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Credit: 20th Century Fox

How the Rocky Horror Picture Show perfected cult movie fandom

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Aug 10, 2020, 1:00 PM EDT

It may seem strange given my general mien (queer goth femme) and personal history (a recovering theatre kid swiftly regressing in the time of COVID-19), but I had never seen The Rocky Horror Picture Show until the hellish year of 2020. In college, I spent my midnight movie hours riffing movies like The Worst Witch (another Tim Curry production) with my friends; the film simply never darkened my door, be it via screening or a television in the background at a party.

Accordingly, I wasn't exactly sure what I was in for. Oh, I'd absorbed some elements through pop culture osmosis, but I thought it was going to be an anthropological experience more than anything else. But as midnight faded in my mental rearview mirror, I found myself, like a great many theatrically minded queers, weirdos, and queerdos, under the glamorous, messy, and meta spell of Rocky.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show does a great many things. But one of the greatest things it ever did was to codify the cult — or midnight — movie fandom.

The witching hour has always been a perfect time for strange, mind-altering entertainments. In the 1930s, stage magicians like Elwin-Charles Peck performed midnight ghost shows like "El-Wyn's Midnight Spook Party" in movie theaters. These shows originally mimicked the kinds of seances popular in late 19th-century America, but they became more horror-oriented as films like Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Mummy gained popularity. For instance, Jack and Wyman Baker's "The Asylum of Horrors" featured Jack Baker emceeing as the mad scientist Dr. Silkini in a show that mixed horror effects and comedy. (They even added Frankenstein's monster to their show in 1941, for maximum synergy.)

When television's popularity threatened movie theaters in the 1950s, these midnight horror shows were one of the casualties, as movie theaters got rid of their stages in favor of large film formats (like CinemaScope) designed to attract viewers with an experience they couldn't replicate at home. But television had its own delights for the midnight ghost show fan. From 1954 to 1955, Los Angeles area viewers enjoyed The Vampira Show, where late-night horror films were introduced by Maila Nurmi's "glamour ghoul" Vampira. While The Vampira Show was short-lived (running only a year), it set the groundwork for the concept of the horror host: a horrifying but often humorous host who introduced the movies, made snarky remarks, and performed sketches. In 1957, as packages of Universal horror films became available for television syndication, horror hosts proliferated across the land. By the 1970s, midnight, horror, snark, and ghoulish glam walked practically hand in hand.

It was exactly the kind of B-grade horror and science fiction movies horror hosts, well, hosted that inspired Richard O'Brien to write The Rocky Horror Show in the early 1970s. The show's opening number, "Science Fiction/Double Feature," is almost entirely composed of references to these films. The musical, staged at the tiny Theater Upstairs at the Royal Court Theatre in London in 1973, was a smash hit, ultimately transferring to the King's Road Theatre — which, incidentally, was a cinema, rendering The Rocky Horror Show a midnight horror show in the old-fashioned sense.

When legendary American music producer Lou Adler was tipped off by actress Britt Ekland about the show, he snapped up the American theatrical rights to stage it the next year at his new Sunset Strip nightclub, the Roxy. It was, unsurprisingly, equally successful there, and 20th Century Fox made a deal with Adler to create a film version: The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

But before the film came out, the show opened on Broadway in 1975 — where it failed miserably, running for only 45 performances and receiving dismal reviews. The film followed and performed so poorly that Fox canceled the planned New York City premiere. The Rocky Horror Picture Show was circling the drain until Fox publicist Tim Deegan realized it might be perfect for the burgeoning midnight movie market.

While the exact date and location of the first modern midnight movie is in dispute (between San Francisco and New York City), it's indisputable that New York City's Elgin Theater, under the management of Ben Barenholtz, jump-started the trend with its decision to screen Alejandro Jodorowsky's surreal, philosophical, and gruesomely violent El Topo at midnight seven days a week in 1970. The film, which had struggled to find an audience, began to sell out to a young, hip, and, to be perfectly honest, often stoned crowd.

El Topo's success at the Elgin inspired other art house cinemas in New York City to do the same, and a loose cannon of midnight movies began to form: Freaks, Night of the Living Dead, Pink Flamingos, and The Harder They Fall among them. The films ran the gamut from horror to deliberate filth to crime drama, united less by genre and more by the promise of being something unique, new, and transgressive. Something audiences had never seen before.

Something like The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Credit: The Walter Reade Organziation

When The Rocky Horror Picture Show made its midnight debut at the Waverly Theater (now the IFC Center) in Greenwich Village in April 1976, it was welcomed with open arms by what was now the cult of the midnight movie. Waverly manager Denise Borden played the difficult-to-find cast album before each screening, lending the proceedings a convivial atmosphere. As the Official Rocky Horror Picture Show Fan Club president Sal Piro relates in his 1990 book Creatures of the Night, a core group of regulars began to coalesce, booking seats in the balcony every week. One of these regulars, Louis Farese Jr., shouted out the first callback line the following Labor Day weekend, extolling Janet to "Buy an umbrella, you cheap bitch!"

Through 1976 and 1977, the trappings of what would become the quintessential Rocky Horror experience began to take shape at the Waverly. The regulars began lip-syncing to the cast album before screenings, which, as fans began donning costumes, evolved into the full-blown shadowcasts Rocky is famous for. The callbacks become more elaborate. When Piro saw the film in the winter of 1976, he was inspired by his own memories of local horror host Zackerley's riffs to join in. A friendly rivalry between the balcony regulars and the orchestra regulars blossomed, using callbacks to tease each other. Balcony regulars Amy Lazarus and Theresa Krakauskas introduced props in April 1977, when they used shreds of paper to approximate rice at the wedding. Candles as props were briefly introduced, but as the fire hazard threatened to shut the screenings down, Borden asked fans to stop. A two-sided handout known as The Transylvanian was given to attendees to keep them apprised of new and retired lines, as well as any special events.

By 1979, The Rocky Horror apparatus was fully functional and spreading to other cities. Tim Deegan booked The Rocky Horror Picture Show midnight screenings all over the country. Fans from and fans who visited the New York City community took the callbacks, performances, and props with them to these screenings. The Transylvanian evolved from a one-sheet to a full fanzine, while burgeoning local groups published their own newsletters.

And, of course, the mainstream media was starting to take notice, reporting on this strange new phenomenon and trying to evaluate the film in the light of these fan practices. By the time a screening of Rocky Horror appeared in the 1980 film Fame, it was clear that Rocky had given the midnight movie a new meaning.

Credit: Touchstone Pictures

The definition of "midnight movie" or "cult movie" can feel like a moving target in the modern era, especially once the midnight movie slot went mainstream when films like Batman and Dick Tracy debuted with midnight screenings. When the film magazine Cinéaste published a special focus on cult film issue in the winter of 2008, it included a critical symposium where six contributors to the field of cult film studies defined cult films. Unsurprisingly, all six have slightly different answers. According to Peter Stanfield, the term had become marketing copy, given to films before they've even had a chance to generate a following. To Tim Lucas, the film has to come from outside of the mainstream. And Damien Love believes that the official definition involves the film being appreciated for the elements that originally sank its success.

The definition with the longest legs comes from J. Hoberman, who wrote the pioneering text on cult films, 1983's Midnight Movies, with Jonathan Rosenbaum: "a cult film is created by its audience."

But what happens when that audience isn't exactly together?

The rise of home video has long threatened cult movies; in fact, Hoberman and Rosenbaum discuss that very topic in a 1991 Film Comment article. "I see Rocky Horror as one of the last gaps of collectivized theatrical moviegoing before video took over and atomized the audience," says Rosenbaum. One of the appeals of the midnight movie experience was the rare opportunity to catch a film you may otherwise never see; home video opens up a world of possibilities in that realm. But it also takes you out of the social and physical space of the witching hour. It's hard to build a coven—or cult—of one.

The rise of the Internet and of streaming has provided further distance. In an incredible 2018 article for The Baffler, film critic Judy Berman notes how the streaming boom has provided seemingly infinite access to films but also buries modern films that could be the new cult classics under an ever-churning mountain of content, content, content. She also posits that a particularly soulless variant on bad movie fandom—cult movie fandom's more ironic younger sister, typified by Mystery Science Theater 3000—is on the rise, using the objectively poorly made but nonetheless popular The Room as an example. Is The Room really being screened at midnight to find an audience more receptive to its message, as El Topo was?

Credit: Universal

But I don't think The Room is the archetype of the 21st century midnight movie — at least, not anymore. Cats has, undoubtedly, dethroned it, transformed from a prestige follow-up to Les Miserables in the eyes of its audience into a modern camp classic. Cats' cult may have initially gathered to rubberneck at the film's production, but any cynical enjoyment is transmuted into shrieking, unhinged delight when Skimbleshanks pirouettes so hard he levitates and explodes.

And that moment can be shared with anyone. I'm lucky enough to have access to screenings where I am allowed, nay, encouraged to riff to my dark heart's content, but for those who can't or would prefer not to congregate (in general, not in COVID-19 times, when nobody should be congregating), you can watch it with friends over Skype, chat online, listen to any number of podcasts. I particularly recommend The Flop House's episode on the subject, if only to catch Natalie Walker hollering "it's Cats, baby!!" In 2020, it takes deliberate action and work to connect with your cult—but it can be done.

And that's why Rocky Horror's fandom persists and will persist: it's known that for decades. It prioritizes community organization. Even in the age of COVID-19, the Official Rocky Horror Fan Club has been sharing fans' virtual streams like the "Zoomy Horror Quarantine Show" and the NYC Rocky Horror Picture Show was able to stage a virtual show that allowed for the holy grail of audience participation. Rocky's future certainly won't be... rocky.

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