"Really drives you insa-a-a-ane," part I: what makes a cult classic a classic

by Elizabeth A. Allen (with help from Umberto Eco)


Umberto Eco provides an interesting thesis for the appeal of the cult work of art. In "Casablanca: Cult Movies and Intertextual Collage," an essay that comes from his anthology Faith in Fakes: Travels in Hyperreality, Eco talks specifically about Casablanca, but his ideas can extended to The Rocky Horror Picture Show, as well as all other cult media. To succeed as a cult artwork, The Rocky Horror Picture Show has to have the following characteristics.

1. "It must provide a completely furnished world so that its fans can quote characters and episodes as if they were aspects of the fan's private sectarian world, a world about which one can make up quizzes and play trivia games so that the adepts of the sect recognize through each other a shared experience." In other words, The Rocky Horror Picture Show charges ordinary phrases with almost magical meanings to be deciphered only by the initiates. For example, it can turn an innocent statement of expectation -- "I'm shivering with antici...pation!" -- into an inside joke of sexual innuendo if the speaker and the listener know Frank's lascivious context for it.

2. "It should not display one central idea but many. It should not reveal a coherent philosophy of composition. It must live on, and because of, its glorious ricketiness. .... [I]t must display certain textual features, in the sense that, outside the conscious control of its creators, it becomes a sort of textual syllabus, a living example of living textuality." This means that it should be messy in an exuberant and enjoyable way, which the film certainly is. Eco even comments on the improvisational production values of The Rocky Horror Picture Show in his essay, but those are part of what makes it fun. (I get the sense that the producers said to each other, "Hey! No one's danced around in a funny outfit for ten minutes! Let's have a costume change and a chorus!") As for the film's being an example of "living textuality," this is shown most dramatically by the whole concept of audience participation, which is, in effect, a parallel script or re-write of the entire thing.

3. It's got to have so many cliches in it that it transcends banality. This is difficult to conceive of, but Eco explains: "Two cliches make us laugh but a hundred cliches move us because we sense dimly that the cliches are talking among themselves, celebrating a reunion. Just as the extreme of pain meets sensual pleasure [give yourself over to it!], and the extreme of perversion borders on mystical energy, so too the extreme of Banality allows us to catch a glimpse of the Sublime." So because the movie has the archetypical ingenue (Janet), the archetypical ineffectual dweeb (Brad), the archetypical rock-'n'-roll renegade (Eddie), the requisite debauching of the innocents, the requisite alien invasion, the requisite creation of life by mad scientist, as well as many other debts to other films (best accentuated by the opening number "Science Fiction Double Feature," a bunch of allusions to famous B movies), it's a work of great genius! As much as I do like the film, I'm not sure that I agree with that statement. But I must admit that it's a creative and amusing parody.

I'd also like to add one more reason, the most important, which has made The Rocky Horror Picture Show such a well-loved favorite, something Eco did not address:

4. SEX! As Frank says, "A mental mind fuck can be nice!"

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