Monsters and Mainstream Tension in ROCKY HORROR


Super-fans Dori Hartley and Sal Piro at the Waverly Theater NYC 1977 during a screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Credit unknown.

When the Narrator opens The Rocky Horror Show (RHS) with a timeline of 1930s to 60s science fiction films, the audience is set up for the fantastical B-movie send up of Brad and Janet’s wild night in Doctor Frank N’ Furter’s lab. And since it first hit the West End London stage in 1973, the fandom of RHS – and its subsequent 1975 film adaptation The Rocky Horror Picture Show (RHPS) – has ritualized costumes, lip syncs, call-backs and the time warp in perfect alignment with this camp classic.

As a dramaturg, what most excites me about our audience revisiting this classic in the theater is the opportunity to investigate RHS as a living artifact. The science fiction and horror genres also lend themselves well to such an investigation. In “The American Nightmare: Horror in the 70s,” gay film critic Robin Wood describes the genre as the relationship between normality – “boringly constant: the heterosexual monogamous couple, the family and the social institutions (police, church, armed forces) that support and defend them” – and The Monster, whose form fluctuates to suit whatever threatens current society. Though a parody of its genres, RHS similarly acts as a fun house mirror to reflect its era’s repression and fear around sex, politics, pop culture, and technological advancement. As Wood goes on to say, “One of the functions of the concept of entertainment is to act as a kind of partial sleep of consciousness, in which the most dangerous and subversive implications can disguise themselves.”

As I watched rehearsals, I considered what this Frankensteinian, gender playful, rock-and-roll, alien invasion romp could reveal about repression and fears in 1973, and what the impact is of telling these stories in 2019.

Time Warp

It’s clear from RHS costume designer Sue Blane’s idealization of American squares that Brad and Janet stand-in for the 1950s mainstream. Contrast that with Frank, Magenta and Riff-Raff’s gender-swapped, proto-punk fashion, helped along by the production team’s make-up artist Pierre la Roche, who famously styled David Bowie. The tension between 50s nostalgia and 70s cultural rebellion that played out on stage was also happening in the world. In the early 1970s British teens were enamored with Teddy Boy and Girl fashion that borrowed heavily from retro Edwardian silhouettes. Glam rockers, like the New York Dolls, experimented with sexuality and femininity in their styling while sticking to a conservative late-50s sound. And in America, shiny polyester and exaggerated bell bottoms and collars were growing popular on a backdrop of clean cut, Motown pop.

Tim Curry as Dr. Frank N Furter in the original stage production of The Rocky Horror Show.

It was only a few years before rebellion broke loose, making way for New York’s afros, free love and free drug discotheques, and London designer Vivienne Westwood’s Sex, a boutique that would sell her ripped fishnet stockings and stylings synonymous with the Sex Pistols and punk rock. How do these mainstream tensions between sex, politics and pop culture play out today? Consider sex worker-turned-rap celebrity Cardi B. As 2018 America wrestled with its relationship to Latinx immigrants, Cardi topped the charts with bilingual, crossover hit “I Like It,” featuring Puerto Rican rapper Bad Bunny, Columbian star J.Balvin and a sample from a classic 1967 boogaloo song by Pete Rodriguez. Modern cultural producers who are cast as “monsters” continue to use music and fashion to perform their rebellion.

Sweet “T”

In the 1970s activists and trans people of color Marsha Johnson and Sylvia Rivera used “transvestite” and “transsexual” as the accurate words to describe themselves and their communities’ identities. And when RHPS midnight movie showings began in 1975 at Waverly Theater in Greenwich Village – New York’s queer epicenter and same neighborhood where Johnson and Rivera organized Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries and rioted in 1969 at the Stonewall Inn – original fans embraced Frank’s transgressive qualities as embodied in that word. They transformed the theater into a safe space for exploring and performing gender, sexuality, and fantasy, a legacy which continues in Rocky Horror fandom today.

Sylvia Rivera (left) and Marsha P. Johnson (second from left). Image via NETFLIX, The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson.

However in inheriting this legacy, we also confront the tension in how our language has shifted. We’ve collectively decided referring to anyone in the queer community – who does not use these words to label themselves – is outdated at best, derogatory and violent at worst. LGBTQ media monitoring organization GLAAD advises the use of the terms “cross-dress,” and relatedly “drag,” to replace “transvestite” in its media guide, addressing queer representation in RHS as such:

“It’s important to understand the difference between drag culture and trans reality. The former can be about performance, exaggeration, and entertainment; the latter is about people’s actual lives. Plenty of transgender people have begun their journeys in the drag community, and you will find many trans folks who adore all of the subversive, transgressive energy that drag can bring. But many of are uneasy when our lives are mistaken for “performance,” and it’s disrespectful to trans people to conflate the two.”

Ricky Morisseau in Park Square’s THE ROCKY HORROR SHOW. Photo by Dan Norman.

In staging our production, director Ilana Ransom Toeplitz thought about how our narrator could help guide the audience through this tension. We worked to create storytelling that helped actor Ricky Morrisseau celebrate the fantasy of Dr Frank-N-Furter, as well as embody a more modern drag persona, authentic to his own gender performance. As you watch our loving send-up and participate in an over forty-year tradition of Rocky Horror fun, I hope you keep in mind the high stakes for those who “rebel” against conformity, repression and cultural fear, in both the safe subversive space of the theater and the more tense mainstream world.


Morgan Holmes is the dramaturg on The Rocky Horror Show and a member of Park Square’s Emerging Leaders Advisory Board. She is an all-around theatermaker – writing, directing, dramaturging and administrating across the Twin Cities. She is most interested in identity, ritual, intimacy, and internet culture, which she explores as co-creator of Perspectives Theater Company.



For further reading:

Creatures of the Night: The Rocky Horror Experience by Sal Piro
American Nightmare: Essays on the Horror Film by Robin Wood, et al
Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan, and Beyond by Robin Wood
Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries: Survival, Revolt and Queer Antagonist Struggle, a zine by Untorelli Press

GLAAD Media Reference Guides – “Transgender” and “In Focus: Covering the Transgender Community



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