The Rocky Horror movie is known for its cult following, but every theater does the traditions a little differently. I had not seen the film before I went to the Nuart Theater in Los Angeles, where they do the Rocky Horror Live Picture Show nearly every Saturday at midnight.
Before you’re even inside, Theater employees periodically shout to get the crowd’s attention and explain some rules. There is one line for guests of the actors and another for everyone else.
“Hello, bitches. Welcome to the Rocky Horror Live Picture Show. If you are easily offended, fuck you. This movie will probably offend you, so fuck off. There are some things you cannot bring into the theater. No rice, no toast, I’m not trying to clean that up. There is no photography as the lips appear on the screen. Also, no illegal substances. So snort it, smoke it, shoot it, drink it, in the alley back there before you come inside. If this is your first time drinking, do not throw up in my theater. We will make you clean it up and we will laugh at you. We have gone 6 days without any puking. My goal is a year.”
Throughout this speech, which varies from employee, and also changes a little based on the group they are shouting at, another person makes gestures, like a flight attendant, that align with the employee’s words. The employee who gave the speech to our section of the line outside the theater took off her jacket and indicated her lips tattoo on her shoulder, for example, when explaining no photography of the lips scene.
It was unclear outside the theater who was an employee and who was just a regular attendee, because most people wore some sort of costume. To fit in, as pictured, my friends and I dressed up as characters from the film. They sold “prop bags” for $3 because it is an “audience participation film”. In a rainy scene, someone squirted water at the audience, and those with props knew to put newspaper over their heads like the character Janet does. There is also a party scene where the audience members know to use their noisemakers and another scene where they have plastic medical gloves to snap. The employee who specifically mentioned no rice (other theaters throw it during a wedding scene) and no toast (which people throw when one of the characters makes a toast), encouraged those in line to buy these far less messy props.
There are a number of rituals before the film even begins. While in line, people who have seen the film ask if anyone has never seen the live show before. They usually stick out and you can tell, but with us, we were in costume so we sort of blended in.
Those who have never seen the live picture show, even if you have seen the film, are dubbed “virgins” and marked with a big red V on their cheeks in lipstick.
Before the movie, but inside the theater, music plays and everyone dances for awhile until it stops. Even audience members go on stage and dance, too.
Then, they call up the “Virgins” back to the stage for the “Virgin Sacrifice”. This entails the actors encircling the virgins and thrusting around them, while music plays.
Three guys and three girl “virgins” then are chosen from this group for the second part of the sacrifice. In this case, they were volunteers. The announcer, had them all introduce themselves, say their age, and their father’s name to the audience. One of those chosen was turning 17 that day and he made a lot of underage, don’t have sex with her, jokes to the audience. He also said “If your dad is dead, say his name anyway, that’s okay, it’s actually funnier that way.”
After they’ve all introduced themselves, the next part of the initiation, which they all did despite hesitation from several, was they had to call out their father’s name while imitating their mother having an orgasm. All of this in front of a theater full of movie-goers into a microphone, while on stage. The Virgins got really into it, the audience cheered them on, and the guy and girl who got the most cheers stayed on the stage while the others sat down.
The final part of the sacrifice, is these two winners were moved around and positioned by the actors to look like a sexual act was occurring. Both Virgins were fully clothed; the guy winner, who was older and a little on the heavier side, lay on the floor of the stage on his back. The girl winner, who was in this case, young and dressed in lingerie, straddled him standing. Rocky actors and theater regulars came to the stage and lifted both of them into the air, timing it so they didn’t really touch, but it looked intimate. They did the lift three times, three thrusts, and that was it, now they were no longer Virgins, and any of those who were before the sacrifice were no longer.
Next, everyone with a birthday that night was called on stage, and the announcer led a rendition of Happy Birthday, Fuck You, which the whole audience joined in on to the tune of the Happy Birthday to You song.
After all of this, about 70 minutes after the advertised start time of the movie, it started.
The film that is a big part of the folklore is cited below, the 1975 cult classic. The Live Picture Show indicates that the movie is in fact played in the theater on the big screen, but live actors (in the case of the Nuart Theater, all of whom are volunteer and fund their own costumes) act it out, mouthing the words, in front of the screen. During long pauses or before certain lines, these actors (when they are not acting) and regular attendees (the cult following) shout at the screen. They shout questions or phrases that the subsequent line answers or responds to, often employing sexual humor. They also harp on each character for their flaws, particularly Janet who is frequently called “a slut” and Brad an “asshole”.
Below is an example of an audience callout.
[“Janet, are you a slut?”]
For a typical audience participation script:
However, even these callouts vary depending on current events, etc. Many in the audience have seen this movie so frequently that they can adjust their callouts accordingly while still matching with the line. For example, I heard a few callouts about Justin Beiber, who wasn’t even born when the movie came out. For the line above, the callout could be [“Does Beiber take it in the ass?”] Janet: Yes.
What is perceived as the “best” callouts, gaging general audience response, are the more offensive, the better.
It was definitely a right of passage experience in terms of the “Virgin Sacrifice” but the other rituals are still important to those who have come dozens of times. Targeting the “virgins” was interesting because a lot of the actors and regulars seemed pretty odd to me and I think it was cool that this weekly ritual has sort of created a space for them in which they are the normal ones, in fact the “cool”, “experienced” and “in-the-know” ones. These rituals, like most rites of passage, serve to transition people into this “insider group”.
Before the screening, several people indicated they had seen the live picture show more than 100 times and many more, over 50! The audience participation, particularly the callouts or callbacks, are interesting in that they are all derogatory or horrible offensive. They even specify again, when you’re in the theater, that they will offend you and name specific groups. But it is accepted, because they don’t target a specific group with the callouts they target everyone- homophobes and homosexuals, for example.
The one that stood out to me was someone called out something about Sandy Hook, which I did not find funny, but it did not visibly upset anyone in the theater. I think under the cover of the movie and darkness, in this environment, people are a lot more comfortable saying things they wouldn’t normally. And humor is definitely one coping mechanism.
For a recorded version of this folklore, which inspired the cult following and traditions, see the film:
The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Dir. Jim Shardman. Perf. Barry Botswick and Tim Curry. 1975. Film.