It’s 11:00 or 11:30 at night, and I’m standing in a line of self-proclaimed freaks. I’m wearing close to nothing and the people to my right and left are wearing far closer to nothing. We all collectively look up to the Los Angeles Weather Gods and thank them; what a gift it is to be able to dress as an absolute slut (again, self-proclaimed) through the “winter.” We’re all high on substances of varying extremeness. I’m on a cocktail of booze and weed, but I’m definitely one of the most sober people here. As we stand in line, our tits everywhere, security guards remind us to stay neatly in line, as to not block the crosswalk, and that we’re not allowed to do drugs where they can see us. Some venture out of line, out of sight to do said drugs. I stay put, my fingers tearing at the corners of my fifteen-dollar ticket. I hope it’s in enough of one piece when I get to the front of the line that I don’t get turned away.
I get through the doors and find my seat in a dim theater. It’s my first time here or my fifth; it doesn’t really matter because seeing The Rocky Horror Picture Show at the Nuart Sins of the Flesh is ritualistic. The floor is sticky with stuff you can only hope is beer and everyone is standing in front of their seat, talking with friends or strangers and jiggling up and down to the music in a sort of awkward pseudo-dance. It’s an incredible thing to witness.
There are three kinds of people that I’ve observed in attendance at Saturday midnight showings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. There are the regulars: people I see without a doubt 100 percent of the time I go to Rocky. They know all of the call backs and yell them the loudest. They’re the cool nerdy theater-kid type, and I wish I’d been like them in high school. They’re weird in the most awesome ways and they have zero shame in their exposed bodies and outlandish makeup. Then, there’s a rotating cast of people I kind of know from high school but avoid eye contact or––god forbid––interaction with at all costs. We all live within twenty minutes from the Nuart and know that going to Rocky is a more fun way to be drunk on a Saturday night than hanging around in the neighborhood that surrounds our high school and hiding our intoxication from our parents and the local community patrol. Within this group, there are people who love Rocky Horror and the community around it, and there are people who heard it’s a fun excuse to wear nothing and make out with their friends. Both subgroups are totally valid, of course. And then, lastly, there’s everyone else. They’re interesting people, I’m sure, and I probably shouldn’t shove them all into the leftover category. But for the sake of detailing my own experiences, I don’t really know much about these mysterious attendees. I’m too busy wishing I was a hot theater nerd and pretending I don’t notice that the kid from my tenth grade English class is sitting three seats down.
A person with luscious red locks and a spiffy mustache/beard combo to match gets up on stage and hushes everyone. They say, “It’s time for the rules,” with an eyeroll and everyone, in unison, shouts, “Fuck the rules!” and then proceeds to listen to this guy go through the rules. They’re half-serious and half-funny, including the rule that if you fall asleep, the cast and crew are allowed to steal your shoes and that if you throw up you are absolutely responsible for cleaning it up and also they will throw you out of the theater with all of your friends in a heartbeat. I one time went to Rocky with a too-drunk friend who got sick during “The Time Warp.” Luckily for us, the aggression in that second rule is in fact a front; they were kind and took pity on her and let us stay. (They did make her clean it up, though.) After the rules, some lucky viewers/poor saps (depending on how you look at it) are called up on stage to participate in a couple rather crude competitions. These differ from show to show, but I’ve seen people be asked to moan out their father’s name and give a cast member a lap dance. The winners of the competitions make an appearance in the wedding scene; they have the honor of playing Betty Monroe and her newlywed husband who finally gets to stick it to her. Now, the lights go out and some incredibly ridiculous previews for a couple other movies play. And then finally, Trixie (who isn’t a character so much as a hot and brave member of the cast) comes out and does a strip tease for the duration of “Science Fiction / Double Feature.” There’s a giant pair of lips behind her as she excites the crowd and signals: The Rocky Horror Picture Show has begun.
It would take too many words and be far too confusing to try and list and explain every call back that is tradition for the audience of the Nuart rendition of The Rocky Horror Picture Show to yell out. It’s also true that it’s always changing a little; it’s a language only some are privy to, the same few who write and rewrite the language as they speak it. There are probably hundreds of things which are yelled at the screen, some of which are known to every Rocky fan across the country and some which are unique to individual theaters. I discovered the latter option for the call backs when I watched the movie with a friend who grew up watching Rocky at a different theater than I had. They had new things to yell at the screen, things I hadn’t heard and that they were astounded were not a part of my own viewing tradition. Even though these wild live performances of Rocky Horror have been an iconic event for decades, productions and audiences everywhere figure out ways to make this whirlwind of a movie their own. Maybe finding a way to make a culture, which is treasured and replicated by so many, our own is exactly what The Rocky Horror Picture Show demands of us.
The thing that makes the live viewings so remarkable and so much more special than watching just the movie at home on your TV, say, are the call backs, the passion with which they are yelled, the fact that you can barely hear the dialogue of the film itself because every three seconds people are screaming out a slew of comical comebacks or profanity. I remember the first time I watched Rocky at home, on a TV, instead of at the Nuart with the live shadow cast (my first several Rocky Horror experiences). It was a whole new movie, with plots and subplots I hadn’t even realized existed during my previous few viewings. There were new jokes and subtleties I hadn’t picked up on. Watching from home gave the movie a new life and gave me a new appreciation for it while also stripping it of part of what makes it so awesome. Rocky Horror without the community it fosters is a wildly different beast of a film. It’s still excellent, though, and it’s still like nothing you’ve ever seen before.
But what sets the live show apart from a home viewing is not just in the shadow-cast performance; part of what makes a live viewing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show so special is the act of being one within an audience. Somewhere before the rules (fuck the rules!) when the guy with all the hair is riling up the crowd, getting us excited for the movie, he says something to the effect of, “Rocky Horror is a queer experience for the queers! Holler if you’re queer!” The theater erupts with hoots and woots. When I was seventeen and not yet openly queer to my whole friend group, hollering with the crowd was a moment of self-identification. I thrust my fist in the air in an extremely cheesy moment of community-joining and felt the eyes of my friends surround me like water (though I’m sure in reality they did not notice or did not think anything of it). But in my little brain, I was coming out while dressed all in fishnet, standing in quite possibly the most queer-concentrated youth hangout in all of Los Angeles. Rocky Horror is all about queerness and sex and a refusal to feel shame (if you put the murderous alien captive situation on the back burner). It’s why self-proclaimed freaks like us have been turning to Rocky Horror for nearly half a century for such explicitly queer and bizarre comfort. Yes, the movie itself is what’s weird and queer and groundbreaking in its expression, but it’s also the experience of going to the show and hooting, hollering, and screaming about everything freakish and awesome that is The Rocky Horror Picture Show.