With a genre like ‘musical comedy horror,’ it’s obvious how delightfully bizarre a performance of cult classic The Rocky Horror Picture Show can be. Originally performed in 1973 as a stage musical under the slightly shorter, The Rocky Horror Show, the show opened to great success at the Royal Court Theatre in London. A satire that drew on vintage horror and science-fiction genres, it was right at home in a 1970s Britain that had been undergoing major social change for over a decade. Its liberal use of rock ’n’ roll and raising of important gender identity issues resonated well with its audience.
By fall of 1974, a film adaptation was already in production starring several of the original theatre actors (Tim Curry as Dr. Frank-N-Furter, Nell Campbell as Columbia, and Patricia Quinn as Magenta). Unfortunately, the release a year later, in 1975, was widely considered to be a critical and commercial failure.
Nonetheless, the film survived, and in 1976, the Waverly Theatre in New York City held its first midnight showing. Over the next year, audiences began ad-libbing dialogues, which they would shout out to interact with the film, and individuals began bringing props from the movie to mime what the characters were doing onscreen. Before long, many TRHPS traditions had been born, including throwing rice during the opening wedding scene; holding candles during the line ‘There’s a light’ in the song ‘Over at the Frankenstein Place’; squirting water guns and covering one’s head with newspaper during a heavy storm scene — among others.
Four decades later and TRHPS holds the record for the longest running film release in history. Inducted into the US National Film Registry in 2005, the movie has become a far-flung cult classic and is held up as one of the standards of the midnight movie.
The characters are testament to the wackiness of the story. The movie begins with straight-laced lovebirds Brad Majors and Janet Weiss professing their love for each other at their friend Betty Munroe’s wedding. After their car breaks down on a rainy night, they seek shelter in a nearby castle, which happens to be hosting the Annual Transylvanian Convention. Introduced by Riff-Raff, the hunchbacked butler, along with his sister Magenta, and their tap-dancing groupie, Columbia, Brad and Janet join the party by partaking in the film’s famous dance scene, ‘The Time Warp.’ The transvestite-cum-mad scientist and host of the evening, Dr. Frank-N-Furter, soon makes a grand entrance and whisks the party away to his lab. Here Dr. Frank-N-Furter reveals his latest creation: a Scandinavian muscle man clad only in a pair of skimpy golden briefs and named ‘Rocky Horror.’ The story devolves into a string of murders, orgies, and cannibalism (in that order), until it is revealed that Frank-N-Furter and his associates are in fact aliens from the planet Transsexual in the galaxy of Transylvania. Brad and Janet are finally set free just before the castle lifts off into outer space.
In a time before streaming television, The Rocky Horror Picture Show was an event that brought people together. Gay and straight came from afar in stockings and heels to belt out choruses of Tim Curry’s catchy introduction solo, ‘Sweet Transvestite,’ offering a chance for many who felt at the fringe of society over their sexual or gender identities to express themselves in a non-judgmental (encouraging, even!) atmosphere. While it’s easy enough now to learn where and how to participate in a performance, in the days before internet, the only way to be incorporated into the traditions of TRHPS was strictly by invitation and instruction by veterans who had previously attended events.
Beyond the raucous antics and off-the-wall storyline, the popularity of movies like The Rocky Horror Picture Show has helped bring LGBT rights to the mainstream. While media in the late 20th century primarily focused on AIDS and other issues that stigmatized the LGBT community, TRHPS depicted its gay community in a friendlier, more accepting light. Today LGBT and drag communities across the world celebrate huge annual TRHPS spectacles, from widely attended conventions in the deserts of Arizona to the Guinness record for largest ‘Time Warp’ in Los Angeles, with a staggering 8,239 participants. Shanghai will also join the ranks for 2015, as the newly refurbished My Place Ruin Bar in Jing’an hosts a Halloween TRHPS screening on Saturday, October 31st, presented in co-operation with The Culture Trip Shanghai. All are welcome, from veterans to virgins — so come join ‘The Time Warp,’ Shanghai!