C O N T E N T S
The Vault: An Initiated Interpretation
of the Rocky Horror Picture Show
by Shade Oroboros
"The darkness must flow
River of night's dreaming, flow, morphia slow,
let the sun and light come streaming into
My life… into my life”
- Rocky Horror Picture Show by Richard O’Brien
Modern mythology is a very tricky thing: everyone from equatorial pygmies to arctic Eskimos knows who Mickey Mouse is, and many, many people around the world have seen the Rocky Horror Picture Show. I enjoyed taking my younger sister to see it in celebration of her 13th birthday. A Google search yields “about 800,000” hits.
Movies have formed much of the mythology of our age, and movie stars are often the popular gods; somehow this particular film attracted a huge cult following, many of whom actually dressed up as the characters and performed the action in the aisles, who saw it weekly (usually at the dead of midnight) hundreds of times, who may even have centered their very moral compasses and social lives around its rock & roll message of romantic love, sexual pleasure, and rather gleefully polymorphous perversity. There evolved a veritable litany of responses called out by the audience, and a series of ritual offerings (rice, water, toast, cards, etc.) hurled into the air during showings. There are still countless fan clubs and vast heaps of memorabilia, a recent and quite wildly successful live stage show packed them in on Broadway, and was quickly followed by several more revival tours nation-wide. The inspired combination of 1950s horror flicks and musical comedy has formed a brilliant parody. Outraged fundamentalists, foaming at the mouth and possibly other orifices as well, hysterically protested this rampant return of Sin to Cinema. The entire social phenomena evolved into a highly ritualized activity of unholy communion, an intimate yet shared experience that all three or more genders and every possible sexual orientation could appreciate, a transformative vision shared by people in every corner of the globe – and an initiation into late 20th century adulthood that was big fun for the whole family. Why on earth was it so popular? Why the heck wouldn't it be?
Personality cults and celebrity worship have been around for countless centuries, and rock stars have often achieved the status of religious icons; Elvis is a figure of such messianic proportions that his statues are now reported to be miraculously bleeding, and perhaps more sightings of him are reported than of UFOs. Apparently people do enjoy having sex-positive role models for their alleged individuality. Sensuality has mutated abruptly over the last few decades, largely thanks to the efforts of St. Hugh Hefner and the feminist and gay rights movements, and so the limits of personal liberation and self-expression have now become ongoing constitutional battlegrounds. Perhaps there must be a little of the "sweet transvestite from transsexual Transylvania" in all of us, or at least a bit of occasional bi-curiosity? Constant waves of social revolution have been flowing since the sixties, not to mention the birth of the Aeon of Horus in 1904, and of course desperate struggle to remain a teenager forever is something of a lifelong ideal for many people (and for their plastic surgeons). Most of all, I think, our culture has lost most of its rites of passage, and this film not only fills that moist and gaping urgent need, but also has an archetypical plot which is closely structured along the classic model of initiation: separation from the mundane world, arcane transformation, and the return of a new self. Many have also sensed that profound subliminal symbolism from the realms of magick, gnosticism, alchemy and tantra betrays a deeply Luciferian influence. For those potential few of us unfamiliar with this deeply moving work of art, I shall endeavor to briefly summarize.
Our story opens with two nice wholesome all-American young people (Brad & Janet) serving as the best man and bridesmaid at their friend's wedding, after which he romantically proposes marriage to her. This recalls the hieros gamos or sacred wedding, and the image of the divine couple in their childlike state of holy innocence, christian purity, and most essentially of sexual virginity. From this rural suburb next door to heaven, we plunge into the infernal depths of hell.
While driving back home after the ceremony, their car breaks down and they are lost in the dark forest: a very common fairy-tale theme, not unfamiliar to the Brothers Grimm. They wander up to a castle (with a geodesic dome), where a very strange party is being held in wild celebration of the successful creation of artificial life: specifically in the form of Rocky, a perfectly pumped-up blonde genetic recombination of Charles Atlas and Herr Doktor Frankenstein's famous monster, conceived to be the ultimate lover, and perhaps recalling the obsessions of both Pygmalion and Prometheus. A raucous group of perversely demented party guests, in a sinister reflection of those at the earlier wedding, has gathered to witness the unspeakable nuptials of mad scientist Frank N. Furter and this newly-perfected party boy. In the gothic laboratory, strange mechanisms are brought into play and the miraculous creation is activated in a bizarre alchemical process. Rocky’s womb-like natal tank, filled with exotic chemicals, may even recall the Golden Dawn’s hallowed Vault of the Adepts, which was based on the hidden tomb of the legendary Christian Rosencreutz .
Nothing ever goes as planned, and much drama ensues between our innocent hero and heroine and the various servants and lovers of the charmingly dominant Prospero-figure of their host Frank. They witness both the ritualistic sacrificial murder of his ex-lover Eddy (stripped for spare parts) and the wild despair of Columbia (the shared muse and/or groupie of both Eddy and Frank). Soon they find themselves utterly appalled by the twisted honeymoon of Rocky and Frank (ohmigawd, gay marriage! in 1975!). And yet somehow both Brad and Janet find themselves quite quickly and casually seduced by Frank, surrendering their long-cherished chastity and entering into a brave new world of experience and tantrik ecstasy (and at dinner, even cannibalism: they receive red wine and human flesh in an unholy parody of communion, which is of course somewhat reminiscent of the forbidden otherworld foods of faeryland). The fun continues: fetishism, sadomasochism (whips, chains and hot candle-wax), cross-dressing, black leather, even marijuana ‘The Weed With Roots In Hell’: clearly we are transgressing any moral values the Republican Party may have left. This dramatic fall from the holy state of spiritual grace into the biological evils of the material world is a very gnostic theme, not dissimilar to the biblical expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden; and in esoteric literature we may perhaps sense the influence of the visionary poet William Blake (see Songs of Innocence & Experience and The Marriage of Heaven & Hell).
At the climax, the forces of order re-enter in the person of their old teacher Dr. Scott, now a “government scientist” protesting this "obscene decadence"; he joins with the revolting servants of the manor, Riff-Raff and Magenta, revealed in their true forms as aliens from outer space (thus spirits or demigods in a contemporary form, the Space Brothers of the UFOlogical cosmos). Our cast now faces Judgment Day, and strangely enough they discover where their true sympathies now lie. As the tantrik maxim states, “One reaches heaven by the very things that lead to hell.” In a music-hall stage-show grand finale Frank, Rocky, Brad, Janet, and Columbia dress up in drag and kick up their heels to fervently defend Frank's sadly misunderstood actions, which are in fact clearly completely justifiable in the name of life and love flying in the face of respectability, valuing chaos and pleasure over fascist oppression; themes clearly quite resonant with the community values held by the audience. This musical passion play recalls the origins of theater in the orgiastic and ecstatic rites of Dionysos, or the bizarre mystery plays of our medieval period. There are some really great tunes, so clearly rock & roll must still be the Devil’s music.
Ultimately they fail to convince: the rather sinister impresario Frank and both his male and female lovers are slain, Frank and Rocky falling from an RKO Radio tower in a clear reference to the symbolism of the XVIth Atu of the Tarot: The Tower. The castle itself is recalled into outer space (an intriguing reversal of the Fall of the House of Usher, throwing in some Edgar Allen Poe to go with both the greek tragedy and Roger Corman influences). In the final image of the film Brad, Janet and Dr. Scott are left wallowing in the mud wearing women's lingerie; the opening shot had shown a circle/cross on the steeple of a church, obviously connecting our mythic story to the fabled wisdom of the Rosicrucians. They have now fallen (not once, but twice!) from the Garden of Paradise and are trapped again in the clutches of the Archons, in bondage to the illusions of the material world as envisioned by the Gnostic sects and Buddhists. Their fall from Edenic grace is now complete, but they may still have attained true wisdom and tantric freedom. Trapped in this strange house of mirrors, all present have found and embraced their own reversed, but perhaps not distorted, gender-bending reflections and finally gotten in touch with their erotic passions and inner androgyny. This is the dream of a liberated way of life that has been shared by millions of happy, indeed satiated, members of the audience:
“…to keep the miracle
alive, to live always in the miracle, to make the miracle more and more
miraculous, to swear allegiance to nothing, but live only miraculously,
think only miraculously.”
- Henry Miller
Alchemy is the art of transformation, of perfecting the creations of Nature and bringing her gifts into full manifestation in both the physical and the spiritual realms. The outer process of physical alchemy, turning base matter into gold, both parallels and is a metaphor for the inner exaltation of human consciousness. Tantrik forms of alchemy are also practiced in the east, both in chemical and medicinal forms and also in the frenzied sexual rites portrayed in most cheesy mass-market books on tantra. Can we avoid the esoteric implications of this drama, wherein virtually every character is radically re-made and brought into contact with Sat-Chit-Ananda, or Being-Consciousness-Bliss?
In both tribal initiations and our many surviving folk or faerie tales the young are often taken out of society into a liminal space of magick and wilderness, stripped of their old identities and then transformed to a new state of being, crossing over boundaries to enter sexual maturity, and returned to the world they knew in an extremely altered state. That is exactly what happens here, and the dramatic experience is vicariously shared or even re-enacted and participated in by the usually more passive members of the movie audience. First viewers are in fact referred to as “virgins” in dire need of enlightenment. The roles selected by those who do dress up in costume can be quite revealing of their personalities. This particular initiation clearly goes well beyond simply having a bar mitzvah on the one hand, but on the other hand you may not get as many presents. On yet another hand, many midnight showings did raffle off door prizes. As the old Tibetan saying goes, "to be forewarned is to be four-armed; to be four-armed is to be Chenrezig."
The Rocky Horror Picture Show is a truly modern religious structure, a rite of passage for millions of people; and even amid our rapidly collapsing mechanistic nightmare of obsessive consumer culture we all need magick in our lives, and as much good loving as possible before we die. Anything that seriously pisses off the moral minority can't be all that bad, can it? It has of course often been remarked that sex is not the answer. Sex is the question. "Yes!" is the answer.
"Give yourself over to
Swim the warm waters of sins of the flesh
Beyond any measure
And sensual daydreams
To treasure forever.
Can't you just see it – Whoah-oh
Don't dream it, be it.
Don't dream it, be it.
Don't dream it, be it.
Don't dream it, be it.”
- Rocky Horror Picture Show by Richard O’Brien
Long ago in the 1980s, my original inspiration for this essay related to seeing the cast of characters as a sort of Alchemical Theater of the World, a microcosmic vessel seething with the mutational elements of change. We may even see parallels to the hermetic classic The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosencreutz. A primitive astrological scheme or qabalistic exegesis of the dramatis personae in planetary or macrocosmic terms might unfold thus:
The Sun: the very name "Rocky" (played by Peter Hinwood) clearly suggests the Philosopher's Stone, the ultimate result of the alchemical process of creation; he is the fabled homunculus of Paracelsus, the artificial life form born from a tank or alembic of multicolored energized liquids (perhaps the Peacock's Tail stage of the alchemical process?). A tanned blonde hero in glittering golden trunks; he represents the innocent solar child and later briefly implies the warrior as well.
Mercury: easily the most complex of the characters, a maestro orchestrating the entire drama, the archetypical magician and guide, the creative genius, the transforming transformer, epicene and bisexual, fully erotic and androgynous, vampiric yet attractive: the Master of the House and master of ceremonies, the mad scientist of quicksilver mood swings, none other than Frank N. Furter himself (Tim Curry). In this new version of the infamous Frankenstein story, the creator himself becomes the monster's bride. Crucified at the climax, Frank is in a sense also a Christ-figure, dying for his sins so that we might more fully enjoy our own; he also recalls the madness brought on by Dionysos in The Bacchae of Euripides. Christian websites point in horror at the pentagramic five-pointed stars on his jacket as subversive satanic-masonic symbolism.
Venus: voluptuous and passionate, colorfully garbed, everybody’s girlfriend, giving her life for love, the top-hatted tap-dancing love goddess Columbia (Little Nell). Isn't that just another name for America herself? Quite the metaphor!
Earth: essentially simple, Eddy (Meat Loaf) is the crude and earthy rock & roll avatar, the unrefined first matter of the Great Work; many of his parts are used to build Rocky. The Nigredo or blackening period of decay begins the alchemical process, involving the death, mystical shamanic dismemberment and eventual putrefaction of the cast member with the most screen time as a corpse.
Moon: caught up in the rhythmic cycles of change and the tides of her own ever-shifting emotions and aspects, ever mirroring the desires of others, an initiate into a wider world, going from bright to dark and back again; representing the Albedo or whitening phase of the process that births alchemical silver: Miss Janet Weiss (Susan Sarandon). In german, the word 'Weiss' means 'white'; just like her rather "charming underwear".
Mars: the token heterosexual (?) male figure with a brazenly martial attitude: the husband-to-be on the hoof, our virile young hero Brad (Barry Bostwick). He contributes the seminal manly quickening of the Rubedo or reddening that eventually ripens into gold. When he takes off his glasses, he's just "so forceful!"
Jupiter: The rational teacher or parental unit, the bearded father figure enthroned in a wheelchair, the authoritarian representative of science and government: Dr. Everett Scott (Jonathan Adams). The image of this wheelchair recalls the combined Throne and Chariot of God in early jewish Merkabah mysticism, which later evolved into the Qabala; and also that of the greek Triptolemus, culture-hero of the Eleusinian Mysteries.
Saturn: garbed in her black uniform and providing discipline: Magenta (Patricia Quinn), the jaded succubus representing the planet of death, as the alien dark goddess to balance Columbia's bright. As harvest-goddess, she also serves the dinner, such as it is.
Uranus: it would appear that the narrator figure of the Criminologist relates to the planet your-anus, as the constant interruptions of his frequent appearances invariably draw forth loud and passionate cries of "Asshole!" from the audience. The unctuous actor (Charles Gray) is perhaps better known as the villainous Blofeld in an early James Bond movie (a figure whom author Ian Fleming originally based upon his good friend Aleister Crowley).
Neptune: clearly must be the drugged-out and decadent hunchbacked alien junky Riff-Raff (played by Richard O’Brien, the actual author of the show), who employs a blatantly trident-shaped ray gun. The planet Neptune traditionally rules narcotics. We may also note the recurring symbol of the lightning-bolt throughout the film, reminiscent of the dorje or vajra, the Diamond Thunderbolt, a phallic scepter employed in the rites of tantra.
Pluto: this outermost planet is the pylon marking the gateway to beyond, to the distant realm that is home to the black-clad Greek-chorus-line of orgiastic extraterrestrial Transylvanians (from the distant galaxy of Transsexual, or perhaps even H.P. Lovecraft’s trans-plutonic Yuggoth?), who are in some subtle way clearly identical or opposite to the human guests at the opening wedding party. Are the Black Lodge and the White Lodge always working together in secret? Are there truly no coincidences in this synchronistic universe we inhabit? And what does all of this nonsense mean to the ever-increasing number of practicing magi at this twisted turn of the millennium? Well, I suppose that an awful lot of magick is just born out of dramatic role-playing anyway. Many people have seen the prominent bald Transylvanian as a blatant reference to Aleister Crowley, the ever-popular wickedest man in the world.
There is power in such role-playing. To me, all this suggests a growing hope that the mainstream and the seriously weird are entering the final process of merging into something new and rather unique. It confirms that subversive occult influences long rumored rampant in Hollywood are now infesting your local movie-mall and are readily accepted as a natural reality by your children. It also appears that Mr. Crowley was absolutely right when he wrote “Observe for yourselves the decay of sin, the growth of innocence and irresponsibility, the strange modifications of the reproductive instinct with a tendency to become bi-sexual or epicene, the childlike confidence in progress combined with the nightmare fear of catastrophe... Consider the popularity of the cinema, the wireless…” Indeed, as the Rocky Horror Picture Show has recently passed its 30th anniversary and we are constantly assured by the media that good wholesome family values are in a state of moral collapse, it might actually appear that a new species of mutants is finally taking over the world, and it’s about damn time!
"The deviants, who are
so frequently the inventive and creative spirits, shall no longer be sacrificed;
it shall not be considered infamous to deviate from conventional morality;
numerous experiments in life and society shall be made; a tremendous amount
of bad conscience shall be lifted from the world."
- Nietzsche, The Dawn
(All lyrics from the film are apparently copyright 1975 by the Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation)