ the show, as demonstrated by “the Keepers list” on the newsgroup, where fans can ‘claim’ and ‘keep’ an aspect of the program such as “Angelus’ leather pants” or “Xander’s Snoopy dance” (see Appendix). This activity parallels the way in which Eco suggests cultists separate various elements from the text and adore them individually (1986: 197-202). These parts, the objects which fans ‘keep’ can, perhaps be categorised as memes, “the basic units of culture which are transmitted by imitation and shared in the form of cultural knowledge” (Krasniewicz and Blitz, In Press: 44). Through this repetition of memes which are unique to their particular show, fans generate a particular type of cultural capital. By articulating these loved aspects of the show fans are appropriating the materials which make the show unique and are also conceptually inserting themselves into the text. They cleave to the show, and invoke its elements like a protective spell.

As previously stated, trust plays an important role in the relationship between audiences and producers. But this trust has limits, as demonstrated by the prevalence of spoilers and discussion groups. Indeed, there is always a chance that the cult audience’s trust may be betrayed. Henry Jenkins writes about the rift caused in Beauty and the Beast’s fandom when the producers of the show radically altered the show’s format. One fan, clinging to hope, implored “respect [the show’s makers] enough to trust them; trust them enough to believe; believe them enough to know that they will satisfy us” (Jenkins 1992: 121). The show’s third season was a departure from the romantic fantasy of the first two and as such was felt by a very large proportion of its fans to be a betrayal of their trust. Its innovative, darker nature was rejected because it was imply too different from the previous ‘fairy tale’ seasons. It was as if the cultists were thrown mercilessly from the wildly out of control rollercoaster.

Novelty attracted a cult following to this show, and novelty ultimately alienated them. But this was not the end of the cult of Beauty and the Beast. Fans of the first two seasons took away what they had accumulated from the ‘fairy tale’ and built a different type of cult based on what they kept. They were able to create their own narratives “more perfectly fulfilling their generic expectations and satisfying their desires” (Jenkins 1992: 151). This attests to the robust nature of the cult experience, and gives credence to the idea that cultists celebrate difference (Telotte 1991). In the case of Beauty and the Beast, the desire to distinguish themselves through association with a particular text outlived the texts itself.

Recent shows like Buffy and Farscape have perhaps ensured their textual longevity as well as their cult’s. They have fortified their cult devotees; by buffeting them with change making them uncomfortable, the show’s producers have toughened up their audience and prepared them for almost any eventuality. By giving their audience what they least expect they are, ironically, giving them what they want. Novelty is the show’s magnet, but it is also its insurance policy. Telotte writes of the cult experience as a “simultaneously dangerous and safe trip” which involves the realisation that “we are part of this text, our embrace necessary for its very identity” (1991: 16). By loving a particular type of cult text which makes us uncomfortable we can learn to love change, to embrace transgression and to be part of something new and exciting. Through this experience we can not only discover ourselves, but also prepare ourselves for the challenges and harsh novelties that we face in the ‘real world’.


From: Vassegno
Subject: Admin: a.t.b Keepers and Guardians List (June update)
Date: Thu, 14 Jun 2001 03:27:27 +1000

Well, in the boredom period of #atbuffy of 3-4am I found some time to actually look at it, update it and post it again. If you’re bored as well you can play spot the difference between this month’s and last month’s version.

The Keepers and Guardians List
Last Update: 14 June 2001
Maintained by: Vassegno (

There are several rules and regulations for claiming a keepership and/or guardianship (YAY! Red tape!), these, I assume, were first implemented by Jon, then updated by Daye, I’ve also edited the rules. The rules you see below are the rules from now until I decide to change them. Note: Lots of Season 5 Buffy/Season 2 Angel keeperships are official now; keep doing something about it.


It is located at and contails all the info in this post plus more. It should have all the current keepership details listed within it depending in whether it is updated first or not.


1. Decide what you want to be and stick it in your .sig. It becomes claimed when you first post with it. During this period other people may also claim the same keepership, but
2.1 It becomes official when you E-MAIL it to me ( and I post the list. Remember, first in, first served, so tell me asap.
2.2 The second method of telling me that you wish to claim a keepership is by braving the crowds on’s very own IRC channel, #atbuffy, on server (port 6667). I’ll be found there almost every night from midnight ’till early. An email adress will still be handy in this situation in case of multiple requests. (Disclaimer: The editor did not enter into any agreement with the producer of the IRC FAQ for this advertising .)
2.3 If someone has already claimed something your desired keepership, you can email them with regards to sharing. Just remember, it’s not official until I know you’re sharing.
2.4 People already with keeperships will be considered last when there are multiple requests for one keepership, because sharing is good.
3.1 You may keep items that have appeared on Australian Free-To-Air Television. If you are a spoiler junkie or a foreigner, you may claim anything you desire from the episodes you have seen.

3.2 Any claims from future episodes are not official and cannot be made official until after the episode has screened in Australia. Any keeperships that could be considered as a spoiler must be ROT-13ed with the episode number appended to it. Under these circumstances I suggest you just don’t bother.
3.3 Keeperships that aren’t relevant to the show or are cliquey are now disapproved of, but will still be included and added. Examples of this are: ‘Keeper of the a.t.b Land Speed Record’ and ‘Keeper of the unwatched Angel tapes.’
4. Apparently netiquette reccomends that one only use up to 6 lines for a .sig, so I recommended that people keep or guard NO more than 5 items.
5. If you wish to resign a keepership email me (the adress is up there somewhere), and it shall be promptly stripped from you and offered to the public
6. Any mistakes in your Keeping e-mail corrections to me.

As to the definitions of the titles:

Keeper – One who has the care or custody of an object. For example Danny isthe Keeper of the Mayor’s "To Do" List, so it is assumed that he has it on his bookself and is caring for it and keeping the dust off of it.

Protector, Guardian and Defender –   All similar in meaning. One who protects, guards or defends. That is, you look after it, and if it breaks it’s your fault. Generally only people have guardians etc, but there are a few notable exceptions. Currently there is a legal wrangle ove whether the Sunnydale zamboni should have a keeper or a guardian.

More Definitions:

KTBWS – Kill That Bitch Willow
WBSS – Willow Big Stick Squad
VWPS – Vampire Willow Protection Society
If I inadvertently post spoilers in the list, please let me know so that I can add Spoiler Space for the next post, hopefully it won’t happen though. These are the official Keepings at the moment.   All of these people have reconfirmed their keeperships.   If you want to be added to the official list, please e-mail me at

+ Aimee
Guardian of Xander’s Snoopy dance
Keeper of Angelus’ leather pants
Guardian of the Gilesmobile (she broke the old one – ed.)
Keeper of Spike’s red shirt

+ Andrew Dynon
Keeper of the "-bator" name suffix
Keeper of Spike/William’s bloody awful poetry

+ AndrewR

Guardian of Willow ‘s resolve face.

+ Anna
Keeper of the "Oh I need a hug" version of the Mutant Enemy.
Keeper of the the Blood Stone Vengeance Spell.

Keeper of Buffy’s ’99 Yearbook

+ Annette Fraser
Keeper of Giles’ Glasses Case and White Handkerchief
Keeper of Anya’s Black Condoms
High Priestess of The Big Penguin

The Merchandise Queen #atbuffy Angel of the Morning
PokeyBun – Gotta mug ’em all

+ A. Nony-Mouse
Keeper of Kathy’s toenail clippings
Keeper of Lindsey’s Hand

Guardian of the Box of Gavroc
Believer in Doyles’ heroism
Keeper of Faith’s Prison Uniform

+ Beaver
Keeper of Faith’s Dagger

Keeper of Willow’s Laptop
Eater of the jelly doughnuts (Apparently. And I will not succumb to that foul American spelling! – ed.)
Member of the "Vampire Willow Protection Society"

+ Belial
Keeper of Angel’s evil yellow eyes (anyone think of the bloke from the movie, Hot Shots, where the bloke had his father’s eyes? – ed.)

+ Caitlin
Special Operations for VWPS
Member of WBSS (Mortal Enemy of KTBWS)
Keeper of Willow’s "Sunnydale High Yearbook ’99"
Keeper of the a.t.b Land Speed Record #atbuffy Pinup Girl

+ Catherine Jemma
Keeper of The Gem of Omara

+ Christian McNeill

Keeper of the "Grrr Arrrgh"

Guardian of Mutant Enemy

+ Chris S.
Keeper of Giles’ "Kiss the librarian" mug
Keeper of Giles’ Jonathan swimsuit calendar

+ Chris Severn
Keeper of the sword that sent Angel to Hell

+ Corinne Calder
Guardian of the second Xander (I assume this has to do with the splitting in half thing – ed.)

+ crust of crust

Grovelling minion of alt-Willow
Licking clean the spokes of the orange Schwinn

+ Danny
Keeper of "Apathy on the Rise, No One Cares"
Drycleaner of Buffy’s RLPoMA & PLPoE, Faith’s BLPoE, and Willow’s GLPoJ

Keeper of the Mayor’s "To Do" List
WBSS Ex-Quisitor.

+ Daye
Keeper of crosses and crossbows

Guardian of the scripts

+ Demosthenes
Distributor of !s
Official Buffy Novice
Keeper of   Angel’s Nancy Boy Hair Gel

Keeper of Caitlin’s Fully Automated Soggy Trout Launcher(tm)

Keeper of Tara’s secret nipple ring.
K eeper of the Scary Frogs to chase Willow with.

+ Emma
Keeper of the ATB Hideaway
Keeper of Xander’s Damn Manliness
Guardian of Spike (Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays only)

+ Endorwych

Keeper of the Big Fluffy Puppy with Bad Teeth
Keeper of the first Y2K Post in

+ Gandalf (the Grey)/fladnag
Fierce Guardian of Willow’s abs put the bunny BACK in the box!

+ Geoff Appleby

Keeper of the Butt-Monkey
Keeper of Dawn’s Diary

+ Gwynneth
Keeper of Oz’s Monotone (this *is* my sarcastic voice)
Guardian of the ATB Hideaway Massage Parlour

+ Jean Prouvaire
Keeper of Vamp Willow’s "Bored now".

+ John Mack
Keeper of What Buffy Is Wearing, at those other times, late at night

Keeper of Spike’s discarded shotgun
First Buffy and Spike shipper
Proud wearer of Xander’s Klingon costume

+ Jon Andersen
Defender of Cordelia’s good-side

Protector and reanimator of Alt-Willow

+ Karen
Guardian of Spike’s love for Buffy
Keeper of Spike’s five words: "Out for a walk. Bitch."

+ Karenji
Keeper of the Unwatched Angel Tapes (The end is nigh! – ed.)

+ Laren
Keeper of Ripper’s Flanno Shirt

+Lauren Hinchey

Keeper of Angel’s cigarette
Keeper of Spike’s smooshed box of chocolates

+ Obsidian
Keeper of Willow’s floating pencil

+ Paul

Keeper of the final "Interesting"

+ Polly DuBose
Keeper of Angel’s sunglasses

+ quokka

Keeper of the towel Angel had wrapped around his dripping wet body

+ Rebecca (RcD)
Guardian of Glory’s shoe collection
Keeper of the Knights of Byzantium’s swords

+ Rob R.

Guardian of Buffy’s Soul
Guardian of Buffy’s Voice

+ Sacha
Keeper of Angel’s pink helmet

+ Shane Charleson

Guardian of Mr. Pointy
Keeper of Vampi-Willow’s Bustier
Keeper of Whistler’s Hat
Keeper of
The Shrimp Fork
Keeper of The Cheese Slices

Member of "The Vampire Willow Protection Society"
Member of The WBSS
The First

+ Spikerulz
Guardian of Spike’s manequin

Keeper of Spike’s 1977 Billy Idol lookalike outfit

+ Stuart Sandow
Keeper of Faith’s Pretty Pink Dress
Purveyor of Fine (Mind-Altering) Candies and De-Evolutionary Ales

+ The Mad Scientist

Keeper of the Initiative’s multicolour food of strongness

+ Trepan
Keeper of Giles’s Hugh Hefner bath robe
Guardian of the graduated mutant
Defender of Cordelia’s tactlessness

+ Xaverlex
Keeper of the Sunnydale zamboni
Fat Controller of Spike’s railroad
Purveyor of Quality Used Keeperships

+ Xulon

Guardian of the Shiny Things



Altman, Rick 1989, “The Problems of Genre History”, The American Film Musical, BFI, London, pp90-102

Eco, Umberto, 1986, “Casablanca: Cult Movies and Intertextual Collage”, Travels in Hyper-reality, Picador, London, pp197-211

Fiske, John (1992) "The Cultural Economy of Fandom" in Lewis The Adoring Audience: Fan Culture and Popular Media Routledge: London and New York. pp30-49

Gregory, Chris, 2000, “Ritual and Relativism: Star Trek as Cult”  Star Trek: Parallell Narratives, Macmillan, pp104-113

Heba, Gary, 1995, “Everyday Nightmares: The Rhetoric of Social Horror in the Nightmare on Elm Street Series” Journal of Film and Television, vol.23, no. 3, Fall 1995, np.

Jenkins, Henry ,1992,  “’It’s Not a Fairy Tale Anymore: Gender, Genre and Beauty and the Beast” in Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture Routledge: New York and London. pp120-151

Kaplan, Anna L, 2001, “Farscape”, Cinefantastique, Vol. 33, no. 1/2, April 2001 pp26-95

Krasniewicz, Louise and  Blitz, Michael, 2002, “The Replicator: Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger as the Great Meme-Machine”, Stars in Our Eyes –The Star Phenomenon in the Contemporary Era, eds. Angela Ndalianis & Charlotte Henry, Praeger, Connecticut. pp43-64

Neale, Steve, 1990, “Questions of Genre”, Screen, Spring 1990, pp45-66

Reeves, Jimmie L, Rodgers, Marc C, and Epstein, Michael, 1996, “Rewriting Popularity: The Cult Files” Deny All Knowledge: Reading the X-files, eds. David Lavery, Angela Hague and Marla Cartwright, Faber and Faber, London, pp 22-35

Telotte, J.P, 1991, “Beyond all Reason: the Nature of Cult”, The Cult Film Experience: Beyond all Reason.  ed. J.P Telotte, University of Texas Press,Austin, 1991, pp4-17. Tulloch, John ,1982, "Dr Who: Similarity and Difference" The Australian Journal of Screen Theory 11 & 12: pp8–26.

Web Resources

Usenet Group: – The Buffy Cross and Stake Spoiler Board, Accessed 15/6/01


A Nightmare On Elm Street  Wes Craven, 1984
Casablanca    Michael Curtiz, 1942
Nosferatu      F.W.Murnau,1922
Shock Treatment       Jim Sharman, 1981

The Rocky Horror Picture Show,  Jim Sharman, 1975

Television Programs

Buffy: The Vampire Slayer

Whedon Joss, 2000, “Commentary over the Episode ‘Welcome to the Hellmouth” on DVD “Welcome to the Hellmouth and The Harvest”, 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment.

Episodes: “Hush”, “Gingerbread”, “Band Candy”, “Buffy vs. Dracula”, “Welcome to the Hellmouth”, “The Harvest”, “Graduation Day part 1”, “Graduation Day part 2”, “ The Prom”, “Restless”, "The Body", DVD (20th Century Fox Home Entertainment, 2000)

Episodes: “Crackers Don’t Matter”, “Won’t Get Fooled Again”, “A Human Reaction”.


[1] Voyager may also be considered novel in this way. Science fiction compared to its compatriot television genres is particularly different. Moreover the utopian ideal presented by all Star Trek’s series is, likewise, a prominent and novel, but also constant, feature.

Patrick Porter may be contacted on


  1. ÐRëÐÐ says:

    it was a long time ago i was part of the “keepers” of all things buffy, i just found this article 🙂

  2. […] textual expansion, extending both the television text and the television “viewing” experience. The Uncomfortable Cult: How Novelty and Subverted Expectations Generate a Cult Following in Contempo… by Patrick […]