"Lips! Lips! Lips!"
This cry is heard from New York City to San Francisco to Houston, like a call to arms. In Brooklyn, people have encircled a city block, wearing costumes which rival the transvestites in Central Park. In Tulsa, Oklahoma, a plate glass window was broken because the movie theater did not start the show on time. Some people have seen this movie a hundred times or more. What is this movie which has inspired cult-like fanatacism?
It is The Rocky Horror Picture Show, a film based on a stage musical which originated in England, then was successful Off-Broadway, but was a commercial failure as a movie when it was released in 1972. But a mere seven years later, there were posters, t-shirts, a soundtrack album on picture disc. Certainly, with such a following, this movie qualifies as a phnomenon.
The primary enjoyment of the movie appears to be the experience of losing your inhibitions in a crowd. People come dressed as various characters from the movie, their costumes and make-up ranging from the very poor to the very convincing. They reply to comments made by the characters, insult them, and give them stage directions. As a friend of mine has said, seeing Rocky Horror is like going to a rock concert.
In brief, the movie is about Brad and Janet, two ultra-average college kids who get engaged after two of their friends get married. They decide to tell their good news to their science professor, Dr. Everet Scott. Unfortunately, on the way they have a flat tire on a deserted country road. Because their spare tire is "badly in need of air," they are forced to walk to that castle a mile back on the road.
At the castle, they meet Riff Raff, a crazed hunch-back servant, his sister Magenta, and a warped Dr. Frankenstein-like scientist named Dr. Frank N. Furter. Frank, in full make up, corset, and stockings, ignores Brad and Janet's pleas to let them use his telephone, but he does invite them to his lab to see his muscle-bound creation, Rocky. From the moment of Rocky's creation it's clear that Dr. Furter takes joy in creation for reasons beyond the fact that he is its creator — there's an obvious sexual interest. Not only is it implied that he has sex with Rocky, he explicitly has sex with Brad and Janet — in that order. And all three in one night.
But Frank does not go unpunished. It seems that he and his servants are from the plant Transylvania in the gallaxy of Transexual. And Riff Raff has been given orders to leave earth. In so doing, he kills the doctor because his life-style's been "too extreme," and leaves Brad and Janet crawling helplessly, like insects, on the planet's face.
Lost in my brief synopsis of the movie are the numerous allusions to classic horror movies, especially Frankstein and King Kong. In the end scene, Magenta bears a marked resemblance to Elsa Lancaster as the Bride of Frankenstein. After Frank has been killed, Rocky climbs to the top of the RKO radio tower with his master's limp body under his arm (RKO is the studio which released King Kong).
Also lost are the crowd's reactions. In one scene, Riff Raff is drinking wine from a bottle while holding a full wine glass in his other hand. "Drop it," the crowd shouts; and seconds later, he drops the wine bottle. After Janet has had sex with Frank N. Furter, she asks, "O Brad, how could I have done this to you?" To which many in the crowd reply, "It was easy!" And someone else says, "No, it wasn't – she still has panty hose on!" In another scene Frank sings, "What ever happened to Fay Wray?" and the crowd answers, "She went ape-shit!"
The movie opens with a wedding, and many in the audience throw rice. Later, when Dr. Furter marries Rocky, they throw rice again. During a scene where it is raining, people squirt water pistols. There's a gospel-styled song titled "There's A Light" during which people hold up lighters, matches, and lit candles. In another scene, the doctor proposes a toast - so people throw slices of toast. And when he sings, "Cards for sorrow, cards for pain," the air is filled with tossed playing cards.
These actions are ritual, repeated at every showing of this movie. Often I have heard, while standing on line, "O dear, I forgot the rice. Anybody got some extra rice?" or "Anybody got an extra book of matches?" And once you are familiar with the plot and all the allusions in the movie, you surely go to this movie just to be part of the ritual.
Perhaps the meaning of the ritual can be found in the movie. The character for whom the most sympathy is Frank N. Furter. It certainly isn't Brad and Janet, the logical choices, since they're described by the audience as Asshole and Whore from the moment of their introduction. Frank N. Furter, who is portrayed by the British actor Tim Curry, is the strongest and most charismatic character on the screen. His introduction, in the titles, is greeted by applause. His entrance into the film is preceded by a rhythm guitar, with which the audience claps. Clearly, he is the character with whom the Me Generation of the 1970s identifies.
And yet, Frank is killed — punished for his life of extreme debauchery. It would seem the moral of the movie is "The wages of sin are death." But the Pepsi Generation comes to the movie, time and again, to vicariously engage in a wild sex orgy. In this sense, the movie is a safety valve where those who are repressed in this SEX-obsessed era can release their libidinal steam.
“I'm doing exactly what I want to . . . That's what Rocky Horror is all about.” – Bostonian woman.
— No, we don't have to worry much about violence. We never have to call the police, 'cause there's a couple of guys here who break up fights and escort people out of the theater.
In order to get to the Satellite Theaters in Norman, Oklahoma, you must go up two flights of red-carpeted stairs. The lobby is small, slightly larger than two prison cells. And, if you're lucky, and arrive at the right time, you meet the manager, who is the owner's daughter-in-law. Whe is a very handsome young woman, possibly in her late 20s or early 30s. When I met her, she was wearing a pastel red pant suit and a brilliant diamond ring. She was very personable and forthright in answering my questions.
— I'm afraid I can't tell you how much we pay for the rental on the film, how much we make on it, or how much we spend on cleaning. [The owner] doesn't give out that information on any of the films. Sorry.
— I'm not interested in actual figures; I'd just like a comparison between this and your other shows. For instance: do you spend more on cleaning for this show?
— Well, I can tell you this: we do spend more to clean up for this show that
for the others. He's here most of Saturday and Sunday morning cleaning.
But the crowd isn't all that bad, y'know. We get a lot of drunks, of
course. And we don't like people drinking beer, smoking marijuana and
cigarettes, or lighting those lighters, but .... how can you stop them?
You know, this one time this guy brought in an aerosal spray can and sat in the front row. Well, he lit his lighter in front of that can and the flame shot out past those curtains at the side of the screen. One of the guys escorted him out. You know, that could've really scared people - if the curtains caught on fire.
Another time, this guy hit his girl friend and we had to take him out of the theater. He really hurt her. But he was real apologetic later; he was drunk, y'know, and he just ... he just got carried away. Another time, a couple of guys came to blows, but we got 'em out without any problems.. And those incidents are real rare. Most of the time, they're pretty cool – I guess 'cause they're a college crowd. I've not been there, but I've heard they get really wild at the May, where they show it in the City (OKC).
— So the crowd isn't destructive?
— Not at all.
— Have you ever had a Standing Room Only crowd?
— Not as far as I know. The theater can seat 400 people, and I think we haven't had more than 250 for Rocky Horror. but if you looked in that theater now [at the 6:30 showing of The Warriors], there wouldn't be that many people in there.
— Do you know why the owner chose to show the film so late at night?
— Well, you know that Twentieth Century Fox [the distributer of Rocky Horror] approached him, he didn't go to them. He didn't know anything about the film until they approached him. They told him a little about it, and how it was a good money-maker. And they suggested he show it late at night. It really is a late-night film. You know, the Boomer Theater showed Rocky Horror here in 1976, earlier in the evening, and it bombed. If we showed it daily and for the matineés, I think we'd start loosing money on it. People would get bored with it. But, showing it every week-end, we get a steady revenue from it. We wouldn't show it otherwise.
Getting Rocky Horror fanatics to talk about the film is not difficult. Especially if you sound like you're attacking it. M.K. Jackson, who is currently a graduate student working in the Bizzell Library, very kindly agreed to speak with me on short notice. She has seen the movie at least a dozen times.
— Although, she says, I stopped counting at six. I've seen it in Houston, Kansas, Colorado, Tulsa, and Norman. The crowds in Houston and Kansas are better than the one here in Norman. There, they cooperate; they all shout the same thing at the right time – between lines of dialogue. That way, you can hear what's going on in the movie. I don't really like the crowd here in Norman: they shout different things at different times, and it's just noise.
— Well, if it's so bad here, why continue seeing it?
— Because it's fun. There's absolutely nothing like it. And it's exciting.
— Something that's interested me: people get so involved in the film – throwing things, wearing costumes, and all of that. Why don't even small groups of people get involved during the orgy scene.
— What you don't understand, James, is this film isn't about sex. It's a film about decadence, which involves more than sex. Decadence is self-centered. And although it's self-destructive – as is the case with Frank N. Furter, and that great decadent, Oscar Wilde – there's also a sense of self-preservation, of how much you can get away with. And the sort of thing you're talking about is just too much.
— Why do you think Rocky Horror is so popular?
— It's a release. And it's a cult: with all the rituals, it really is like going to church every Friday or Saturday night. And I think it fills a need for the ritual which is lacking in America today.
III. Son of Rocky Horror
“Each man must create his own system or else he is slave to another man's” – William Blake
Objectivity is a fiction. "Truth in journalism" implies an I, and that pronoun proliferates like telephone poles on a country road. The 1970s were the "Me Decade", as Tom Wolfe wrote.
The 70s were the denouement of a neo-Romantic era which began in the 1960s, between the death of Robert Frost and President Kennedy. Just as Romanticism in France was heralded by the first French Revolution, so was America's by campus revolts during President Johnson's terms of office. And as the activism of France's Romanticism ended with Napoleon's deposition and the beginning of a more rigid government, so did America's activism end with the shock of "four dead in Ohio."
After these ages of activism ended, an age of Romanticism as literary and cultural philosophy began. Now the self, as in "self help" is emphasized. The letter "I" is holy. The accent is on youth, for Romanticism is the teenage years gone wild. It's the "Pepsi Generation."
I believe Rocky Horror is a fable for the Romanticism of the 1970s. Granted, this movies is about decadence, as one of the songs says, to "give yourself over to absolute pleasure." But, my dear friend, decadence is just Romanticism in drag.
The advertisements for this movie read: "He's the hero! That's right, he's the real hero!" But the question is, who is the hero? It would seem to be Dr. Frank N. Furter, for this is the character whom audiences applaud and cheer throughout the movie. Yet, in the end he is killed, punished for being the true Existentialist Man who lives by no morals but his own. But this is not unusual. Dorian Gray dies in the end, after all. The tragic Romantic hero is an enduring trope. We cheer these heroes, even though their deaths are a form of moral defeat.
Who would not like to create their perfect mate? No doubt, we envy Dr. Furter's success in that pursuit. But we also cheer him because we wish we could share his loose morals. But most of us have enough sense of self-preserevation to realise that such extremism is self-destructive. Although we may identify with the Doctor, we are really just a bunch of Brads and Janets being vicariously debauched for ninety-two minutes. Every Friday and Saturday night, we go to this Church of Decadence, barely tasting the communion.
People have an innate need to believe in something, be it Krishna, God, the Flying Spagetti Monster, or the Cosmic Doughnut. And those who have rejected both Christian mythology and the myths of foriegn cultures are placed in the lonely position of creating, in effect, their own religion. Without at least one other person believing as you do, and observing your rituals, it's hard to convince yourself that your religion is viable or true. So we run to the religion of the Self: self-help, self-hypnosis, regression therapy,or Werner Erhert's pseudo-existentialist EST. Or .... we become card-carying members of the Rocky Horror cult.
I have already described many of the rituals involved in this cult, but what (if any) beliefs do its adherents have in common? Obviously, all the hard core fanatics believe this movie is great; so great, in fact, that it is worth spending three dollars a shot for as many as forty-three to one hundred visits. Also, sexual licentiousness is OK. Although the audience calls Janet a "Whore", I doubt there are very many single virgins in the audience. The term is used ironically: it is as if to say: "My parents would think you're a whore, but you're all right in my book."
* * *
I originally wrote this essay in March of 1979, at which time I predicted enthusiasm for the movie would soon end. I'm now a 60 year-old geezer writing about this 43 year-old movie. Surprisingly, it's still showing in many markets with the same rituals I observed all those years ago. Romanticism may be dead, but the longing for connection and ritual is not. Nor is the temptation to give yourself over to absolute pleasure.