The Rocky Horror Picture Show as Reactionary Morality Tale

How many of you have ever flown into Auckland Airport (as in New Zealand), assembled your mountain bike, then headed due south, ending up that evening at a nowhere stop that at least had a large pub featuring karaoke night (which had surprisingly good singers)? Further, how many of you, after food and beer, then pitched your little tent across the river from the pub on the other bank in the dark, listening as remaining patrons jeered the police waiting in the dark for drunk drivers? (New Zealand at the time was in the first stages of actually addressing that country’s notorious culture of drunk driving.)

How many of you then heard a car with a robust V8 elude police and rapidly accelerate away from the pub, only to horribly but invisibly crash into something made of steel, with the awful shrieks of fast-moving metal on asphalt? Instantly, but in slow motion, a mass of wreckage then crashed through the brush on the pub side of the river, showers of orange sparks leaping into the river, followed by dead silence. Ten minutes later, the village siren began to wail in earnest and eventually a helicopter with a floodlight arrived right over the river and my tent. I’ll bet none of you readers have ever experienced that. It was a night out I was going to remember for a long time.

The next morning, detectives arrived to interview me, a sort of eyewitness in the dark. Imagine my surprise upon learning that it was in fact a tractor-trailer that had plunged into the river before me, the “orange sparks” actually the running lights of the entire semi. Thus was the stage set for my short ride into the modest town of Hamilton, New Zealand.

“What the dickens is so important about Hamilton, New Zealand?” you might ask. Well, that is where Richard O’Brien spent part of his life working as a hairdresser.

Okay, where exactly is this story going?

Richard O’Brien, you see, is the creative genius behind The Rocky Horror Picture Show, a 1975 musical that has become so famous that Counter-Currents readers likely need no description of it. Thus, all know that O’Brien wrote the original musical stage show called The Rocky Horror Show in 1973, then starred as the creepy butler Riff Raff in the 1975 film version, The Rocky Horror Picture Show. And in 2004, members of the Hamilton City Council in New Zealand honored O’Brien’s contribution to the arts with a statue of Riff Raff, which is the statue I was stunned to see in a sunny and parched open lot when I arrived in Hamilton after my memorable night along the river.

Wikipedia suitably conveys conventional wisdom about the show when it writes, “Beyond its cult status, The Rocky Horror Show is also widely said to have been an influence on countercultural and sexual liberation movements that followed on from the 1960s. It was one of the first popular musicals to depict fluid sexuality during a time of division between generations and a lack of sexual difference acceptance.”

Fair enough, and that’s precisely the impression I got upon first seeing it at a standard midnight showing while a college student, and for some years after as I enjoyed repeat viewings.

Only years later, when I was a professor teaching modern American culture, did I realize that such an impression was entirely wrong, because at the climax of the musical there is an obvious turn of events indicting exactly this kind of behavior. In other words, The Rocky Horror Picture Show is one of the greatest reactionary science fiction musicals ever made!

For those who have never taught film, one thing to know is that a teacher ends up viewing a 20, 30, even 100 times — or at least select scenes from that film. Such an exposure leads to observations about a film that more casual viewers could almost never make, especially tiny things inserted into the set or passing actions made by minor characters.

In my case, I was teaching a group of foreign college students who had surprisingly little knowledge of post-war American history and, quite frankly, almost no interest in learning about it, so I turned to entertainment as a ploy. In addition, I used film versions that had subtitles in the students’ language because otherwise it would have been a total failure trying to teach the content of these films to this group.

I figured it would be good enough to start with the Great Depression and simplify each decade down to literally one word, with The Grapes of Wrath imparting the sense that Americans were “poor” during that period, followed by “war” in the next decade and “happy” during the 1950s. American Graffiti was the leading film I used for those lessons.

Then by the 1960s, I was able to spend more time offering a deeper examination of American culture, beginning with the end of the ‘50s in 1963 with Kennedy’s death, then the emergence of more individual freedom with the “sex, drugs, and rock-‘n’-roll” that followed. Having turned into an old fuddy-duddy by then, I’d try to show students that such behavior inevitably led to some very negative consequences by the early 1970s, including divorce, death from drug overdoses, and a general decline of morals. What better way to teach that progression than a truncated viewing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show!

In short, I’d start the lesson with a review of the 1950s, with its conventional morality and innocent teenagers. Life was pretty swell then, I’d teach. Then I’d let the film roll. Admittedly, the opening song and credits are pretty bizarre, but we next meet Brad and Janet at the country church wedding of two friends.

The experience of watching friend Betty Monroe morph into “Mrs. Ralph Hapschatt” kindles ideas of eternal bliss in Brad and Janet, and we suspect they are soon about to take the plunge into marital bliss themselves.

Of course, the whole post-wedding scene is campy, as Rocky generally is in its entirety, and we viewers, upon even the first viewing, take notice of things like the graveyard next to the church, or Brad dropping the engagement ring he tries to put it on Janet’s finger. We also notice the odd “caretakers” in front of the church, especially as they wheel a black casket inside as Brad and Janet imagine through song and dance what a wonderful married life they will soon have. (Susan Sarandon, playing Janet Weiss, was so hot as she sashayed up the aisle.)

Then, however, we have the weird entrance of the “The Narrator,” who is trying to explain what is taking place. In a few short minutes, the viewer has seen the opening of the film with a pair of bright red lips and shining teeth singing a song with enough references to famous science fiction movies of the past that we get an inkling of what is to come, but the cut to the wedding scene has no connection whatsoever (well, to the uninitiated at least) to the opening song. Then there is the abrupt cut to the stodgy narrator to add further confusion. This musical could have fallen on its face very, very easily.

Fortunately, as we all now know, it became a run-away success that has enjoyed many decades of uninterrupted fame, with the same kind of audience participation by college students and others that I had experienced so many moons ago. (I hate to think what has happened during this awful Covid era, however.)

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