How to join a cult: A critical analysis of cult classic media (and some “Doki Doki Literature Club!”)

In news at the top of the year–before news about freeware horror games became obviously less important–it was announced that “Doki Doki Literature Club!” was getting an update. Media outlets labeled the game a “cult classic.” Unlike in the waking world, “cult” isn’t necessarily a dirty word in media reviews. Cult classic bestows a badge of honor upon niche works like “Doki Doki.”

Is it a fair moniker though? In fact, in an age of rapidly moving media and mainstream fandom, what actually qualifies as a cult classic? Coming from a religious studies background–and being a rabid fan of pseudo-intellectual horror–it seems like no one would be better suited to answer these questions than me. My answer to the first question is: I don’t know. Maybe? My answer to the second question is: We’ll get to that. Probably.

In order to decide if “Doki Doki” is a cult classic–or if anything is a cult classic–we’ll have to start by laying some ground rules. The term can be, and should be, narrowly defined. What constitutes a cult classic?

First off, it doesn’t just mean weird. For example, the 2013 movie “Borgman” is weird. It’s well-made-weird, with clean photography, solid acting, unusual characters and an intriguing script. It’s also likely to be categorized as a horror film–it’s structured like a thriller and appears supernatural at points–which is a genre that comes with a built-in audience. I watched it and liked it. I’ve also never watched it again. I’ve never watched a video essay deconstructing it, never read a fan fiction based on it, never seen a sexy Jan Bijvoet cosplay. “Borgman” is weird, but it doesn’t have a cult.

A “cult” in the contemporary sense is a group that has a particular devotion or fascination with a ritual, object or person. There are another couple of factors at play: scope and societal acceptance. Speaking religiously, a cult is a religious group that is smaller, newer and more isolated from the rest of society.

To a degree, those factors can be gauged with familiarity and visibility. The more open a church’s philosophy is or the more numerous its congregants are, the less likely it is to be labeled a cult. That’s why Catholicism is called church but People’s Temple is called a cult (I spent an inordinate amount of time researching the sermons of Jim Jones, so I should know this). Even location is a factor. Mormonism might be considered a routine Christian church in the American Southwest but approached with cult-like caution in the Northeast.

To get really meta, it can be hard to tell where distrust of the outside world by a cult, and distrust of a cult by the outside world, begin and end. From a psychological perspective, they would appear to feed each other. Whether that’s fair or not is a question for a brainier character than the operator of a blog that philosophizes about thrillers.

Now that you have a crash course in cult studies, we can cut to cult media. By the 1970s or 80s, the term appears to have been applied to cinema in largely the same way. A cult movie has a small but devoted following. Since certain genres of media tend to attract certain followings, the label refers as much to the media as to its fandom. For example, Ed Wood’s “Plan 9 From Outer Space” is arguably a cult film, since both so-bad-its-good sci fi is a niche market and the film’s fans tend to be very loyal. Alejandro Jodorowsky’s “The Holy Mountain” is arguably a cult film as well. It is vastly different from “Plan 9” in concept and quality, but it also has a devoted niche audience: film snobs.

Does “Doki Doki Literature Club” have the earmarks of a cult classic? I am biased toward the game, but I believe so. It is perfectly made for a niche market, since it juxtaposes harem anime with psychological horror. Neither of those genres screams mainstream, but they both tend to attract devoted fandoms.

Indeed, “Doki Doki’s” fandom appears to still be fairly devoted, even three years after the game’s release (three years is an eon in game development time). The “Dok Doki” subreddit remains pretty active, and while YouTube streamers will pop on mods to play, this blog is more interested in the fact that mods are still being made for the game. Most of them lean toward the game’s dating sim side rather than its psychological horror side, but there are still a few interesting examples, including “Rain Clouds,” a retelling of the game’s first level from Sayori’s perspective that retains the psychological twists of the original game, and “Never Doki Lone,” a mashup of mystery and horror featuring Monika as an investigative school reporter.

Outside of the world of streaming, the game still sees meme and animations. YouTube channels like A Few Seconds to Live, woutmees and The Bike continue to create diverse content out of the original game’s assets. The singer OR3O has dropped most of her “Doki Doki” dressings, but she initially achieved fame by singing covers in vocal Monika cosplay (she still creates original content based on indie horror games like “Bendy and the Ink Machine” and “Helltaker”).

Arguably, perhaps even this blog has been keeping the “Doki Doki” fire lit, but I’ve already admitted a bias. When I say the fandom can be clingy, I’m not excluding myself.

Finally, “Doki Doki” has one more thing going for it: a touch of controversy to keep it out of the fully mainstream. Its squirmy subject matter made sure that contemporary mainstream discussion of the game was largely about how weird and niche it was (and note that, even then, it was being labeled “cult”).

Basically, it’s fair to say that “Doki Doki” has a cult. But is it a classic? Here is where I am less certain. Defining a “cult” is easy, since all you need is years of religious studies classes. Defining a classic is harder. That’s something only time can do.

Cute anime girls and jump scares can take you so far, but a game needs more than novelty to be a classic, just like it needs more than weirdness to attract a cult. This blog believes that “Doki Doki’s” themes–its thoughtful and layered explorations of AI, agency, purpose and communication–suggest it has the signs of becoming a classic. Some of us are still talking about it three years out. If we’re still talking about it three years from now, I’ll have a better answer for you, and I’ll have an even better answer if we’re talking about it three years after that. Only time will tell.

Here is where things get truly interesting. If a cult classic requires both a devoted cult and the time to become a classic, is it easier or harder to become one these days? This blog hates to sound like an angry old man–unless it secretly thrives off sounding like an angry old man–but in an era of instant communication, memes of the week and mainstream nerdiness, the problem isn’t for a work to find its fandom. It’s that the work has to compete in an ever expanding marketplace of media and memes about media, and the truly popular runs the risk of either getting forgotten in a week or ascending out of cult status into established church. Almost anything can amass a fandom on social media, but that doesn’t mean it’ll stay active. Cults might become more common, but classics won’t necessarily follow.

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