By Ashley Naftule
Going to a Rocky Horror shadow cast is a lot like taking psychedelic drugs: It’s something that everybody should do at least once. It deserves a place of prominence on any bucket list, nestled somewhere in between “take a dance class” and “have an awkward threesome”.
I finally went to a shadow cast a few years ago, at the Deer Valley AMC. I went with a date: It was our third time out, so the whole evening was suffused with that early relationship tension of “oh-god-I-hope-I-don’t-do-anything-stupid/please-like-me”. Both of us were pretty familiar with the fishnetted wonders of “Rocky Horror”, but hadn’t experienced a shadow cast before.
We were also among the only people at the packed theater who weren’t wearing some kind of costume. It was hard to figure out who was in the actual shadow cast and who was a “civilian”: Transylvanian party hats, cross-dressing, even the occasional Riff Raff wigs abounded throughout the room. The shadow casters themselves went all out on accuracy, looking every bit like their characters (with the possible exception of their Meat Loaf, who needed to eat a few more meat loaves himself to get up to prime Eddieweight).
The experience of sitting through a shadow cast for the first time is profoundly surreal. I imagined it would either be an off-the-cuff, “MST3K” style ribbing of the movie, or some kind of community theater reenactment of the movie. I wasn’t counting on the answer being all of the above. As the cast ran up and down in front of the screen, miming Rocky’s Frankenstein birth with props that looked like they were stolen out the back of an Alice Cooper tour bus, or chasing the doomed Eddie around as he grooved on a plastic sax, the audience shouted a call and response at the cast and screen that sounded scripted and precise. Every shout of “Sluuuut” at Janet, every ribald jab at Frank, sounded like it had been practiced and rehearsed through countless past screenings.
They sounded thought-out because they were – a complete script of in-jokes and cutting observations that had been built up through decades of fandom. Watching “Rocky Horror” as a “virgin”, I felt like an actor who showed up to opening night looking to improv, and realizing too late that there WAS a script and nobody had bothered to send me a copy. I spent most of the screening in a voyeuristic daze, alternating between watching the movie, watching this crowd of very vocal geeks watch the movie, and watching my date as she watched the crowd and movie too.
I’ve been exposed to rampant nerdery for most of my life: I’ve waited 12 hours in line to see “The Phantom Menace”, I’ve played in “Magic: The Gathering” tournaments, I’ve been to cons and rolled D20s with the best of ’em. This was different: In those other situations, I knew the way of the land, knew how the locals think because I was one of them. But at the AMC Deer Valley, I was a stranger. I didn’t speak the language, and it was thrilling to surrender any attempt at understanding or participating and just let things happen around me.
I’ve experienced that same feeling of delighted “I don’t know what the fuck is going on” when I saw “The Room” live for the first time. Watching people hurling plastic spoons at the screen, the random football games breaking out in the aisles: I didn’t know what any of it meant at first, and I loved it.
I’m getting that same charge right now as I’m starting to get into wrestling fandom. Being exposed to a huge fan lexicon of weird phrases like “cheap pops”, “kayfabe”, and “smarks” and not having the slightest clue what they’re talking about is a delight. It’s the fun part of assimilating, the cost of admission to joining any secret society: you’ve got to learn the code words and master the handshakes.
I’ve also been on the other side of this fence. Whenever there’s a Jodorowsky screening, I go out of my way to see it. Not just because I love the man’s movies, but because I LOVE watching people who don’t know what’s coming. If you’ve watched “Holy Mountain” and you get a chance to see it around people who haven’t watched it, DO IT. Few things in life are as hilarious and satisfying as watching someone leap out of their seat when an old man’s tits turn into cream-spewing jaguars.
What’s really interesting about immersing ourselves in these crazed, in-crowd, fan environments is that it’s a chance to escape your bubble and enter someone else’s for a bit. Much in the way that psychedelic drugs are an invaluable tool for shaking off your own biases and preconceptions and seeing the world from a new perspective for a bit. We live in an age where it’s becoming easier and easier to get trapped in your own bubble. You never have to consume any kind of news or media that doesn’t fit the inside of your bubble; there’s something out there to cater to any ideological slant or desire. It’s why it’s so important to pop your bubble on occasion and see how other people live. And not just in the big ways, like exposing yourself to different faiths or cultures or countries, but in the small scenes too. The little fandoms and tribes whose goals and sacred cows don’t make sense to us.
I enjoy “Rocky Horror”, but whatever it is that people see it in that compels them to come back and watch it every week and repeat that call & response, I don’t see it. But I’m glad that they do, and I’m grateful that they’re willing to let people like me into their bubble to gawk for a night. Hopefully I can put on as good of a show if anybody steps into mine.