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Four decades of a cultural phenomenon

On the evening of Thursday, August 14th, 1975, a cultural bomb exploded in London, England, that is with us to this day and looks set fair to continue for a long time to come.  The film version of the Rocky Horror Picture Show had its first performance – and it’s never looked back.



It’s become the longest-running movie in history: literally, it’s always been playing in a cinema somewhere in the world since that date. No other film in entertainment history can make that claim over so long a period. In fact, RHPS has been called ‘the most iconic cult movie of all time‘.



The film prompted outraged responses from the establishment, whether the latter be entertainment, religious, moral, philosophical or political.  I first saw it in South Africa, where the Publications Control Board took the scissors to it in fanatically self-righteous censorship, excising great chunks of it.  The (in)famous scenes where mad scientist Frank N. Furter seduces, successively, both Brad and Janet were not shown at all in that country, leaving only fragments for the confused audience to infer what had happened.  This made the already confusing movie even more incomprehensible to those of limited and overly delicate sensitivities.



As an author, and (as such) an active participant in at least one aspect of modern culture, I can’t help but ask myself what produces a phenomenon like RHPS.  Why has it been so enduringly successful?  It’s not even a particularly good movie, in terms of quality of production or plot or soundtrack or scenery.  It’s the epitomy of B-movie schlock . . . but it endures, beloved by millions upon millions of fans, who gleefully attend midnight screenings in costume as members of the cast, hurling “toast, water, toilet paper, hot dogs, and rice” at the screen with manic enthusiasm.

I don’t think one can consciously try to create a cultural phenomenon like RHPS.  To become one, something has to speak to the zeitgeist of an age or a place or an event.  I think certain novels about World War II encapsulate the American post-war perspective on that conflict, such as Joseph Heller’s ‘Catch-22‘, Kurt Vonnegut’s ‘Slaughterhouse-Five‘ and Norman Mailer’s ‘The Naked and the Dead‘.  It’s notable that all three authors served during the war, and based their novels on their experiences.  Is such experience necessary to write an iconic novel?  Is it at the root of how a cult following develops?  Does it convey itself through fiction or drama to an audience, drawing them into the experience itself?

How does this apply to speculative fiction, such as (for example) science fiction?  Certain SF novels have generated a cult following, and are widely acknowledged as having started a trend or set new directions.  I’d include among them Robert A. Heinlein’s ‘Starship Troopers‘, Isaac Asimov’s ‘Foundation’ series, and Arthur C. Clarke’s ‘2001: A Space Odyssey‘.  Even people who’ve never read any of those books or watched any of the movies or TV episodes based on them, or which use them as inspiration, have encountered cultural memes derived from them.  Clarke’s ‘HAL‘ has become the epitomy of artificial intelligence gone awry – something about which we’re being warned right now by entrepreneurs and scientists.

What iconic movies or books or other cultural phenomena have you encountered in your life?  What’s ‘set the trend’ for you?  Let us know in Comments.

(This article has also been cross-posted at Bayou Renaissance Man.)

  1. Draven #

    Well the movie version of 2001 requires cult membership just to decipher the ending… 😛

    August 14, 2015
    • We walked out on it midway during the light trip. There were maybe three or four left in the theater. Book was better, but I’m told the book was a novelization. Not sure. OTOH, the novelization of Star Wars was much better than the movie.

      August 14, 2015
      • Reality Observer #

        Re: 2001 – that was more of an exercise in novelizing and screenwriting at the same time.

        In terms of classic movies – “Silent Running” was far better, IMHO, despite it’s truly ridiculous premise.

        August 14, 2015
        • Silent Running was wonderful for its time – the dome separation sequences have yet to be matched technically, and the pull-back shot showing the whole ship was mind-bogling. The movie really broke a lot of new ground.

          August 14, 2015
      • IIRC, Clarke & Kubrick collaborated on the story so the book & movie were created in parallel: one is not based upon the other. Wikipedia probably has the details.

        August 14, 2015
        • lonejanitor #

          Yeah, they were simultaneous. There’s also a separate book with all the alternative endings for it, which were mostly too expensive to shoot, iirc.

          August 14, 2015
  2. John Carpenter’s “Halloween”. I didn’t see it when it came out–my sister did and her reaction so horrified my parents that I was forbidden to go anywhere near it.

    When I did finally see the film, many years later, I was filled with a sense of deja vu nearly to the point of boredom. It took me a while to figure out why, and then I realized that while I hadn’t seen Carpenter’s film, I had seen every single shot in it used by other directors in other films.

    It was not only a film that started a genre, it was a film that typified the genre it created. I remember thinking, “this is all so cliche” and then having to remind myself that it wasn’t when Carpenter made it–he did it first.

    August 14, 2015
    • I don’t know if anyone here will be interested, but here’s a review of the film that does explain a lot about its affect on moviemakers. You might like it:

      August 14, 2015
    • Citizen Kane is the same way. All the marvelous innovations by Welles were cloned into cliches by the movie makers who followed, so that a modern viewer tends to wonder why so many people think it’s the greatest movie ever. You have to remember that Welles invented all those concepts that became cliches.

      August 18, 2015
  3. TRX #

    > Why has it been so enduringly successful?

    I’ll tell you precisely why: because the movie didn’t take itself seriously. It entirely lacked Message, and Criticism, and Snark, and Self-Aware Genuflection to the Genre. Heck, it didn’t even *have* a genre. It was just fun.

    That’s probably why so many people hated it. It didn’t fall into any specific Approved Fun Category, and wrongfun must be stamped out!

    August 14, 2015
  4. All I have is “small world.” A friend in high school told about a relative who dressed up in costume and followed around this strange movie, sometimes acting out the scenes beneath the screen. That was my introduction to The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Before that, a cousin interviewed or worked on a BBC documentary of The Beatles (can’t remember). Later one of the Beatles did a spot for my cousin’s oldies’ show. That was so long ago that my cousin’s retired now.

    The Beatles is the first such phenomenon I remember, followed by Star Trek. I used to be a fan until I was reading a fanzine in the 70’s and thought “They’re taking this way too seriously.” That was before Shatner’s SNL appearance, too.

    To be honest, I don’t get it. I might like a book or movie or group, but it’s still a book or movie or group. There’s a point where it seems like this goes overboard.

    August 14, 2015
  5. “Boy Bands” in pop music, starting with New Kids on the Block. There had been earlier groups (like Menudo, and gospel, and the Osmands), but NKotB started the mess that led to Backstreet Boys, One Direction and whatever the 12-16 year old girls are swooning and squeeing over this week. (No, I don’t care for them, never have.)

    August 14, 2015
    • I should add that I suspect that’s where the other “produced” groups like Celtic Thunder and Celtic Women came from, at least in terms of production styles and packaging.

      August 14, 2015
      • It’s way older than that. C&W used packaging back when the Grand Old Oprey was in the Ryman Auditorium. Nor was it restricted to C&W. IIRC, The Beatle’s manager discovered them working German dives, suggested some changes, and the rest is history.

        August 14, 2015
  6. My personal cult film was Buckaroo Bonzai Beyond the 8th Dimension. With Peter Weller and John Lithgow, it thrilled me with it’s bizarre language and doodads. Throughout the 80s my brother and I made it our New Year’s Eve party and if people didn’t like it, tough. Found it on DVD in a remainder bin and have resurrected the practice.

    August 14, 2015
    • So you understand the secret of the watermelon! The Buckaroo Bonzai DVD has the best special features I’ve ever found on any disc.

      Still waiting for Buckaroo Bonzai versus the World Crime League. 😦

      August 14, 2015
    • sabrinachase #

      Me too! Made even more fun by the fact I was a physics student at the time. I have been in basements like the one with the watermelon. And the flaming filing cabinet. The concept of going on tour to raise research funds made *so much sense*. 😀 Plus, it is nearly as quotable as Princess Bride. “I am a diplomat! I failed flight school!”

      August 14, 2015
      • scott2harrison #

        And they actually showed realistic use of Duc-Tape in the lab. It looked like actual labs at my University.

        August 14, 2015
  7. Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard #

    I think you have to be a certain type of crazy to enjoy RHPS. I may be crazy but not that type of crazy. [Smile]

    Oh, Your Mileage May Vary definitely applies here. [Smile]

    August 14, 2015
  8. Wayne Borean aka The Mad Hatter #

    Thunderbirds. I tear up every time I hear the theme music.
    Star Trek (the original only)
    The Prisoner
    Casino Royale (the Sixties film)
    Rocky Horror Picture Show
    Life on Mars (BBC version)
    The Sopranos
    The Lensman series

    I could go on. There’s been so much really fantastic stuff that I could sit here all day…

    August 14, 2015
  9. A lot of movies have given us lines that evoke whole concepts. Which I will probably misquote. 🙂 “I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore” and “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.” Are the first ones I recall. The Princess Bride is stuffed with them, Star Wars, Star Trek.

    “Do or do not. There is no try.” “Live Long and Prosper.” “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

    August 14, 2015
    • TRX #

      > “Do or do not. There is no try.”

      I bristled at that when I saw the movie at the theater.

      It boils down to “if there’s any chance of failure, don’t even bother.”

      Probably why Yoda was hiding in a swamp instead of taking on the Empire. It’s easy to talk big when you’re browbeating some farmboy.

      August 15, 2015
  10. “The nearest equivalent is the culture around the post-50s decadent-psychotic era of homemaking magazines when Woman’s Day would show you how to make, like, shirred herring salad in the shape of an igloo on the rim of a lake of blue Jell-O. And for good reason: these distant scenes are both, at heart, about the ephemeral art of throwing parties. The eight-layer raisin-pineapple compote carousel and the foamcore Skull Fortress of the Hate Toad will both be gutted in 40 minutes, but right now it’s fun and right now it’s weird and that’s a party. And when it’s dead you spend a week planning the next one.” — Zak Smith on D&D

    Every showing of RHPS is a party. When I first heard of it, it was because the cool kids were all going to see it and they talked about how crazy it was dressing up and throwing stuff at the screen. Anyone not in on it was immediately jealous. Half of the people going were not in any way the target audience of the film or the cult that sprang up around it, but you don’t have to twist peoples’ arms to get them to go have a good time at that sort of social event.

    August 14, 2015
  11. Going with a girl to RHPS was my very first date. Then, later, I took the girl who would become She Who Must Be Obeyed to RHPS as our first date. We went to RHPS on our wedding night. One of our ‘friends’ stood up at the wedding scene and announced that we were newlyweds. Everyone in the theater pelted us with their rice.

    Other favorites – Better Off Dead, Fantastic Planet, Forbidden Planet, Remo Williams, Wizards, Ice Pirates, Excalibur, Kelly’s Heroes, Ed Wood, Highlander (there was only one), Lake Placid, Drop Dead Gorgeous, Starship Troopers, Super Troopers, Hot Fuzz, …

    August 14, 2015
  12. Angus Trim #

    Of course there’s always “Make my Day”. That was so iconic in the early eighties that a sitting president used it.

    August 14, 2015
  13. Albert #

    The zeitgeist of 70s counter-culture? That would be “Yay for sex predators!”, correct?

    Les Miserables has some cultural staying power. And I’m not sure if it counts, but up until Enterprise and the reboot movies, Star Trek respected the scale of interstellar distances in a way that is rarely seen on screen.

    Interview With A Vampire certainly has a lot to answer for in terms of diverting far too many potential geeks(of both genders) into the gaping void of pretentiousness that is vampire role-play.

    August 14, 2015
  14. Angus Trim #

    There are a lot of iconic movies of the eighties that have left an impact on certain parts of our culture {or subcultures if you prefer}. “Dirty Harry”, “The Wrath of Khan”, the three Star War flicks, “Lethal Weapon”, etc.

    The thing about western culture, is we’ve split into several sub-cultures. What resonates for some folks doesn’t register for others.

    August 14, 2015
    • TRX #

      That, and most Americans identify with more with one subculture.

      August 17, 2015
  15. carlton mckenney #

    I suggest that “Death Wish” with Charles Bronson is still being produced with new sets,stars, and title but same movie.

    August 14, 2015
  16. Uncle Lar #

    What well read military man has not read Starship Troopers? It’s right up there along side the works of Kipling near to a soldier’s heart.
    On the other hand, in his memoirs Heinlein expressed great puzzlement and annoyance at the odd worshipful hippy types who would show up unannounced at Casa Heinlein to meet and talk to the author of Stranger in a Strange Land.

    August 14, 2015
  17. For me, it was a bunch of television shows. We didn’t see much in the way of movies. But The Night Stalker—it was the first (and only) television show I was willing to fight to watch. Frankly, I think a whole bunch of modern journalists also grew up on Carl Kolchak and his unique brand of maverick credulity. Then there was Bewitched. What was really interesting to me about Bewitched is that Darrin Stephens was almost always right, but the directors and writers didn’t realize it. Their neighbors were on massive drugs solely because Samantha could not stop treating humans like pets—even to the point of turning one into the other at various points. What was amazing was that the moral was almost always something like, you should have enjoyed it when Samantha used her massive powers to force humans to act the way she thinks they should act.

    And then, the Rockford Files. Like Kolchack and Vincenzo, I never could quite understand why Dennis and Jim remained friends, but I suspect it had something to do with the manliness of the show.

    Later there would be the A-Team, Remington Steele, and Yes, Minister/Prime Minister. But those three earlier shows formed what I expected television to be: wise-cracking, out there, and misunderstood.

    August 14, 2015
    • My favorite character in Bewitched has always been Endora. I use to love watching her play her pranks on Darrin. I got the dvd set a few years back and settled back to watch. As season one progressed into season two I started to notice something – everything she was doing to Darrin was to prove to Samantha that he wasn’t good enough. Never mind that Sam was (best guess) over 200 years old, {she did say something about being around during the Salem Witch trials.} her mother was trying protect her. That light dawning changed how I saw the character. Instead of the witch of a mother-in-law that Darrin sees, I have come to see the loving mother and grandmother. (Okay, she does have a wicked sense of humor)

      August 14, 2015
      • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard #

        When watching Bewitched, I always wondered “why are the Witches hiding from non-Witches”?

        We never see any of the Witches actually in danger from non-Witches. [Puzzled Smile]

        August 14, 2015
        • I always figured that it was a hold over from the dark days of the witch trials. It’s probably habit by now.

          August 14, 2015
          • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard #

            I would *not* want to be the Witch Hunters who went up against the Witches of Bewitched.

            Those Witches have Real Power so the Witch Hunters would “quickly get their minds changed”.

            To be blunt, those witches have god-like power. No “mortal” could harm them.

            August 14, 2015
            • Neither would I. Even Tabitha could swat us like a fly by the end of the show.

              IIRC, Sam was concerned about being seen using magic, but I don’t think Endora was as worried and Serina wasn’t much better. -grin- And Arthur, who could tell, he was too busy pulling pranks. -laugh-

              August 14, 2015
        • I don’t think they’re hiding so much as literally living in different worlds.

          August 14, 2015
        • In one episode, involving a Tibetan herb, it was established that Tibetans had developed it to drive out witches, and it worked.

          Another premise involved that not all witches and warlocks were adept at magic. The very first episode shows Samantha having difficulties with magic, something that was dropped but did much to explain her attraction to a mortal.

          There were, of course, the expected plot holes and things not addressed. There were only a few witches and warlocks. Why?

          Maybe it was my youth at the time, but the problems didn’t seem as pronounced as (shudder) The Wizards of Waverly Place, which for some reason the kids liked. They’d get real annoyed when I’d point out that, by the premise of the show, magic was decreasing or they wouldn’t restrict it to one wizard per family.

          August 14, 2015
          • Ravenshrike #

            No, magic was limited. The system in WWP could be looked as a more humane version of Nasuverse magic, where all magics capable of being performed in some way non-magically become less effective the more people there are performing them. Since the human population is increasing and not all magicals marry magicals and ability to perform magic is genetic (presumably, I don’t think it’s specified on the show) with magic is a finite resource than limiting the user to one person per family would be the only way to keep it usable. Although depending on potential magic user growth rate that would be a stopgap measure at best.

            August 14, 2015
    • TRX #

      I only got to see a few episodes on TV, but we’re working our way through the Rockford DVD set now.

      The first few episodes, Rockford was the typical Chandler/Marlowe/Spillane PI. Then he morphed into the Rockford I knew. If he got in a fight, he usually lost. He had to borrow money from his Dad for gas. His friends were often indistinguishable from enemies. He made bad decisions out of pride. His smart mouth got him into trouble. He never worked directly when he could con someone. He was the anti-PI.

      We went through the Perry Mason DVD set a few years ago. I’d watched many of those as a child; watching them as an adult… Mason had no hesitation about lying to police, destroying or altering evidence, or suborning witnesses. I’m not sure if it was just different times, or the scriptwriters were just taking the easy way out or didn’t care, or if Perry Mason TV character was *supposed* to be that shady…

      August 15, 2015
  18. The Princess Bride has some absolutely terrific lines. I like the movie better than the book.

    Firefly has a huge cult following and some great lines as well. I’m not sure how widespread into the rest of the populace it’s become though.

    The Harry Potter series, both book and movie, are possibly the most widespread cultural phenomena of recent years.

    August 14, 2015
    • Uncle Lar #

      “I aim to misbehave” has certainly propagated itself into the conservative/libertarian arena. And I know a lot of fans of Captain Mal’s response to the agent holding a hostage at gunpoint. Not to mention his treatment of the big angry lug who refused to negotiate.

      August 14, 2015
    • TRX #

      I’ve listened to all the episodes of Firefly. Someday I hope someone will come up with some “software steadicam” I can pipe the AVI files through so I can see them.

      Most video after the mid-1990s is too spastic for me to watch.

      August 17, 2015
  19. Holly #

    I don’t see anyone mentioning original Star Wars. I think it’s the music, myself, but then being a musician, I pick up on music. But anywhere I play the Imperial March people laugh, ‘Oh, the Darth Vader music’, and drop tips in my hat. So there’s something about Star Wars.

    I had a request for the Firefly theme last gig, and unfortunately didn’t have it ready. I need to go look it up; I hope it works on ‘cello. A couple young ladies of college years.

    August 14, 2015
    • What, this?

      August 14, 2015
    • Well, the Imperial March is a staple of high school and college football these days. Now, I’ve always been partial to that song played by the cantina band.

      I wrote many a term paper while listening to the sound track of the first movie, so much so I ended up having to buy a second album.

      August 14, 2015
  20. Enemy Mine

    August 14, 2015
    • The novella or the movie?

      August 14, 2015
      • I forgot: add Resevoir Dogs to the list. I actually saw it after Pulp Fiction, but it was Tarantino’s first.
        It didn’t start a genre, but R. E. D. is a family favorite. My family believes I’m the John Malkovich character. They also believe I’m the John Goodman character on The Big Lebowski, though.

        August 14, 2015
      • The Movie. I haven’t had a chance to get my hands on the novella.

        August 16, 2015
  21. Princess Bride is one of the books and movies that sort of defines my family.
    The Big Lebowski isn’t EXACTLY in the same class as the other trend setters, but I watch it a lot.
    Same thing with Pulp Fiction.
    And also Boondock Saints.
    Very personally, as in I may be the only one who experiences this, Saving Private Ryan was the first time I even got close to understanding the cost paid to save civilization. I was born just 8 years to the month that Germany surrendered, and grew up thinking it was all Sgt. Rock. A couple of years ago, I sat next to a little old man at the pain clinic. Guy was in his 80’s, not quite feeble, but nowhere near spry. Little bitty guy, not much over five feet tall, weighed maybe 140 pounds, big thick glasses. I glanced down, and the tattoo of the 82 Airborne Division on his left forearm caught my eye. He was part of D-Day. Sweet little old man, just waiting to be seen by the doc. I touched history when I shook his hand and thanked him.

    August 14, 2015
    • My adopted grandfather (looong story) jumped D-day, Market Garden, and Wesel (501st). He says the opening of S.P.R. is the closest thing he’s seen to the chaos and confusion of D-day.

      He’s the one that took me up onto Currahee to get an oak sapling. On the opening day of deer season. About the time the city dudes were really getting buck fever. We should have planned that a little better. 😛

      August 14, 2015
  22. Luke #

    As the graffiti says: “Frodo lives!”
    Narnia, of course. The first two Shannara books. The Beligariad. Discworld. Amber.
    Star Wars, The Princess Bride, and Dirty Harry are also up there.
    Moonlighting on TV.

    August 14, 2015
  23. Laura M #

    Star Trek, Star Wars, and Atlas Shrugged were mine.

    August 16, 2015
  24. Since this thread is still generating SOME notice, I want to add this, and can without feeling like I’m being overly irritating:
    I just discovered this new art form called Hit Record. It’s been going for four years, but what brought it to my attention (I who am a deliberate contemporary culture refugee) is a contact from a friend who is an artist, and right after that an email from Netflix. The Netflix variant is called “Hit Record on TV,” and it is a project started by actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt. I know of nothing else which has attempted this: they crowd-source every performance. Not the funding, the performance itself. I’ve only see a few of them, and the RESULT is better than okay, but the PROCESS by which they arrive at the result is the real attention-getter. Joe tosses out an idea, concept, word, and the entire world responds with something creative, and interacts while doing it. For example, the first episode on Netflix is about “1.” And people just free associate creatively on that, and a show is pulled together from what has been submitted, redone, reworked, consolidated. And here’s a collaborative song they came up with from the ‘1’ episode:

    August 17, 2015
  25. I’m shocked that no one here has mentioned quite possibly the three greatest movies of all time:

    Big Trouble In Little China
    They Live

    (in that order)

    August 17, 2015

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