I watched The Rocky Horror Picture Show for the first time at the Englert Theatre on Halloween, and now I’m faced with the Herculean task of explaining it to someone else.
Rocky Horror is the omphalos of nearly half a century’s decadence and lecherous desires, but I can’t even dine out on it. For everyone who already speaks the native tongue, they’ll say, “Yeah, we know all that shit.”
And for all the virgins — people who haven’t seen Rocky Horror in a theater — no description would satisfy. It would violate the sacrosanct traditions. You have to enter the theatre blind.
I knew precious little beforehand, other than Tim Curry plays “a sweet transvestite from Transsexual, Transylvania.” And I knew it has a history in the queer community.
There’s no shortage of “Rocky Horror is problematic, actually” articles online, but I have plenty queer friends with bellicose defenses of the movie’s portrayals. And for people questioning their gender, Rocky Horror is an environment that allows, and even encourages, experimentation.
Virgins, this article is not really for you, but before you resume your somnambulist life, let me offer you some free advice.
- Go with a friend, preferably a veteran of midnight screenings. You’ll need a guide to help you navigate through the landscape, ready your props and explain the traditional phrases and dances.
My Virgil was a redhead named Erin. She has freckles from head to toe, a sarcastic sense of humor and a deep love for sharks. She’s seen Rocky Horror four times in a theater, and the third song on her Halloween playlist is “Time Warp.” Predictably, she sang along the entire time.
- Dress up. Dress up as what? You can choose a character from the movie — Dr. Frank-N-Furter, Magenta and Rocky are all classic choices — or you can choose literally anything else.
I saw a hotdog costume, Wirt from Over the Garden Wall, Finn from Adventure Time and many more. If nothing else, wear something slutty: leather skirts, fishnet tights, sheer tops, stiletto heels. The tawdry and tacky, the risqué and risky. And if I’m a dude? Oh that’s easy: a leather skirt, fishnet tights, a sheer top …
I dressed up as Adora from the prom episode of She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, a simple costume that requires a sleeveless red dress and a ponytail. Erin went as Catra, wearing a red suit with fingerless leather gloves.
- Don’t expect to understand anything, and don’t question it. Just go along.
Walking out of the theatre at close to 3 a.m., I couldn’t tell you what Rocky Horror is about. Most of the time I couldn’t hear the characters over the crowd or the emcee. But the movie thrives on audience participation. So when everyone dances to “Time Warp” or shouts “Asshole!” at Brad Majors, you do it too. You’ll have fun if you let yourself have fun.
Rocky Horror is not for the prudish, the pearl clutchers or the holier-than-thou, frozen chosen. I thought it was fairly tame, but if crossdressing and queer awakenings are likely to offend your puritan sensibilities, probably just skip this one.
Rocky Horror is based on The Rocky Horror Show, a stage musical written by Richard O’Brien. The musical was first produced in 1973 at the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs in London, winning the Evening Standard Theatre Award for Best Musical. It then came to America, premiering at the Roxy Theatre in Los Angeles in 1974, and then the Belasco Theatre on Broadway in 1975.
In the ’70s, the United Kingdom saw the rise of glam rock, which was as much a fashion aesthetic as a genre. Musically, it combined hard rock and pop. Artists draped theatrics, glamour, gender nonconformity and androgyny over themes of science fiction and the space race. My cultural touchstone here is David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust persona, and his collaborators Iggy Pop and Lou Reed.
Rocky Horror’s music, characters and costumes combine glam rock and dark cabaret (with a mix of punk for good measure). Former Bowie make-up artist Pierre La Roche designed the look for each character in the film. There’s Columbia dressed in a gold sequined suit and red sequined bow tie, and the titular Rocky in a golden speedo and golden boots. The clearest parallel is Dr. Frank-N-Furter, an androgynous bisexual mad scientist from the planet Transsexual, who’s both the androgynous alien rock star Ziggy Stardust (see the song “Lady Stardust”) and Colin Clive’s Dr. Henry Frankenstein from 1931.
Science fiction and horror movies make the bulk of Rocky Horror’s visual language, borrowing from both the cheesy and the classic: dark and stormy night, creepy castle, hunchbacked butler, birthing tank, ray gun. The movie was partly filmed at Oakley Court, a Victorian Gothic country house that also held B-movies like The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and The Brides of Dracula (1962).
OK, but what’s the story about? With complete sincerity, it doesn’t matter. At one point maybe, sure — but Rocky Horror is about the atmosphere. Reveling in the hoi polloi, shouting and throwing props at the screen and shadow cast performances. If you want to understand the plot, watch it at home (or, in my case, read the Wiki page).
But the story follows newly engaged Brad Majors (“Asshole!”) and Janet Weiss (“Slut!”). After their car breaks down during a storm, they seek shelter and a telephone at a nearby castle. There they meet Dr. Frank-N-Furter — who is creating the perfect sexual partner, Rocky — and his loyal followers, each with their own wants and ambitions. The story is narrated by an unnamed criminologist, whose jawline and chin run unbroken into his collar.
For years, my friends have been proselytizing for the Lips, but I’ve always been resistant. I had a cloistered upbringing in a Southern Baptist household. So queerness, crossdressing and sexual liberation were Hesperidean, golden apples guarded by my own hundred-headed guilt complex, even after I came out. Why watch it now, then? I thought it’d be a good article.
Around 11:15 p.m. on Oct. 30 (All Hallows’ Eve Eve), Erin and I walked to the Englert. The doors didn’t open for another 15 minutes, but there was already a line leading towards South Linn Street. Clear skies, crescent moon and 40 degrees — winter weather in my home state of Georgia. I was freezing.
While we stood line, a worker came through to check your IDs and vaccination cards. Behind them, another worker was looking for virgins. He wore a tall top hat, festooned up and down with googly eyes. He held a tube of red lipstick and drew a “V” on virgins’ foreheads. I didn’t want to mess with my costume before taking pictures, so I lied. But the top hat could sniff out a virgin.
“What’s your favorite color?” he asked me, ignoring Erin.
“Uhh, red?” I said unsure.
“Uh huh. If you’re seeing Rocky Horror, the correct answer is Magenta.”
Erin explained the costume situation and later told me that Magenta is a character in the movie. We picked up our tickets, and they handed us prop bags. The bags came with confetti, a party hat, latex gloves, playing cards, printed pictures of toast, a keychain light and a newspaper. We grabbed seats near the front, and I wandered around taking photos.
Well past midnight the emcee walked on stage, wearing a blue bathrobe and holding a matching cane and red high heels.
“If you’ve never been to Rocky Horror, you’re a virgin. And what do we do with virgins?” He paused. “We sacrifice them.”
Every theater has their own virgin sacrifice ritual. Erin has seen theaters ask a male virgin to walk in oversized stilettos across the stage. After the screening, I read about cherry popping balloon contests, sucking the cream filling out of a Twinkie, oral with a banana and so on.
The emcee called around 20 virgins to join him onstage. One lucky virgin stood with the emcee, while the rest created a line behind, chest to back. On the count of three, they thrusted into the person in front of them, forming one long pelvic thrust chain.
“You’ve now been fucked by the audience,” he said. When everyone returned to their seats, he lead the crowd in the Rocky Horror pledge.
“Repeat after me:
I, state your name, (Everyone who said ‘your name,’ you are my people)
Pledge Allegiance to the Lips
Of the Rocky Horror Picture Show,
And to the decadence for which it stands.
One movie, under Richard O’Brien,
With Sensuous Daydreams, Erotic Nightmares and Sins of the Flesh for All,
And I promise to be creative and repeat anything anyone else says.”
The movie, which was released in 1975, retains many of the actors from the original London cast. Tim Curry returns as Dr. Frank-N-Furter (Curry also played this role for the Los Angeles and Broadway productions); Richard O’Brien returns as Riff Raff, the hunchback butler; Patricia Quinn as Magenta, Riff Raff’s sister; and Nell Campbell as Columbia, one of Frank’s groupies. Jim Sharman directed the London production and the movie.
The audience ushered in the movie with chants of “Lips! Lips! Lips!” The iconic red lips (O’Brien’s vocals but Quinn’s lips) sang “Science Fiction/Double Feature” against a black background.
“Get your confetti ready,” the emcee said.
The next scene is a wedding, where the audience usually throws rice. I’m guessing it’s easier to clean up than rice, though I’m still finding confetti in my apartment.
“Everyone knows that Betty is a wonderful little cook,” Brad says.
“Yes, and she’s a great little fuck too!” the audience responded.
Again, Rocky Horror doesn’t work without audience participation. Throughout the movie, the crowd will shout these callback phrases. Erin told me that some people will know one phrase, while others will know another. Filling in each other’s gaps is part of the experience.
At this showing, the emcee knew all the lines, and his mic’d voice boomed over the crowd and movie. It’s welcome for the virgins, a guided tour experience. Considering the college student audience — many living in a variegated urban community for the first time, or newcomers to a passionate, sex-positive environment — it makes sense to account for culture shock. But for Erin, it felt slightly “inauthentic.”
“Janet, are you a slut?” the emcee asked.
“Yes,” Janet says.
The next musical number is “Dammit Janet,” where Brad proposes to Janet. When Brad spells out her name, they held up an electric marquee sign that lights up J-A-N-E-T on beat. By this point, I was already sold on the experience. The criminologist narrates the next scene of Brad and Janet’s car breaking down during a storm.
“Where the fuck is your neck!” someone shouted.
“It’s true also that the spare tire they were carrying was badly in need of some air,” he says.
“Like your fucking neck.”
When Brad and Janet head for the castle, we put newspapers on our heads, and the staff sprayed everyone with water pistols. I was curious where all these prop traditions and callback phrases originated.
Like a lot of cult classics, Rocky Horror Picture Show flopped when it first premiered. Sal Piro, president of the Rocky Horror fan club since 1977, has written two books about its cult following, Creatures of the Night (1990) and its sequel published five years later.
According to his account, an executive at 20th Century Fox, Tim Deegan, convinced Bill Quigley of the Walter Reade Organization to play Rock Horror at midnight at the Waverly Theatre in Greenwich Village.
“The Waverly had already been a mecca for midnight movies and had had two very successful runs, of ‘El Topo’ and ‘Night of The Living Dead,’” he wrote.
Waverly’s manager, Denise Borden, advertised the movie and played the soundtrack before showing the movie, which created a party mood.
“The audiences naturally began to respond, by booing the villain and cheering the heroes,” Piro wrote. “This spawned a whole group of regulars who weekly reserved the same seats in the first row of the balcony.”
The regulars shouted lines at the screen, and the audience erupted in laughter. After a few screenings, Piro became adding his own lines, which have now solidified in the canon.
“I not only invented lines; if I heard someone else’s line and liked it, I kept it alive by integrating it with the rest of the litany. This is how the show ‘went public,’ people inventing lines and using the lines of others.”
Piro attributes the newspaper tradition to Alan Riis, who stubbornly put a newspaper over his head for three weeks until others mimicked the practice. Repetition legitimizes. So from midnight screenings in New York City, it spread theater to theater across the country, adding more callbacks and traditions, phasing out others, spawning endless productions, remakes and parodies.
The first showstopper is “Time Warp,” a song that initiates Brad and Janet, and the audience, to world of the Transylvanians. Everyone stands up and dances to the chorus’s instructions:
“It’s just a jump to the left / And then a step to the right / With your hands on your hips / You bring your knees in tight / But it’s the pelvic thrust / That really drives you insane.”
This leads into Dr. Frank-N-Furter’s introduction, “Sweet Transvestite.” When Tim Curry appears out of the elevator — wearing a sparkly corset, matching gloves, tights, high heels and a pearl necklace — the theater cheered with resounding screams, followed by detumescent relief.
My favorite scene is when Frank, disguised as Brad, seduces Janet.
“Oh, you beast, you monster. Oh what have you done with Brad?” she asks.
“Oh, well nothing. Why, do you think I should?” he replies.
The scene is repeated when Frank, now disguised as Janet, seduces Brad.
“Why you, what have you done with Janet?”
“Nothing. Why, do you think I should?”
The apparently ascetic couple need only an evening of divine concupiscence to learn that they aren’t as cishet as they thought they were. It’s a tale of self-discovery.
I’m not arguing that Rocky Horror is perfect queer representation, or barring that, a good movie. But I didn’t enter the theater wearing my literary criticism cap. Analysis isn’t the point. You’re supposed to laugh at the silliness and camp.
I won’t spoil the rest of the Rocky Horror’s story or traditions, but know it’s a blur of sex, murder, rock ‘n’ roll, cannibalism, dancing and more murder. As I exited the Englert, a student behind me loudly voiced his discomfort. He looked like a business major.
“I don’t get it. That’s a one-and-doner for me,” he said.
I’m not surprised. My friends’ elevator pitches were usually asterisked with “Rocky Horror isn’t for everyone.” But cheesy, ’70s glam rock, science fiction, horror musicals are definitely for me.