Contents Index

In the Romantic Tradition: Frankenstein and The Rocky Horror Picture Show

Wolf Eichler

In Beyond the Suburbs of the Mind: Exploring English Romanticism: Papers Delivered at the Mannheim Symposium in Honour of Hermann Fischer, ed. Michael Gassenheimer and Norbert H. Platz (Essen: Blaue Eule, 1987).

{95} Wrapping the Romantic tradition in contemporary dress, The Rocky Horror Picture Show is the latest in a long line of adaptations inspired by the novel Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus. Even if there has never yet been a really satisfactory film version of Mary Shelley's classic of 1818, the 1974 film based on Richard O'Brien's stage play must be rated as an exceptionally intelligent and evocative variation on a modern myth that has continued to fascinate readers, and theatre and cinema audiences for over 150 years. The theme has two basic components, each of which has its own fascination: firstly, the Promethean element, which in Romantic terms would denote the unconditional extension of man's knowledge without any regard for the consequences; secondly, the Doppelgänger motif, the fundamental myth of man as a duality, with the dark side of the self in all its sexuality, aggression etc. assuming its own independent form. Both elements are obsessions of western civilisation -- "archetypes" as Charles Lamb called the Doppelgänger as long ago as 1823.1

{96} The components of Faustian striving and invoked spirits going out of control have become, through Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, a metaphor that for our age has taken on an increasingly menacing significance. Webster's Dictionary of 1971 defines the name as follows: "a work, or agency that proves troublesomely uncontrollable, esp. to its creator". The original thrust of the novel against man's presumptuous imitation of God has gradually faded, along with its religious frame of reference. But the aggression, the suppressed sexuality, and the asocial components that permeate the novel have grown in importance, and these constitute a dynamic counterthrust made especially vivid through the optical medium of the RHPS. Although both works (Frankenstein and RHPS) deal with the same obsessions, they are both unmistakably the products of their time. While Mary Shelly uses the Doppelgänger to represent the Thanatos aspect of the libido (and indeed reveals no other side of the libido), the modern film uses the currently accepted trinity of the psyche in order to depict the tensions between man's view of himself and his actual being. Mary Shelley's novel demonstrates that the concept of the individual is untenable; with Victor and the monster she drives it into absurdity. The concept of the 'individual' replaced that of 'character' but in turn was soon relieved by the idea of the 'subject' which branched out into various instances and, by the end of the 19th century, had linked up with an area of knowledge whose roots lay back in the Middle Ages and its morality plays as well as in the psychomachia, but which had been glossed over by the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. Romantic interest in the Gothic concerns those elements shut out by the Enlightenment -- the darker side of man, the strange, the ungraspable, the unsayable, the terrifying.

In the age of English Romanticism, interest in man's second self expressed itself not only through the illustration of archetypal obsessions by way of fictional Middle Ages, but also in Utopian fantasies which appeared to be based on a kind of sentimental reasoning though in fact they aimed primarily at pleasure. Coleridge's and Southey's project of a pantisocracy is a famous example. In the beautiful Susquehanna Valley in America they wanted to practise their idyllic philosophy, although of course their dream never came true.

The prefaces written by Percy B. Shelley and later Mary Shelley herself speak of the innovatory character of the narrative and of the dissolving of identity as a {97} new heuristic approach whose aim is to give expression to hitherto inexpressible human passions. The daring construction of a dual being, Victor Frankenstein and the monster, ends in both of them being destroyed, and Victor's hybris in raising the boundaries of Nature by creating his own man finally reveals itself to be an impracticable attempt to extend his own boundaries.

The RHPS embodies this approach in the character of Frank N. Furter, the superhero who announces the extraterrestrial programme of the new man, open to polymorphous pleasures. "Don't dream it, be it" (p. 29)2, he urges.

The action combines Utopias of the past and the future in that it sets extraterrestrial beings from the galaxy of Transylvania, in a medieval castle. To this place, guided by the hand of Fate, come two irreproachable young Americans -- one male, one female -- and they are to be shown the creation of an artificial being, while they themselves are to experience the complete range of human relations, in the form of hetero-, homo-, bi- and finally trans-sexuality. But even these forms of behaviour can not result in a permanent erasing of boundaries. This is clear from the end of the film, where Frank N. Furter surrounds himself with various androgynous Doppelgänger of himself, to enjoy an orgy in the swimming pool. The film comments ironically on the action by making the pool a mosaic of Michelangelo's Creation of Adam, and having the superhero at the end of the party wearing a life belt from the Titanic. These visual allusions undermine Frank N. Furter's foreground triumph by drawing attention to man's inherent helplessness. Like the novel, the film ends with the destruction both of creator and of creature.

The film and the novel are comparable through the Doppelgänger theme, the density of the allusions to other books and films, and also the sexually motivated escapist theme.


{98} Mary Shelley's Frankenstein appeared in 1818, published by Lackington as part of a series of cheap shockers. As many critics have shown, the novel has its faults, but just like Bram Stoker's Dracula (still shamefully neglected by literary historians) it has become one of the best-sellers of all time. Critical reaction was mainly negative. The Edinburgh Review says "that our taste and our judgment alike revolt at this kind of writing, and the greater the ability with which it may be executed the worse it is -- it in calculates no lesson of conduct".3 Of subsequent, more positive reviews, the most important is that of Sir Walter Scott, who was not alone in suspecting that the real author was Shelley himself, as seemed to be suggested by the bold atheism of the content.4 Stylistic and grammatical defects continually pointed out by the critics led to Percy and Mary revising the 1818 edition, and that of 1831 is the one known today. The two most significant changes are that Frankenstein's financée is no longer called his cousin but his friend, thus dispelling the suspicion of an incestuous relationship, while Frankenstein's father -- originally a scientist -- becomes a businessman in the 1831 version. This lessens the extent to which Victor is able to lay blame on his father for not preventing him from reading the alchemists. Chevalier was commissioned to illustrate the new edition, and his view of the laboratory has greatly influenced the sets of modern film versions: there is always a long, narrow room with a high ceiling and huge windows, together with an array of alchemical apparatus, skulls etc. Mary Shelley herself gave no detailed description of the laboratory, but remained strikingly vague about all aspects of the setting and the act of creation.

The narrative technique of the novel is marked by a kind of stratification, with the Doppelgängerei of first person narrators. On the first level we have the letters, in which the North Pole explorer Walton informs his sister about his research, which is meant to confirm the paradisiac nature of the polar landscape. The second level comprises the report given by Victor Frankenstein to Walton, who {99} has rescued him from the ice. Victor tells him about his endeavours to create an artificial man, in the hope that he then becomes famous as a benefactor to mankind. On the third level we have the narrative of the creature himself. Without a name, denigrated by Victor as demon, enemy or monster, he discusses with his master the torment of having to find his way in a world for which he has been made too huge and too ugly. It turns out that this fault cannot be rectified even by the creature's own passionate search for a solution, as he observes an ordinary family (de Lacey) -- himself functioning in a dark room as a camera obscura -- or reads the great works of world literature in order to derive moral patterns from them (in particular, Plutarch's Lives, Milton's Paradise Lost, and Goethe's Die Leiden des jungen Werther).

Mary Shelley multiplies the narrative perspectives so that they may be related in such a way that they reflect ironically, indeed even sarcastically, on one another, as well as enhancing the effect of the central motif of the novel, which is man's impossible desire to extend and perfect himself through others -- as evinced here by Victor.

No doubt influenced by her 16 hours of reading a day, Mary Shelley set her story in what J. Kristeva might call intertextual space.5 A further influence was certainly her wide-ranging literary discussions with Shelley himself, Godwin, Byron etc. Critics have already dealt comprehensively with all the influences6, and although they may be relevant to the aesthetic side of a production, their effect on reception -- as pointed out by Stierle's criticism of Kristeva7 -- is very limited. For the effect of intertextuality on a work's reception must obviously depend on the reader's knowledge of the texts referred to, and so a contemporary reader will clearly be in the best position to supply the background invoked by the author. The more time that elapses between creation and reading, the more texts will have interposed themselves between work and {100} reader -- a fact that becomes all the more significant for RHPS since so many texts, plays and films have now erected a background that is bound to give a new appearance to the author's subject-matter. It is in fact philologically possible to recreate something of the background that would have been supplied by the contemporary reader of Frankenstein, but from the point of view of reception, the only relevant aspects are those existing texts referred to in the novel itself. The background is established by direct quotations (e.g. from Coleridge's Ancient Mariner and Milton's Paradise Lost), allusions (e.g. Edmund Burke's list of terrifying objects8 in connection with the gruesome images that occur in Frankenstein's dream after he has created the monster), and the repetition of current narrative patterns such as 'virtue in distress', exotic tale and gothic tale, and the educational novel. It is particularly these conventions that ensured ready absorption and acceptance to a degree that borders on trivialty. Such a charge, however, soon fades on a second reading, which reveals that these conventions are in fact thoroughly undermined: domesticity offers no security, virtue no reward, and education no orientation.9 The old values are invoked, and found to be wanting. The manner of their destruction gives the reader a clear view of their duality in relation to the characters who are seeking to apply them and thereby perfect themselves.

The centre point of the novel is the act of creating an artificial man. How this is done remains vague, but the effects of the deed on Victor are made crystal clear. Immediately afterwards he has a dream which leads him back from his escapist act of creation to his own unconscious motives: in this dream he kisses his beloved step-sister Elisabeth, and her features then turn into those of his dead mother; he finds himself holding a corpse in his arms (compare Manfred speaking of Astarte: "But my embrace was fatal").10 The object of his desire is, so to speak, doubled, and so too is his desire itself, for it is a mixture of libido and thanatos. Victor wakes up in a panic and sees his creature looking at him. His {101} fear is boundless, and he falls into a fit of insanity during which he remains for six months, incapable of perceiving the outside world (p. 323).11 He cannot rid himself of the idea that this creature embodies the dark side of himself. Like the Ancient Mariner, whom he quotes, he sees himself as one who knows that a "frightful fiend doth close behind him tread" (p. 320). The creature desires to be loved and accepted, despite his ugliness, but Victor rejects him and so releases the aggression dormant in the creature, who now proceeds to attack and destroy everything that Victor loves. By so doing he vividly presents Victor's asocial life as a scientist as actual and complete isolation. The fusion of desire and death becomes especially vivid when Victor, instead of marrying Elisabeth, allows the monster to murder her. The description of Elisabeth lying dead on the bed with the monster in the background has become an icon scene in all the film versions.

The interweaving of motive and execution, of cause and effect, is so consistent that the relation between Victor and his creature cannot be described causally but is conveyed, rather, through the gnostic idea that the latter is always present in the former. Victim and persecutor are inextricably linked as Doppelgänger, perform comparable actions, and often share similar characteristics (e.g. their eloquence, which is made a theme in itself). But they do not see themselves as parts of a complex -- the reader alone is able to stand far enough away to detect the unity, as is often curiously evinced by the fact that so many readers give the name of 'Frankenstein' to the monster.

This is not the place to go into the psychoanalytical interpretation of Frankenstein's "Oedipus complex"12 or of the "paternal birth" of the creature deriving from Mary Shelley's fear of having children.13 But in relation to the psyche of the creature, it would seem justifiable to read him sui generis and see in him the first fictional child unable to complete his family history, to discover his origins and to establish his own identity. He has been patched together from different parts of different, unknown bodies, and in this respect he is the {102} grotesque forerunner of present-day biotechnology, which creates beings from test tubes, frozen sperms, and surrogate mothers. He is rootless, as he was deprived of love even from the very moment of "conception".14

Victor's Promethean act clearly contains a degree of sexual fear and misogyny. In the novel, the only relation between the sexes consists in love between brother and sister (twice) and the kindly protection of the angelic girl by the goodhearted old man (several instances). Victor never expresses any sexual desire, and he frustrates that of the monster by destroying the female creature he has begun to build; he also allows the women of his household to be killed -- Elisabeth and Justine, and his effeminate friend (Mary Shelley emphasizes the latter's female appeareance and also Victor's suppression of Clerval's devoted nursing in his letter to Elisabeth). All three narrators clearly do have a very strong erotic desire, but this is permanently rationalised by Victor, the creature, and also Walton, (who after being disappointed by a ship's officer turns his attentions to Victor). Both in Victor and the monster, eroticism is transmuted into murderous action.


The novel was soon accepted for the stage, and Mary herself was able to attend a production of Presumption, or the Fate of Frankenstein. Between 1823 and 1826 London, Paris and New York saw theatrical versions, often parodies of the theme under the titles Frankenstitch (with the main character a monster that had been patched together with needle and thread from nine different corpses), Frank-n-Steam, and Frank-n-Stein or the Modern Promise to Pay (a logical forerunner of Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein). The fusion of the Frankenstein theme with the myth of Pygmalion has already been made clear by many critics, {103} as has the link between the monster and other superhuman figures (richly exploited by more recent Frankenstein films) such as Faust and the Vampire in the play The Devil Among the Players.

Typically, the audiences of such plays were more impressed by the monster than by Victor, whose role was generally seen as secondary. Cooke, who played the part of the monster 365 times in seven years, was designated "Lord Frankenstein" by Punch magazine.15 Similar popularity was enjoyed by Polidori's novel The Vampyre, which between 1819 and 1830 enjoyed no less than five different theatre adaptations. The 1920s and 1930s saw a remarkable parallel through the popularity of Dracula and Frankenstein films. Despite various shifts in emphasis, the final vision of destruction remained the same and was simply transferred to the present day. In the early theatre versions the monster died in an avalanche, a church fire or the crater of a volcano; a film version of the 1950s has him killed by an atomic bomb. -- Perhaps the most famous stage version of all was Peggy Webling's, which had its London premiere in 1927 and formed the basis of James Whale's classic film of 1931. In addition to the many film versions there have been several stage adaptations, of which the 1973 Rocky Horror Show is one of the most recent.

There have been well over 30 film and television versions of Frankenstein in the last decades, but none can truly claim any sort of authenticity in relation to the novel. The filming of a literary work is a difficult task, not least because the reading process stimulates the imagination while the theatre and cinema audience is approached by way of its senses. According to Sartre, imagination and perception are the two irreducible and mutually exclusive potencies of the mind.16 It is therefore inevitable that what is taken out of the book and presented on stage or screen must undergo a transformation. And what applies to this act of production must also apply to the act of reception. Our attitude towards the imaginary object is a kind of quasi-observation which cannot take us beyond what we already know. Generally our view of it is indistinct and hazy, never {104} exceeding the bounds of our conscious intentions. But the richness of the perceived object continually transcends our consciousness.

The positive gain17 which the text undergoes when filmed is, however, counterbalanced by a loss, for at the moment of perception, the spectator is expected to lose his own imaginary picture. For the committed reader this becomes a major problem, since he is asked to adopt the director's own subjective vision at the expense of his own. This 'take-over' by an outside mind impinges on the freedom enjoyed by the internalising act of reading. This, however, in no way justifies imposing a linear structure on a novel for the sake of a film version, and in principle it may be said that all novels are capable of cinematic adaptation. Simplification of a story is due less to the restrictions of the new medium than to [the] producer's idea as to what the public wants.

Whale's 1931 classic film version with Boris Karloff was based on Peggy Webling's stage play and often gives the impression of being a piece of filmed theatre. This is particularly so at the beginning, when Dr. Waldmann (Victor's teacher at the University of Ingolstadt) steps out in front of the curtain and warns the audience that they are about to see something that may shock them. (This technique, incidentally, is also used in the stage version of the Rocky Horror Show, through the person of a criminologist who is also a commentator.)

Many of the filmed versions actually refer to one another, which presupposes the audience's accumulative awareness of the material. Whale's film ends with the monster dying in a burning windmill. And so for the sequel, The Bride of Frankenstein, it was necessary to begin with a long sequence in which Mary Shelley told her husband and Lord Byron that in fact the monster did not die in a burning windmill but actually fell into an underground cistern and is still alive. In this film, which was well received by the critics, the monster does finally die by blowing up the laboratory with himself and his bride in it. This, however, by no means ended the Frankenstein story. It continued through Son of Frankenstein and The Ghost of Frankenstein, and the inexhaustibility of the myth also permitted it to be linked to other stories as in the plays of the 1820s. Films now brought together Frankenstein and the Werewolf or, as in the House of Dracula, one of {105} the most recent "serious" treatments of the subject, a whole host of strange characters. The inextinguishable nature of the metaphor is strikingly mirrored by the title of a 1969 film: Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed. Even this did not put an end to the series, despite its emphasis on blood and brutality -- exceeded only by the would-be satirical Flesh for Frankenstein, a 1974 production of dubious taste, ennobled in the USA with the title Andy Warhol's Frankenstein.

'Frankenstein satires' began in 1948 with Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, which contains all the visual ingredients of the horror film (remote castle, laboratory, dark cellars etc.) but whose dialogue is one long string of gags. Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein is another brilliant satire, based on collaboration between Brooks and Gene Wilder, and starting out not so much from Mary Shelley's novel as from previous Frankenstein films, in particular Whale's. Thus, for instance, the monster's scars are replaced by zip fasteners, and the scene in which the monster spends some time with the little girl at the edge of the pond (a scene which in the 1931 version was heavily cut, to the disadvantage of the monster) takes on a new dimension in Brooks' version when the little girl asks what else they could throw into the water, and the monster proceeds to look directly and significantly at the camera.

The fact that the Frankenstein theme is capable of such humorous variants may certainly be attributed to the changes in reception that have taken place over the last 150 years. The demonic element of the subject has been downgraded to the cliché of "the mad scientist", while the Rousseau-like educational elements of the novel lend themselves particularly well to parody.


The premiere of the musical The Rocky Horror Show took place in London in 1973. Text and music were by Richard O'Brien, who also directed the show. It was nominated best musical of the year, and there followed a film version (directed by Jim Sharman) under the title The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which {106} was first screened in New York in 1976. To an even greater extent than the stage version, the film refers to and parodies past horror and science fiction films. The basic theme of the musical is society's old fear of sexual deviation. The film paints this attitude with broad strokes, but with its substantial element of science fiction it takes on a highly imaginative character, as well as being provided with a narrative framework which always highlights the moral message.

For the sake of those who are not familiar with the The Rocky Horror Show there follows a short summary of the plot, which is not meant to convey any impression of the film itself, but will serve as a guide for the detailed description of techniques and effects upon which we are to embark.

After attending the wedding of friends, the stolid and hard-working Brad Major proposes to his equally conventional girl-friend Janet. The two of them then go to see Dr. Scott, their former teacher, but on the way during the night they run into a storm. Luckily they come across an old ruin, some way off the country road, where there is a light burning. It turns out that this is the yearly gathering of the Transylvanians -- a transsexual assembly of extra terrestrials who have mingled with human beings in order to gain knowledge from the encounter. The society in which Brad and Janet now find themselves is bizarre to say the least. The strange impression is reinforced when the man (or lady) of the house comes on the scene: Frank N. Furter, head of the Transsylvanians on Earth, reveals himself/herself as someone who wears make-up, suspenders and sexy underclothes, and has come to earth mainly to indulge in his/her own predilections. To the assembled gathering Frank presents his masterpiece, the artificial being Rocky Horror, a modern Frankenstein monster with good looks and a fine set of muscles, who reacts, however, with a show of terror at the sight of his lascivious creator. The musical rocker Eddie now arrives -- a big and brutal motorbike freak to whom Frank had preciously been attracted and from whom he has taken half the brain to use on Rocky. Frank kills the intruder with an ice pick. Soon afterwards, Brad and Janet find themselves in separate bedrooms. By imitating each partner's voice Frank succeeds in sleeping with each of them, and introduces both young innocents to such pleasures as they had never dreamed of. Next, Dr. Scott comes on the scene, also at night, in search of his lost nephew Eddie. Frank and the Transsylvanians think that he is a government {107} agent, and invite him to a feast. Too late the guests realize that the meat they are eating is part of Eddie. Riff-Raff and Magenta, for whom Frank's activities have long been a thorn in the side, kill their master with a ray gun and announce that the Transsylvanians's time on earth is at an end. Brad, Janet and Dr. Scott are free to leave the old castle. While they are groping their way through the impenetrable mists, disorientated in two senses, since they have now tasted "forbidden fruit", the ruins of the castle take off as a space ship in the direction of the stars.

The plot of the The Rocky Horror Picture Show is quite tightly constructed, in comparison with the many musicals that are built round the music and virtually cease to exist without it, and its highly stylised mode of narration sets it on a par with such musicals as Cabaret, Jesus Christ Superstar, Tommy and A Hard Day's Night.

The film begins with a heavily made-up female mouth against a black background, while a male voice (that of author O'Brien) sings the introductory song "Science Fiction, Double Feature". This harks back to the old days, when cinemas always showed two films for the price of one. Here, though, the RHPS is offering double pleasure for the price of one in that its story is twofold: "Dr. X will build a creature (and) See the Androids fighting . . . Brad and Janet". This announcement is part of a litany of horror and science fiction film titles, with the heroes of such films viewed as belonging to a consistent pattern. For instance, Michael Rennie in The Day the Earth Stood Still reports that Flash Gordon -- hero of a 1936-40 series -- wore silver underwear, and that Claude Rains played the eponymous hero of The Invisible Man. A character from The Night of the Demon uses runic powers to save a character from The Day of the Triffids from becoming a victim of man-eating plants. The song invokes filmic archives which, as we shall see, are exploited by such reshaping techniques as substitution, addition, subtraction, and transmutation.

This first song also interweaves its own story:

Then something went wrong
For Fay Wray and King Kong
They got caught in a celluloid jam
Then at a deadly pace
{108} It came from outer space
And this is how the message ran
Dr. X will build a creature
See Androids fighting. -- Brad and Janet (p. 1)
We do not learn exactly what went wrong in the strange relationship between the monster ape and his pet girl, but the song suggests that there was a technical hitch: "they got caught in a celluloid jam", which presumably means that the film got trapped in the projector. This could well result in fold upon fold of film -- an image perfectly appropriate for the manner in which the song superimposes one theme upon another. The fact that the image occurs in connections with King Kong and Fay Wray is not altogether coincidental, since the monster's animal desire acts as a background for all the other tales mentioned. The significance of this background becomes apparent again at the end of the film, when the image of King Kong and Fay Wray on the Empire State Building is quoted satirically: The monster Rocky carries his dead creator and lover Frank N. Furter (whose last words, incidentally, reveal that he sees himself as Fay Wray) up a dummy radio tower in an attempt to save him.

The theme of sexuality, linked to death, occurs not only in the films quoted, but also in the shots accompanying the introductory song: for some seconds the obscenely attractive lips fade out into a skeleton's mouth, and as the song fades, the oval mouth is transformed into an ornamental oval cross, which turns out to be the pinnacle of a church, and in front of this is a graveyard where a wedding is being celebrated. The camera zooms in on the background to the merrymaking, and in front of the church door we see a man and woman in the pose and dress familiar to everyone who knows Grant Wood's picture "American Gothic": the old farmer with his three-pronged pitchfork, standing next to his equally stern looking wife: "the serious sober, dependable small-town people who form the solid base of American life."18 As we shall learn later, these are Riff-Raff and Magenta, here appearing as servants of the church, though from their apparent positions of servitude they in fact direct the whole proceedings.

{109} From this picture19, denoting an historic moment of rigid morality, they spring to life as actors in a tale whose Utopian ending establishes them as precisely what they had appeared to be in that initial picture -- namely, stern moral judges who change joy into grief and ultimately life into death. When Brad and Janet go back into the church, these "American Gothic" characters have started to change the wedding decor into that of a funeral. On the surface this may be seen as mockery of the secular and commercial use to which American churches are put, but it is also a continuation of the menacing duality that characterizes all events in the film right from the beginning.

The framework of RHPS is similar in function to that of the Decameron (and this narrative strategy, together with the narrator constantly fading in, establishes a close relationship between the film and narrative texts generally): the main events are narrated, and so appear to lose their directness, whereas in fact the technique enhances the pleasure. It is not by accident that the various settings are outside the normal scope of the everyday world. The RHPS spaceship (camouflaged as a medieval castle), like the Decameron villas smacks of Utopia, and fulfils a need for escapism.

The pivotal incident of RHPS is Frank N. Furter's creation of Rocky. With elaborate technology, a parody in itself, Frank brings his creature to life in the laboratory. The pink triangle that Frank wears on his green apron symbolises his homosexual desires, explains why here a man is giving birth to a man, and demonstrates that in Rocky Frank is creating his own pleasure object: "good for relieving my tension" (p. 9). At first Rocky's body, wrapped round like a mummy, floats in a giant aquarium; for a few moments he is shown up in X-Ray as a skeleton, and then for the first time he moves and emerges from the 'waters'. Rocky's entry into the world is marked by fear: "The sword of Damocles is hanging over my head" (p. 13) -- and he feels that he does not belong in the {110} society into which he was born: "Oh, woe is me -- my life is a misery". Frank, however, celebrates his feat by alluding to Genesis: "in just seven days, I can make you a man" (p. 15). The presumptuousness of his deed is highlighted by the arrival of the punk Eddie. This leather jacketed Rocker rides into the laboratory on his motor bike from a deep-freeze (in which Frank had put him), and he brings into Frank's scientifically cloaked world of pleasure a new, anarchic mode of satisfaction.

Eddie has a Boris Karloff scar on his forehead (an allusion to Whale's film) the result of an operation in which Frank removed half his brain to be transplanted into Rocky. Eddie is the wild and ugly source that was sacrificed in order to produce his double, the gentle, handsome Rocky. Eddie was merely the store from which Frank took his materials to make his artificial man. Mary Shelley had used just a few terse sentences to enable the reader to imagine, or rather not to imagine, the manner in which Victor Frankenstein had robbed corpses, but in the film this perversion is given a macabre twist: At Rocky's birthday party the cloth is removed from the table, and under a sheet of glass lies Eddie, his body slit open, his guts spilling out. The guests realize with horror what they have been eating. In this age of organ transplants, Victor's "romantic" violation of a taboo (his 'bricolage' of corpses) loses its vigour, and the addition of the cannibalism taboo enhances the horror.

The recreation of paradise that Victor strives for with his "new Adam", and which Walton also hopes to achieve through his discovery of the North Pole, takes on a real form in "Frankenstein Place", the space ship disguised as a medieval castle. Here people dance the "Time Warp" in order to enter another age. The resultant paradise is staged, as it were, on two levels: for the spectator it is set in motion through a commentator leafing through a photo album; within the film itself, the action is experienced by those attending the Transsylvanian congress. Paradise is conceived here as the greatest possible sexual liberty. In the trend-setting musical Hair, there was a quasi-religious song that raised the question: "Sodomy, Fellatio, Cunnilingus, Pederasty, Father why do these words sound so nasty?" With such cries the generation of Flower Power demanded a "resurrection of the body". In RHPS the demand is given a more subtle, though never pornographic optical expression. The focal scenes are the "wedding" {111} between Frank and Rocky, i.e. the union of creator and creature, and the two sequences when Janet and Brad are in separate bedrooms, and are visited in turn by Frank, who tricks them by imitating their respective voices. The double nature of all the participants, in respect of their sexual activities, is mirrored and parodied filmically by the doubling of one and the same scene: the silhouettes' movements, and the Frank-Janet, Frank-Brad dialogues are (apart from one clause) absolutely identical. The fact that the first scene is shot in pink, and the second in blue, makes the distinction between them highly artificial. In these scenes Frank converts his creature and his guests to his message of sexual liberty, and to a removal of all restrictions that reaches its climax in the swimming-pool orgy, in which all the participants appear as Frank's double. Frank's invitation to them runs as follows:

Give yourself over to absolute pleasure,
Swim the warm waters of sins of the flesh,
Erotic nightmares beyond any measure.
And sensual day dreams to treasure forever.
Don't dream it. Be it! (p. 29)
As the bedroom scenes are watched on video by the domestic staff, and the swimming-pool orgy takes place in front of a theatre audience, we are never allowed to forget the fact that these events are staged. The public exhibition of something which is normally kept private and hidden here seems almost natural, and yet at the same time it shows how forced and formal the message really is. This impression is reinforced by the content, for Frank's attempt to achieve total pleasure creates major spiritual problems for some of the participants. Seeing the world through rose-coloured spectacles is in some cases possible only with the use of drugs. The clash between the staged paradise and the background of the forbidden is always present either formally or in terms of content.

Inseparably linked to the theme of the new Eden is that of its creator, the overreacher -- as he is called in Frankenstein criticism -- or the superhero, as science fiction critics dub him. Frank N. Furter has one foot in either camp. He has come to earth from another galaxy with a message whose contents remain open. But his actions on earth, where he creates a being to serve his own desires, {112} are condemned by his rebelling servants Riff-Raff and Magenta: "your mission was a failure" (p. 29). His excessive lifestyle is then punished by death. Like other themes in the film, that of the super hero is echoed elsewhere, maintaining its presence by thematic Doppelgängerei: The castle, "Frankenstein Place", was General De Gaulle's refuge during the Second World War; the speech that Brad and Janet hear on the car radio when they have got lost at night is Nixon's speech of resignation; the film that Frank wants to show them is about Superman: the recognizable earthly art and sculpture in the midst of Frank's world of wonders stem from Michelangelo and Leonardo, the giants of the Renaissance. But every illusion to the super hero devalues him. This is even to be seen from the examples of "David" and the "Mona Lisa", for each of them is duplicated; and as one looks left and one looks right, we are made thoroughly aware of the fact that they are reproducible. Against this background of movable pieces from an age that designated man as the pinnacle of creation we have Frank N. Furter, the super hero, stripping his superhuman creative powers of all that is socially acceptable, and using them only to further his own lustful ends. The fall of this decadent hero occurs only indirectly through his creature, for Rocky is the narcissistic and not the demonic double. It is others who bring him down, notably Dr. Scott, a guardian of morality from the real, everyday world, who significantly is paralysed from the waist downwards. Scott: "We've got to get out of this trap, before this decadence saps our will . . . Society must be protected" (29, 30). Riff-Raff and Magenta are the instruments of Frank's destruction. In the closing scene they both resume the "American Gothic" position they had taken up at the beginning of the film. But this time the reference is to the future -- the pitchfork, for example, having now turned into a triangular laser gun. This is used to dispose of Frank N. Furter. The silent accusation of the earlier image has become an explicit judgment: "Your lifestyle's too extreme" (p. 29). Here the two servants appear to represent a sexual concept that is composed of the double elements of repression and sublimation. As beings from a transsexual planet they have gone beyond the various forms of human sexuality, and as "American Gothic" figures, they do not even wish these forms to be allowed.

In this adaptation of the Frankenstein theme, the film brings out the deeper lying motivation of the Romantic tale, foregrounding that which originally had {113} been part of the background. Through Doppelgängerei it reveals the self in such a way that it takes on a form (i.e. that of the second self) which is necessary and yet which would otherwise remain hidden.20


Just like Frankenstein's creature the RHPS is the sum of various parts -- here taken from different films. In turn, the RHPS has itself been processed in two ways: firstly, the character of Rocky is resurrected in Shock Treatment, thereby allowing his own story to be continued. Secondly, RHPS is quoted in Fame, a film about young people and their relationships: the main characters in this film are linked by their specific reaction to the RHPS. For right from the start audiences indulged in lively dialogues with the characters of the film, and later the audience even imitated actions they saw on the screen, such as the way in which Brad and Janet used newspapers to protect themselves against rain. The final stage of this participation was reached when some members of the audience dressed themselves in the costumes of the characters, stood in front of the screen while the film was running, and acted it out themselves.

With its high degree of conscious "staging", RHPS has become a cult film par excellence. For some youth, it offers a narcissistic mode of self-staging, and repeated viewings (often running into hundreds) are a matter of course, enabling audiences both to internalize and also to exhibit the feeling for life that is communicated by the film. This identification is transformed from communal enactment of the story itself into a sense of communal being, with the self breaking its boundaries. Thus the contemporary version of the Frankenstein myth -- with its desire to d[e]rive a maximum of pleasure from the theme of the Doppelgänger -- has generated a temporary state of trans-individualism, which is {114} manifested in the image of the androgynous being21, symbol of trans-sexuality.


1. Charles Lamb assumes that certain monster figures of mythology are part of us, even if we do not know the original material: "They are transcripts, types -- the archetypes are in us, and eternal." The horrors caused by these figures are mental, and none is greater than that produced by the concept of the Doppelgänger. "These terrors are of older standing. They date beyond body. All the cruel tormenting, defined devils in Dante . . . are they one half so fearful . . . as the simple idea of a spirit unembodied following him?" One possible solution to the problem according to Lamb, might be "a peep at least into the shadow-land of preexistence." Charles Lamb, "Witches and other Night-Fears", Essays of Elia (London, 1952), p. 111. Compare also Harold Bloom, Ringers in the Tower: Studies in Romantic Fiction (Univ. of Chicago Press, 1971), p. 122.

2. All quotes from Richard O'Brien, The Rocky Horror Picture Show (London, 1983).

3. Christopher Small, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein: Tracing the Myth (Pittsburg, 1973), p. 21.

4. Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, vol. 2, no. 12 (March 1818), pp. 612-620.

5. Julia Kristeva, Semeiotiké -- Recherches pour une semanalyse (Paris, 1969), p. 255: "Pris dans l'intertextualité, l'énonce poétique est un sous-ensemble d'un ensemble plus grand qui est l'espace des textes appliqués dans notre ensemble."

6. Burton A. Pollin, "Philosophical and Literary Sources of Frankenstein", Comparative Literature, 17 (1967), pp. 97-108.

7. Karl Heinz Stierle, "Werk und Intertextualität", Dialog der Texte (Wien, 1983).

8. Edmund Burke, The Sublime and the Beautiful (London, 1759), p. 159.

9. George Levine, "The Ambiguous Heritage of Frankenstein", The Endurance of Frankenstein, Essays on May Shelley's Novel, ed. G. Levine and U. C. Knoepflmacher (Univ. of California, 1979), p. 14.

10. George G. Byron, Manfred (London, Everyman's Library, 1960), p. 321.

11. All quotes from Mary Shelley, Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus, Three Gothic Novels (Harmondsworth, 1983).

12. Kaplan Morton and Robert Kloss, "Fantasy of Paternity and The Doppelgänger: Mary Shelley's Frankenstein", The Unspoken Motive (New York, 1973), p. 127.

13. George Levine, p. 4.

14. Gerhardt Amendt, Der neue Klapperstorch (Herbstein-Schlechtenwegen, März Verlag, 1986). Compare also Rocky: "I'm dressed up with no place to go" (p. 13).

15. Compare Radu Florescu, In Search of Frankenstein (London, 1977), p. 167.

16. Jean-Paul Sartre, Das Imaginäre: Phänomenologische Psychologie der Einbildungskraft (Reinbek, 1971), pp. 62ff. and pp. 199ff.

17. Armin Geraths, "Der Anachronismus des Lesens", Text -- Leser -- Bedeutung, ed. H. Grabes (Grossen-Linden, 1977), pp. 43-59.

18. Encyclopedia Americana (New York, 1964) vol. 29, p. 113.

19. The development of the film RHPS from a picture is riot a matter of chance. Erwin Panowski points out that at its starting-point film borrowed not from theatre but from painting, and indeed from "bad 19th century paintings and postcards" with subjects similar to those of popular songs, cheap novels and penny dreadfuls . . . They satisfied, often at the same time, a primitive sense of justice and morality . . . also pure sentimentality . . . Thirdly, a primeval desire for blood and cruelty" -- "Stil und Stoff im Film", Filmkritik, 5 (1967), pp. 344 ff. -- The film shows Wood's actual painting in the entrance hall of the castle, when Brad and Janet go in.

20. Compare Renate Lachmann, "Doppelgängerei", Individualität/Differenz, Poetik und Hermeneutik, vol. 13, ed. M. Frank and A. Haverkamp (München, 1987), in print.

21. In Mary Shelley's Frankenstein: The Fate of Androgyny, Chicago 1986 (according to the publisher's blurb) William Veeder argues that Mary Shellers novels reflect her lifelong preoccupation with the androgynous. The book was not yet available, however, when this essay was written.