Six ways that ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’ is a religion

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Moviegoers getting into the act. 
Credit: WikiCommons

Moviegoers getting into the act. Credit: WikiCommons

Moviegoers getting into the act. Credit: WikiCommons

Moviegoers getting into the act.
Credit: WikiCommons

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.”

  • Larry

    The multiplexing of movie theaters had nearly made Rocky Horror and the whole midnight movie phenomena, which was big in the 70’s and 80’s, an endangered species. But thanks to the internet, fandom takes on a life of its own in ways not considered in the past.

  • George Nixon Shuler

    Whoa, dude, yare right; you were a prude in those days.

    But we all should consider just who the RHPS regulars are: sensitive, plucky people of an artistic bent – IOW folks like those who take the Beatitudes seriously, to mix testaments there a little.

    Now, contrast that with the fascist notion of “Muscular Christianity” and its adherents’ emotional connection to NFL Football.

    I would sure rather any son of mine would group to be like the RHPC crowd than the devotees of violent sports – or as Margaret Cho said, “Who wouldn’t want a gay kid? That way, if there’s a school shooting, you’ll know right away it wasn’t him, because it would interfere with Yearbook.”

  • Jack

    To me, RHPS tells us something about American pop culture: Sure, the sights and sounds appear decadent, but the reality of life on the ground in America — in actual cities, towns, and states — is remarkable unchanged.

    In other words, when it comes to decadence, America’s bark is worse than its bite. (sorry for the unfortunate imagery arising from that….)

    The way Americans behave isn’t much different from a half century ago. In fact, by every measure, kids today are more wholesome than their counterparts in the 1970s and 1980s.

    So that’s why we can look back at Rocky Horror Picture Show and laugh, especially at audiences and their rituals. It has little to do with reality. It’s had zero effect on how people live.

    And that’s why RHPS doesn’t bother us. It’s not that we’re less prudish. It’s that if you view it as prophecy, the prophecy never came to pass. Imagery aside, America remains the same.

  • Larry

    The “decadence” in RHPS was damn mild even by mid-1970’s standards. They show it on basic cable these days. If you were bothered by it, you were easily bothered.

    This was the era of some of the most violent, gory, sexually explicit mainstream films hitting theaters. The era of “grindhouse” films that are homaged by Quentin Tarantino and co.

    The staying power of the film comes from the deliberate subversion of film watching. The audience responds back to the terrible on-screen jokes, stagey acting, terrible writing and a few genuinely decent modern rock-style show tunes. Essentially the audience saying, “your film is terrible, but endearing. We are having fun with it on our terms”.

    Americans were never as “wholesome” as their culture portrayed them to be. Culture is less broad and mainstream-oriented as it was in the past and become more niche. People are no different in terms of decadent/prudish than they were in the past.

  • Jack

    To say that “Americans were never as ‘wholesome’ as their culture portrayed them to be” is obviously true, but it’s a truth that’s been pretty much beaten to death for nearly a half century. It may have been bold or daring to say it in 1955, but today it’s like saying that wearing a beanie hat with a propeller, along with Bermuda shorts, white socks, and wingtips isn’t cool.

    It richly deserves a “well, duh” reaction.

    The more interesting fact worth repeating is that America is nowhere near as decadent as the worst of pop culture portrays it as being. Again, it is remarkably unchanged, and arguably better than in the decade after the late 1960s.