BY HANNAH ROACH '17
During my first Halloween season at school, my friend and I decided to go to Tower Theatres and see “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” I never really loved the movie, but I was told that the act-along show and cult-classic culture was worth the experience.
My friend and I arrived at the theater, stating proudly it was our first time at the talk-along. Lipstick was painted on our foreheads, marking us “V” for virgins. This definitely made me uneasy, but I figured it was part of the culture. We were then asked to get on stage and to pretend to “pleasure a candy cane.” Previous visitors had told me that they would ask us to do suggestive activities, but I promptly noticed that the cheers were loud and lewd with every member on stage ‘passing the test.’ When it came to my turn, I decided to break the candy cane in half and chew it as loudly as I possibly could — a couple men groaned and stood up.
When watching the movie for the first time, a lot of the terminology and behaviors of the characters caught me off guard. I knew the movie was famous for its focus on sexual liberation, but I found myself profoundly uncomfortable. Of course, I didn’t tell my host this. The group of people watching were whispering along, yelling about the narrator’s neck and calling Brad a jerk. It didn’t occur to me how measured and filtered down this audience participation was.
With this over and done with, we took our seats in the audience. I had expected to be uncomfortable and to feel unsettled because the movie made me feel very similar. Yet, when Janet arrived on screen, echoes of “slut,” “bitch” and “whore” filled the theater. People threw candy, smiling as they screamed at her, as she sang with Brad at the opening church scene. My friend and I made eye-contact; this wasn’t at all what we expected from a movie that advertised sexual liberation. It seemed hypocritical and started to actively make me angry.
The “edgy” material kept seeping through; when a skeleton appeared on screen, someone shouted from the back, “Hey look, it’s Nelson Mandela!” Claps followed.
It wasn’t until the character of Eddie appeared that I felt the need to express my feelings by leaving. Eddie, famously played by Meat Loaf, is killed with an ice pick fairly early on. It’s described as a mercy killing. So, naturally, I was upset when the actor in this show decided to play Eddie as a Hasidic Jew, with Payot (or side-curls for the male Jewish Orthodox community, traditionally). I didn’t get the joke. My friend and I, both Jewish, saw this without explanation and without punchline until it occurred to us that Jewish culture was supposed to be the punchline.
Unless I missed any anti-semitic subtext in the original film, the actors playing along with the film devised a darker and harsher experience than I had ever intended to subject myself to. The culture around the film, from my outside experience, felt toxic and marginalizing.
This experience isn’t unique to me; it isn’t specific to this production. It has been effectively repeated throughout the country. A friend from Kenyon College, Lucy Coplin, explained her similar qualms about the production, “While I very much appreciate the effect that RHPS had during the time it came out —as it had been an event where people who defied sexual and gender norms were free to express themselves — I believe that it is long past being radical and accepting. It promotes rape culture (in the scenes with Frank n’ Furter, Brad and Janet), slut-shames (Janet is not allowed to be a sexual being without being condemned for it) and the characters have become even more the archetypes they started out as. I believe that currently RHPS is not a safe, open space for women, people unsure about their sexualities and asexual people, among others.”
The film itself has had an enormous and important impact through its discussions and representations of masculinity, sexual identity and gender identity. Not all of it was successful, and the nuance of its subjects wasn’t always effectively translated from the screen to the audience. Many people have heavily criticized its representation of gender identity and I would be ignoring several problematic aspects of the film if I didn’t mention this critical response. But, it’s release did start conversations and sparked many other culturally significant moments in this arena.
The cult following is where this production really misses the mark. No art form or piece of media can temper its response or its following. After it is aired, produced or shared, it offers itself up for consumption and cannot control the audience response. Yet, my difficulty with this phenomenon stems from its slut-shaming and virgin-shaming, its desperate attempts to be edgy and its departure from the ideals many find in the film itself. One of the most prolific songs, “Don’t Dream It, Be It,” seems to highlight a liberation from social norms and societal rules. Yet I didn’t see this in its audience reception. Something was mistranslated; something was lost. Now, I watch Halloweentown.