My experience with Rocky Horror Picture Show is like pretty much every other fan’s. I grew up in a small town. I wasn’t super popular. I hung out with the kids in band and kids in bands and by high school I’d given up sports in favor of chain-smoking at Waffle House. (Sorry, mom.) Then, one night, some friends and I got into my friends moms van and drove 40 minutes to a tiny art-house theater that was playing Rocky Horror Picture Show. And I didn’t feel weird there at all.
In fact, by comparison, I was the square one. I didn’t have piercings yet. I was a virgin in both the literal sense and the never-seen-Rocky sense. But the people I saw the sweet transvestites (Dr. Frank-N-Furter, played by Tim Curry) and stringy-haired handymen (Riff Raff, played by co-writer Richard O’Brien) on screen, the costumed lookalikes playing them on the stage, and the audience shouting along from their seats felt like the community I didn’t know I had. My friends felt it too, and we cracked ourselves up recounting the night on the way home. It was the kind of adventure that can only happen when you’re in the driving-age portion of your teens,when the damp air of an Ohio night hangs makes haloes around a movie theater’s neon lights. When you learn for the first time that weird B-movie musical send-ups, and the people who rally around them, can save you.
Hyperbolic? Maybe. But this story is a shared one. If you saw Rocky Horror at some point in your teens, chances are you had roughly the same experience.It was the subject of an episode of Glee, for gods sake.
Will the new Rocky feel the same if fans aren’t meeting a theater full of new friends while they watch it?
But now, there’s a Rocky Horror Picture Show TV adaptation, airing tonight. That’s exciting! It also fills me with dread. While I’m overjoyed that a whole new generation will be exposed to the cast of iconic characters led by Laverne Cox as Dr. Frank-N-Furter, no less I’m worried they wont experience it in the same way. They’ll be watching it at home on television, instead of in a theater that smells of stale cigarettes and body odor. Worse, they’ll watch it on their phones. Or even skip it in favor of scrolling through the GIFs that make it over to Tumblr. I have no doubt Cox and crew can bring it, but will first-timers feel the same if they’re not meeting a theater lful of new friends while they watch it?
Moreover, will that even matter? Rocky attracted freaks and geeks in the pre-Internet age because there wasn’t much competition. That’s less true now. “The remake of RHPS seems to throw into relief how much popular culture has changed in the last 40 years. Kitsch and camp as well as devoted fan communities are so pervasive in the present popular culture landscape that RHPS does not feel particularly transgressive,” says Charles Soukup, a professor of communication studies at the University of Northern Colorado whose research focuses on the role media plays in forming communities. “In a world of streaming video, social media, etc., ‘mainstream’ pop culture really does not exist as it did in the 1970’s and 1980’s when RHPS became a phenomenon.”
#Actually, No One Ever Liked Rocky Horror
When RHPS hit theaters in 1975 itself a movie adaptation of the musical of the same name it wasn’t particularly well-received by audiences or critics. Roger Ebert, in giving it two and a half stars, noted the film had “its moments” but ultimately decided that the movie “belongs on a stage, with the performers and audience joining in the collective send-up.” As Ebert often was, he was right.
Even if it’s the greatest movie ever made and millions of people watch it every day, it’s still not going to have that feeling of community that you get with a Rocky cast and audience.Jared Wilke, the co-director (and Riff Raff) of the Bawdy Caste, which performs midnight Rocky showings in San Francisco
After the movie flopped in a limited run, a Twentieth Century Fox executive named Tim Deegan sensed that it had the potential for a cult following like the one John Waters’ Pink Flamingos was getting at the time, and decided to give it midnight-movie showings. Rocky began playing at the Waverly Theater in New York in 1976. It took a while, but soon the screenings caught on.
Why? Fan participation. People started yelling at all the dumb things onscreen,throwing rice during the movies opening wedding scene and pieces of bread when Frank-N-Furter calls for “a toast!” Not everyone would find humor in singing “ring around the lesbians” as a man in a wheelchair circles two women, but those who do tend to know when they’ve found their people.
What made Rocky so confusing to critics was what made it so appealing to outcasts. It calls itself a “science fiction double feature” in the opening song, but it wasn’t just sci-fi. Yes, it had a twist on Frankenstein’s monster and (spoiler alert) aliens, but it was also a haunted-house horror movie with nods to everything from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari to Flash Gordon to Cabaret. It also had a queer lead in the pansexual/trans character Frank-N-Furter, who as the mad scientist pulled together elements of sci-fi and LGBT cinema in way few films did. Attending a RHPS screening meant seeing representatives of every fandom it spoke to (often in cosplay), which is why “going to see Rocky” became a rite-of-passage trope that shows up in Fame, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and even The Drew Carey Show. (Ohio!)
The TV version of RHPS is similar to the movie one in that its already getting not great reviews, but unless people want to start throwing toast in their living rooms, it’s unlikely to foster the same sense of fun as the movie’s midnight screenings.“Part of what makes RHPS so special is that it encourages participation,” says Jared Wilke, the co-director and Riff Raff of the Bawdy Caste, which performs midnight Rocky showings in San Francisco. (Yes, they still exist. Lots of them.) Even if a movie smashes box-office records, he says, “it’s still not going to have that feeling of community that you get with a Rocky cast and audience.”
The New Dingy Theaters
Maybe we’re worried over nothing. Maybe the people who hit social media as soon as the show is over, or follow along with the hashtag as they watch, will find all sorts of kindred spirits without the experience of“borrowing” their moms car and sneaking off after curfew. Maybe they’ll feel the anticipation as much as anyone before them. Maybe I’m old.
But even if new fans could still find a Rocky community through social media hey, it worked for those Gleeks that’s still sort of disheartening. Everything being available all the time makes very few things precious the way once-a-month Rocky screenings are. When the thrill of the hunt consists of an Internet search, community suffers.
So maybe the best-case scenario isn’t just outcasts finding each other on a new RHPS subreddit maybe it’s Foxs reboot inspiring people to seek out the original. Prompting teenagers to track down a dingy theater near them where people still re-enact every scene. “When RHPS was released on VHS in 1990, people thought that would make people stop coming to the midnight showings. It didn’t.” Wilkes says. “When they started showing edited versions of RHPS on VH1, people thought it would make people stop coming to the midnight showings. It didn’t. When Glee did an episode of Rocky Horror, live shows sold out for the next couple months.”
And if this new Rocky keeps fans interested in old Rocky, or even starts a whole new tradition within the fandom, that’s when things go from dreaming it to being it. That’s when were really doing the time warp again.