|A Different Kind of Film||Exploring the Identity|
Don’t Dream It, Be It: The Subculture of The Rocky Horror Picture Show by T. D. Call
On September 26, 1975, a low budget film entitled The Rocky Horror Picture Show (RHPS) was released to receive mixed reviews and unimpressive box office appeal. This musical comedy spoof of the science-fiction and horror genres was later moved from a standard daily run to the midnight shows on Friday and Saturday nights.
There, it quickly achieved cult film status. Over twenty years later, RHPS is still shown every weekend in most major cities in the U. S. and is the central focus of a unique subculture made up of the people, primarily youth, who congregate at the movies houses week after week
As merely a film, The Rocky Horror Picture Show lacks anything resembling a well developed plot. It tells the story of a young American couple, Brad Majors and Janet Weiss, who get a flat tire while traveling on a stormy night, and seek help at a strange castle in the middle of nowhere. After being shown inside the castle by the domestic staff, Riff Raff and his sister, Magenta, they are introduced to their host, a transvestite mad scientist named Dr. Frank N. Furter.
Frank invites them to witness the unveiling of his latest creation, a muscle bound sex slave named Rocky, then insists they stay for the night. Later he sneaks into the young couple’s rooms and seduces each of them, leaving them flooded with emotions and previously repressed feelings about their sexuality. As the night progresses, Frank loses control of his creation, his houseguests, and his servants. Riff Raff takes over, revealing that they are actually aliens on a secret mission. He kills Frank and Rocky and beams the entire castle into space, leaving Brad and Janet on earth, confused, and changed forever.
The only suggestion of meaning to this film is found in the one of the last songs Frank sings before his death: "Don’t dream it, be it." Although weakly identified in the film, this theme has become definitive of the subculture that has formed around the movie.
The socially accepted norms of behavior while at a movie theatre require that patrons are generally polite and well behaved. They remain in their seats throughout the film and if they need to speak, it is usually in hushed whispers. Throwing things and otherwise causing a disturbance is frowned upon and the offender is often removed from the establishment.
At a showing of RHPS, however, these norms are the first ones to be disregarded. The audience is encouraged to become a part of the show. They dance in the aisles, throw items such as rice, toast and toilet paper, and shout at the characters on the screen. They come dressed as the characters in the film, or in other costumes or simply in lingerie. In addition to the audience activities, most theatres have a live cast who acts out the film in front of the screen as it plays, mimicking, sometimes to perfection, every move of the actors in the film.
The actual origins of the audience participation are somewhat undefined with theatres in every major city claiming to be the place where it all began. It is not known exactly who was the first person to shout at the screen, and is believed that it began independently in several places and eventually "merged into a single phenomenon." (Henkin 1979: 102) The origin of the practice of dressing in costume however is attributed to the fans at the Waverly Theatre in New York. It began around Halloween of 1976 when a small group of people, independently of each other, began to dress up for the shows (Henkin 1979: 106). The pressure of conformity from general society however slowed the emergence of this aspect of the subculture.
Due to problems with the residents of the neighborhood and the theatre management, the practice was ceased until almost a year later when a young woman named Dori Hartley arrived at the show in full Frank N. Furter costume and encouraged others to do the same. Within weeks, the first live cast was formed and performing at the Waverly (Henkin 1979: 106). The new group was not without its problems. The mainstream society frowned on the happenings at the Waverly. Due to continued harassment, the Waverly ceased showing RHPS in January of 1978, but the cast stuck together and eventually reopened at the 8th Street Playhouse which served as their home base for over a decade (Henkin 1979: 106).
Meanwhile, on the other coast, fans were experiencing similar problems. Even in liberal Berkeley, patrons waiting outside the UC Theatre were pelted with eggs and insults by a society that would not accept this deviance from the norm (Henkin 1979: 112).
A subculture is created by people who are looking for a solution to a problem or need that the primary culture is unable to provide. Albert Cohen defines a problem as any situation that requires a choice and may or may not involve some level anxiety, distress or disequilibrium (1955: 97). How we choose to solve the problem is influenced by o
ur place in the world and the limits and conditions related to that place, and also by our point of view, which is shaped by our "interests, preoccupations, stereotypes and values" (Cohen 1955: 98-9).
The pressures of conformity encourage us to avoid solutions that are unacceptable to our social groups, else the moral sanctions of the group should prove more distressing than the original problem, but when this is not possible and the socially acceptable solutions are not sufficient, we are likely to seek a new group that will reinforce the necessary solutions (Cohen 1955: 101).
For the creation of a new subculture, there must be interaction with others who share similar needs and are in search of an alternate solution which may not among those accepted as normal and valid by society but may be more sufficient to address their particular needs than any solutions that are already present and institutionalized (Cohen 1955: 102). The emergence of the new subculture is brought about through reflective appraisal in which each member of the new group proceeds cautiously, continuing their actions only when perceiving the approval of the group, until the new standards come forth as a consensus at the group level (Cohen 1955: 103).
To supplement this basic concept of a subculture, the suggestion of a subcultural marginality emphasizes that membership of a particular subculture does not exclude an individual from other groups. Most people participate in several subcultures. They may vary in their degree of participation in each from only a small amount of time to all of their time, and over time, the attachment and intensity of their participation within one particular group may vary (Arnold 1970: 86).
The subculture surrounding RHPS is a culture of leisure. It is suggested that this type of an activity is part of a search for identity in a world where the work role is decreasingly significant, thus weakening the connection between work and identity (Klapp 1969: 184). This gives the individual the freedom to explore different identities and roles at different points in life. It also provides an escape from the mundane world. Restrictions of home and work are exchanged for a special, unique identity independent of family and class and it attracts those who do not fit in or feel misunderstood or rejected (Brake 1985: 190-1).
The continuing existence of a subculture is dependent on its ability to meet the needs of its members, and the solidarity and interaction among the group members so that the group itself and the friendships within the group become values for the member (Cohen 1955: 105).
In the setting of the Rocky Horror Picture Show there is a less restrictive system of norms than in the dominant society. People who find they do not fit in with or agree with the mainstream norms are drawn to the show because of this freedom to explore alternative behaviors, beliefs and sexuality without being scorned. There they discover a peer group that accepts them because they are different from the rest of society.
Producer Lou Adler notes that the people who are fans of RHPS are often outcasts in the primary culture:
….they didn’t have the same joys or seek the same outlets – sports, music, or romance or whatever – as other people. They found their outlet in Rocky Horror.(Henkin 1979:35).
Because of this lack of interest in the conventional outlets these outcasts turn to RHPS for fun and friendship and an identity as part of a special group. It takes on an almost cultic appeal by setting them apart from ordinary life to a seemingly higher level that tightens the bonds with those who share the excitement, and changes the conception of the self (Klapp 1969: 187). Inside the theatre, a person can completely reconstruct their image of who she is and experiment with different aspects of her personality without fear of recrimination. It, and the cult film genre in general, allows the filmgoers to escape their day to day identities by becoming a part of the film.
One of the most apparent aspects of identity that is explored through RHPS is that of sexuality. The film ignores traditional gender barriers and stigma associated with alternative sexual orientations. The costumes, primarily underwear, challenge the notion that the body is something of which to be ashamed. Like the cult-like following of David Bowie in the early 70’s fans imitate not only the dress and behavior of the stars, but also embrace the message of escape from society’s bonds of sexual repression and explore questions of sexual identity (Hebdige 1979: 61-2).
My evidence for this research comes from information obtained through interviews, conducted by telephone and via the Internet, with current and former members of RHPS live casts located primarily on the west coast, but also representing Illinois, Arizona, Texas and Alabama. Additional information is from observations of shows in Kansas City, Missouri and various locations in California.
My interviews focused on the individuals experiences within the setting of the show as well as their positions within mainstream society, the roles that they fill in both settings and their attitudes toward both.
I spoke with nine people, four male, five female, ranging in age from 18-37. All participants first began attending RHPS in their mid-teens, between ages 15 and 18. Of the males, one identified as bisexual while the others all identified as heterosexual.
The females identified primarily as bisexual or "bi-curious" to some degree, with only one identifying as strictly heterosexual. They subscribe mainly to non-traditional religious beliefs. The majority follow either pagan beliefs, have a personal, individual view of spirituality, or are atheistic. One participant is Catholic, and one is Jewish. With the exception of the one Jewish participant, all followed different religious beliefs than those in which they were raised.
In the twenty years since the audience participation aspect of the film developed, little has changed. The audience and live casts begin gathering at the theatre for a midnight show as early as 10:30. The crowd outside the theatre is primarily made up of young people, apparently in their late teens and twenties. The general theme of costuming is black, often in the form of gothic velvets and lace.
Lingerie also is common, as well as costumes from the film. While the crowd waits to be allowed into the theatre, they have the opportunity to socialize with friends as well as meet new people. Strangers are readily welcomed and new friendships are made quickly. John* in Alabama commented on attending a new show for the first time, "I went there, alone, and walked out with new friends."
The show begins with a Master of Ceremonies announcing the rules, which include what props the theatre management
has declared may not be used (commonly water, open flames, and hot dogs), what direction to throw them (usually away from the cast and movie screen), and where to do the Time Warp (in the aisles). The rules are then followed by the virgin ceremony. In the RHPS setting, a virgin is anyone who has never seen the film in a theatre.
These individuals’ identities are betrayed by their friends and they are dragged to the front of the theatre where they are subjected to various embarrassing, but mostly harmless rituals. The rituals are usually sexual in nature. Some of them include making a pledge of allegiance to the show, faking an orgasm, singing "I’m a Little Teapot," or being a "Virgin Sundae," where the virgin kneels, and has his or her mouth filled with whipped cream with a cherry on top which is then taken by a cast member. After the newly initiated are allowed to return to their seats, the lights dim and the film begins to roll.
After the film ends, the center of activity is moved to an open-all-night coffee shop or occasionally a party at a private residence, where the cast and audience members can continue to socialize into the early hours of the morning.
Depending on the organization of the individual casts, the process of becoming a part of the show beyond that of an audience member may vary. In some locations, all that is required to perform is to be the first, or only person, to arrive in costume or ready to perform. Other casts are more organized and require a more formal audition process and the actors are expected to be competent in their roles before they are allowed to perform, often starting out as part of the chorus of Transylvanians, or "Trannies," before getting to play a leading role.
Once on the cast, the level of involvement in the subculture varies from person to person. While the show itself is only one night a week, many devote much of the time between these nights to the show, whether it is through making costumes and set pieces, organized rehearsals, advertising, or other related activities. "Even though I’m not directly involved in staging as much as I used to, I can easily see myself putting as many as ten hours a week into the web site and desktop publishing aspects that I’ve volunteered myself for," says Jack, who performs with a San Francisco Bay Area cast.
His cast’s director, Marc, estimates that he spends ten to twenty hours a week managing performance schedules and other cast concerns. Others however, only spend a few hours each week, concerning themselves mainly with learning their parts or helping others to learn.
The financial involvement with the show also varies from only the cost of one’s own costume and makeup, which can be as low as $30 or $40, to contributing to the costs of props, lighting, and advertising. Including the expenses of attending RHPS conventions, one Arizona cast member states that she has spent over $3000 in the last three years on RHPS related activities.
Involvement with the group tends to follow a pattern familiar in the world of science-fiction fandom. New fans join in boisterously, excited about everything until their exhilaration is somewhat tempered by the older, more weathered fans, while the older fans’ devotion eventually decreases and they find themselves leaving the scene.
However, once an individual has been a part of the mayhem, the connection still remains and many who have said that they will get away from it all return some time later and get involved again (del Rey 1980: 208, 216) Says Kristine, "You get to the point where you don’t really enjoy being at the show…so you take some time away. The first few weeks are glorious and you actually might go out somewhere else on a Saturday or get up early on a Sunday. But it always sneaks back into your life and you come back refreshed and renewed and ready to get freaky again."
The members of the RHPS subculture are often people who do not fit in with the roles and norms that society has placed upon them. Most everyone I interviewed used the word "freak" in describing themselves or in describing how they feel others view them. They turn to RHPS and find acceptance. Crystal, a 25 year old from Texas states "I was never very popular in high school because I didn’t fit in. All of a sudden, I did. I’m addicted." RHPS is a safe environment in which adolescents and young adults can explore one’s own values and relationship to the world. It can provide a source of secondary socialization which according to Brake (1985) allows youth to determine the different possibilities available in achieved identity as opposed to ascribed identity.
The flexible norms permit behaviors that would, in the mainstream world, cause an actor to be labeled a freak or, in some cases, get arrested. Sarah, who performs in the Midwest, feels that she is more sexual and aggressive while at RHPS, while Kristine points out that what is considered racy in the mainstream world, "dressing in PVC, latex, and fetish shoes, wielding a whip on my closest friends,..and screaming obscenities while simulating sex acts," is actually pretty reserved within the context of RHPS. One male performer freely admits to having streaked his theatre while all the house lights were still lit.
The ability to act without fear of being penalized for unacceptable behavior creates an opportunity for people to improve their skills at social interaction. Bryan, in Northern California, feels he embarrasses easily in normal situations, but at RHPS it is less of a danger. Kristine says that she has become stronger at interpersonal interactions since she began RHPS and is less concerned with trying to please everyone.
The sexual context of the film and the audience participation show is impossible to ignore. Most of the cast spends half the film in a state of undress and the leading man has sexual relations with nearly everyone else. The message off the screen is one of sexual liberation, although this is not the goal of the film. In fact, the gay, straight, bisexual and incestuous sexuality in the film is highly parodied (Henkin 1979: 126). What was created incidentally through this parody was a safe outlet for exploring sexuality.
The role of Frank as a transvestite might seem threatening to an adolescent male struggling with insecurities about his own sexuality. However, while Frank may dress in women’s lingerie and high heel shoes, there is no question of his masculinity. Frank upholds the traditional role of the dominant male, and while his feminine side occasionally shows through in moments of vulnerability, it is with the masculine side that his fans identify thus making the character a "safety valve" for heterosexual men to explore sexuality (Studlar 1989: 8-9).
Lois Dolan, who was the director of the Sexual Trauma Center of San Mateo, California in 1979, worked on occasion with the San Francisco cast at that time. She noted that RHPS "provides an outlet
for its fans which may not be available elsewhere in society." (Henkin 1979:127) "For those of us who are bi-curious and not quite bisexual, we can experiment without really crossing that line," says one cast member. It sends out the message that sexuality is okay, curiosity is okay, and nothing is that terrible (Henkin 1979:128).
Other features that attract members to the subculture include a simple matter of the excitement of performing in front of a live audience. Marc, who is an actor outside of the context of RHPS as well, says, "I guess you could say that it’s an ego boost for me…being onstage is a rush of adrenaline. I love hearing the cheers and whistles. It’s a feeling of being on top of the world." Crystal clarified that she was drawn to the people on stage at RHPS as if they were "small time celebrities," and she wanted to be one too.
Another benefit of RHPS is the long term friendships and networks that are formed. John has been away from the show for over 15 years, yet he still maintains friendships with some of the people he performed with and feels as though they are family to some degree. Even more so, he met his wife of seventeen years at RHPS. Miss Bob of a Southern California cast agrees that the cast is "like a family."
In addition to the friendships that develop in person, the subculture has a network effect, that extends beyond one’s geographical boundaries. It provides a place for one to go as a stranger in a new area and find friends with similar interests. It also has expanded across the Internet, providing friendships that could not otherwise be possible. Says Sarah, "I enjoy ‘being somebody’ on the RH newsgroup, which is a wonderful community I love being part of. I have a lot of friends in the cult, and enjoy talking with people in other countries who are fans, too."
Not all experiences with RHPS are without problems though. The more organized a cast becomes, the more there is a presence of "cast politics." "Rumors fly. People badmouth other people or gossip. Factions form; there are power struggles." says Sarah. "People fighting over ‘who is in charge’ is the biggest thing," agrees 18 year old Lisa.
Also RHPS fails to completely shield its members from the pressures of conformity from the mainstream world. Many are hesitant to discuss what they do with family and friends outside the subculture. Those that do risk disapproval from their loved ones. To the extreme, there is even the danger of sanctions from the authorities. In Alabama, a theatre manager was arrested for showing the film.
In 1975, The Rocky Horror Picture Show struck a chord with the young generation. It provided an outlet to escape the boundaries of society, to develop an identity separate from that of the family or work, to safely explore one’s curiosity about sexuality, and social interaction with others who share similar beliefs and values. In addition to providing a reference group with which one can identify, it also has aided personal development of many young people as well as having offered entertainment and the chance to perform.
Twenty-two years later, the show is still running and the subculture is as strong as ever, signifying that while times have changed, the needs of the youth have not. There are still those who seek something more than what mainstream society has to offer. Rocky Horror is not simply a form of entertainment. Says Sal Piro, founder and president of the Rocky Horror Picture Show Fan Club, "Rocky Horror is a style. It preaches freedom as a way of life." (Henkin 1979: 125)
*Some names have been changed.
Copyright 1998, T. D. Call