The freaks come out at night. At least they did last night in my hometown of Canton, Ohio, and I was one of them. We turned out en masse and for a few hours the downtown streets were filled with people decked out in fishnets, maid uniforms, gold glitter, and almost every sort of outrageous costume you could think of. It was a high-energy, friendly crowd that had gathered in front of the Palace theater in all their Transylvanian finery for one reason: the annual Halloween showing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
Too old and too fat to squeeze myself into a corset, I opted to dust off my black trench coat which allowed me to blend into the “unconventional” menagerie well enough. But I am no Rocky Horror “virgin”… I have been to see this cult classic in theaters many times over the years and I never tire of it. Where I live, showings like this are a rarity these days, mostly saved strictly for Halloween, but in many parts of the country Friday or Saturday night midnight showings have been going on for decades.
Before I go on to describe the experience, a little background for the uninitiated:
The Rocky Horror Show began as an upstairs musical theater production in London’s West End. It quickly found an audience, moving on to bigger venues in England before crossing the pond to mild successes in New York and LA. 20th Century Fox bought the rights for a film version and the movie was released in 1975. It starred most of the cast from the original London run, adding newcomers Barry Bostwick and Susan Sarandon as the clueless squares Brad and Janet. Critics and mainstream audiences alike hated it. The movie was more than a flop, it was a bomb. The A-bomb.
That is, until it found its home. Midnight showings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show began to draw a very dedicated audience. Week after week, they came back. They knew the movie by heart and began yelling back at the characters on screen. People began dressing up as their favorite characters and jumping up on stage and acting out the movie in front of the screen. It became something more than a just a film, it became an event where audiences were expected to participate. Everyone found a character they could identify with: the flamboyant hedonist Dr. Frank-n-Furter, Riff Raff the humpbacked butler, sullen domestic Magenta, raucous outrageous Colombia, the uptight and virginal-at-first Brad and Janet.
These screenings were especially popular with then-underground LGBT crowd, but it wasn’t just the gays and drag queens that flocked to the theaters every Saturday at midnight: it was anyone who ever felt like an outcast. All the freaks and weirdos and who spent half their lives being shit on for daring to be themselves. For an hour and half they could meet with people that knew what they were going through, sing, dance, yell and throw shit at the screen. This was catharsis. This was church, one where they meant it when they said everyone was welcome. For a movie that was once considered lewd and downright vulgar, it had a very positive message: “Don’t dream it… be it.”
I’m not going to give a plot synopsis. If I did, it would just end up sounding completely insane. And that’s part of the charm of this movie: you cannot properly describe it to anyone else. You have to drag them by the arm and let them experience it for themselves. I will explain, however, that this movie is an homage to the old Universal monster flicks, and the atomic age sci-fi alien creature features, the story drawing very heavily from Frankenstein especially. There are moments of actual horror and some gore (don’t eat the meatloaf), but mainly this movie is chock full of camp, which I’ve always felt goes hand in hand with horror.
The music is, in my opinion, the big draw here. Many of the songs are throwbacks to the golden age of rock and roll, back when rock music was considered a blight on America’s youth and the songs were baudy and ballsy for their day (think Elvis Presley, Little Richard). There’s also plenty of Bowie-inspired prog-rock and soulful Motown-esque moments. It’s all very glam, very pompous, very theatrical.
OK, now back to last night…The theater was packed. I was glad to see it was a very diverse crowd, ranging from teenagers to people old enough to be my parents. I guess what was considered taboo in 1975 is more acceptable today, and I am down with that; we’re making some progress. It was thrilling to be in such an enthusiastic crowd, watching people parade by in their colorful costumes, everyone upbeat and in a happy mood. The MC of the show was running around the theater on the hunt for “virgins”, which is anybody who has never seen the movie in a theater before. Anyone who was outed as a virgin was marked with a giant V in lipstick on their forehead. Before the movie started, there was a costume contest, the crowd cheering to vote for their favorites. It was a spectacle, for sure; it was a carnival atmosphere, something like Mardi Gras.
When the lights went down and those infamous red lips appeared on the screen, singing the opening number “Science Fiction Double Feature”, everyone went nuts. And we kept it up for the next ninety minutes. The audience has it own part to perform, whether it be throwing rice or toast or toilet paper, yelling lines back at the screen, spraying each other with water guns, waving around flashlights, or calling Brad an “asshole” and Janet a “slut” every time their names are mentioned. It’s amazing to hear everyone sing along to the songs and see them getting out of their seats to dance to the “Time Warp”. It isn’t all just about tossing objects around and hooting and hollering, though that part is pure fun; there’s something special about sitting in the dark of a movie theater with hundreds of other people that may only have one thing in common, but that one thing brings everyone together for a little while and there is an overwhelming feeling of comradery.
There really isn’t anything like going to see The Rocky Horror Picture Show with such an amped-up audience. I mean that in the most literal sense… there is nothing to compare it to. Theater and film and music melded together to create a piece of art that the audience can directly interact with, it is something unique… which is why I think it endures to this day. And judging from all the younger people in attendance last night, the audience is still growing.
I wish I could do a better job of painting the chaotic scene that ensues at a Rocky Horror screening, but it really is something you have to experience for yourself. It’s incredibly fun, it’s weird, and if you ever get the chance to attend one of these screenings, take my advice: GO.