From yesterday’s focus on the Bible and politics, we move to a most fabulous essay that considers religious and biblical themes in cult musical, The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975). The piece is written by another student from our Bible and Popular Culture course, Kate Bodger, who hails from New Zealand and is studying a Bachelor of Arts majoring in English and Classics. Kate doesn’t know what the future holds for her, but she hopes that it involves art, writing and traveling. She has always found religion fascinating even before she started going to church, and loves exploring its relationship to our everyday lives and culture. So she decided to take a few TheoRel papers as part of her degree, which she confirms was “an altogether good choice” as it meant she could put her excessive viewing of the Rocky Horror Picture Show to some use. Enjoy!
Religion in Fishnet Tights
The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Religion
Ordinarily it would be easy to dismiss The Rocky Horror Picture Show (TRHPS) as having little in common with Christianity. But TRHPS dismisses the ordinary, and this 70s hit actually has numerous religious ties. The way fans have built such a following around the film makes it seem like its own seductive faith. Within this religion stands Dr. Frank n Furter, a contemporary messiah, saving those who feel like outsiders. In contrast to this a look inside the text exposes a different Frank n Furter who resembles more of a subverted bacchic messiah, bringing about the fall of humanity. It is clear that this midnight horror is not just dripping with blood and sex, but also religion.
TRHPS has spawned a particular following that can be likened to that of a religion. Popular culture can be seen as a religion when it displays parallels in form and function (Forbes 2005, p.15). TRHPS clearly mimics the form of a religion with the various traditions that have been created around the film. Audiences adorn the appropriate attire, fishnet tights and high heels, and head to their chosen place of worship, the cinema, to engage in various rituals, song, and dance. Fans of TRHPS do not just watch the film, they interact with it. Call and response techniques, just like in a Sunday mass, are used by the audience as they speak to the characters on screen. During the time warp audiences do the pelvic thrust with the Transylvanians, worshipping through song and dance.
Props are also used with the audience throwing rice at the wedding scene, these props symbols of the Rocky-Horror-faith. TRHPS has birthed its own set of rites and routines, much like a religion. ‘Virgin Sacrifices’ are even a tradition with new comers or ‘virgins’ being initiated into the Rocky Horror family through challenges, or sometimes a pledge. This tradition references a sacrifice, something associated with appeasing or thanking a deity. These ‘virgin sacrifices’, also tie in with modern churches as they can be viewed as contemporary altar calls, or baptisms, with the ‘virgins’ saying goodbye to their old selves with this proclamation of faith. The crazy spectacle of TRHPS has led to it being described as a religious experience, and one writer called themselves “a true believer” (Berman 2015) after their first Rocky Horror experience. Aside from form TRHPS also mimics religion in terms of function. The enticing excitement of the cult classic has created its own community with a sense of security for outsiders and the marginalized. And at the center of this safe community is TRHPS’s very own seductive and sexy savior.
TRHPS attracts many outsiders, there is something welcoming about being told to be confident, and let go of any worries. The community that surrounds this cult classic feel they have been ‘saved’, in the sense they have been given a place where they can be themselves and gain a sense of freedom. The main figure revered in this community is the sweet transvestite himself; Frank n Furter. Frank n Furter has become a cultural icon, telling people to love themselves with an I-am-going-to-do-me-while-being-proud-and-loud attitude. “Don’t judge a book by its cover” (O’Brien and Sharman 1995) is one of Frank n Furter’s entry lines onto screen. The absurdity of the whole film and the fantastical escape the audience is taken on is mostly directed by Frank n Furter himself, being the king, or perhaps God, of his respective castle. Fans herald him as their savior from normalcy and the judgments of life. This liberation and acceptance also includes social justice, and a commitment to justice is one characteristic of a modern messiah figure (Reinhartz 2011, p.431).
TRHPS was released in 1975, and pushed the boundaries of its time with its sexual freedom and gender fluid identities. The cult classic became especially popular within the LBGTQA+ community. Laverne Cox who played the contemporary messiah in the new remake (2016) remarks, “After I saw Rocky Horror for the first time, it became a turning point in my life. It’s part of what gave me the courage to truly transition” (Baysinger 2016). And a gay fan has written about the experiences of “having two very special men come into [their] life” (Townley 2011), one being Jesus, and the other Frank n Furter, and in the course of the article Frank n Furter does more of the blessing and saving. Frank n Furter has not revolutionized queer rights, but he has become an icon for many who feel they are different, with TRHPS allowing a space for people to feel free from societal norms. The way Frank n Furter is heralded as such a symbol of sexual freedom and acceptance makes him the modern messiah of this contemporary religion. This interestingly is juxtaposed in contrast with the Frank n Furter’s character inside the film, who is more related to hedonism and havoc.
When we look at the Frank n Furter inside the film we are presented with a man with a very hedonistic lifestyle, who likes to manipulate and control others, a man who is both a murderer, and a cannibal. This Frank n Furter juxtaposes with the heralded figure mentioned earlier, making him a subverted messiah. Frank n Furter plays the role of a bacchic devil, “a postmodern, gay version of the god Dionysus, followed by his intoxicated Maenads” (Aviram 1992). In fact, the story of his hedonism influencing Brad and Janet, mimics the biblical story of the fall of humanity, where the serpent tricks Eve and then Adam into eating from the tree of good and evil (Genesis 3).
The plot of TRHPS shadows this storyline, we have Brad and Janet, a perfect, clean cut couple, representing Adam and Eve, and Frank n Furter as the serpent, who offers them each a taste of the forbidden fruit, or sex. Janet is even ‘corrupted’ first, paralleling the biblical story with Eve being the first to eat the fruit. Their indulgence becomes a turning point as eventually both Janet and Brad are shown to be completely overwhelmed by desire in the floor show. The overarching story of TRHPS replicates the original sin, or the fall of humanity. And inside it Frank n Furter is the slithering snake that whispers and suggests; “give yourself over to absolute pleasure” (O’Brien and Sharman 1995).
Frank n Furter as a subverted savior is also highlighted through some of the film’s religious references. Rocky is brought to life by Frank n Furter. Not only is Frank n Furter elevated to god-like status by creating life, but he is paralleled with God as he sings “in just seven days, I can make you a man” (O’Brien and Sharman 1995). When biblically it took God seven days to create the universe (Genesis 1-2). However Frank n Furter does not see Rocky as his child, or his creation, but rather he made Rocky to satisfy sexual desires, as Frank n Furter sings in Sweet Transvestite, “he’s good for relieving my tension.” This subverted and perverse presentation of creation is again implied with a picture of Michel Angelo’s The Creation of Adam displayed on the floor of the pool, where Frank n Furter leads the way to hedonistic indulgence.
The birthday dinner scene in TRHPS can also be seen as an inverted biblical reference. In the Bible Jesus said “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life” (John 6:54). This dinner scene can be viewed as a twisted version of Jesus’ words and actions where the bread symbolized his body and the wine his blood (Dika 2003, p.113). Here Frank n Furter actually serves Eddie’s flesh and blood, and this particular scene is introduced by the criminologist with a picture of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper in a book open behind him. The character of Frank n Furter presents itself as a seductive, serpent, and this begs the question how that is compatible with his alter-ego of the liberating messiah-like figure. It seems that TRHPS satirizes fears of the LGBTQA+ community, using the absurdity of the film to mock those who thought that anyone queer was a sex-mad alien sent to corrupt humanity. Meaning that Frank n Furter’s corruption as a character, makes him more of a savior-like figure.
TRHPS has become its own religion. A contemporary faith that is staying strong for a new generation of outsiders. The new Sunday best comes with fishnet stockings and bright red lips, and amazing grace has been replaced with Sweet Transvestite for worship. Frank n Furter sits on his throne at the head of this religion, as both a figure for the marginalized, and a character who mocks 70s homophobia through his devilish ways. All in all TRHPS presents itself as a religion of terrible thrills…
References to the Bible are taken from the NRSV edition
Aviram, Amittai F. “Postmodern Gay Dionysus: Dr. Frank N. Furter.” Journal of Popular Culture 26, no. 3 Winter, 1992
Tim Baysinger. How Laverne Cox made Dr. Frank n Furter her own on Fox’s Rocky Horror Picture Show re-make. The Hollywood Reporter, 20/10/2016, accessed 3/10/2017, http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/live-feed/laverne-cox-foxs-rocky-horror-939846
Berman, Judy. We Live in the World ‘Rocky Horror’ Created. Flavorwire, 25/09/2015, accessed 3/10/2017, http://flavorwire.com/539534/we-live-in-the-world-rocky-horror-created
Dika, Vera. Recycled culture in contemporary art and film: the uses of nostalgia. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, UK, 2003.
Forbes, Bruce David. ‘Finding religion in unexpected places’ in Religion and popular culture in America ed. Jeffrey H. Mahan (University of California Press: 2005) 15
O’Brien Richard and Sharman, Jim. The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Directed by Jim Sharman. 20th Century Fox, 1975.
Reinhartz, Adele. ‘Jesus and Christ figures’ in The Routledge companion to religion and film ed. John Lyden. Routledge: USA and Canada, 2011.
Kevin Townley. There is a light that never goes out. Rookie, 10/03/2011, accessed 20/09/2017 http://www.rookiemag.com/2011/10/rocky-horror-townley/