…and Hello to Oblivion: A Love/Hate Journey with Rocky Horror

I first encountered The Rocky Horror Show somewhere in the late 1980s, when the play arrived in Cincinnati’s Playhouse in the Park. I knew of the movie but had not seen it, and only somewhat understood why the theater’s crowd had to be reminded to be quiet. With no audience participation to get in the way, I was able to soak in the sexual punk rock anarchy of it all. The play’s unconventional multimedia staging (usherettes sang the opening number from the audience; a pre-taped Jerry Springer played the Criminologist via video monitors spread throughout the room) blew my teenage mind; its absurd comedy and brilliant music won me over at an age where I was in desperate need of both.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show

My sister, in her infinite coolness, had been to the Skywalk Cinemas for the midnight screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show before, and one day she decided it was time to bring me along. She was the prefect guide, willing to be both protective (she shielded me from the “virgin auction,” a playful mocking of first-time viewers) and eager to not spoil the evening’s surprises.

I had expected the movie to be awful; its reputation was of a movie that could only be enjoyed via ridicule, and my young mind, having already learned to love poking fun at pop culture failure (when Mystery Science Theater 3000 launched a year later, it felt like a show made for me and me alone), hadn’t yet come to comprehend the rainbowlicious world of camp, where great and awful could coexist at the quantum level. My takeaway was, simply: the audience made some funny jokes, but the movie itself was the real show.

(Curiously, despite this position, I still joined the voices rallying against the film’s VHS release in 1990. That’s a movie that should never be seen at home! It demands to be experienced with a crowd! Keeping in tune with the rest of my teenage years, I had no idea what the hell I was talking about.)

A couple years later came college. The Cla-Zel, Bowling Green’s wondrous single screen theater (now, depressingly, a mere nightclub, no longer showing movies), ran Rocky Horror from time to time, and unlike the Skywalk, this theater allowed full use of props, allowing me to finally experience the rice and water pistols and playing cards and whatever else a couple hundred college kids could throw to the heavens. The Cla-Zel also had a large stage in front of the screen, making the Time Warp all the more inviting.

The more I saw the movie, the more I enjoyed it – but, conversely, the less I enjoyed the audience. I still loved getting to hang out with friends who shared my love for the film (why yes, some of them were theater majors, why do you ask?), but the rest, well, that love faded. The repetition of the shout-along script began to wear thin. Many of the scripted jokes revealed themselves as unfunny and, worse, unclever. The crowd often seemed too interested in trashing the theater, the evening’s props-allowed policy a weak excuse for vandalism. The shadow cast ringleaders lost their allure (even seeming at times to be insular and cliquish, their “our way or the highway” mentality going against the movie’s own themes).

I stopped going, and haven’t seen it in a movie theater since.

The Official Rocky Horror Picture Show Audience Par-tic-i-pation Guide

Not quite a decade later, I picked up a copy of Kevin Murphy’s brilliant A Year at the Movies. He devotes a few paragraphs to his hatred for the cult of Rocky Horror (on page 294, for those playing at home), and some of his words struck a chord:

On Halloween, and on regular weekend midnight shows throughout the year, the local Rocky Horror fan club gets together at the Riverview Theater to watch the same movie and make the same jokes about it, week after week. Deviation is not tolerated, unless it’s initiated by one of the club’s cool inner circle. The same jokes, sketches, interjections, always. I haven’t seen so much precision rote behavior since Triumph of the Will. Here is an example of a film that was bad to begin with, and now two decades later people band together to celebrate its badness, but they do it badly.

For reasons only God can explain, people have been doing this, repeatedly, for over twenty-five years. What began as an interesting midnight movie exercise in excessive camp has become a haven for witless followers, a sort of church for dumbshits.

I don’t share Murphy’s hatred of the movie itself; to the horror of my fifteen-year-old self, I had by this time purchased the DVD, later replaced by the Blu-ray, and have enjoyed many a repeat viewing – but never, ever, ever with the audience track. Here, the former Mr. Tom Servo has a valid point: in the decades since freaks and outcasts first planned their midnight screening experience, the film became ritualized to an absurd degree. It’s not about letting your freak flag fly, it’s about being weird but only in the same way everyone else in the theater is weird, and stick to the script, goddammit. (I mean, good god, there are so many books and websites devoted to sticking to the script, it’s as if they expect the audience to pass a proficiency exam before they can buy a ticket.) With its midnight movie experience mapped out for you in advance, Rocky Horror isn’t fun. It’s work.

And yet. While I still despise the shouting, I’ve come to re-admire the shadow cast itself. There’s a “let’s put on a show!” vibe that impresses and amuses, and unlike the jerks in the audience and the jerks up front leading them, the shadow cast actually looks like they’re having a great time. These are the fans: they know every line by heart and want to share that love with you. Yes, the shadow cast often also leads the shout-along crap, but when they stop yelling “asshole!” at the screen and start singing along with it instead, they present fan love at its purest.

A year or two ago, my daughter became a fan. She loves the music and the humor and the sheer strangeness of it all. I’ll bet she’s seen the movie more times than I have. She would no doubt love the big screen experience – the idea of a live cast and shouted punchlines is her bag, baby. And I know well enough to keep my mouth shut, lest my own prejudices gum up the works.

And who knows? When she goes, maybe I’ll tag along. Maybe I’ll rediscover what made me smile some two decades ago.

Or maybe I’ll stay safely at home, opting to simply catch the film on Blu-ray, far away from the yelling and the throwing and all that Sue’s To Blane nonsense.

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