Nov 7, 2012

Summer 1978: Aaron Takes Me to See Rocky Horror

One warm summer night in 1978, my sophisticated, artistic friend Aaron, who was gay (but he didn't know it yet), invited me to a midnight showing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.  I had never heard of it.

“It’ll be fun,” he offered.  “They yell out sarcastic comments, and squirt water and throw toilet paper. But I have to warn you, there’s some gay stuff in it.”

This was a week or so before Grease, so I said “I don’t mind.  I'm secure in my masculinity."

So I saw, for the first time but not the last, newly-engaged naifs Brad (Barry Bostwick) and Janet (Susan Sarandon) driving through the American Midwest in the pouring rain, getting a flat tire, and knocking on the door of an old castle to solicit a telephone.  Instead they encounter a group of gleeful Transylvanians from the galaxy Transsexual, who dance in non-polarized pairs, who sing “Time Warp.”

And they encounter Dr. Frank-N-Furter, who smashes their preconceptions in pearls, black fishnet stockings, and heavy makeup but a tight black jockstrap and a tenor voice belting: “I’m not much of a man by the light of day, but by night I’m one hell of a lover.” He does not look like a woman, but he doesn’t look much like a man, either.  Gender is irrelevant to him.  Janet faints.

Stripped to their underwear, Brad and Janet get intimate access to Frank’s laboratory while he unveils his creation: Rocky, a heavily muscled goldenboy in gold lame shorts.  “He’s good for relieving my tensions,”  Frank sings, and though they stepped out of 1950’s Dentonvale a minute before, Brad and Janet are not at all shocked by this confession of homoerotic interest.

Similarly, “newborn” Rocky sings about a “feeling of unnamable dread,” but it is not the prospect of a homoerotic liaison that unnerves him, rather a premonition of his demise – he will be killed in a few hours.

Later, Brad and Janet, bedded down in separate rooms, are seduced by the horny Frank. They have second thoughts, but no homophobic revulsion: Brad is upset not because Frank is male but because he thought Janet was “the real thing,” and when Janet spies on Brad and Frank together, she is upset only because Brad has been unfaithful.

Janet’s seduction of Rocky is actually an initiation into pansexuality: she imagines herself with everyone in the castle, including Frank, Brad, and Rocky, but also the maid Magenta and the groupie Columbia. 

Frank is shriekingly jealous when he catches Rocky and Janet together, even though he has just been bedded both of them.  But jealously is forbidden in Transylvania, so he gives himself a more acceptable motive for disliking the duo, accusing them of being government agents assigned to infiltrate his alien invasion headquarters.  He gets revenge at dinner, by arranging for them to dine on "delivery boy" Eddie!

The party breaks into chaos, Janet panics, and Frank’s first human lover, Columbia, rebels:

First you spurn me for Eddie, and then you throw him off like an old overcoat for Rocky. . .I loved you, and what did it get me. . .a big nothing!  You take, take, take, and drain others of their love and emotion.  Yeah, well, I’ve had enough!  You’ll have to decide between me and Rocky!

Now vulnerable for the first time, Frank responds with a ritual designed to force the Earthlings to acknowledge their inner pansexuality.  He zaps the humans into trance states, dresses them in corsets, black fishnet stockings, and boas, and stages a “floor show” in which they sing about their unconscious feelings.  But still he is not successful:

Columbia avers that “the only thing that gives me hope / Is the love of a certain dope,” that is, she remains monogamously devoted to Eddie.

Brad, horrified, regresses to childhood: “It’s beyond me – help me, Mommy.”

Rocky warns that “my libido hasn’t been controlled,” that is, pansexual orgies will not help him become human.

Only  Janet, the true convert, is positive: “My confidence has increased – reality is here.”

Then Frank sings: “Give yourself over to absolute pleasure, swim the warm waters of sins of the flesh.”  While a chorus repeats the anthem “Don’t dream it – be it,” the humans stumble hesitantly toward a pool (surely a pool of death and rebirth).  They jump in and begin an orgy of jubilant but somehow chaste hugging and kissing.  They have become Transylvanians!  Janet exclaims “God bless living sincere!”

A moment later, Magenta and Riff-Raff enter in silvery space suits, brandishing ray guns, to announce that they’re taking over: “your mission is a failure, your lifestyle’s too extreme.”  In the ensuing melee, Frank, Rocky, and Columbia are killed, and the castle is transported with the Transylvanians back to their home planet.  Brad and Janet are left staggering about in the smoking ruins.

Why is Frank’s mission a failure?  Riff Raff no doubt means that he has been unable to prepare for the alien invasion, because he has devoted too much time to seducing the local inhabitants.  But his “real” mission in the movie is to rescue Brad and Janet from their bondage to heterosexism, to encourage them to be true to themselves, to “be it” instead of “dream it.”

He fails because he does not practice what he preaches: he advocates truth, yet he is constantly deceptive; he advocates a quest for sexual pleasure without regard to monogamous commitments, yet he is shrilly jealous when Rocky finds pleasure with others; he advocates following the dictates of one’s heart without regard for external constraints, yet he himself places constraint on the others.

The narrator announces that Brad and Janet are “lost in time, lost in space, and [bereft of] meaning,” and a 1981 sequel, Shock Treatment, completely ignores same-sex desire except for a few homophobic jokes.  The orgiastic “don’t dream it – be it” did not lead Brad and Janet to rebirth and a new life, but to a staid heterosexual marriage.  The mission was a failure -- they forgot that sometimes men fall in love.

See the post on the stage version, The Rocky Horror Show Live; and Shock Treatment, the sequel.

Aaron's story concludes here, after I figure it out.


  1. Janet's line during the Floor Show is "God bless Lily St. Cyr." Lily St. Cyr was a famous stripper.

    1. I know that now, but at the time I thought it was "God bless living sincere," which fits the gay symbolism better.


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