The fan rituals that made Rocky Horror Picture Show a cult classic

No matter how good Fox’s updated version of the 1975 campfest is, it will never beat watching the original with a live audience and throwing toast at the screen

No matter how good Fox’s adaptation of The Rocky Horror Picture Show is when it debuts on Thursday, the experience will never match going to see the original 1975 cult classic with a live audience. The world’s longest continuously showing movie plays in theaters across the world every week with “shadow casts” of actors pantomiming the action and dialogue in front of the screen, with attendees dressed elaborately as characters from the film. There is a ritual of call and response between the audience and the characters on screen, and a host of props that should be taken out or thrown at the appropriate cues.

What if you want to turn your living room into an official Rocky Horror Picture Show screening? The first thing to know is that the experience differs from theater to theater. “Some jokes are localized to a certain cast or a certain town,” says Eric Garment, the 25-year-old co-director of NYC RHPS, the organization that puts on weekly performances in New York City and has been going since 1976. “That’s why it continues to be so loved and proliferate with thousands of people being involved in it. There are no two shows that are ever exactly the same.”

The protagonists of the story are Brad and Janet, two squares who get engaged in the opening scene. They celebrate by going to see their science professor Dr Scott, the man who introduced them. On the way to his house, their car breaks down and they wind up in the mansion of Dr Frank N Furter, an alien transvestite who is hosting a party for the unveiling of Rocky, his hunky Frankenstein-esque creation. The innocent Brad and Janet get caught up in a world of decadence and will never be the same. The same goes for anyone watching the film for the first time.

They’re usually initiated before the film starts with a “virgin auction”, where those who have never seen the film live are called on stage and auctioned off for sometimes-obscene objects rather than obscene amounts of money. They’re also asked to perform in lewd contests. “We play a little game show called Let’s Have an Orgasm and virgins fake their best one and the audience votes on the winner,” Garment says. “It’s great fun.”

There are some agreed upon objects that viewers are going to need to have on hand. Rubber gloves come in handy to snap when Dr Frank N Furter first gets up to his lab after singing Sweet Transvestite. Following that there is a dinner scene where Frank puts on a hat, so it’s nice to do the same along with him. In the same scene he also proposes a toast, where the audience usually throws slices of toast at the screen. Finally, during the song I’m Going Home, when Frank sings, “Cards for sorrow, cards for pain,” it’s customary to throw cards. Either the playing or greeting variety will suffice.

Garment says there are some traditions that theater owners don’t love. Throwing rice during the opening wedding scene used to be ubiquitous until clean-up crews started complaining about the mess. The same goes with people shooting water guns during the song There’s a Light, when Brad and Janet walk through the rain. Janet puts a newspaper over her head in the film, which would also happen in the theater, mostly to protect a well-styled wig from all of those water pistols. There are also some arcane props that are no longer in fashion. Garment says that at the end of the song Planet, Schmanet, Janet, various characters call Frank a “hotdog”, which would prompt the hurling of the cylindrical mystery meat toward the screen. Yeah, no one wants to deal with flying wieners in public.

Another time-honored tradition is yelling back at the screen at certain times during the film. For instance, every time a character says Brad’s name, the audience shouts “asshole”, and every time someone says Janet’s name they shout “slut”. No, not very nice, but it can be very funny. There are also a few other well-worn responses, like during Sweet Transvestite when Frank takes an inordinately long pause between the syllables “antici” and “pation”, the silence is filled with revelers screaming, “Say it!”

For those who want a full accounting of what to say when, there are several great annotated scripts available online. Garment says that the biggest laughs come from those who are making it up as they go along and deviating from the script, and even including topical humor. During Time Warp, Frank’s butler Riff Raff opens a coffin and there is a skeleton inside. Someone invariably shouts, “Say hello to [name of recently dead celebrity].” Naturally, the show can get political. “Right now the flavor of the week is making specific jokes about Donald Trump and pussies,” Garment says.

It’s not always the audience shouting after the movie, however. Sometimes a participant will pose a question and let the dialogue of the film answer him. “You set it up and you let the movie tell the punchline,” Garment says. The only way to pull off those jokes is to see the movie so often that every scrap of dialogue is memorized. The props and some of the common callouts are easy, but for that master level of participation it’s going to take hours of studying this odd, little film. There’s no time to start like the present.

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