Guest Post!!!~ WonderCon 2014: Psychology of Cult TV

27 Apr

Charity Tran is a friend of and guest blogger for NerdLush.  In addition to being a full-time nerd, she is a writer and digital strategist who is currently pursuing her doctorate related to fan studies and technical communication. She muses at and tweets from @intellichick. (She is also a frequent conspirator of Nerd Adventures)


A very popular panel at WonderCon 2014 centered on the subject of Psychology of Cult TV shows.  A full room including a standing back row watched as a panel of psychology experts discussed the rich subject matter that made up this topic in both its fictional context and its potential real-world impact.  The panel included Dr. Janina Scarlet (The Superhero Manual), Josué Cardona (Geek Therapy), Dr. Travis Langley (Batman and Psychology: A Dark and Stormy Knight), and NerdLush Diva herself Elizabeth Ann.


Television: Truth in Fiction and the Medium in General

There seemed to be a general consensus from the panel that the negative effects of television is greatly dependent upon the type of television show and the behavior attached to it.  Elizabeth focused on how this question is likely centered on the specific show someone is watching and the outcome of behavior from that kind participation.  She suggested that Keeping Up with the Kardashians is likely an unhealthy show – this received laughs from the audience who seemed to generally agree with her.  Langley supported her suggestion by noting that there is “greater truth in fiction” than in the “false reality of TV shows.”

Later Langley elaborated on the important nature of television as a medium, that “[it] provides a perspective you might not get just reading” and how one of the arguments against TV – “you’re not using your imagination” – is false.   Langley argues that after a television episode ends, fans continue to think about it after the episode and make connections.  Elizabeth Ann supported this idea by commenting on her love of the ship Olicity (Oliver and Felicity from Arrow), noting that “They’re not giving it to me on the show, but I want it.”

Making Connections Through Fictional Characters and Stories

The panel offered a number of personal and professional examples of how television might be beneficial to viewers, by allowing them to make real-world connections and learn about themselves and others.  Cardona relayed a personal story from his childhood, where he understood that he needed to apologize for something once because he had seen an episode of Full House that made him understand he had done something wrong.  He described how “the look on the dad’s face made me feel horrible.”  Meanwhile, Elizabeth Ann noted how she often used the Hulk as an example with clients, describing that the “Hulk Smash” mentality was something familiar to grasp as an analogy of experience.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer made its rounds among the panel as a good example for a number of reasons.  Elizabeth Ann discussed how someone’s blog she had read was able to make connections toward better understanding mental illness by seeing the slayer as an analogy to someone suffering from mental illness.  Scarlet saw the slayer as an example of what it means to be different, building on Cardona’s observation that viewers relate to the same feelings a character might be going through even if the experience itself is not the same.

Scarlet further elaborated on how television can teach “fundamental experiences like love,” especially reflecting on the kind of experiences where our hearts get broken.  She uses examples such as Doctor Who and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. as having these kinds of storylines that often resonate with its viewers.  She offered Firefly as an example that generates hope, as viewers have this perpetual hope of its return.

More Lessons from TV

The range of lessons brought by the panel was wide and varied.  Cardona especially noted that television is now absent of the “educational PSA,” but television enables us to learn experiences even if we might not have had the same experience.


Elizabeth Ann focused on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., arguing that Coulson is a great example in perseverance as he struggles through his problems but keeps going – looking for an answer.  This might be helpful to someone who is struggling, having a bad day and wanting to give up.

Recognizing Self-Destructive Behavior

Scarlet brought Buffy the Vampire Slayer back into the discussion, noting the depth of the characters.  She referred specifically to how Buffy’s greatest fear was being buried alive – and as a consequence from that experience – she “engaged in a whole lot of self-destructive behaviors.”  Buffy’s story can be helpful for viewers to recognize their own potentially self-destructive behaviors.


Scarlet and Elizabeth reflected on how TV shows can teach empathy, acceptance, and understanding.  Examples from Sherlock, Arrow, Doctor Who, Husbands, and even Quantum Leap were brought up regarding this topic.  Scarlet noted how television can “show us how first perceptions can be wrong” and how “by staying with our characters we’re creating long-term relationships with them.”

Making a Difference

Television shows can also make a real-world difference.  Scarlet shared a story about one of her clients who was able to integrate the Doctor as a role model.  The client was an agoraphobic who is now able to drive and live a full life. As a result, he is now making a difference by promoting therapy and spreading awareness to people.

The Connective Power of Fandoms

A large part of cult television shows is the community that surrounds it.  The panel was asked to discuss their thoughts on the value of fandom and some reflected on how they understand its impact personally.

Langley largely discussed the role of fandom as community, how fandoms establish a culture that enables viewers to pull themselves together based on a common interest.  He noted ties to social media related to fandom, referencing live-tweeting as a community experience about a common event.  Langley also posited the idea of when a show is deemed “too popular” – how the cult status might then shift, resulting in participants losing a sense of community.

Elizabeth Ann pointed out how fandoms can be a real part of real-world/off-line relationships,   discussing how she knows colleagues and friends through communities like Buffy and Supernatural.  Langley and Scarlet extended this idea further, sharing that they both used cult tv references in the classroom.  Langley talked about how doing so creates connections with students and Scarlet emphasized the importance of engaging with students, describing that the “students who get it…get really excited by the reference.”

When TV is Unhealthy and How to Make It Healthy

Panelists seemed to agree that while television and the internet offers much to audiences, these mediums can also lead to unhealthy behaviors of escape and avoidance.  Elizabeth Ann described it as unhealthy when “it begins negatively affecting your life or school” such as not connecting with others and connecting with just the show you’re watching.

Scarlet also noted that alienation can result if the entire family time is spent watching separate shows, so it’s important to find activities that can connect families.  Elizabeth Ann suggested that even watching different television shows is not necessarily a bad thing if the end result may be connecting about those shows over a family activity like dinner. Cardona supported this idea – describing how he often calls his dad after they’ve both watched the same movie.  Dr. Scarlet also suggested that sharing a television show can also be beneficial for families, so that they might be able to understand each other better and have examples that allow them to communicate with each other better.

The panel appeared to be a resounding success with the audience, offering ideas and expert insights into the connections between psychology and cult television.  The panelists were engaging and the audience seemed very eager to learn about the subject matter.  I think much of the panel’s points on empathy and the deep impact cult television shows can have on individuals, personally resonated with much of the audience.  After all, you don’t attend WonderCon without being a fan of some sort.  Speaking as a fan myself, it’s always nice to know that what you value isn’t crazy and that others also believe that what you love has meaning.

One of the closing notes of the panel was how important it is to share with a friend or a child – “just giving that minute of ‘I’m paying attention to you/you’re important’ is important.” I can’t help but see how that message resonates from this panel, offering the time and expertise to describe how fandom can have an important place in life with pretty significant impact in how we perceive the world and ourselves in it.

Cardona, Scarlet, Langley, & Elizabeth Ann (l-r), following the panel

Cardona, Scarlet, Langley, & Elizabeth Ann (l-r), following the panel

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