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A Beginner’s Guide to The Rocky Horror Picture Show

Updated: Sep 16, 2019 12:08
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By Hannah Harkness

I first found the Rocky Horror Picture Show the same way a lot of people in my generation found it. When I was a teenager, I was flipping through channels around Halloween and paused momentarily on VH1. Something came on the screen and I said:

“Wow…this is a really weird Meatloaf music video”.

Is this what he wouldn’t do for love? – Courtesy 20th Century Fox

This moment started my 13-year and counting obsession with a movie from 1975 about a wholesome engaged couple getting seduced by a castle full of singing, dancing slutty aliens. I recount it every time I host a screening. I’ve used that story as my opener in front of thousands of freaks, geeks, curious moviegoers, and veteran Rocky Horror fans for over a decade. I’m still not tired of it, or the music, or the tedious process of lacing myself into multiple corsets for the quick change at the end of the show. That’s how deep my love for the lips runs.

The author Backstage – Photo credit Mario Pina

What is The Rocky Horror Picture Show?

For those who aren’t familiar ( *cough cough* VIRGINS!), the Rocky Horror Picture Show was originally a stage musical called the Rocky Horror Show written by Richard O’Brien, that premiered in London in 1973. The movie adaptation, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, was released in 1975. The story centers on Brad Majors and Janet Weiss, played by Barry Bostwick and Susan Sarandon. The movie opens with them getting engaged after their friend’s wedding. While driving home in the rain, their car gets a flat tire. They run to the nearest building, which just happens to be a creepy castle to see if they can use their phone. The building turns out to be occupied by aliens who are there for an event hosted by a mad scientist, Doctor Frank-N-Furter, played flawlessly by Tim Curry.

Hilarity, music, fishnets, corsets, dancing, murder, and everyone having sex with everyone ensues.

The movie initially bombed at the box office and was panned by critics. But in 1976 it developed a cult following at the Waverly Theater in NYC as a midnight movie. This is when the culture of audience participation by yelling, throwing things at the screen, and dressing up as the characters during screenings began, and became a nationwide trend.

A shadow cast – photo by the author

Today, over 40 years later, you can find a Rocky Horror Picture Show shadow cast in most states and major cities in the US a well as countless places abroad (it was, after all, a born in the UK). A shadow cast is a group of dedicated fans who dress up as all of the characters in the movie and re-enact the movie and interact with the audience at screenings. Shadow casting is done with full blocking, costumes, and props in complete sync with the movie while it plays in the background. The shadow cast I belong to is Transylvanian Nipple Productions in Philadelphia, home theater at The Ritz at the Bourse. New York’s cast is NYC RHPS, home theater at Cinepolis Chelsea Cinemas.

The Rocky Horror cult experience varies from city to city and cast to cast, but here’s what you can expect if you come to a screening run by my cast:

You’ll get to the door and someone will ask you if you’ve seen a live Rocky Horror screening before. As I tell audiences month after month, if you’re just watching at home with a DVD or your theater doesn’t have a live cast, that is just masturbation! If you say “no”, you might get a lipstick V drawn on your forehead because you just outed yourself as a virgin!

Then you might buy a prop bag, or if someone savvy is with you, you’ll already have props. These are things audience members carry to throw or use during screenings.

  • When Janet gets out of the car in the rain and puts a newspaper on her head, you put a newspaper on your head.
  • When the partygoers use noisemakers, you use noisemakers.
  • When Brad yells “Great Scott!” everyone throws toilet paper.

Basically, you get to make a huge mess (blessed be the movie theater custodian that works on Rocky Horror nights). Then, the pre-show festivities begin. Some casts do pre-show skits, usually short Rocky Horror parodies of other things. My cast usually does things based on current subjects in pop culture. We’ve done “The Mean Girls Jingle Bell Rock on Christmas”, the Thanksgiving pageant scene from “Adams Family 2“, etc. One of my favorite pre-shows was when we performed at Monster Mania Convention in Cherry Hill, NJ. We did “the Name Game” from American Horror Story Season 2 and were actually joined onstage by the actress that played Pepper!

The Philadelphia cast with actress Naomi Grossman

Then, the MC will get onstage to host the costume contest and the virgin sacrifice. If you’re in Philadelphia, it’s possible your MC will be a blonde jerk that does a few minutes of stand-up comedy first. Then, the whole audience has to get on their feet. We ask people to sit down based on how many times they’ve seen the Rocky Horror Picture Show, starting with: “If you’ve seen the Rocky Horror Picture Show 100 times, sit down!….and get a fucking life!”. We then count down until only the virgins, people who have never been to a live screening are left standing. Then a group of virgins are brought onstage for the virgin sacrifice. This is a quick dirty game that initiates the newbies into the Rocky Horror cult experience. My standard virgin sacrifice is going down the line asking what everyone’s favorite cartoon character is, and then going back down the line asking the person to imitate that cartoon character having an orgasm.

Other sacrifices include:

  • Asking people to pair up and pop a balloon together without using their hands
  • Or blow up a condom and pop it
  • Or repeat audience participation phrases while their mouths are stuffed with marshmallows.

A winner is chosen by audience applause, and everyone sits down.

Then the movie begins after a giant rousing chant of “START THE FUCKING MOVIE!”. The shadow cast performs in front of the screen and up and down the aisles of the theater. The audience throws props and yells audience participation lines. Audience participation lines (AP lines) are things you are supposed to yell at different points in the movie.

  • When Brad says “Hi, I’m Brad Majors” you yell “ASSHOLE!”
  • When he continues on to say “and this is my fiancée Janet Weiss” you yell “SLUT!”.

AP lines are basically Mystery Science Theater jokes on steroids. Some lines like asshole/ slut are standard across the globe. Others are regional, sometimes in Philadelphia when Janet says “-couldn’t win” someone will bark out “LIKE THE PHILLIES!”. Shadow casts will do regional visual gags too-as Philadelphians, we will drop as many Rocky Balboa puns in as we possibly can. One of the actors that plays Rocky (Dr. Frank N Furter’s Creation) wears boxing gloves and a robe during the birth scene.

The Philadelphia version of The Rocky Horror Picture Show – Photo by the author

Other AP lines change with the times. When I started Rocky Horror, a pan across an empty theater in the movie prompted someone to yell “It’s a Ricky Martin concert, he’s livin’ la vida broke-a!” and recently it’s turned to “Hey, it’s Trump’s inauguration!”. Many AP lines will have references to other movies when Dr. Frank N Furter puts a party hat on, someone in our audience will usually yell “YOU-ARE-GRYFFINDOR!”.

It’s a movie theater full of nerds, everyone gets the Harry Potter sorting hat joke.

The audience MUST do the Time Warp dance with us and stand and clap for Dr. Frank N Furter during “I’m Going Home”-we get you up by yelling “ON YOUR FUCKING FEET!” like a bunch of glitter covered drill sergeants.

What’s really special for me about Rocky Horror is always getting to watch new versions of my 16-year-old-self walk through the door. 13 years ago, I was dancing in my parent’s living room stopping and starting the DVD I bought in the bargain bin at Target to make sure I got all the moves right. I read AP line scripts online that different regional shadow casts had uploaded to forums. I bought all my stuff at thrift stores, messed up my room with glitter glue, and spray painted my hair red with cheap temporary dye from Sally Beauty Supply so I would look like Columbia.

Rocky Horror is a place where you can be queer, edgy, weird, and sexy no matter who you are or where you come from. Teenagers and young adults looking to explore these sides of themselves have found solace in Rocky Horror for decades, and I was no different.

The author doing Stand-Up Comedy at RHPS – Photo credit Erik Lundahl and Krysi Lundahl

13 years later, now with screen accurate costumes and countless performances under my belt, I see new fishnet and glitter wearing teens and young adults walk into every screening with V’s on their head, knowing that they found a place where they can be themselves. I get to hug and take pictures with them as well as veterans that have been participating in the Rocky Horror experience since its inception. As a stand-up comic, I find myself in a lot of places where I look like the odd one out as a gothy-looking nerd girl. At Rocky Horror, I find myself doing comedy in fishnets and corsets in front of packed theaters full of people like me. It really is a place where I get to be myself and it’s responsible for so many of my most memorable performance experiences. I even had the chance to interview Patricia Quinn, who played Magenta in the film.

The author interviewing Patricia Quinn – Photo credit Mario Pina

 And that’s why I’m going to keep doing the Time Warp. Again. And Again. And again. AND AGAIN.


Here is a video of the author opening a live Rocky Horror Picture Show in Philadelphia


Want to catch Rocky Horror in NY? NYC Rocky Horror Picture Show performs every Friday and Saturday at Midnight at Cinepolis Chelsea Cinemas! Visit their website.

And if you find yourself in Philadelphia, you can catch Transylvanian Nipple Productions every third Friday at Ritz at the Bourse at Midnight! Check us out here!

Want to get a peek at Rocky Horror fan culture? Keep tabs on Rocky Horror Saved My Life -this production team toured interviewing shadow casts and put together a fan documentary that really captures the essence of what it means to be a Franky fan! You can view the first 15 minutes here.

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Hannah Harkness

Hannah Harkness

Hannah Harkness is a stand up comedian, writer, and neo vaudeville human surviving in Brooklyn, NY.