The Rocky Horror Picture Show
Frank-N-Furter represents the ability of the media
In the mid-1970s, an underground movie titled The Rocky Horror Picture Show began to attract attention. The film's central character, Dr. Frank-N-Furter, was played by a new actor by the name of Tim Curry who appeared on screen in drag, referring to himself as "a sweet transvestite from Transsexual Transylvania." Curry was only one of many of the movie's features that seemed to challenge conventional ideas. Even the audience failed to act like an audience, often dressing in the costumes of the characters and acting out scenes as they appeared on the screen.
The movie began conventionally enough, with Brad and Janet, a narrowly traditional, all-American, couple suffering a flat tire in the middle of nowhere on a stormy night. When they knock on the door of a nearby castle, hoping to use the telephone, they are taken prisoner by the occupant, Dr. Frank-N-Furter, a sexually obsessed, cross-dressing extraterrestrial from the planet Transsexual, of the galaxy Transylvania.
Frank-N-Furter, it turns out, is something on the order of a human Id, acting out whatever sexual and aggressive urges bubble to the surface, which, among other things, leads him to brutally murder one of the male characters who is subsequently served for dinner. Early in the evening, he has Brad and Janet stripped to their underwear and sent to separate beds for the night. He then enters their rooms in disguise and launches each on a journey to decadence, introducing Janet to the pleasures of sex, and Brad to the pleasures of homosexuality.
The encounter profoundly changes the once-innocent Janet. As she becomes involved in another liaison in the castle, this time with a scantily clad artificial muscle boy named Rocky Horror, who was created by Frank-N-Furter in a laboratory as his personal sex toy, she describes her newly discovered yearning for the forbidden.
"Touch-a touch-a touch-a touch me. I wanna be dirty," she sings to Rocky Horror. (The lyrics sound better sung than they do on the page.) "Thrill me, chill me, fulfill me, creature of the night."
After more goings on in the castle, the movie reaches its thematic climax as Frank-N-Furter uses his alien technology to transform a number of the characters, including Brad, Janet and Rocky Horror, into singing and dancing versions of himself, completing their transition to absolute decadence. As they stand on stage, costumed, like the mad Frank-N-Furter, in high-heels, fishnet stockings and corsets, each performs in a stage revue that reveals something about his or her personality. Then Frank-N-Furter sings the movie's theme song in a swimming pool scene reminiscent of a Busby Berkeley musical:
"Give yourself over to absolute pleasure.
Throughout the movie, Frank-N-Furter relies on simulations, both to act out his fantasies and engage in deception. After the fashion of Dr. Frankenstein, he creates a simulation of a person in the form of Rocky Horror, who is intended to be a living symbolic arena for the acting out of sexual desires. And he dresses up in drag; disguising himself to seduce the innocent and theatrically reenacting the roles from well-known movies.* Frank-N-Furter exists in a world where everything pretends it is something else, and in which the present is pasted together from the bits and pieces of movies past, so that life becomes an endless vaudeville revue. He is a second-order simulation, created out of the simulations of Hollywood, trapped in a schizophrenic's virtual reality, absorbed in a fantasy world in which he is a star.
Of course, all this had a lot more shock value when America first encountered it in 1975. At the time, the counterculture of anti-materialism, free love and recreational drugs was just turning into the new culture of simulated fantasy and cynical sexuality that we live in today. The Rocky Horror Picture Show was an expression of the new culture and an announcement of its arrival, although, interestingly, it was also a critique of the culture's excesses.
In Frank-N-Furter, the new culture found a perfect symbol for itself, enunciating a message that is now its message: "Don't dream it. Be it." In other words, don't merely fantasize, but act out your fantasies and bring them to life. And don't merely play out your own fantasies but draw from the well of invented reality offered by Hollywood and make it seem like it is happening to you.
Today, (if the reader will forgive a little hyperbole) we live in Frank-N-Furter's castle, in a society that turns sex, violence and forbidden fantasies into theatrical spectacles. Our cultural creations include ghoulishly violent video games and serial killer trading cards; slasher films and nature videos of animals killing their prey; writhing bodies on MTV and a Jeffrey Dahmer comic book. Our daytime talk shows are filled with one strange sexual situation after another, from the transvestite who tricks heterosexual men into having sex with him, to the male college student who attended class in the nude. As Freud might put it, sex and aggression, the two drives that are most commonly subjected to repression, have been set loose in popular culture, where they have been turned into mass entertainments.
But, like Frank-N-Furter, popular culture isn't only interested in sex and violence for their own sake. It also uses them to portray acts of transgression. Here, it offers audiences opportunities to indulge what is perceived to be forbidden by violating traditional social mores and rules. One might say that the new culture has become a roller coaster for the mind that creates a sense of danger and excitement by taking audiences to the edge of social taboos for the thrill of it. Psychological repression, when it comes to sex and aggression, isn't merely being lifted; the act of going against repression has itself become a source of popular amusement.
The new culture finds expression in various media, whether it is in tabloid news shows or talk radio's verbal transgressions. But much of it once again relies on simulation and images, in the form of television, film, and video and computer games. These media are ideal for the acting out of seemingly dangerous fantasies, because they offer a faux universe of electronic images and theatrical situations, in which portrayals need not include any reference to morals, social mores or limits since everything is mere appearance. Everything is possible because none of it happens. In the graphic computer games full of sexual psychodramas and violence; in the commercial Internet sites that promise every possible fantasy and taboo activity will be depicted; in some of the more gruesome creations of the movies; and in a host of other places, we see the emerging culture of the techno-Id in which everything is possible as pretense and (seemingly) nothing is denied.
With creations such as these, audiences are being offered a new twist on the classic battle between good and evil, between the upright Dr. Jekyll and his transformation into the malevolent Mr. Hyde. The message is that we can now all become Mr. Hyde and vicariously experience unbridled evil in a world of electronic images and simulations. We can then return to reality without having compromised our moral identities.
The science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem foresaw the possibilities in his novel The Futurological Congress, which depicts a society of the future in which people take "psycho-chemical" drugs that make it possible for them to experience completely realistic fantasies or hallucinations of their own choosing. Armed with this new power, everyone chooses to act out whatever isn't possible in life. The result is a society of Jekyll and Hydes of the kind we are being encouraged to become, in which people are polite in their everyday encounters and fiends when they are in the realm of simulation, appropriating other people's likeness so they can pretend to commit heinous crimes against it in their lifelike fantasies. To provide this new form of entertainment, an industry has developed that custom designs the fantasies of evil and revenge.
As Symington, the character who runs this society, explains to the protagonist, Ijon Tichy:
"Our commodity is evil.... To each according to his wickedness, all the evil his heart desires....Just name the person, fill out our form, describe the grudges, grievances, bones of contention....Present your specifications and you'll receive our catalogue (of fantasies). Orders filled within 24 hours."
Soon after, Tichy observes: "Now I know what it mean when at a party the person I am talking to suddenly excuses himself, decorously retires to a corner to take a pinch of snuff, at the same time fixing his eyes on me -- so that my image, accurate in every detail, may be imprisoned in the private Hell of his unbridled imagination."*
"...I am surrounded by monsters."
Interestingly, in Lem's novel the lifelike fantasies, including fantasies of evil, are one of a number of distractions and substitute satisfactions used to occupy and sate humanity. While humanity believes it is taking psycho-chemical drugs to live out these fantasies, it is actually being fed other drugs that falsify its entire view of the world, creating a false paradise of luxury and technology when everything is in a state of collapse. In other words, in Lem's novel, the products of recreational evil are one of the circuses offered by a dictatorship to control the public.
Thus Lem offers us a political model in which simulations of evil are primarily one of the tools used by those in power as a form of social control and deception. In America, as we know, simulated fantasies that invite us to the dark side are primarily a product of the marketplace, offered us by media companies that see a profit in appealing to human weakness. Given that the companies that exercise enormous political control are increasingly the companies that invite us to enjoy the pleasures of recreational evil, the two models aren't so far apart.
With this in mind, we can "read" The Rocky Horror Picture Show in terms of Lem's novel and also in terms of the observations about popular culture above. We then see that the endlessly theatrical Frank-N-Furter, bubbling over with violence, sex and transgression, is none other than the giant media companies that have lured us into their castle of virtual madness:
"Give yourself over to absolute pleasure," they tell us. "Swim the warm waters of sins of the flesh. Erotic nightmares beyond any measure...."Don't dream it. Be it. Don't dream it. Be it...."
Such an interpretation, of course, is close to the conservative claims that the media are the corrupters of youth and culture. Frank-N-Furter here appears as a brilliantly Satanic figure who indulges in the essence of evil -- he shamelessly revels in his own corruption and corrupting influence.
But The Rocky Horror Picture Show also offers a way out, although it provides us with only the slightest information to understand what it is telling us. While Brad is undone by his exposure to the mad hedonism and shamelessness of Frank-N-Furter, Janet is freed by it. It is obvious that, as a result of her experience, she will neither be mad like Frank-N-Furter nor boringly traditional and narrow-minded, as she and Brad were when they arrived.
As is made clear at one point, Frank-N-Furter is her spirit guide. He provides her with the tools she needs to escape her prison and become a more open, more complete, person. We can use the new media-based culture, in which anything goes, the same way, the movie hints to us, or we can be overwhelmed by it.
At the end, Frank-N-Furter as savior is assassinated for his sins; the castle-space-ship lifts off back to its home planet and Brad and Janet, having just made it out of the house on time, are thrown to the the ground in its wake. But then birth is never easy.
* Frank-N-Furter's adoring fans modeled themselves after him and reenacted the movie, even as he and the movie were reenacting the history of Hollywood.
** Stanlislaw Lem, The Futurological Congress, trans. Michael Kandel (New York: Avon Books, 1974) pp. 96-102.