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The Gothic in the movie "The Rocky Horror Picture Show"

Hausarbeit 2013 17 Seiten

Anglistik - Literatur


Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. Gothic elements
2.1 Gothic setting
2.2 “Over at the Frankenstein Place” – The scientist and his monster
2.3 The fainting heroine and the femme fatale
2.4 Vampirism

3. The Rocky Horror Picture Show – A Gothic movie?
3.1 The genre issue
3.2 Realization of the elements

4. Conclusion

5. Bibliography
5.1 Primary source
5.2 Secondary sources

1. Introduction

We encounter the term Gothic in a lot of domains. In history, the term is to be found referring to the East Germanic tribe called the Goths and in linguistics referring to their extinct language. It also relates to Gothic architecture, prevalent in Western Europe in the 12th to 16th century and its revival from the mid-18th to early 20th century, characterized by pointed arches, rib vaults, flying buttresses, large windows and elaborate tracery. It is also used as a reference to the gloomy and horrifying Dark Ages. Today we have a subculture which refers to oneself as Goths and their style as Gothic. In literature Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto from 1764 is assigned as the origin of Gothic in literature. From this time on, Gothic features can be found in many novels by different authors from continental Europe. It continued throughout different literary periods, be it Romanticism or the Victorian Age, and its elements and figures were used in novels, drama, poetry and short stories. Therefore, it is no wonder that its presence continued in the new media of the twentieth century like radio, television and movies. There are movie adaptations of Gothic writings as well as movies influenced by the Gothic and making use of its features.

The cult movie The Rocky Horror Picture Show offers grotesque characters: the straps and makeup wearing Dr. Frank N. Furter, a ‘sweet transvestite’, his sun-tanned, flaxen-haired muscular creation Rocky, wearing golden underpants. A sinister and humped servant called Riff Raff and all the strange-looking people doing the ‘Time Warp’. This and an innocent couple’s strange adventure in an old and isolated mansion which is the home of the mysterious Dr. Frank N. Furter, tempt the spectator to see a Gothic influence in this musical movie adaptation. Consequently the question arises: Is it there, the Gothic?

Andrew Smith, at least, included The Rocky Horror Picture Show in his list of Gothic texts in Gothic Literature but does not justify it. And Jeffrey Cox asserts in English Gothic Theatre that scholars have identified Gothic elements in the movie, but he as well provides no proof nor even names some of these scholars. As studies about Gothic elements in The Rocky Horror Picture Show are missing it would be an interesting undertaking to proof these statements. The aim of this paper is therefore to find out if the Gothic is actually present in The Rocky Horror Picture Show. This is achieved by working out Gothic elements and their realization in the movie. Thereby the question whether a Gothic influence justifies its declaration as a Gothic movie shall be answered. For this purpose an analysis of the movie’s setting and characters will take place. Gothic elements will be identified by pointing out possible influences of key Gothic writings and allusions to their figures and characters. A subsequent discussion of the Gothic as a genre shall help to solve the question whether The Rocky Horror Picture Show is a Gothic movie or not.

2. Gothic elements

2.1 Gothic setting

The setting in The Rocky Horror Picture Show is recognizably Gothic. The narrator of The Rocky Horror Picture Show introduces the “strange journey” (The Rocky Horror 1975: 10:08) of the young couple Brad Majors and Janet Weiss, which begins “on a late [and dark] November evening” (The Rocky Horror 1975: 10:35). The forest through which they drive is completely dark, the only light that can be seen are the headlights of the car (cf. The Rocky Horror 1975: 11:28f). Darkness is, as David Stevens explains a “[…] generic preference […]” (Stevens 2000: 54) for a Gothic setting. So it is not remarkable that the story, as in many other Gothic texts, plays in winter, the time of year associated with death, when everything seems dark and gloomy. In fact the whole plot of the ‘strange journey’ of Brad and Janet takes place from late evening to the dawn of the next day, an often occurring time span for Gothic fiction[1].

Additionally “there [are] dark storm clouds, heavy, black and pendulous toward which [Janet and Brad are] driving” (The Rocky Horror 1975: 10:50) as the narrator informs us. The following scene after the narrator’s introduction shows then Janet and Brad in their car in the middle of a thunderstorm. Lightning illuminates the scenes various times followed by thunder (The Rocky Horror 1975: 13:33; 13:44; 14:12); the rain is pouring heavily throughout the whole outdoor scene (The Rocky Horror 1975: 11:27-17:44). Thunderstorms and rain are frequently used elements of Gothic literature. They can be found in works by many authors, for example Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher (Poe 2004 [1845]: 212ff), Ann Radcliffe’s The Romance of the Forest (Radcliffe 2009: 3f) or Bram Stoker’s Dracula (Stoker 1994: 95ff). Especially early Gothic writers set their story “[…] against a backdrop of dim, stormy nights […]” (Snodgrass 2005: 158).

The road on which Janet and Brad are driving goes through a forest, another typical element of Gothic fiction (cf. Botting 1996: 2; 11). With these stock elements of the Gothic as starting situation it is not surprising that the next thing that happens is essentially what happens in every horror movie: Janet and Brad reach a dead end and Brad admits that “[they] must have taken the wrong fork a few miles back” (The Rocky Horror 1975: 12:24). They are isolated and lost in the darkness, so that it can be argued that they are in a state called ‘loss of orientation’, a situation, which especially characters of Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories often encounter. But it gets even worse. On this late and stormy evening in the middle of a dark forest their car breaks down as Janet puts it rightly “[…] in the middle of nowhere” (The Rocky Horror 1975: 12:50). The middle of nowhere, the desolate landscape is a popular setting in Gothic literature (cf. Botting 1996: 2).

The castle is “[t]he major locus of Gothic plots […] (Botting 1996: 2) and this is also true for The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Brad remembers that they passed a castle on their way (cf. The Rocky Horror 1975: 12.58) and so they set out in the pouring rain and “[…] the velvet darkness of the blackest night […]” (The Rocky Horror 1975: 14:01) to find a telephone there. In our real world the edifice, referred to as a castle by Brad is a mansion of the 19th century, called Oakley Court, situated in Berkshire (cf. Essential Hotels 2011: n.p.). It is no wonder that this location was chosen to shoot parts of the movie because its Gothic style (cf. Essential Hotels 2011: n.p.) makes it the perfect place for a Gothic setting. According to the official website of Oakley Court, which nowadays functions as a hotel, the mansion is a popular film set for many horror movies including the movie adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Gothic tale Dracula (cf. Essential Hotels 2011: n.p.). Features like the creaking of the door (The Rocky Horror 1975: 17:46), the entrance hall sparely lit and lying half in shadow and the spider webs covering the staircase and furniture (The Rocky Horror 1975: 17:52), the pointed windows typical for Gothic architecture (The Rocky Horror 1975: 18:05) and heavy and dark curtains (The Rocky Horror 1975: 18:17) contribute to the Gothic effect of the building.

Three more little details add to the identification of a Gothic setting in The Rocky Horror Picture Show. First there is the big wooden hall clock in the castle which strikes twelve (cf. The Rocky Horror 1975: 18:35) and which is listed as an important feature for Gothic settings in the Encyclopedia of Gothic Literature (cf. Snodgrass 2005: 159). Secondly, when Riff Raff opens the clock, a skeleton, another “[…] figure of imagined and realistic threats […]” (Botting 1996: 2) used in Gothic literature is revealed. These two elements are again reminiscent of other Gothic writings like Edgar Allan Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death, when “[…] the sounding of midnight upon the clock […]” (Poe 2004 [1842]: 302) leads to the climax of the story, or in Ann Radcliffe’s The Romance of the Forest, when Pierre de la Motte discovers the skeleton in a hidden chamber (Radcliffe 2009: 54).

Lastly, there is a wolf howling in the scenes when Frank N. Furter enters the bedrooms of first Janet and shortly after Brad (cf. The Rocky Horror 1975: 47:21; 50:26). This was identified by Sue Matheson as a Gothic convention used in The Rocky Horror Picture Show (cf. Matheson 2008: 25). And The Rocky Horror Picture Show is indeed not the first movie or text to make use of this motif, but already Bram Stoker gave his Dracula in the same-titled novel the power to control wolves, whose howling is present in several scenes (cf. Stoker 1994: 411; 438; 442).

A young couple on a night out has a car breakdown on a late and stormy evening on a lonely road through an isolated forest and has to seek shelter in an old and Gothic building in the middle of nowhere. Its interior covered by heavy spider webs reveals skeletons when the clock strikes midnight. This already sounds strikingly Gothic and may at once arouse an association with the beginning of a classical horror movie and therefore identifies the setting of The Rocky Horror Picture Show as one of many Gothic elements in this movie.

2.2 “Over at the Frankenstein Place” – The scientist and his monster

Gothic influence in The Rocky Horror Picture Show can also be shown by parallels between the movie and Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein. That the movie is inspired by this classic key Gothic text can indeed hardly be missed and even Wolf Eichler says “[…] The Rocky Horror Picture Show is the latest in a long line of adaptations inspired by the novel Frankenstein […]” (Eichler 1987: n.p.). The song sung by Brad and Janet when they approach the castle already prepares the audience for the Frankenstein allusion, when they specifically refer to it as the “Frankenstein Place” (The Rocky Horror 1975: 14:30). Frankenstein Place is the home of Dr. Frank N. Furter, whose name as well is an obvious reference to Mary Shelley’s character Dr. Frankenstein (cf. Rotondi n.y.: 2). In the on-screen billing he is introduced as “A scientist” (The Rocky Horror 1975: 1:28), a common Gothic motif since the 19th century (cf. Botting 1996: 2), more precisely since Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (cf. Botting 1992: 156), whose protagonist Dr. Frankenstein also is a scientist.


[1] See for instance: Edgar Allan Poe The Cask of Amontillado.


ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Buch)
497 KB
Institution / Hochschule
Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität Bonn – Anglistik
Gothic Rocky Horror

Titel: The Gothic in the movie "The Rocky Horror Picture Show"