Oct 31 2012 10:00am

The Astonishingly Non-Nonsensical Plot of The Rocky Horror Picture Show

The Astonishingly Sensical Plot of The Rocky Horror Picture Show

It’s all haunted mansions and secret labs, corsets and glitter, sex and the destruction of (arguably pretty boring) innocence—but what are you supposed to get out of The Rocky Horror Picture Show besides a really good time? The midnight showings are legend, the Time Warp is played at practically every prom and wedding you go to, yet it’s hard to find the meaning of this musical outside of outrageousness for outrageousness’ sake. Plus an homage to 50s rock and old science fiction cinema. The first time I watched it as a teenager (at the behest of a more mature friend, isn’t that always the way?) my reaction boiled down to “…hablahlawhut?”

But taken in context with when it was originally produced, the themes of Rocky Horror begin to coalesce. The first stage show production was in 1973, with the film released two years later, toward the tail end of the glam rock movement. And Doctor Frank-N-Furter’s journey heavily mirrors the politics and taboos explored during those years.

Take Frank-N-Furter on his own: he is an all-singing, all-vamping, bisexual transvestite from another planet. He is trying to create the perfect man for himself, a man mainly conceived as the ultimate eye candy. He laughs off the wide-eyed Brad and Janet, enjoying their squirmish induction into his cadre of all-night partying Transylvanians. This persona borrows heavily from David Bowie’s creation of Ziggy Stardust, a rock and roll god sent from another planet to bring us music from the stars.

Bowie claimed to be bisexual early in that decade, and this element was folded into the Ziggy mythos with songs that contained telling imagery or outright spoke the message, such as “Width of a Circle” and “John, I’m Only Dancing.” Though the Ziggy figure was fond of jumpsuits, 1970-71 saw Bowie in long dresses with tresses down past his shoulder blades, so having Frank in a corset and stockings is not much of a logic leap. Though the glam rock movement was popular and fierce while it lasted, it wasn’t long before it went out of fashion, the eyeliner and androgyny traded for safety pins and slam dancing as punk emerged a few years later.

The Astonishingly Sensical Plot of The Rocky Horror Picture Show

It gives Rocky Horror a layer of allegory that isn’t necessarily prevalent on the first viewing. It’s easy to spot the shout outs to Golden Age sci-fi and monster flicks (Frank’s insistence that he wants to be dressed like Fay Wray, the heroine of King Kong, also mentioned in the opening number “Science Fiction Double Feature”), it’s easy to hear the 50s pop musical influences in the soundtrack, but the idea that real-world cultural thoughts are actually being explored in this romp seems completely at odds with the tone of the whole experience. Of course, if we take a closer peek….

After Rocky’s creation, the audience is introduced to Eddie, a former lover of both Frank and Columbia, who has had half of his brain cut out in sacrifice to the doctor’s new Charles Atlas. Eddie’s song “Hot Patootie — Bless My Soul” harkens back to the beginning of rock’n’roll, sock hops and greased hair and poodle skirts in abundance. Eddie’s nostalgia makes him seem innocent, a sweet soul caught in his long-abandoned era, and that innocence is given over to Rocky via transplant, humanizing what could have been just a very well-toned monster.

Then Dr. Frank takes up an axe and hunts Eddie down in front of the house guests.

In case that wasn’t clear: alien science cut up milkshakes and burgers, proud sexual exploration laid waste to fumblings in the back of cars, and glam just flat-out murdered good ol’ fashioned rock’n’roll.

The Astonishingly Sensical Plot of The Rocky Horror Picture Show

The creation of Rocky is a perfect metaphor for what glam was all about; the sincerity of rock at its inception—provided or, perhaps you might say, stolen from Eddie—combined with an admiration for youthful human beauty and a preoccupation with sexual desire. As Frank says to Rocky after Eddie is dead, “Don’t be upset. It was a mercy killing! He had a certain naive charm, but no... muscle.” Without that muscle, glam doesn’t play. It was about the music, yes, but about physical expressions of identity just as much.

Yet what powers this lifestyle is also what sabotages it, as we see Frank-N-Furter ruin any Leave It To Beaver notions that Brad and Janet may have had about their lives. He seduces both of them successfully, encouraging the adventurousness that the glam era touted loud. But opening Janet’s mind to new experiences burns the doctor when she ends up showing Rocky what she’s learned (it is notable that in the stage show Janet enters the fling in revenge on Frank and Brad for sleeping together). Frank-N-Furter is supposed to be in charge of the evening’s proceedings, but things quickly get well out of hand.

In congruence, Ziggy Stardust (and the more American version of the persona, Aladdin Sane,) quickly became too much for David Bowie to handle, and he dropped the character in 1973, unable to keep up with the demand Ziggy made on his time and his life. He lost control of it, similar to the way that Frank loses it in the show’s latter half, when he ends up forcing everyone under his control for one final performance. “The Floor Show” might seem the most avant-garde aspect of Rocky Horror, but it actually might be the most straightforward piece of the whole story—Frank-N-Furter’s affect on everyone is entirely sexual and nothing more, and the only person who sees through his “liberating” act is Columbia, heartbroken over the loss of the more genuine Eddie. Columbia’s title in the script is “a groupie,” with all the weight that entails, and her disillusionment coming before anyone else’s is a telling harbinger; Frank loses “the faithful” first. Rocky now only trusts lust, Brad is awash in a newfound feeling of sexiness, and Janet is enjoying the sincerity that Frank’s desires allow them all.

The Astonishingly Sensical Plot of The Rocky Horror Picture Show

It is left to Riff-Raff and Magenta to break up the party, and do what should have been done from the start: call quits on their alien mission and take Frank back to Transylvania (the planet). As Riff tells him, “Frank-N-Furter, it’s all over / your mission is a failure / your lifestyle’s too extreme.” The metaphor comes clear—it’s the vote of extremism that really was the nail in the coffin for this artistic era; though glam may have preached new ideas and identities to a generation of young people, it couldn’t sustain itself. It was too much exploration all at once, and was destined to fade away. At the end of the play, we see Brad and Janet attempting to piece together what happened that night in the song “Superheroes,” to determine what it all means, but they don’t come close to managing it. They are left changed but confused, uncertain if the experience has any bearing on their future. And the audience feels much the same.

It makes a bit more sense of the somber note the play ends on—the Criminologist (named so perhaps because he is someone fit to judge the crimes committed?) has a message for us all in the final moments, that humans are “lost in time / lost in space / and meaning.” He is pointing out our failings, but maybe also applauding our need to understand and explore all the same.

I’m not saying that The Rocky Horror Picture Show is pure art and allegory, and that every future viewing demands reverence and careful dissection. It is also a musical primarily centered around fun, around ostentatiousness and madness and good times for all. But if anyone ever asks you what on earth the whole thing means, then maybe this could prove a useful footnote. It’s a fiasco of homage, one of the most successful examples I can think of, and as such, deserves to be picked apart one delicious piece at a time.

 Emily Asher-Perrin is astonished that she got through this whole piece without preying on anyone’s antici... pation. You can bug her on Twitter and read more of her work here and elsewhere.

1. wiredog
I won't say how many times I saw that movie at the midnight showings at the Skyline in Bailey's Crossroads... But...
It was the audience participation that made it so awesome. Saw it once where there were only a couple of us who knew the lines and it. Just. Wasn't.
2. StrongDreams
The idea that there really is a deeper meaning to RHPS is appropriately frightening on Halloween.
Deana Whitney
3. Braid_Tug
Sometimes an apple is just an apple.
Not an allegory for the female.
Alex Bledsoe
4. alexbledsoe
I don't think RHPS would have lasted, or even broken out at the time, if these subtexts weren't there, even if they were unconscious. Art will often unify itself even without letting its creators in on it. Kudos for pointing all this out, Emily, and I'd be very curious to read a similar analysis of Phantom of the Paradise.
A.J. Bobo
5. Daedylus
Wow. Emily, that's some seriously deep thought about a movie like this. I'm either impressed or really frightened.

I suppose, though, that actually thinking about what it all means makes the ending easier to sit through. I always started getting very bored somewhere around the Floor Show. Of course, it was usually close to 2 in the morning when I got to that part, so exhaustion might have had something to do with that.
6. FarleyFlavors
There are mountains of subtext and allegories generously ladled on its quasi-sequel, "Shock Treatment," though that film is even more veiled and chaotic, narratively. Most people don't dig on that one but it does have a small following. I like it, if only because it's as decent a time capsule of the early 80's as much as RHPS is of the mid-70's. But "Shock Treatment" doesn't really lend itself to throwing rolls of toilet paper in a theater, thus its ultimate failure!
Thom Dunn
7. ThomDunn
This is an impressive analysis you've pieced together here. I remember sitting in a production of the staged version last October (that was actually set in a rock club setting), and as I experienced the show all around me, I was realizing just how much of a dramaturgical mess the latter half of it really is. It's a fact I've always known and never minded, but noticed it especially that night (some of that might be in the difference between the play and the film, of course, but I really feel that the story meanders after "Hot Patootie" and then just kind of throws an explosive orgy at the wall to see what sticks). But you've really found a way to make some sense out of all that delightfully wonderful madness, making me wonder if I've been wrong. Well done!
8. XenaCatolica
Yes, but....I dunno, the elbow-sex incest couple saying, "Your lifestyle's too extreme"? I kinda thought that was irony myself.
9. JoeNotCharles
This is subtext? I thought this was pretty much the text.
10. bexytea
I thought about the deeper meaning behind RHPS a great deal and came to the conclusion that it was about a personal struggle with drugs, alcohol and coming to terms with having a different type of sexuality from what was considered to be "normal" at the time. Try reading it as a "Herman's Head" type scenario and it will make more sense. Each character is a reflection of part of the persona of a whole person. Frank is the aspect that wants to try new things and express himself and "take, take, take and drain others of their love and emotion". Brad & Janet represent social norms of the time, the '50's attitude of straight-lacedness. Magenta and RiffRaff are the voices of reason, the middle ground, the observers. Columbia is the "throw caution to the wind and love, love love" aspect of the personality. Eddie is the persona that didn't work, what the subject used to be but is now redundant. Rocky is about the man the subject would like to appear to be - superficial, stupid and gorgeous - he's a body image. Dr Scott is the establishment, the elders, the psychiatrists who tortured people for having an alternate sexuality, hence his connection with Brad & Janet. It's all quite clear if you look at it this way and have any scope for literary or media analysis.
11. Freelancer
Richard O'Brien is a clearly disturbed individual, but like so many thus described, he is also quite brilliant. RHPS is insane, immoral, insatiable, and hilariously fun. I considered that Riff Raff was always more in control of events that Frank, the Man-behind-the-curtain as it were, and probably why O'Brien chose to play that part in the movie.

So, what's for dinner?
Irene Gallo
12. Irene
Thanks for the insight, Emily. Oddly, this has become a Christmas movie for me. A number of years ago I saw it, while waiting on a check out line, for 9.99. I picked it up and watched it while wrapping presents. It may have been the first time I had seen it past high school and college....i was amazed just how great Tim Curry is in it, and how well the movie stands up without all the in-theater gimmicks.
john mullen
13. johntheirishmongol
Watching RHPS at home without audience participation isn't really that fun. And the better the participation, the better the show.
15. Governor Odius
Now I understand why Meatloaf is voting for Romney. Half a brain.
16. MysaNal
Back in college, I read a scholarly(!) article on RHPS that discussed it in terms of decades and generations. It was fascinating and similar to some of the themes you saw here. Either way, I still love the movie and the music!
Matthew Abel
17. MatthewAbel
I love RHPS, un-ironically. I love the sci-fi mashup plot, the songs, and all of it. It totally loses focus after Eddie dies, but man, this is some in-depth thinking here.
18. evilyngarnett
Nice article,
Very well thought out. "Fiasco" however, generally means "utter and complete failure" So a "fiasco of homage" can't be a "sucsessful example" of anything, not even of failure. Such a thoughtful, well expressed post (article) deserves verbal coherence.
19. CaitlinR
I've had an on-again off-again relationship with RHPS for many years, but one of the things I only recently saw in the movie is the theme of Janet's sexual liberation, and the threat that still seems to carry for audiences who to this day yell "slut" or "slut-to-be" at the screen. I'm sure this is not a revolutionary critique. But it's fascinating to me how during the floor show Janet testifies to being freed and released from the mid-century, eye-batting, female propriety which started the film. While Brad is confused, lost, dissociated, and just wants his mommy. Could you say this is the movie's take on what happened during women's sexual lib in the 60's/70's? Women could handle it, in fact, women loved it. The men, not so much. The men perhaps wanted the return safe mommy-like ladies (hence, the 80’s). Women, who were traditionally framed as the arbiters of uprightness whose job it was to control the men’s sexual advances and bat them away, were suddenly excited about being alive and fully exploring their bodies with anyone they chose. While men, losing that check on their urges that women represented, and for which they could blame women, swerved left and right and all over the place, becoming lost and confused and resentful.

I love Janet. My relationship with her has changed over the years. When I first saw the movie as a teen, I couldn’t understand what the point of her character was, and I bought in to the “slut” assessment as well as any screaming audience member could. Today, I love her, and I respect her as the one character out of the four earthlings (Brad, Janet, Dr. Scott, and Eddie) who was changed for the *better* by Frank-n-Furter, the good doctor whose “lust is so sincere.” The moralistic assessment at the end of the film is supposed to frame Brad and Janet as debauched, confused, and worse for the wear. But Janet is the only one it seems who may have come out better for the experience.
20. Laura King
One teensy little comment: the planet is Transexual, the galaxy is Transylvania. Does that matter? Does it matter that one is on a planet but in a galaxy? Ohhhhhh, yes.
21. Anthony Durante
Thanks for your delightful and insightful commentary on Rocky Horror. You adopt just the right tone, not too much analysis and not taking yourself too seriously but still intellectually exploring the themes the play "plays" with and the reasons it has struck a chord in the hearts and subconscious of many fans.
22. Fagenmeister
I think it lays it all out in the dance The Time take a JUMP to the left, but then you just "step" to the right (without actually going back to the right)...its the Overton Window.

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