Be Honest: Do You Know What Rocky Horror Is Really About?

Photo: Everett Collection.
The first time I saw The Rocky Horror Picture Show, my friend and I snuck into one of the long-running midnight screenings at a theater in Chelsea. The movie’s night-owl devotees were already riled up, shouting in unison at the screen and lobbing foreign objects in the dark. How were the ushers letting people get away with this?! We nabbed seats in the back and kept our newbie status to ourselves: Rocky Horror “virgins” are subject to public initiation rituals, the humiliation of which I imagine often involves scarlet lipstick and no small amount of innuendo.

Since its premiere in 1975, The Rocky Horror Picture Show has enjoyed the longest theatrical run in history, with midnight screenings that continue in New York and around the country to this day.

A loving, rock-’n’-roll sendup of B horror and sci-fi flicks, Rocky Horror opens on a couple of squares named Brad and Janet (Barry Bostwick and Susan Sarandon) who get a flat tire on a cold, rainy night. As they search for help, the pair stumbles upon the castle of Frank-N-Furter (Tim Curry), who bills himself as “a sweet transvestite from Transsexual, Transylvania.” A number of other colorful characters are packed inside — including Rocky, “a living muscular man,” the eye candy equivalent of Frankenstein’s monster. And who could forget Meat Loaf, riding out of a deep freeze on his motorcycle? Murder, adultery, cannibalism, and cabaret — among other otherworldly antics — ensue.

Fox’s small-screen remake, The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let’s Do the Time Warp Again, premieres October 20, starring Laverne Cox as Frank-N-Furter and featuring a supporting cast that includes Adam Lambert and Christina Milian. Given that the original has been drawing new generations to theaters for 40 years, it’s hard to imagine a more obsessive fan base. The TV movie has a lot to live up to — to say the least.

Here are five things to know before diving into the campy, twisted world of Rocky Horror. Whether you still consider yourself a virgin by the end is, as virginity tends to be, a matter of personal choice.
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Photo: Everett Collection.
It was preceded by a stage musical.
The cult classic is based on a musical called The Rocky Horror Show, which premiered in 1973 at small London theater before transferring to the West End and being produced all over the globe. Written by Richard O’Brien and directed by John Sharman, who also collaborated on the movie, the show was a critical and commercial hit — except on Broadway, where it ran for hardly a month in 1975.

Several of the musical’s original cast members also star in the movie, including Tim Curry as Frank N. Furter (Curry will play the narrator in the Fox special) and O’Brien, who played Riff Raff.
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Photo: Photofest.
The movie bombed — at first.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show was considered a flop when it opened in select cities the summer of 1975. But it gained a devoted following through midnight screenings, which began soon after the movie’s initial release and quickly morphed into interactive events for superfans. The movie’s estimated budget was $1.2 million; its worldwide gross grew to $140 million.
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Photo: Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock.
Then people started talking back.
Midnight screenings first took off at the Waverly Theater (now the home of IFC Center) in New York’s West Village. The soundtrack would play before the movie to get fans revved up, and regulars returned week after week. Fan legend has it that the first instance of an audience member calling out during the movie was reportedly a kindergarten teacher from Staten Island who shouted, “Buy an umbrella, you cheap bitch!” at Sarandon’s Janet, walking in the rain holding a newspaper over her head.

Now, there’s a whole world of audience callouts viewers can follow through the movie, like a script. Creativity is still encouraged at the ritual screenings, but conviction and a thick skin are key if you’re thinking of shouting out anything new.
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Photo: Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock.
And then they started throwing things.
As enthusiasm built at the Waverly Theater, fans progressed to the next logical level: throwing stuff at the screen. Fan lore suggests it started with tossing rice during the wedding scene and snowballed into an expansive prop list that includes newspaper, rubber gloves, toast, toilet paper, playing cards, hot dogs, and more. By now, of course, theaters have restrictions on bringing in anything dangerous or too messy.
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And finally they just got up and started acting it out in front of the screen.
Dressing up as the movie’s outlandish characters seems like an obvious next step, but regulars also started the tradition of performing live floor shows along with the movie. Regardless of who’s up front, dancing “The Time Warp” in the aisles is, of course, encouraged.

Brush up your moves for the Fox remake, which premieres October 20 at 8 p.m.

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