I found a fandom I never would have imagined. Not because it is particularly insular or difficult to find, but because of its character: Like the film it adores, the Carol community is open and painfully earnest. You might even say it feels flung out of space. And by coalescing around Todd Haynes’ critically acclaimed film about two women and their secret affair in the 1950s, it rebuts many of the expectations people hold about the nature of fandom itself.
My pilgrimage started in mid-April, when a colleague mentioned that Carol enjoys an online profile far larger than other films of similar size (Carol, released in 2015, grossed less than $50 million). Yes, Carol inspires the same sorts of fan art Tumblrs, GIFs, Twitter accounts, Facebook groups common throughout fandom. And it generates random news-reaction posts from folks who may or may not be fans of the the film, but still have references at the ready—like this reaction to the Fyre Festival debacle.
But I saw something else at play: Carol boosters (Carolinians? #catepeople?) exhibit the kind of devotion typically reserved for subreddits devoted toDredd. These are the kinds of fans who start an in-joke about something a fan overheard an older woman telling her male companion during a screening (“Harold, they’re lesbians”). This is fandom of the sort you see with any under-appreciated futuristic sci-fi movie, but with a meditative queer drama set in the 1950s. It is, essentially, internet obsession for grownups.
The mid-April spike was no accident. A quick search of the message boards revealed that April 17 is something of an unofficial Carol Day. In the film, that is the day Carol (Cate Blanchett) and Therese (Rooney Mara) reunite. It also happens to be Mara’s birthday—and the date on which Haynes’ filmed the movie’s love scene. Fans know this because Mara mentioned it in interviews. I know this because of fans. I also know that I could take just about anyone on a walking tour of Carol filming locations throughout Cincinnati (shout-out to Instagram user freakingdorkok and the tour of the “Holy City of Cincinnati”). This is what falling down a rabbit hole feels like.
“The first few months after the film came out I struggled with this weird sense of shame that I loved it too much,” says Allison Tate, a video producer in Los Angeles. “But then I went online and saw the passion of so many people around the world—the beautiful art, and the blogs, and the fan-fiction that people were writing—and realized, no, this is a beautiful thing.”
Such internet group-forming isn’t unique to Carol, obviously. You can find a subreddit devoted to almost anything. It is fitting that it happened to a movie based on a beloved bit of pulp fiction—Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt—but it could easily happen with, say, Moonlight in the next year.
Still, the fact that it exists for a measured drama about two women falling in love says something about how cult movies are christened now. In the days before message boards, B-movies would languish in obscurity, slowly gaining fans via late-night art-house screenings before those fans maybe—maybe—found each other created something as robust as the fandom of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Then the internet happened, and people who loved weird things could find each other almost immediately. With that, even movies like Carol could fight their way back into the zeitgeist without waiting a decade or two to get rediscovered.
Aliza Ma, the head of programing for New York’s Metrograph theater, discovered this in a very peculiar way. During its opening month in March, 2016, the Metrograph screened a 35mm print of Carol an hosted a Q&A with Haynes along with the film’s producer and cinematographer. It sold out. So did a second screening. One woman and her daughter showed up with homemade Carol and Therese ragdolls and, Ma says, “shoved them into Todd’s lap.” The movie was so popular the Metrograph held screenings during the holidays and plans to hold more.
“Some theaters are known for showing midnight screenings for films and giving them that life, like what happened with Eraserhead,” Ma says. “Well, people have joked that Carol is our Eraserhead, because we keep showing it and it keeps selling out and it’s just this weird cult that’s developed here.”
Ma doesn’t see Carol‘s low-key resurgence as a result of internet fandom, but rather a testament to the ever-broadening idea of what makes a cult classic. Repeated midnight screenings and overzealous video store clerks are no longer the litmus test. Now films gain traction through Netflix recommendations, Alamo Drafthouse double features, social media, and literal word-of-mouth. Sometimes movies gain a following online—like Dredd, or even Pitch Perfect—and others win over cinephiles, who happen to bring that fandom online.
That’s exactly what appears to have happen with Carol. Whip-smart netizens still tweet GIFs of Carol saying “… flung out of space” every so often, but its fans share their love offline, too. They go to Cincinnati, and share it Instagram. They watch the movie in unison on April 17/Carol Day, then tweet about it together.
And the truly devoted? They make movies about Carol addiction. Carol Support Group arose last year after Tate found super-fans in her own office. Lucky for Tate, she was working as a video producer for Here Media, a company that produces LGBTQ content and agreed to back her movie. The result is an eight-minute short, slated to premiere next month at the Frameline Film Festival in San Francisco, that Tate says tells the story of a “mutiny in a support group of people addicted to the film Carol.” It’s a comedy, but it is no joke. Tate says it represents a real feeling many fans experience.
“Carol Support Group is as much a love letter to the fans as it is to the film,” she says. “Part of my experience of why I made the film is that I had never been in a fandom before. It’s been this fascinating and empowering experience to feel a part of an international family.”