Dr. Frank-N-Furter stalks the surgery room in scrubs and glittering heels, anticipating the rhythmic hoisting of Rocky’s candy-striped dumbbells — first the left, then the right. He squeals and claps, Rocky grunts, the Transylvanians look on in awe, Brad and Janet with titillated confusion, and Magenta and Riff Raff with barely contained revulsion at the prurient display.
On the 40th anniversary of this cult classic, some remember the “Time Warp,” the costumes, or the fresh faces of superstars that the low-budget musical adaptation spawned, but its underlying message is often ignored. At the core, The Rocky Horror Picture Show is a cautionary tale of hedonism gone wrong, foreshadowing the fate that will befall us when monogamy is decentered and sexuality and gender become fluid. Today, the film remains an apt allegory for the persecution of pleasure, exposing the concurrent streams of lasciviousness and pearl-clutching paranoia that permeate every corner of our culture.
In the opening, Brad and Janet are paragons of virtue: engaged, in love, and totally vanilla. Following an unexpected “bump in the road,” they come upon the sweet transvestite’s bacchanalian manor and find out how flimsy the borders between gay and straight, male and female truly are. Binaries are blurred to the point that Frank-N-Furter easily shape shifts into the gender and sexual orientation that suits him (but isn’t it nice?), and, ironically, it takes an alien to alienate Brad and Janet from their all-American uptight upbringings — and to open their minds (and legs) to new experiences.
In keeping with the queering of norms, bodies also fail to conform to conventional beauty standards. Eddie is a bountiful (if brainless) example, but because he falls out of favor by fucking Columbia and fanning the flames of Frank’s jealousy, he is literally eaten — perhaps suggesting that promiscuity will get you cannibalized?
Despite Frank’s final revolutionary motto, “don’t dream it, be it,” those who give themselves over to absolute pleasure in the film are still punished. Creator Richard O’Brien isn’t denouncing indulgence, however, because the reverence with which he treats the saturnalia on display throughout is paramount to Rocky Horror‘s appeal. It’s more that he is showing us why we can’t have nice things.
When O’Brien (as Riff Raff) cuttingly sings to Frank while threatening death via electric pitchfork, “it’s all over/your mission is a failure/your lifestyle’s too extreme,” I can’t help but think he’s singing to every sex positive pervert in the audience. Everyone who’s pushed the boundaries a little too far, who’s had a little too much fun, who’s ever elevated libido over logic. The Criminologist says it best before introducing Janet’s transvestite transgression: “Emotion: Agitation or disturbance of mind; vehement or excited mental state. It is also a powerful and irrational master,” implying that if you dare let emotion/eros rule, you’ll end up murdered post-pool orgy, with your makeup running and fishnets ripped. But I digress.
The loss I personally feel at the end of Rocky Horror (not without a twinge of shame for allowing such a “fun” film to evince a serious response from me) mirrors the cruel reality that follows fantasy. It’s not the pelvic thrusts that really drive you insane, it’s projecting labels and moral judgements onto a limitless and primally indifferent sexual landscape that will. Beyond the outrageous characters and catchy songs, The Rocky Horror Picture Show reveals how mainstream society both fetishizes and fears non-normative and non-conforming erotic expression. (Don’t) try it, you’ll like it — but it will ruin you — is the film’s central message, and the crushing blows that befall those who embrace hedonism whore-heartedly prove the point. But while Frank-N-Furter couldn’t survive, his message did. Patriarchal religion, paternalistic government and puritanical mores might not allow us to be it loud and proud and in public just yet, but they can never take away our capacity to dream.