By looking at the example of Don Coscarelli's unapologetically silly 2002 film, Bubba Ho–tep, I want to propose that we consider sf, fantasy, and indeed cult films of all stripes as both literal and figurative “strange attractors.” Excluding perhaps what J. P. Telotte refers to as “classical” cult films in The Cult Film Experience —mainstream Hollywood films such as Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, 1942) that have inspired fiercely loyal fan followings—cult films typically are works that foreground their thematic, structural, and/or aesthetic deviation from loosely defined Hollywood norms. They literally attract due to their strangeness. Borrowing from chaos theory, however, we can find another sense in which cult films might be considered as strange attractors. Chaos theory studies the behavior of non–linear systems (such as weather) that are extremely sensitive to initial conditions. Small variations in those initial conditions can yield widely varying outcomes, making long–term prediction impossible. Within chaos theory, a “strange attractor” is the focus of a pattern of seemingly chaotic behavior—it is, according to James Gleick in his famous study Chaos, “the trajectory toward which all other trajectories converge” (150). Moreover, the strange attractor—much like a cult film—is posited retroactively; the pattern signals the presence of a focus that cannot otherwise be identified.
In his Looking Awry, an explication of Lacanian psychoanalysis, Slavoj Žižek appropriates this idea of the strange attractor as a way to explain the working of a concept intimately related to human desire, the Lacanian objet petit a (opa). For Lacan, human subjects are fundamentally marked by lack. The objet a, the unattainable “object cause” of desire, is that which the subject fantasizes would complete him or her, what one loves but cannot fully grasp or possess. In Seminar 11, Lacan—sounding as though he is discussing the sf cult fans of Rocky Horror and Mystery Science Theater 3000 —expresses this relationship as, “ I love you, but, because inexplicably I love in you something more than you —the objet petit a—I mutilate you ” (268). Žižek, after a brief synopsis of chaos theory, then asks, “Is not the very form of the ‘strange attractor’ a kind of physical metaphor for the Lacanian objet petit a ?”(38).