What is the Rocky Horror Picture Show?

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

Rocky Horror Picture Show is one of the most famous cult movies ever made. The film is a musical that parodies science fiction and monster movies, and is only slightly changed from its 1973 stage version, The Rocky Horror Show by Richard O’Brien. In 2005, the film was placed in the film archives of the US Library of Congress, as it was deemed historically significant.

Woman with hand on her hip
Woman with hand on her hip

The plot of Rocky Horror Picture Show follows Janet and Brad, a newly engaged couple, as their car breaks down and they are forced to take shelter in the nearby mansion of mad scientist and transvestite Dr. Frank-N-Furter. Dr. Frank invites them to watch his latest experiment, which brings the handsome Rocky Horror to life. Rocky, who is meant to be a boyfriend for Dr. Frank, prefers Janet, much to Frank and Brad’s horror. After considerable confusion, and the arrival of an old professor of Janet and Brad, it is revealed that Frank and his servants, Riff-Raff and Magenta, are aliens. The two servants kill Frank and Rocky, take off in a spaceship, and leave the humans behind to cope with their much larger concept of reality.

Rocky Horror has spawned a successful midnight movie tradition since its opening. At the show, male moviegoers typically dress in female drag, as Dr. Frank does, while female patrons wear lingerie. First time viewers are supposed to wear white, to symbolize their Rocky Horror virginity. Inside the theater, the audience freely sings along and says lines with the movie. The raucous event is also punctuated by the use of props at specific times.

The props used at Rocky Horror Picture Show showings are thrown or used in reference to certain lines or jokes. When, onscreen, someone offers a toast at dinner, audience members throw pieces of toast at the screen. When Brad and Janet’s car breaks down in the rain, audiences squirt water pistols and hold newspapers over their heads. One controversial prop use comes during the song “Over at the Frankenstein Place,” as patrons are supposed to hold up a lit lighter. Flames are usually banned in movie theaters, so this particular prop is sometimes frowned upon by theater managers.

The original theater and film version star Tim Curry as Dr. Frank. Curry, a well known comedian, originated the role on the London stage and went on to play it in several other theater productions. Curry, along with many of the other actors, preferred not to speak about the film after he left it, as he felt the cult popularity of it overshadowed some of his more serious work. His portrayal of Dr. Frank as a moody, upper-class British transvestite is cemented in the mind of fans and the cult world as an extraordinary performance.

Although the theater version had been successful worldwide, many American critics panned the film and its overt sexuality, despite many positive reviews of the music in the show. In 1976, New York theaters began screening the movie at night, and encouraging people to come in costume. Over the next three years, the trend would spread throughout the country, with over 200 theaters giving weekly presentations of the movie.

Rocky Horror Picture Show is an adult musical with both horror and explicit sexual content. As such, it is usually considered unsuitable for children, but is popular among teenagers and college students. Some fans host viewings on Halloween, in tribute to both the dress-up and monster-movie aspects of the film. In the 21st century, Rocky Horror Picture Show remains a film that enjoys constant cult success while being continually controversial with large portion of the world community.

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica is passionate about drama and film. She has many other interests, and enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics in her role as a wiseGEEK writer.

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Discussion Comments


I have seen "Rocky Horror Picture Show" hundreds of times since the mid-80s, and I have to say that the movie itself would barely get an R rating these days. There is some incidental nudity, and one use of the bleep word. It's the audience participation element that turns the experience into an adults only mode. The movie itself is so silly that it sometimes feels like the actors are begging the audience to make fun of them, just to liven things up.

I only performed in a few shadow casts, but I knew some people who played Frank or Rocky or Riff Raff for years. I think the cult status of the movie has made it ten times more difficult to produce the stage musical version, since people who know the movie lines and props can really mess up a live performance.

"Rocky Horror" was really an opportunity for older teens and college students to blow off some steam at midnight showings. We were too young to go to bars, and standard movies just didn't measure up to the naughtiness of cult movies.

Watching "Rocky Horror Picture Show" on DVD or on television at home is not nearly as fun as watching it in a run-down theater with hundreds of people who know the lines as well as you do.


An interesting piece of trivia: in the film of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Richard O'Brien, the creator, also plays Riff Raff.


The Rocky Horror Picture Show is not to be confused with the original play of the same name, The Rocky Horror Show- I was in the play two years ago, and had great difficulty explaining to people that they were different. While the plot is mostly the same, the arrangement and portrayal of events varies, and certain things change. While showings of the film involve a large amount of audience participation, the stage version does even more so, as audience catcalls and narrator comments never stop, and add challenges to the actors.

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