When I call myself an anime fan and a video game fan, it implies an open-ended fandom of the mediums in general. However, it’s something totally different when I call myself a My Little Pony fan, or a Dark Souls fan, or a Touhou fan, etc.
I think that every work has the potential to form a cult, but I don’t think that every work has such a cult, even if it gets a lot of attention within its medium. If you’re not sure what’s the difference, go find the Reddit board of an individual work, or an active forum or wiki, whether fan-made, or on a place like GameFAQs. Compare what you find there against what you find on a blog or site that covers a medium in more general terms.
The first time I felt the difference between being in a fandom and being in a cult following was when I got into Touhou. I didn’t love Touhou as an anime fan, because it has no anime; and I didn’t love it as a gamer, because while I do enjoy the games, I don’t like them nearly as much as any of my favorite games. My love for Touhou wasn’t bound to its being an exemplary piece of a medium which I was already a fan of—I was a fan of it as an individual being, apart from any one medium.
Touhou is too broad to make the implications of this obvious, but other works do a fine job.
If I look at My Little Pony or Homestuck—two things with huge cult followings that I’m a big fan of—I can really see the difference. While there are non-Japanese cartoons and webcomics which I love, I don’t consider myself a fan of either medium in general. MLP isn’t my “favorite cartoon,” nor is Homestuck my “favorite webcomic,” so much as I enjoy those works outside the context of their mediums.
Perhaps better than these as an example is Dark Souls, which is even more cult than the other things I mentioned, and continues to intrigue me as I interact with it more. Dark Souls is an amazing video game, and I certainly am ready to compare it with other games. However, I don’t play it or interact with it the way that I do other games, and simply calling it my “favorite video game,” doesn’t do justice to the different way that I communicate with it.
Particularly interesting is that if I can split up the definition between being a video game fan and being a Dark Souls fan, then I can further split the definition wherever I can see that my appreciation of two subsets of a medium function differently.
Better than myself, I will use my friend Shinmaru as an example. Shinmaru has what I’d call a passion for terrible anime, and he’s tried, but never really broken ground at, explaining how his love of them is different from his love of great anime. I think the problem is that he, and everyone else, are grouping these things together because they happen to be a part of the same medium, when in reality, he views them in two completely different ways. I think rather than calling Shinmaru an anime fan who loves bad anime as well as good, he should be called an anime fan who’s also a fan of terrible anime, or a fan of good anime as well as a fan of bad anime.
This is the kind of thing that I’ve tried to capture in my Canon. You’ll notice that there’s a whole section just for My Little Pony, which is separate entirely from the Cartoons section. It’s because having MLP among a list of other cartoons that I like betrays the nature of my fandom of those different things. Likewise, there’s an anime section, which accounts for pretty much everything, because for the most part, I appreciate anime the same way—but there’s also a section for shows made by Bee Train, because I hate them in such a spectacular fashion which isn’t like the way I hate other anime.
I think it’s a good idea to break down and define things like this, because there’s such a difference in perspective between people who like something in the way of general fandom, and people who like something in the way of a cult fandom. I’ve read and seen a lot of opinions about Dark Souls, from people who loved it, hated it, appreciated it and didn’t like it, or didn’t understand it at all, and none of them reflects the way that people view it who are fans of the game in a big way.