Wednesday, October 28, 2015

It Was Great When It All Began

I was a regular Rocky fan.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show, that is. I’m not the first person to write about this, not by a long shot. I won’t be the last. But it’s Halloween and I have an annual ritual of playing the soundtrack in my car and loudly singing all the parts this time of year, something I did this past weekend. I also watched a BBC stage production of this on Saturday, so it’s on my mind.

My first exposure to RHPS was back around 1980 or so. I was in college and working as a volunteer teaching assistant for the secondary gifted program in Greene County. One of the students had a copy of the Official Rocky Horror Picture Show Movie Novel and the record of the soundtrack.

A janitor found the Movie Novel left in the classroom and lost his shit. He turned it in to the principal, believing it to be little more than pornography and what the Hell was being taught in that gifted class anyway. The teacher was forced to sit through a no doubt uncomfortable meeting about this, and to her credit, went to bat for the students, eventually convincing the administration of the value of discussing these kinds of topics. I don’t know how she managed it, but kudos. The book was returned to the student and we all got the stinkeye from that janitor from that point on.

Being out in a rural setting we had no access to actually seeing the film, so my experience with it was exclusively through these artifacts. It would be a couple of years before I actually saw the movie at a midnight showing at the GeeBee’s shopping plaza in Washington, PA. It was the full-fledged audience participation event I expected. All of the props, all of the chaos. I vaguely remember someone tearing a toilet out of the floor in the men’s room, so there was a level of vandalism not usually associated with this as well, probably explaining why it was never screened there again.

I loved it. How could I not? The film was, and forgive my obvious metaphor here, a Frankensteinian collage of my favorite things: science fiction, horror, rock and roll, comic books, and sex.

Which probably says way too much about my priorities.

What I didn’t recognize at the time is the extent of the Pop Culture nexus RHPS really is for these elements. There are lots of connections I want to explore, so bear with me while I work this out.

RHPS is pretty specifically a product of the time and place in which it was created. It was first staged in London in 1973, firmly at the height of the Glam Rock movement. Glitter, costumes, camp, and sexual ambiguity were the order of the day. T Rex, The Sweet, Roxy Music and David Bowie, among many others, were scandalizing the stodgy keepers of the status quo on record and on TV with overtly sexualized, gender-bending performances. Glam was a short-lived phenomenon in the music world (though I could make the case that it never went away, just reformatted). It’s lifestyle was too extreme. It served as a short transition from what rock music had been up to that point and what it was going to become.

In the midst of all of the Glam indicators in RHPS it is Columbia who most clearly represents it. Her costume is all glitter and sequins, with character references to Betty Boop and Sally Bowles from Cabaret (another influential film in the Glam Rock canon).

Little Nell

Liza Minelli

Betty Boop

Columbia is torn between the past and the future, as represented by her love for both Eddie and her obsession with Frank. It makes complete sense to me that Columbia was in love with Eddie. Glam was in love with the music of the 50s. A tremendous amount of the genre (the artistic achievements of Bowie and a couple of other artists excepted), was a return to the aesthetic of the past. The social consciousness of the 60s, the experimentation of the Beatles, the jazz-influenced jam band sound of the Grateful Dead, and many other signifiers of the hippy generation were eschewed in favor of the three-minute pop song single. Both Gary Glitter and Alvin Stardust had been 50s era crooners who reinvented themselves as Glam stars. A lot of the music itself sounds like it could have been written a decade earlier. Roy Wood of Wizzard tricked himself out in more makeup and gaudiness than most, but his songs were direct sonic throwbacks to old time rock n’ roll.

Glam wasn’t alone in its love of the past. A full blown 50s revival was in the air. Grease premiered on stage in 1971. AmericanGraffiti hit the big screen in 1973 and Happy Days was just around the corner on the small screen in 1974.

For all of its subversion, RHPS is drenched in nostalgia. The most obvious examples of this are the film references. The late night, science fiction picture show was part of 50s culture as much as doo wop. Frank was a mix of the horror movie icons of Dr. Frankenstein and Dracula, with Riff Raff as his Igor/Renfield. The reference to Fay Wray, followed by Rocky climbing a tower and getting shot down is less than subtle. Rocky himself is a parody of the Charles Atlas ads that ran in every comic book ever for decades (an exaggeration, but not by much). Body building, and the magazines dedicated to it in the first half of the 20th century are one of the direct influences on comic books and the superhero genre.

But Columbia fell in love with the future as well. Eddie only had half a brain after all, and Brad and Janet are the cliched archetypes of the 1950s teen. Nostalgia is at its heart, conservative. The belief that things were better in the good old days prevents growth and progress into new ways of thinking. These images of a somehow more innocent past are subverted not only by the clothing and sexuality of the film, but by actual history itself. By this time we were wounded by Viet Nam, and assassinations, and the death of the love and peace ideal of the 60s. In the middle of this moment we had Kent State and Watergate (Nixon’s resignation speech can be heard on the radio in the RHPS movie). To go back to the metaphor, ‟Darkness conquered Brad and Janet.” No wonder we were clamoring for some innocent nostalgia. But, once we remove the lens of sentimentality and acknowledge the darkness it’s impossible not to see it. ‟Still the beast is feeding.”

But as scary as the past may be, the future is more so. It is the great unknown. David Bowie’s Major Tom was alone in his capsule, the ultimate in alienation, while Ziggy Stardust was ‟a Starman, waiting in the sky,” who would, ‟like to come and meet us, but he’s afraid he’d blow our mind.” Frank N Furter exhorts us, ‟Don’t get strung out, by the way I look.” He knows he’s blown our minds.

And in the end both Ziggy and Frank had to die at the hands of their admirers. It was too much, too soon. The lifestyle is too extreme to carry into day to day living, but the encounter with it changes people.

In 1973 50s rock n’ roll was nostalgia, Glam was dying of its own excess, but RHPS anticipated what was coming. The leather and ripped clothes and makeup and anti-authoritarian mindset anticipated Punk, and in its use of horror imagery, more specifically Goth (Riff Raff and Magenta appear in the early scenes in Denton posed as the American Gothic painting). Not that this was the first appearance or only influence in music. Screamin Jay Hawkins, Arthur Brown, and Alice Cooper were openly utilizing these motifs in ways that probably influenced RHPS as much as it influenced what came after. It’s certainly debatable, but I can see direct lines from Glam to Punk to Goth (which I might talk about in a different post). To quote myself from one of my novels, ‟Goth is just Glam with the lights turned down.” Count the number of Glam songs covered by Bauhaus if you doubt me.

All of these elements come to together, and to tease out specific connections and influences can be difficult. To explore one example, as an aside (because we need one of those in a post that’s already tl;dr), I want to talk, briefly I promise, about the Runaways. There is an anecdote where their Svengali Kim Fowley took the girls out to see RHPS. This was significant enough that it was mentioned in at least two books that I’ve read, and possibly three (I don’t have them in front of me). Cherie Currie and Joan Jett are both on record as being heavily influenced by Glam acts (Bowie and Suzi Quatro, respectively, among others). Because of the timing they were lumped in with the burgeoning punk movement. You can see this clearly in their fashion. Cherie famously scandalized the rock press by wearing a bustier and thigh highs on stage when she was sixteen. Was this directly inspired by RHPS? Hard to say, but the imagery speaks for itself. Years later Joan Jett was cast as Columbia in a Broadway revival of RHPS and in the floorshow section of the play can be seen wearing an outfit remarkably similar to Cherie’s. Full circle.


Cherie Currie

Joan Jett as Columbia

RHPS was a failure when it was first released, but over the years developed a cult following in repeated midnight showings around the globe. It is perhaps the most viewed movie in history. Hundreds of thousands of people (millions? Is that possible?), have gathered in the dark to not just watch, but to participate in this cultural phenomenon.

My friend Dr. Michael Chemers has written about this (source cited below). He talks at length about the RHPS Performance Cult. The movie has transformed into a participatory experience as opposed to something that is simply watched. It has become a mystery cult, where virgins, those who have not seen the movie, are initiated into the shared group experience. There is a call and response, where the congregation shouts out specific lines in response to what is happening on screen. Props are brought to the theater to simulate the experience.

In many theaters there were performance troupes who dressed in costumes and acted out the entire film. You can see this in the movie Perks of Being a Wallflower, filmed here in Pittsburgh at the Hollywood Theater, which had a long history of showing the film (in 2008, when Chemers article appeared, Pittsburgh had only one of three theaters in the country that still did this). While I have certainly danced the Time Warp I never officially participated in these performances, though I know several people who did.

This level of identification with something is the essence of religious experience, and if I may go out on a limb, of intense fandom of anything. We identify with something larger than ourselves and wish to emulate it. Fans go to concerts dressed as Ziggy Stardust, Alice Cooper, and KISS. We wear the sports jerseys of our favorite players. Comics conventions are filled with cosplayers with dozens of Deadpools, Harley Quinns and Doctor Whos. We pull on the sacred raiments of our obsession and engage in Participation Mystique.

But, as Dr. Chemers points out, watching RHPS on DVD in the comfort of your home changes your interaction with it. Fewer and fewer people are having the shared communal experience. The mystery cult has no place to congregate. It’s a shame because it is in the shared experience that the lessons of the sacrament become embodied in the real world, and I think there are many lessons to be learned from RHPS.

The first is the obvious mantra of ‟Don’t dream it. Be it.” It is a statement that speaks for itself. It is Joseph Campbell’s ‟Follow your bliss.” But, as important as this may be, I don’t think it is the main lesson we can learn. While there are many factors in any major social change I can’t help but wonder about just how much of a cultural impact RHPS has had on our perception and acceptance of sexuality. For thirty years thousands of people participated in a world that embraced transvestites, transexuals, transgendered, queer, bi, and straight characters.

In 1973 these were topics that very few people discussed openly. Bowie casually hugged his guitarist Mick Ronson on TV and Great Britain lost its mind at the perceived overt homosexuality of the act. We now live in a world where these issues are being dealt with in a much more open fashion. We still have light years to go for full acceptance, I understand that, and in no way do I want to diminish the very real struggles many people still endure. But, I know that for myself, this movie was an open door into a world I had not encountered, one that changed my perceptions. In these over-the-top caricatured characters I was able to recognize truths that went beyond the campiness of the film. Under the glitter and the makeup and the thigh highs there was the possibility of very real people trying to find their identity, trying to connect with other people.

There was the possibility, for everyone, of finding a light in the darkness of their lives.

Chemers, Dr. Michael. ‟Wild and Untamed Thing: The Exotic, Erotic, and Neurotic Rocky Horror Performance Cult.” in Reading Rocky Horror: The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Popular Culture. Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock, ed (Palgrave MacMillan: New York, 2008)


  1. Thanks for the shout-out! Hot Patootie!

  2. Different place, different time: My first exposure to RHPS came in 10th grade when we performed a "Time Warp" and "[the other number escapes me now]" for our school Halloween assembly. ~Z