It is rare, in everyday life, that you walk into a public setting and are overdressed in a t-shirt and shorts. It is a little strange when you are expected to yell obscenities, in a practiced, cult-like unison, at a movie theater screen. It is outright bizarre when a boring scene in a film prompts the majority of the audience to lift up their armrests and make out with the stranger next to them. To put it bluntly, and probably as most attendees of the picture can attest, the culture of The Rocky Horror Picture Show is weird. Like, super weird. How did it get to be this way? How is it still around?
What’s a Rocky Horror?
First of all, for those folks out there who haven’t been following Laverne Cox’s every move, or who prefer to stay fully clothed in movie theaters, The Rocky Horror Picture Show is a campy cult film that came out (pun intended) in 1975 . It was loosely based on horror B movies of the time and earlier– that is to say that the creator, Richard O’Brien, is a lover of intentionally over-the-top, corny, not-necessarily-coherent subject matter, perhaps a passion that’s obvious to anyone who’s seen even the first scene of Rocky Horror.
The film follows a perfectly lovely heteronormative couple, Brad (Barry Bostwick) and Janet (Susan Sarandon), on their journey to announce their new engagement to their former science teacher, Dr. Scott. This plot, among many other inklings of plot lines, becomes convoluted almost immediately in a wonderful mess of camp. Along the way, they meet Dr. Frank N. Furter (Tim Curry), a mysterious and self-described transexual scientist, Rocky Horror, Frank’s muscleman Frankenstein, who seems to only exist to be Frank’s living sex doll, and several of Frank N. Furter’s servants. Frankly, the rest of the plot is pretty incoherent, and I’d hate to spoil the fun for those who haven’t yet seen the film, but it involves some murder, some adultery, and lots of campy musical numbers. I would highly recommend.
Even some seasoned viewers have trouble articulating exactly what occurs in this film, first, because, as we mentioned, it is intentionally over-the-top and humorously complicated, and second, because the atmosphere surrounding the movie’s showings is more important than the movie itself.
I touched on some of the oddities of the film already. There are a number of curious environment things people notice before entering the theater, like the fact that it’s midnight and the show hasn’t started yet, a distinct lack of clothing, and that several people have dirty words written on their faces in lipstick. A few more movie-specific traditions (though certainly not all of them– it would be a huge undertaking to figure out all the Rocky Horror traditions across different times and theaters): whenever Brad introduces himself, the audience yells “asshole,” and when Janet introduces herself, the audience responds “slut”; when the Transylvanians start dancing, the audience does the “Time Warp” along with them; and when Dr. Scott busts through a wall, folks throw toilet paper across the room. There are a lot more, but I think we have established that Rocky Horror culture is strange and that there are a bunch of eccentricities that the audience participates in without quite knowing why.
Ok, but why?
The Rocky Horror Picture Show began as a play, The Rocky Horror Show, in 1973. It was originally underground, but quickly gained popularity because of a few important historical factors. In July of 1967, less than ten years before the play’s conception, England and Wales decriminalized homosexuality, and under a year later, the Theatres Act abolished censorship, and thus changed UK theatre entirely.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show FAQ: Everything Left to Know About the Campy Cult Classic by Dave Thompson goes in depth about both of these historical events and details a lot of the specifics of Rocky Horror history. It’s a great read for anyone who is obsessed with, or who would like to comprehend, the film. In the book, Thompson explains that changing censorship law was a huge deal because before, if a playwright wanted to talk about anything taboo (e.g. anything queer-related at that time), they could only hint at intentions and traits of a character and hope that the audience guessed right. This is why, as Thompson discusses, British humor is traditionally so tongue-in-cheek– it initially had to be. Relaxing censorship allowed creators to take more liberties than before. And of course, with the UK’s increasing tolerance of homosexuality (albeit still way too slow and not quite accepting enough), this lead to some loud, campy, gay magic.
Even when O’Brien produced The Rocky Horror Show as a movie in the United States, the subject matter was pretty outlandish, relative to many other movies of the time, and most audiences were not receptive to it. Ticket sales were low almost everywhere it played. Critic Robert Ebert notes, “When the film was first released in 1975 it was ignored by pretty much everyone, including the future fanatics who would eventually count the hundreds of times they’d seen it.” However, at the United Artists Theater in Westwood, the show was selling out nightly, and many of the same people were buying tickets every night.
So, part of the reason the musical attracted so much attention eventually was because queer folks were finally represented as main characters of a production and they were clear about their identities. That was kind of an enormous deal, and it brought in a diverse and consistent audience. This open, dedicated fan base is the main factor in what made Rocky Horror so cult-y.
The cult tradition began with callouts and shadow casts. After the flick was re-released as a midnight showing, people began responding to the lines in the movie with their own insults, jokes, and pop culture references. Fan casts began to perform along with the characters and led many of these callouts. This standardized many of the replies, leading to the cult atmosphere that has stuck around until even today.
Why did it stick around?
Camp is integral to queer culture. The adoration of this style of humor has not yet died down and, in fact, has even grown on mainstream culture (see: shitposting). Rocky Horror is still funny today because of how over-the-top it is.
Additionally, of course, the far more wholesome Fox remake of The Rocky Horror Picture Show and other media references to the film (like its mention in Perks of Being a Wallflower) have caused a resurgence in its popularity. But, it is also important to credit the exceptionally loyal fan base. There are many folks from the original 1970s audiences who continue to attend, or to act in the cast of, the showings today. And that commitment does not end with the older viewers; even people who were not born when the movie first came out proudly go to showings every week.
The movie did indeed come out before I came out, but its culture keeps it modern. As time goes on, callouts change to mirror pop culture, and media references make it accessible to new waves of dedicated audiences. This odd, queer culture is alive and well and doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.
If you are in the Westwood area and would like to go to a Rocky Horror midnight showing, check out The Nuart Theatre in Santa Monica. If you’re scared to see the weird culture in person, but want to learn more about the plot of the movie, check out Drunky Horror.