Rocky Horror Picture Show: An Analysis

Rocky Horror Picture Show: An Analysis

Thesis Statement

The Rocky Horror Picture Show (RHPS) is a movie whose reception has earned it the title of a ?cult-classic?. The 1975 movie featured two engaged and wholesome individuals, Brad and Janet, who stumble upon the mansion of a transvestite scientist, Frank-N-Furter. Though initially terrified, Brad and Janet become attracted to the mini society that presents itself within the mansion, including Frank-N-Furter himself. That soon changes with Frank-N-Furter?s jealousy and the reversal of power, as Riff Raff and Magenta, his once respected servants, kill him and reveal they are aliens who are going back to their planet Transsexual.

Image for postFig. 1: Frank-N-Furter is surrounded by his servants.

RHPS is more than just a movie- it has become a community and a safe space for viewers to congregate and participate in the singing, dancing, acting, and dressing up in elaborate costumes (Weinstock 2008, 2). It is an opportunity to see oneself in a film, it provides a place for self-expression, and it gives meaning to peoples? lives. Therefore, RHPS acts not only popular culturally as religion, but the film represents its own society, and its reception created a community that comes together on a weekly basis to watch the movie in theaters. Brad and Janet embody the more conservative audience of the film, while Frank-N-Furter and his servants give a voice to those who have never felt represented by characters in film or television. The enormous reception the film experienced is attributed to its inclusion of progressive themes such as sex, gender ambiguities and homosexuality in tandem with theories of performativity, ritualization, and liminal stages that relate the film to religion.

Close Reading

Image for postFig. 2: The cult-like group dancing to ?Time Warp?.

The scenes to be discussed are the musical numbers of ?Time Warp? and the transition into ?Sweet Transvestite?. Riff Raff and Magenta start singing ?Time Warp? once the clock makes a sound, indicating that an event is about to begin. This scene introduces the cult-like group that is waiting in the main room. In later scenes they serve as the chorus, but during the ?Time Warp?, they are guests attending the ?transvestite convention? and are all dressed in a similar fashion; a coloured top hat and a black suit with bulky sunglasses. They sing and dance to the song, and the lyrics contain instructions on how to perform their ritual dance. There is a characteristic enthusiasm and free-will that comes with the dance, which makes the audience want to join and act the same way. The dance and the lyrics parallel evangelism, in that it is teaching others how to join and take part in ritual. Thus, these individuals, along with Riff Raff and Magenta as the initiators, are performing a ritual, something so sacred that it requires instructions and must be done a specific way. When the song ends, Frank-N-Furter comes down an elevator making a grand entrance, and the focus shifts from Riff Raff and Magenta back to Frank (Weinstock 2008, 39). The actions performed by the chorus in the scene can be compared to Victor Turner?s liminal stage ? after a ritual ends, when individuals return to their normal social order, the social order is reinforced (Weinstock 2008, 143). Thus, once the ?Time Warp? dance is complete, the chorus remembers that Frank-N-Furter is their master, and they return to their normal position of admiring and obeying him. In addition, Janet and Brad represent the liminal stage: they experience a new birth as they become assimilated to the culture of the mansion, although their development is not from sinner to community member (Weinstock 2008, 212). In fact, after becoming a community member they both experience infidelity.

Fig. 3: ?Time Warp?

The way Frank-N-Furter enters is very majestic and royal-like: an elevator descends very slowly, adding to the dramatic effect. The chorus smiles in anticipation because Janet and Brad have no idea what they are about to encounter. They also smile because they know this extravagant entrance quite well, indicating that Frank is both important and that this is a regular occurrence. The way the chorus lights up when they see Frank resembles how fans of the film also react to him and the film as a whole. A few individuals from the cult-like group introduce themselves to Frank, and they appear ecstatic, as if he is famous. The cape Frank is wearing comes off, and we see female lingerie, as well as an arm tattoo saying ?BOSS?. He takes a seat on the elevated throne and looks down at everyone else. Frank is treated as a deity, as he is the head of the mansion, the mad scientist, and the ?master? (Weinstock 2008, 27).

Gender, argues Tickle, is not something that someone is, it is something that someone does (2014, 147). This follows suit with Butler?s ideas on gender as a performance (Weinstock 2008, 179). There is no better embodiment of an individual performing gender quite like Frank-N-Furter. The awful brutalities and snarky remarks Frank performs do not hinder the love the audience has for him, because it is in him that they see themselves represented. The fact that the audience overlooks the murder of Eddie and the abuse of Janet shows how much Frank acts as a manipulative leader in today?s society. Thus, gender is a sense of performance. The way in which Frank-N-Furter parades the room and has such a strong presence, defines that he is performing the song, his reputation, and his gender. Since gender is performed, Frank is the embodiment of performativity through his performance of gender, sexuality, and the actual performances put on throughout the film (Tickle 2014, 147).

Fig. 4: ?Sweet Transvestite?

Frank?s character represents Butler?s point, in that drag and cross dressing can be problematic when analyzing whether it is a positive step towards equality ? drag both reinforces female stereotypes and demolishes male stereotypes (Tickle 2014, 149). However, the ambiguity Frank possesses serves as a means to attract both Brad and Janet through his femininity and masculinity. The femininity is derived from makeup, lingerie, and dance moves, while the masculinity is derived from his violence towards Eddie and anyone who crosses him, as well as his confidence (Tickle 2014, 149).

Image for postFig. 5

Discussion of the means of production

RHPS was written as a musical by Richard O?Brien, who played Riff Raff on stage and in the film (Weinstock 2008, 3). Many of the actors in the movie were part of the musical?s cast, including Tim Curry (Weinstock 2008, 3). The show received recognition by word of mouth as a chain reaction between Lou Adler, a producer, and executive of Twentieth Century Fox, Gordon Stulbert, who invested 1 million dollars for the film?s production (Weinstock 2008, 4). The show was put on for seven years in London before it moved to Los Angeles, where it played for another nine months (Weinstock 2008, 4). When the show hit Broadway, it failed miserably, and received reviews that called it trash, and the movie too was not well received apart from Los Angeles (Weinstock 2008, 5). Adler noticed that the individuals attending the screenings were doing so repeatedly, and from there, weekly midnight screenings were born (Weinstock 2008, 5).

The voices of society in the 70’s were represented by Brad and Janet, as we watch Frank-N-Furter perform sexuality, and though they disagreed with that form of self-expression, they could not deny that there was an allure or desirable aspect that kept them intrigued (Santana 2008, 55). As Santana emphasizes, sex sells, and whether conservative individuals agree with it or not, they still pay attention to it and agree it is an effective method to attract an audience (2008, 55). Thus, that could have been what the film producers promoted to generate a large audience for their film. After all, sexuality in advertising is what Santana was referring to. For example, Todd Haynes, the director and screenwriter, said they present a ?queer? perspective on Rock N? Roll in the film (Weinstock 2008, 35). In addition, Richard O?Brien admitted to using lingerie ads as inspiration for the style of the show (Weinstock 2008, 51). In the case of Brad and Janet, they both succumbed to Frank-N-Furter?s attempts at intercourse, meaning that he not only exudes a sort of allure, but that this allure is broader than gender. Frank opens up the possibilities of gender for the audiences watching the film (Tickle 2014, 149).

Image for postFig. 6: Frank dramatically performing and revealing his lingerie for the first time in the film.

In the same way that religion believes sex is an incorrect method of advertising, it agrees that it is attractive. Therefore, RHPS is the manifestation of religion in the sense that it has both a hermeneutical function, and it promotes the employment of desire (Santana 2008, 54). In addition, they both aspire to control social morality, with religion trying to maintain the current morality, and with RHPS trying to change it from the bottom up. Homosexuality, gender neutrality, and drag were not widely accepted in the 70?s, and it gave like-minded individuals a chance to express themselves and be told it was okay to be and do all of those things.

Discussion of consumption and reception

Image for postFig. 7

Scholars have questioned what the criteria of a cult classic are, but they can all agree that RHPS is a cult film (Weinstock 2008, 2). Austin characterizes the criteria of a cult-classic as those where many individuals congregate regularly, and importantly, at midnight (Austin 1981, 45). All of these characteristic attributes of RHPS fans can be related to ritualization ? individuals participate in many activities as if they were ritual even though they bear no religious content (Weinstock 2008, 153). It is the act of going every Friday in full costume and makeup. At the screenings, fans have incorporated traditions they would perform throughout the movie, such as lighting the way for Brad and Janet, and throwing pieces of toast when toasts were made (Austin 1981, 46). The excitement and energy they felt and reciprocated can be attributed to the mirror effect ? when you do things together that are exciting, you feel excited (Tyson 1980, 60). They went because it made them feel good and they felt a sense of community and inclusion (Tyson 1980, 60). These traditions parallel the notion that in churches there are also traditions and customs that are performed at each congregation, in this case every Sunday: communion, singing, praying, and lighting candles. The fans responded not only by frequenting the theater every week, but also by created fan clubs, newsletters and publications (Austin 1981, 46).

Considering that the film was produced in 1975, it features an androgynous individual who embodies both male and female attributes. Back then, society was more conservative as a whole than it is today (Weinstock 2008, 24). It is therefore inspiring to people who have never felt like they belonged, to see someone like Frank-N-Furter be the leader of a society and be unapologetically confident and sexually ambiguous (Weinstock 2008, 150).

The series Glee and the film Perks of being a Wallflower are two examples of recent entertainment that featured RHPS. In Glee, an entire episode was dedicated to the movie, where the characters acted out the songs and dances just like movie goers in real life would. In Perks of Being a Wallflower, the main character was taken to a screening of the movie by his newest friends who appear to populate the theater every week. These storylines that featured RHPS emphasized how large-scale and well-known the film was. These examples produce their own take on the film, and in the process, they resemble a sort of denomination of the ultimate religion that is RHPS.

The question that remains is, how was the movie a success among the rest of society who did not relate to Frank-N-Furter? Tickle discusses that heteronormative individuals might have been okay with the movie because Dr. Scott, a friend of Brad and Janet?s, represents their perspectives (2014, 150). It is comforting to know that a character they relate to also finds the society of the mansion odd. Another reason is that Frank never hides masculinity, or that he is anatomically male, so the audience does not feel threatened that their sexual identity is being compromised (Tickle 2014, 150).


In conclusion, the massive success and following of RHPS resembles a religion in that it is an immersive experience that provides meaning in the lives of individuals, and comprises such a popular fan base. The special meaning and enormous fan base are attributed to both the film?s promotion of uniqueness, as well as its inclusion of characters to represent the rest of society. The progressiveness of Frank-N-Furter sheds light on gender neutrality and hyper-sexuality so that people who relate to him are not ashamed. In addition, the treatment of Frank as a deity furthers the discussion of RHPS as a religion. His ability to appeal to both Brad and Janet is evidence that gender is a performance and that sex is a successful means to promote oneself.

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Austin, Brian A. ?Portrait of a Cult Film Audience: Rocky Horror Picture Show?. Journal of Communication 31 (1981): 43?54.

Santana, Richard W, Erickson, Gregory. ?Consuming Faith: Advertising, the Pornographic Gaze and Religious Desire,? 50?66. In Religion and Popular Culture: Rescripting the Sacred. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2008.

Tickle, Victoria. ?Gender Performativity and The Rocky Horror Picture Show? Film Musings 12 (2014): 147?150.

Tyson, Christy, Knowlton, John F., Ward, Nel, Ward, Dan, Salerno, Nicholas A. ?What is the significance of the Rocky Horror Picture Show? Why do kids keep going to it?? The English Journal 69 (1980): 60?62.

Weinstock, Jeffrey Andrew. Reading Rocky Horror: the Rocky Horror Picture Show and popular culture. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.


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