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A Phantasma of Joy: Rocky Horror Picture Show

With the presidential election amassing a communal stress-induced fervor across the country, Bennington College is clearly not immune. I would walk into the Swan common room—spiderwebs from Halloween lingering under paint-stained chairs, a joyous yet bitter toned “Death <3” painted on the mirror by Macy Salico (‘23,) a pocket of nihilistic joy and memory—and hear the sputtering of a sleep-deprived John King putting together an analysis of the election’s trajectory. Stressed is the understatement of the year.

And yet, days earlier, we were frolicking around campus painting pumpkins, strutting in costumes galore, spilling creativity into every cape and hat. We watched roller-skate races, heard spooky stories, ate candy, drank a little (or a lot), and just had fun

We were not worried about a skin-crawling momentous miasma of red-blue psychedelic spirals on T.V. screens, projectors, and laptops. To put it in layman’s terms, we vibed. We thrived, we jived, we danced, we sang. Now, we sit together, painfully waiting as reports from states across the country spill in, and we inch closer and closer to the conclusion of the race. No pressure, just the entire trajectory of the country over the next few years, and the very notion of Democracy as we know it could be at risk and we can do nothing but squirm and pick at the leftover chicken parm from Thursday nights dinner. 

So, stress is high, spirits are low, and homework is left undone. There is a tremendous weight, and we simultaneously bear it on our shoulders, a troubling display of agape in the face of history. Despite the tension, the panacea for situations like these is to “let loose,” or at least reminisce about it. 

Thankfully, Bennington has a tradition of screening a film whose name is synonymous with revelry and hedonism, with free-spirited joy-seeking flights for freedom, a hodge-podge motley-crew of fishnets and red lipstick. The decadent, the fabulous, the gut-wrenching spine-tingling, leg quivering harbinger of gesticulating limbs: The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Screened in Tishman on October 30, 2020, The Rocky Horror Picture Show presented itself as the bubbling cauldron of chaos the quips on the posters plastered across campus promised. I arrived just shy of 8:59 and strode into the lecture hall. It was mostly empty, except for those who organized the technology for the screening, a few stray students, and the Big Brother-Esque booming pair of crimson red lips interrupting the scattered conversations with demands for whoever wields the god-like power to hit “play” to hurry up and do it already. 

As I waited, more and more students came in, a parade of pink feather cowboy hats and midnight-black fishnets, of leather boots and flailing limbs. People were dancing before the film began, before they even walked into the lecture hall. The energy was high, and I—as a first-time viewer—had no idea what to expect. 

Its revolutionary content presented itself as a beacon of light in the days before the election, providing just the right pinch of energy to coerce a group of youths to dismantle the system. “It stood out from the general culture,” says Veritie Howard. “It was a shift. It challenged the nuclear family and showed a rivalry over the decades.” Within this dismantling, there is also acceptance. 

“It’s a conversation within the LGBT community,” says Alice Schwechheimer. “It’s kind of a right of passage. It means so many things and doesn’t hide anything. It’s an object of its time, with some dark moments, but it’s far from macabre. It’s enthralling.”

The ability to do this, to conjure rebellion, to support the “otherness” within us all, to provide the rally call for challenging normativity, all while creating a safe space of representation for the LGBT community, proved the movie to go beyond the spectacle I expected. Yet the chaos of the film itself was just as important as this underlying socio-political commentary. 

Eventually, the film began. The lights dimmed, voices cheered, whoops whipped around the room in vivid iridescence. And then a hush; and the credits rolled. 

Before my eyes burst a kaleidoscope of revelry. Limbs flew across the screen, skin flashed everywhere, fishnets tore their way in time to the “Time-Warp,” and clothes flung in nondescript piles off-screen never to be seen again. The music rung across the hall, interspersed with clever cries from the audience that ranged in charm from the back and forth lamentations of “asshole, slut!” that acutely categorize the leading couple, to the cleverly hilarious and very descriptive quip against the narrator “whoa! Where’s his neck!” My personal favorite may be “elbow sex!” but the gold-mine of callbacks was endless. 

Most striking of all was the sheer energy of the room. People danced in (and out) of time in carefree revelry, throwing limbs across the cushions of the lecture hall unapologetically. They corralled into one another, leaped from seat to seat, sang song after song at the top of their lungs, hopping and popping and tapping their toes to beats and crazed vocalizations. They flung their hair and hats and wigs and hearts. It was pleasure at its finest; joy at its zenith; community at its core. 

It was freedom and life, a celebration of the most involuntary act of being alive. For two hours, people suspended their worries and anxieties, hung the weight of the world over the glass railing connecting Dickinson to Tishman, and let everything else just melt away. Freedom reigned supreme, happiness and autonomy held power. Joy and individuality sparked and hopped, bubbled and boiled, heaved and hoed its way hand-in-hand with self-determination. 

On and off the screen, people were unapologetically themselves. People were free and joyous, they dispelled convention and broke free and entered the molten state of fluid fun. The event was synonymous with freedom. It created an effect of optimistic hope and positivity that lasted well after Halloween. 

As we continue to watch the election unfold, we must remember the spirit of humanity itself. Within all of us, there is a Dr. Frank-N-Furter strutting and dancing within us all, flinging his coats and snapping his heels and gloves to the beat of his own charm and swagger. Within all of us, there is a power over freedom and the self, over the sheer emotion of being alive. We voted, we rallied, we signed petitions, we protested, we celebrated, we fought fought fought. 

The election continues, and so do we. We are the essence of democracy and at its core are the very themes The Rocky Horror Picture Show explores. The autonomy of the self, the freedom to live life unapologetically, is perhaps the most democratic thing about this country. People are denied this, as the battle for equality and human rights unfold before our eyes, for the flaws of the establishment run deep and red, engrained within the very fabric of the country’s founding. Even now, voting itself is challenged by a tyrannous autocrat throwing a temper tantrum over a grim outlook. 

But we remain, and so long as there are people, there is freedom. So as ballots are counted and stress runs high, remember that rebellion, hope, freedom, life, and joy lie in the smallest of moments and the largest of ones. It does not take a sparkling gold speedo to celebrate the glorious freedom of the self, and the energy of being alive, or to challenge an institution that undermines the natural liberty promised to everyone. But it helps. 

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