Cult movies are an essential development of the film industry. Packed with subtle allusions and layered with plot arcs and information, cult classics insert themselves into movie history through their appeal to fan culture. The key to this attraction lies in the collection of “secrets” that are woven throughout a film’s narrative. Henry Jenkins addresses this pattern in his book Convergence Culture, which discusses the cultural shift that is occurring as a result of new media. While explaining the use of outside references in The Matrix (1999), Jenkins notes how “layers upon layers of references catalyze and sustain our epistemophilia” (98), or, our excessive love or reverence for knowledge (FreeDictionary.com). The more information that a film possesses, the more opportunities there are for knowledge communities to dissect and interpret the material, and the more attractive it will be to fan cultures.
However, I would argue that the audience’s thirst for knowledge (and opportunities to demonstrate that knowledge) is not the only reason for such “endless borrowings.” Rather, the inclusion of secrets in this way also offers audiences a portal through which they may communicate with and understand the workings of the director’s mind.
Take, for example, the TV series LOST (2004). Though a television show, LOST embodies many of the characteristics of cult films, including a loyal fanbase, “quotable” dialogue (i.e. “Live together, die alone”), and, most importantly, an intricate set of “secrets” and unexplained mysteries that demand a viewer’s attention. The show follows the lives of plane crash survivors, stranded on an island with seemingly no hope for rescue. Throughout the show, a series of numbers, “4 8 15 16 23 42,” inexplicably drives the most important plotlines. While the meaning behind this numerical pattern is, in itself, a “secret” that fans are encouraged to decode, their appearance in minor scenes also provides viewers a chance to display their knowledge of the show and its conventions. The appearance of the numbers on certain props and background elements functions as a “treasure hunt” for fans as they watch the show (Lostpedia).
What makes this secret-dropping approach so alluring for viewers is both the opportunity to illustrate their in-depth knowledge of the show but also, the feeling of camaraderie between the viewer and the director that results from this exchange of information. When an audience member picks up on one of these subtle clues, obviously engineered by the show’s director, they tap into the relationship the creator intends for hardcore fans. It is as if the director is leaning over to the viewer while they are watching and whispering, “See what I did there?” Millions of people may watch the show LOST, but only dedicated, intuitive fans will notice the little hints the director dishes out. In other words, the layering of secrets in cult films and TV series like LOST enables an unspoken bond between the viewer and the director.
After all, the producers of film and television construct such secrets for the purpose of encouraging audience participation. According to Jenkins, “If you give people enough stuff to explore, they will explore…the people who do explore and take advantage of the whole world will forever be your fans” (103). In a sort of symbiotic relationship, the director creates a world for the fan to explore, which allows them to develop a stronger emotional bond to the material as well as a stronger appreciation for the person who created in in the first place. It becomes a mutually beneficial relationship, in which the fans come to appreciate the director’s efforts to construct a world of secrets, and the director comes to appreciate that fan’s involvement in unlocking them.
The exchange of information between director and viewer signal the convergence of the longtime opposition between the spectator and the producer. That is, cult movies and TV shows equalize the role of the producer and the consumer. As the internet and other technologies start to redefine the identity of society’s “information gatekeepers,” the barrier between “producers” and “consumers” starts to break down. As technology has become more accessible to non-professionals, the world has seen a rise in amateur producers of culture, such as student filmmakers, fanfiction writers, and song-video editors (Jenkins 155). The popularity of cult films like The Matrix and their complex system of secrets parallels this shift in thought. By watching such films and shows with the intention of deciphering these clues, audiences indicate their wish to be in the director’s head, to join the production process. In other words, the cult classic’s “web of secrets” signals the spectator’s growing desire to understand the directorial perspective, the collapse of producer and consumer that is beginning to unfold in contemporary society.
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Jenkins, Henry. “Why Heather Can Write: Media Literacy and the Harry Potter Wars.” Convergent Culture. New York City: NYU Press, 2006.169-205. Print.