It's midnight on Saturday in Long Beach, and a string of young people—cloaked in black and caked with makeup—stretches along the sidewalk, unfurling from the Art Theater box office until it just about reaches the end of your patience.
The Rocky Horror Picture Showhas been attracting freak shows like this to movie houses around the world for more than 20 years, each regeneration producing approximately 1,000 percent more irritation than the previous one. In the Orange County area, a cast called Midnight Insanity has been performing weekly since 1986—first at the late Balboa Theatre in Newport Beach and now at the Art in Long Beach. Along the way, however, the flamboyantly uncertain sexuality on display has descended from dangerous to de rigueur. By now, it seems the only edgy question posed by the whole predictable skit is: Why would anybody want to do the Time Warp again? But the answer is not what you might expect: because The Rocky Horror Picture Show is more subversive than ever, albeit in its own extremely imitable way. It's a parody, man, and imitation is what parodies do—making their point, whatever that may be, by throwing in exaggeration or understatement. By now the whole Rocky Horror phenomenon has absorbed so many layers of parody that the message of its constant repetition has become convoluted almost beyond recognition. And that is its message. Rocky Horror's sedition is buried deeper and deeper beneath self-conscious piles of tradition and camp and performance art disguised as counterculture and social commentary that is embraced by art theaters struggling to stay alive the same way drive-in theaters took to swap meets. That's subversive, man. Rocky Horror is the story of Brad and Janet, two "normal kids" swept into the machinations of a mad transvestite scientist, Dr. Frank-N-Furter. The scientist is hell-bent on creating a monster with which to have his evil way. Along the way, he seduces Brad and Janet into giving in to "absolute pleasure." The production began as The Rocky Horror Show, a London West End musical of the early 1970s that employed the over-the-top camp of glitter rock to spoof the naive moralizing of scary storytelling. The show made its American debut at the Roxy Theater in Hollywood. Then came The Rocky Horror Picture Show, a film version starring Barry Bostwick and Susan Sarandon as Brad and Janet and featuring Tim Curry in a continuation of his stage role as Dr. Frank-N-Furter. In this medium, Rocky Horror's parody commented on the B-grade science-fiction flicks of the 1950s, such as Ed Wood's Plan 9 From Outer Space. After its initial run, the film spawned a unique response in audiences: theatergoers would bring props and act out the movie from their seats—parodying what they were seeing on the screen. Troupes of performers eventually emerged to parody these audiences, and the succeeding generations of cast members are in turn parodying their predecessors. In its current Saturday-night incarnation, then, Rocky Horror is a parody of a parody of a parody of a parody—and then some. Within the storyline, however, Rocky Horror provides even more telling historical perspective, acknowledging several truths about mid-20th-century America that are only dimly remembered—specifically, regarding the matter of alien abduction. Rocky Horror points correctly to the fact that during the immediate post-World War II years—as America and the Soviet Union began playing tit for tat with nuclear armaments—U.S. citizens were lodging a record number of alien-abduction claims. Everywhere, there were reports that otherworldly beings were collecting humans and other large mammals (notably cows) at an accelerated rate. This, of course, wasn't exactly new. Tales of such abductions date back to pre-historic days, told as fireside stories of demons, goblins and fairies kidnapping children and lone wanderers at night. But beginning in the 1950s, these tales began to re-emerge with a modern twist. In 1961, Betty and Barney Hill, a couple of normal, middle-class Americans, claimed they were abducted by visitors from the planet Zeta Reticuli and anally probed. Anally probed. The principle difference between these claims and the abduction of Brad and Janet by Dr. Frank-N-Furter in Rocky Horror is that the alien isn't a small, gray biped with large, glassy eyes, but rather a tall, well-hung transvestite clad in leather and fishnets and wearing bad makeup. Meanwhile, as Rocky Horror re-creations continue, so does alien influence on man's affairs. In 1995, a man calling himself Ambassador Merlyn Merlin II of the planet Alpha Draconis lobbied the Nevada state government to designate Route 375 as "The Extraterrestrial Highway." The bill passed the state Assembly unanimously, thanks in part to support from Assemblyman Bob Price (D-North Las Vegas), who presented the aliens' case while wearing a Darth Vader mask. Some theorists claim it's likely that the aliens regularly use psionic powers or "beams" of some sort to erase abductees' memories. This means there could be thousands, even millions of people who have been snatched from their homes, probed and returned without their even knowing it—or who just think they were watching The X-Files. Some of these theorists also claim that the aliens have acted directly to separate us from aspects of history and culture. One example—hinted at by Rocky Horror—is that once, in the not-too-distant past, people would sing and dance rather than merely converse. This puts a completely different spin on history. Rather than being a grueling struggle for survival, life may have been joyous and uplifted by song. We know there is at least an element of truth to this from our experience during the Great Migration—also known as the Wholesale Displacement of the Indigenous Population—when land-hungry families facing starvation sang magnificently of their coming destination, Oklahoma, where the wind comes sweeping down the plains. And this should make us a little more tolerant of the line of people awaiting the next performance of Rocky Horror. We can share their buzz, the nervous energy that is transmitted through the makeup and lingerie of a 15-year-old girl, the discreetly rebellious flip of a velvet-gloved bird by a 16-year-old boy who has been confronted by a burly security guard. Times have changed. Our alien masters—altering our brains with "beams," renaming our roads, probing us, making us watch mind-numbing television shows like Roswell—have bent us to their absolute pleasure. Only The Rocky Horror Picture Show remains.
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