It’s THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW’S 45th birthday! What a time to be alive. Well, I mean, barely alive, things are absolutely insane out here. What in the world is 2020? It’s amazing that we’ve made it this far, let alone that a sci-fi B-movie from the ‘70s is still kicking with an impressive, cult fan base that only continues to grow in assholes and sluts, a growth that’s recently, amongst millions of other tried-and-true treasures, been vitally stifled by an itsy-bitsy pandemic. What does this year mean for the future of ROCKY HORROR, a film experience intrinsically linked to packed auditoriums of repressed theater geeks screaming into each others’ mouths until the break of dawn?
Actually, let’s back up a bit.
If you’ve found yourself here lost in a thunderstorm on your way to a town called Denton, you might be wondering: what the fuck is THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW?
ROCKY HORROR is many things. A terrible movie, firstly, a live show and a goddamn Experience™, secondly, and a family, thirdly and most importantly.
Let’s start there.
The ROCKY HORROR community is made up of a bunch of queer, drunk shitheads that respect each other as much as they hate themselves: that’s a goddamn lot. If you don’t, congratulations! How do you do it? No really, DM me. I am one of those aforementioned queer (not currently drunk) shitheads, so trust in my veteran experience to break this whole phenomenon down for you. THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW, a 1975 film adaptation of an even more obscure 1973 stage production (THE ROCKY HORROR SHOW), is a disaster musical from director Jim Sharman (who directed the original stage show!) in which two bland heteros are trapped in Tim Curry’s magic lust castle having the time of their lives exploring sexuality, monsters, each other, and alien technology (sorry, Virgins). I spent way too long trying to come up with a log-line for this piece of shit movie, because no part of it sounds comprehensible no matter how you slice it. In short: It’s basically Gay Frankenstein. We’d credit this to writer and actor Richard O’Brien, but he’s a transphobic asshole that we hate, so with passionate furor, we say to Richard O’Brien, as is customary in the ROCKY community: eat shit and die.
The movie itself is beloved because it’s an eccentric mess, just a wholly weird and bad movie. It’s that precise, core unacceptability that specifically caters to a group of people who are both used to and thrilled by weird and bad representation. THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW is a beloved communal establishment, so in the spirit of the lips, I reached out to some of the most important ROCKY cohorts in my own life. My best friend Karli Holdren, who performed in the ROCKY HORROR shadow cast with me in college for four years and current member of New Zealand’s Haus of Sin, referred to ROCKY as a “mainstream thing for non-mainstream people,” going on to say, “for people that really love cinema, there is something really addictive about bad cinema.” Much like Tommy Wisseau’s THE ROOM, whose own call-out culture is eternally indebted to ROCKY’s fan contributions, ROCKY HORROR has become a bona fide cult classic, with audiences showing up in droves eager to yell at the screen, throw rice, and dance the time warp (again)! THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW is what Tom Hooper’s CATS was about to potentially become before the pandemic unceremoniously spayed its chances at cult icon status—though, if I’m being honest, even with a strong run of Alamo Drafthouse Rowdy Screenings, CATS wishes it could get to 25% of ROCKY’s power. Anyone can yell at a movie screen, but what makes ROCKY HORROR different is the inclusion of a shadow cast.
What’s a shadow cast, you ask me? Good news, it’s not that complicated. A shadow cast is a live performance carried out by a troupe portraying the main characters from the film (and sometimes a few extras, called Transylvanians) that lip sync and act out the movie in front of the screen beat-for-beat, hence “shadow” cast. They can put their own fun twist on some of the moments; for example, when I did the show years ago, we would literally fast-forward through most of the dinner scene, telling the audience it was “too boring” to make them sit through. For the most part, the shadow cast is there for the audience to make fun of. That’s not to say they don’t work hard; there’s a unique talent required to perfectly mimic an entire movie, cue by cue. They’re also there to lead you in The Time Warp, the one dance that the audience MUST take part in, an extra layer of fun to an already confusing and over-stimulating movie that helps make the dumb-as-fuck plot (and exaushting 101-minute length) bearable when you’re all in it together. Doing dumb shit to make everything bearable, I mean, isn’t that just the essence of life in Hell World, USA? There’s a reason one of the callbacks for the final song is “It’s almost over!”
It’s all blue-printed in a premeditated, oft-practiced script: ROCKY HORROR is enticing to fans because it’s so familiar. There’s always a pre-show in which the entire theater initiates “Virgins,” aka people who have never seen the show before, usually by humiliating them in good fun and writing the filthiest shit imaginable on their face with red lipstick that’ll stain for days on end. The dress code for a ROCKY HORROR shadow cast is, essentially, “whatever the fuck you want.” You’ll see plenty of people in lingerie, wigs, leather chaps, thigh-high heels, ornate costumes, you name it. If you’re in the audience, you’re part of the show too. Throughout the screening, the audience will yell callbacks at the screen, and, I’m going to be honest, most of them are dick jokes. One of the most common ones that they teach you at the beginning is “Slut!” whenever Susan Sarandon’s Janet is on screen or “Asshole!” whenever her square fiance, Brad, pops up (they’re the main characters, so these words will quickly get repeated until they become guttural grunts and squeals). A lot of the callbacks have been around a while, with the community ditching the ones that haven’t aged well, but it’s always fun to see people experiment with their own.
If you’re reading this article, odds are you already know all this. Odds are you’re one of those hyper-enthused fucks who’s exceedingly proud, standing tall in the theater when the cast asks if you’ve seen the show 10, 20, 50, 100+ times. I can picture you now, Frankie’s leather jacket recreated with all the iconic buttons and screaming at the top of your lungs that Magenta has no eyes. And yet every ROCKY fanatic I know starts off their pitch with “It’s not good, but—”, so why do we like it so much? Why are people so drawn to this trash heap of a movie, a movie so dumb that they’d be willing to pay money to publicly make fun of it?
My fellow ROCKY cast members, past and present, we know the answers all too well. The show continually gifts us confidence, it’s helped us discover and explore our sexualities, it’s given us a space to embrace our weirdness, it has built us a community to turn to, it has just straight-up allowed us to let loose and have fun. For audience members, it can be the same, as these two groups are largely interchangeable. I performed in a ROCKY shadow cast all through college, and am now just happy to go watch a few times a year. It’s weirdly been a coming-of-age. I’ve found I’m more comfortable in next-to-nothing in front of a theater of strangers than I am fully clothed in my own home. There’s something insanely unnameable about what ROCKY can give, and especially because it’s a film that’s dear to the queer community, what it can give to the unrepresented, the defeated, and those unsure of themselves. I’ve directed ROCKY shows, and it’s astounding to see people come alive and flourish as these most unusual characters. The existence of ROCKY is an act of righteous defiance, the idea that there was no space for us, so we made our own and fuck you if you don’t get it—at the same time, welcome on in, Virgins, we’re so happy to have you.
When I emphasize “welcoming,” I don’t just mean in the “found family” way. ROCKY is full of people who have been coming to this show for 30 or 40 years. In every place the show is playing, you can find someone to talk to about what you’re going through. I’ve had people teach me how to do my makeup and how to lace up a corset; people have let me cry on their shoulder, talk me through a gay panic, and then show me how to build furniture. My friends in the community have the same stories, where ROCKY helped them realize they were gay, or that they were born to perform, or learn to love their curves. If you want to be a part of this, you’re in. Sure there’s a light bit of hazing, and there will always be a few assholes (besides Brad), but the point of ROCKY is to be inclusive. Maybe that sounds dumb, or cheesy, or over-simplified, but when you’re someone that’s spent a long time trying to figure out where you fit in and you find, perhaps, the most niche community of all time, it’s amazing that they allow you to slot right in, no questions asked.
At the same time, ROCKY doesn’t have to be everything all the time. There’s a lot of weight on this show to immediately give you a “come to Jesus” moment. Sometimes, it’s just a nice thing that will distract me from how awful everything else is. I’ve found that it’s therapeutic to yell nonsense at a screen and not have to worry about being seen as weird or extra. ROCKY draws in a very certain type of person. Nilza Soto, who has played Janet in the KAOS shadow cast at The Frida Cinema in Orange County, has referred to the show’s fan base as a community of “shunned theater kids.” ROCKY is here for the queers, the outcasts, the loners, definitely the stoners, the punks, and every supportive parent, Virgin, and normie who was dragged to a show by them. The ones who keep coming back are proud, weird, or deranged, or usually a combination of all three.
Case in point, last time I went to a show, I brought two straight men who let me do their makeup, ripped my lingerie as early as the pre-show, fixed it with a pin from my jacket, yelled louder than anyone in our entire section, drunkenly ate food truck tacos at 3 A.M., and returned to my house at about four. ROCKY is messy. It’s fun and it’s queer and it makes you feel alive (and sometimes really irritated when you want it to just end so you can go get some tacos). Part of being alive is that you mess up The Time Warp because you’re drunk, or prematurely scream a callback only to laugh it off, or maybe just scream nonsense at the screen because you just want to be included. As one of my castmates, Jillian Strong, would say to new initiates who feared messing up: “Don’t worry, it’s just ROCKY.”
If I have managed to convince you, or remind you, that ROCKY HORROR is both a goddamn train wreck and the altar at which we worship, then you might understand that the past five-to-seven months without it have been pretty abysmal. THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW is interesting in that it is equal parts arthouse cinema and live theater production; unfortunately, both those areas have been hit extraordinarily hard by the pandemic, in ways that have irrevocably altered their respective futures. Lily Yasuda, past ROCKY cast member and independent filmmaker based out of Boise, lamented that “it’s already a pretty un-lucrative industry.” The theaters that are surviving are having to cover the costs of forced closure entirely on donations or charity livestreams.
ROCKY HORROR shows, like many aspects of life in 2020, have been put on hold. What does this mean for the future? Presently, going to the cinema seems absurd, and as ROCKY performer Amaya Santamaria told me, “crowding into a theater in fishnets to scream ‘slut’ at the screen has never seemed further away.” If arthouses are being forced to shut down, and none of us are able to gather, how can we possibly continue the shadow cast tradition? Are we going to be forced to watch this horrible and confusing movie dry, alone in our houses having to actually think about the plot? Trevor Dillon, programming director at Santa Ana’s The Frida Cinema, explained that this may not be our fate for long. The Frida has stayed afloat during the COVID-19 pandemic thanks to the tireless hard work of its volunteer staff running a series of pop-up drive-ins across Orange County, ingeniously presenting everything from JURASSIC PARK to STOP MAKING SENSE in church parking lots, baseball diamonds, and private gardens. Pivoting to live-streaming seemed like a nightmare, forcing callbacks to be yelped via a live, hot-mic’d chat (YIKES) and the show with no callbacks is just no fun at all. The audience is the heart of the ROCKY HORROR experience.
Like The Time Warp, I asked him simply: “How the fuck do we do it!?” Dillon and I were spitballing back and forth about the possibility of hosting ROCKY at the drive-in. After all, The Frida is planning an outdoor screening of THE ROOM where people can yell at the screen from the safety of their cars, and the Rose Bowl even hosted a drive-in drag show. Ultimately a traditional shadow cast during quarantine just wouldn’t be safe, but the cast dressed up to sell merch and be socially distant, with people still able to scream from their cars was possible. There’s incredible incentive for independent theaters like The Frida to keep THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW alive: Trevor plainly put it that the KAOS cast is “the lifeblood of the cinema […] If we didn’t do ROCKY, we wouldn’t be open.”
The resurrection of the drive-in has kept The Frida afloat during these uncertain times, and Dillon notes that they are not “pandemic profiteering” merely “surviving and sticking to our mission statement so we didn’t have to sell out.” One of The Frida’s main goals is to educate with cinema, which he admits is harder with drive-ins, because people tend to just leave after, without the ability to discuss. But on the flip side, it has invigorated a near-dead film form, giving people that sweet dopamine hit of nostalgia for their childhood drive-ins and “shifting the romance of sharing a movie on the big screen.” Nilza Soto and Diego Sanson, both members of the KAOS cast, noted that they were eager to get back to ROCKY, whatever form it may take: just name the terms and ROCKY fans will follow. The future of displayed art as a whole is in a state of sink-or-swim, and while it’s inspiring to see folks like The Frida change the game, I was reminded of what Lily Yasuda told me, that it’s a “ridiculous burden to put on artists right now—can you completely reinvent the wheel?”
I’m hopeful for the future of THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW. Like a cockroach, it’s been pretty impossible to kill for 45 years. This surreal, rickety movie came out in 1975, and yet every year, like clockwork, there are new ROCKY babies emerging, declaring Tim Curry as their God. If it isn’t for you, you’ll pretty much know right away, but for those of us who enjoy partaking in the forbidden fruit, it opens a door you can’t shut. The itch comes on a few times a year, a thirst that only drunkenly screaming along to terrible musical numbers with actors in cheap wigs can sate. ROCKY has woven threads through some of my closest friendships, sure, but more than that, it’s embedded in my brain. I can’t tell you how many times a random callback will just pop up in my thoughts. It’s almost always a horrifyingly inappropriate one: there’s nothing quite like having “Rocky Rocky RA RA RA! Rocky Rocky EAT ME RAW!” looping in your head at the office. Like Brad and Janet, now that I’ve seen the truth, I can’t go back. ROCKY lets me know that it’s okay to be really fucking weird, and that rush is like nothing else. I love The Frida’s ROCKY cast; I think if anyone can revive ROCKY during the terrible year that is 2020, it’s them, and if there’s a drive-in shadow cast, I’ll be first in line, hopefully with a roommate I’ve bribed to DD me.
WHAT ARE YOU STILL DOING HERE? THE SHOW’S OVER! GO THE FUCK HOME!