2015 marks the fortieth anniversary of the “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.”
“The Rocky Horror Picture Show” played a major role in my development as a rabbi. It was actually the subject of my first Yom Kippur sermon.
In 1980, I was the student rabbi at Temple Bnai Israel in Laconia, New Hampshire. Right before Rosh Ha Shanah, I saw the film at the old Thalia Theater on the Upper West Side. Yes, at midnight (as if there is any other time to see it).
A young, engaged couple (Barry Bostwick and Susan Sarandon) are driving on “a dark and stormy night,” when their car breaks down. They enter a castle, hoping to find a telephone.
The castle is occupied by a collection of weirdos, celebrating an annual convention. The head of the house is Frank N. Furter, an alien transsexual transvestite and mad scientist (Tim Curry). The couple is seduced separately by the mad scientist, and eventually released by the servants who take control.
What did I say about the movie in my Yom Kippur sermon? That I found it disturbing, and a symbol of the decadence of American culture.
OK, I was more prudish in those days. (Weren’t we all?)
Hard to believe, with a plot like that, but initially, the film was a bomb. It was discovered several years later bands of loyal fans, and it became a cult classic. The Rocky Horror Picture Show” happens to be the longest running movie of all time.
What has made TRHPS into such a phenomenon? Not only the movie, but the experience of seeing the movie.
As Roger Ebert wrote: “The Rocky Horror Picture Show is not so much a movie as more of a long-running social phenomenon,” because “the fans put on a better show than anything on the screen.”
The audience members dress up as the characters. They act out the film in front of the movie screen. First-timers are called “virgins.”
They bring props (lighters, rice, rubber gloves, etc.) to use during the show.
When the couple on screen gets married, the audience (both on screen and in the theatre) throws rice.
Audience members recite the lines with the actors on screen – and they add their own lines. They participate in the story. They become part of the experience itself.
Now, why is this a religious issue?
Because TRHPS functions like a religion.
First: You have to be introduced to the experience of the film. Hence, newcomers are called virgins — like neophytes who must learn a religion’s sacred lore.
Second: TRHPS is a text that tells a story.
Third: That story has a body of commentary that has grown over the years. The commentary gets woven into the “text” itself. It is difficult to untangle the “commentary” from the “text.” There is no “pure” viewing of TRHPS; it now only exists with its commentary attached to it.
Fourth: People act the story out, with various props and actions.
Fifth: People who go to a screening of TRHPS know what to say or do. It is hard to know where they learned exactly what to say or do; they just know it.
Sixth: The experience of the film creates community. As an article in The Encyclopedia of Religion and Film says: “Such ritualized use of film is one way that filmgoers relive the experience and participate in the drama unfolding before them again and again. The ritual connects them with the characters of the film, and with other fans who have been similarly caught up by a film’s message.”
Everything that I just said about “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” is true of religion as well.
What is a religious tradition, anyway? It is texts, commentaries, acting them out, and adding to the “script” over time. When you engage in a classic religious text, it is often difficult to know where the original text ends, and where the commentaries and traditions begin.
In the words of my teacher, Larry Hoffman: “Worship is a sacred drama. An alternative world is presented by the actors, who are the community of worshipers gathered for the occasion. Their liturgy is the script, handed down by tradition.”
And you do all of that in the context of a sacred community, that stretches way beyond you, both in time (into the past and into the future) and in space.
Whether the Sacred Story is the Exodus from Egypt, or Jesus’ death and resurrection, or Muhammed’s flight from Mecca, you act out the story , and act on the story.
What can contemporary religion learn from “The Rocky Horror Picture Show”?
Religious people can learn to become actors once again, and not just a passive audience to what is happening around us and in front of us. We can learn to act out the drama of our Sacred Story.
Temple Solel of Hollywood recently held services on the beach. When it was time to sing “Mi Kamocha,” remembering how the Israelites crossed the Red Sea, we walked towards the tide, actually feeling our feet getting wet.
Suddenly, we were there — back at the shores of the Red Sea, wondering whether to go forward to an uncertain future, or backwards to slavery.
In the words of the song from the movie: “Let’s do the time warp again.”