The Rocky Horror Picture Show was released in the United Kingdom on August 14th, 1975. It was written and directed by Jim Sharman and Richard O'brien.
As an “adaptation”—or at least, derivative—of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the plot and character parallels in Rocky Horror are fairly obvious, though facetiously warped. Similarly, Rocky Horror is self-conscious of its reliance on science fiction film tropes. Concerning the latter, suffice it to say that just as Shelley wrote her tale in the then-popular gothic style to relay sophisticated ideas to a broad audience, so the creators of Rocky Horror chose to wrap their transgressive message in the well-worn, glittering gowns of the “creature feature” film. Concerning the former, Rocky Horror clearly takes liberties with Shelley’s novel, manipulating individual elements (and combining them with those drawn from films) to deliver a message that intentionally questions and subverts mainstream sex norms. The interest of this essay, however, is to elaborate some of the ways in which Rocky Horror specifically inverts Frankenstein’s use of public and private spaces to question the norms and restrictions of the transgressive community itself.
In Frankenstein, the scientist Victor performs his work in isolation. He first leaves his home and family to attend school, then repeats the separation again and again. Each phase of his continuing education and work is accompanied by his neglect of those around him. He neglects Clerval, his best friend; he neglects Elizabeth, his betrothed. He isolates himself from country, town, school, friends, and family. In contrast, Rocky Horror’s Frank-N-Furter has been sent on a (never detailed) “mission” that isolates him from his home galaxy—Transylvania; and home planet—Transsexual. On Earth, however, he constructs a supportive domestic sphere in which to work. This includes permanent companionship from Riff Raff and Magenta, and (possibly) Columbia, as well as periodic “affairs” (parties) that invite participation by other Earth-bound Transylvanians.
Where Victor consistently dismisses the attentions of Elizabeth and the tranquility of home life, Frank-N-Furter seems rather like a family man. In this way he functions as a sexually transgressive version of (the “hero”) Brad. This is illustrated in the opening scene, in which Frank serves as pastor to a wedding at which Brad is a guest. Though commentators usually (and with good reason) focus on the religious/death imagery of this scene—which would seem to equate marriage with death, or to symbolize the “death of marriage”—the presence of Frank and Brad (as participants, but not principles) shows that both are invested in the idea of community. Furthermore, while Riff Raff and Magenta participate cynically or reluctantly—as demonstrated by both their American Gothic costumes and their lackluster performance of the call-and-response sections in the “Dammit Janet” song—Frank remains silently respectful.
This inversion of public and private spaces carries over to the inversion of public and private activities. In short, Victor does bad things when alone; Frank does bad things in public. Having been censured by his teachers, Victor continues his work in isolation; knowing that others will consider his work “ungodly” or perhaps just crazy. Victor assumes that he will be negatively judged, so he carries out his work in secret. He collects cadaver parts in the dark of night, and eventually performs the “creation” alone in his lab. Frank, on the other hand, makes a show of it. He assumes that the family he has gathered will accept and applaud his efforts. And they do, at first. Then, with the reappearance of Eddie (a previous attempt, and metaphorically the resurrection of American mid-century “straight” versions of resistance against conformity), Frank turns evil. He kills Eddie with a pick axe. Later Eddie is served as dinner; an act of cannibalism (for the unsuspecting human guests, though not necessarily for the extraterrestrial Transylvanians) that shockingly melds the Christian Last Supper and the Christian communion. Victor hides himself from social conventions that would temper his lust for glory; determining for himself that his creature is horrible. Frank offers himself and his creation(s) to the small society he has assembled; and only after being rejected by both does he begin to realize his error.
The reactions and desires of the Creatures are similarly inverted. In Frankenstein, the Creature is born/awakened in isolation and immediately abandoned. He gradually learns of the existence of the world and longs for social interaction. In Rocky Horror, Rocky (the creature) is born (and that is how it’s denominated—even going so far as to have a brief rendition of “Happy Birthday” during the cannibalism scene) into a curious and probing community. Rather than abandoning Rocky, Frank falls instantly in love with him (which was the whole point of the experiment). As a subject to such scrutiny and desire, Rocky recoils. He fears social interaction, instinctively sensing its dangers. His song “Sword of Damocles” enacts a “coming out” scenario in which there is no choice that will save him. In the first verse he sings, “The sword of Damocles/ Is hanging over my head/ And I've got the feeling someone's gonna be cutting the thread.” No matter how he chooses to enact, or not enact, his sexuality “someone” will bring the sword down on him; because all sides have vested interests, no choice can please them all. Nevertheless, the supposedly welcoming community claims to accept him: “I woke up this morning with a start when I fell out of bed/ (That ain't no crime)/ And left from my dreaming was a feeling of unnamable dread/ (That ain't no crime)”. From the second verse, this passage indicates that Rocky did not come to this critical moment as the result of “lifestyle choices”. Rather, he woke up with a start and immediately had a feeling of dread: his sexuality was not a matter of decision, but something he was born with. To that assertion, the Transylvanians respond, “That ain’t no crime”.
In contrast to Victor’s self-aggrandizing appropriation of solitude, the private sphere in Rocky Horror is the site of acceptable communion. It is in the seduction scenes that Frank works for the betterment of humanity. The seductions of both Janet and Brad work to awaken the straight, mainstream community to its own repression. Though both scenes begin with deception and a threatening rape quality, both show the “squares” voluntarily succumbing to sexuality—once they’ve been assured that no one else will know. It is this subtext of allowing freedom only in private that Rocky Horror ultimately questions. From the standpoint of the Transylvanians, the seduction scenes show Frank at his best. It is during the seduction of Brad that Riff Raff and Magenta frighten away Frank’s public love, Rocky. And it is when Frank insists upon reclaiming Rocky for his own, that his “family” destroys him.
In the end, Frank and Rocky (and Columbia) are killed by Riff Raff. This occurs after Frank has first sonically “frozen” Columbia, Brad, Janet, Rocky, and Dr. Scott, then reanimated the first four in his own image. In a vaudeville-style stage routine each of the reanimated characters proclaims in song his or her awakened sexuality. Together, Frank and his newest creations enjoy a water-orgy in a swimming pool with a reproduction of Michelangelo’s “Creation of Adam” on the bottom.
Riff Raff and Magenta (as Bride of Frankenstein) enter to announce they are taking charge (using a pitch fork-shaped ray gun) with the intent to return to Transsexual. Columbia is killed as she tries to flee. Frank pleads his innocence. Then, like the Transylvanians in Rocky’s coming-out scene Brad asks, “What’s his crime?”
The symbol of mainstream “straightness” has come to sympathize with Frank.
But not Riff Raff. Frank’s “crime” is not (despite half-hearted explanations to the contrary) that he killed Eddie. It is not that he is transsexual—so are the other Transylvanians. Rather, it is that among them all he is the only “Sweet Transvestite”. Though the others revel in outrageous costumes, Frank is the only cross-dresser. Frank has made cross-dressers of the “squares”—even Dr. Scott, who eventually reveals his legs swathed in women’s hosiery. Frank has gone public.
Victor and his creature began in isolation, then compounded each other’s “innocent” guilt by fighting one another; eventually driving themselves farther from society and onward toward death. In The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Frank-N-Furter and Rocky wind up clinging to one another, finding grace from mainstream society; but being destroyed by the domestic family they thought they belonged to. They fall from the tower back into the pool, the womb, the primordial liquid enveloping the Creation of Adam. By inverting the functions of public and private spaces, Rocky Horror manipulates the elements of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to question not only mainstream social (sexual) norms, but the restrictive, isolating—either from fear or misguided solidarity—norms of sub-cultural and domestic communities as well.
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