By Maeve Sheehey
Fourth-grader Isabel Trumbull wracked her brain for a word that began with the prefix, trans. She was with her reading tutor, playing a game where all the kids had to come up with a different word. One of her classmates had already said “transform” and another said “transportation,” so Isabel said the first thing she could think of:
Her tutor looked uncomfortable. “Um, can you think of another?” she asked.
“Transsexual?” Isabel asked.
“OK, let’s give it one more shot,” the tutor said.
Isabel heard her mom laughing in the waiting room and wondered what she did wrong. Uncertainly, she tried out the last word she could think of: “Transylvania?”
Anyone who’s seen “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” would recognize the grouping of these words from the song, “Sweet Transvestite,” performed by Tim Curry in the original 1975 film. In a normal year, before the pandemic, people would dress up in fishnet stockings and corsets to celebrate the cult classic on Halloween night. For Isabel, now a UNC alumna, the tradition began before she was even old enough to be allowed out that late.
She remembers sitting on her family’s old green couch to watch the movie when she was about four years old. In fact, it’s the first movie she remembers ever watching. Despite the ample sexual content, the bulk of it was innuendo that went over her head — besides, it wasn’t anything she hadn’t seen while selling lemonade at the gay pride parade in Boystown, Chicago.
“The men in lingerie were more covered up than the assless chaps that were at pride parade every summer,” she said.
Isabel’s introduction to “Rocky Horror” is not the norm, she’s quick to say, though her enthusiasm for the movie is shared by many. Most fans of the cult classic find it later in life, when they’re old enough to attend the raucous Halloween showings. One such spectacle happens each year at the Varsity Theatre in Chapel Hill, with a shadow cast performance — where actors put on the show right in front of the movie screen — by UNC’s Pauper Players.
A horde of students traditionally mobs the area outside the Varsity before it opens, costumes including lingerie, wigs, suspenders and a general lack of clothing. This year on Halloween, the Varsity sat desolate, as it has since March due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
UNC students were left without an outlet for their fishnet stockings, and the Pauper Players canceled its 2020 production — but that doesn’t mean “Rocky Horror” went unrecognized. Through home productions, virtual commemorations and personal viewings, the “Rocky” spirit lived on in Chapel Hill this Halloween.
Finding acceptance through art.
For UNC senior Kathryn Brown, “Rocky Horror” has been part of life since she was cast in the Pauper Players production her first year in college. She played Dr. Frank-N-Furter, arguably the most iconic role in the film. And though Dr. Frank is typically the least clothed person on the stage, Kathryn said she was the most — that is, at the beginning of the show.
Kathryn stripped off layers with each song when she felt comfortable. As a plus-sized woman, she didn’t always feel like she could be seen as sexy in the entertainment industry, a world that almost exclusively values a size zero. But during that last number, “Science Fiction/Double Feature,” she stared down the audience, scantily clad, and felt safe in her body for the first time while onstage.
For Kathryn, “Rocky Horror” is about acceptance — body acceptance, queer acceptance and the acceptance of all things weird.
“It’s all about communion,” she said. “Like, not in a crisp, Catholic sense — but communion in this merging of energies, this sharing in a safe space, in expressing yourself and loving yourself and loving the people you’re around.”
A new take on a UNC tradition.
Even though the pandemic foiled Kathryn’s plans of being involved in a “Rocky Horror” production this year, she wasn’t ready to give up the tradition. That’s why she and her housemates, also self-described theater nerds, projected the movie on the side of their house and dressed up for the occasion.
Though Kathryn wanted to reprise her role as Dr. Frank, a housemate thought she deserved a turn in the corset — and “Rocky Horror” is, first and foremost, about everyone getting a chance to be whoever they want for a night. And so, Kathryn utilized her already-hot-pink hair to dress up as Magenta, instead.
Though members of the UNC Pauper Players could not take the stage at the Varsity to act out “Rocky Horror” on Halloween night, the student theater company couldn’t let the holiday pass with no mention of the movie. So, the group put together a music video, featuring former cast members of all different graduating classes — not just current UNC students.
The video was set to “Time Warp,” one of the most well-known “Rocky Horror” songs. Members dressed up in makeshift costumes and danced around their houses to the directions in the movie: a jump to the left, a step to the right, hands on the hips, knees in and, of course, a pelvic thrust.
Pauper Players Executive Director Maria Cade is used to an interactive show that draws the audience to call out lines at the screen and put newspapers on their heads when it rains in the movie.
“It’s truly like nothing I’ve ever experienced before in any other form of theater,” she said.
Even though this year wasn’t quite the same, Maria was glad the company got to celebrate the message of self-acceptance and expression that lies in the movie. After all, she said, it is a “Chapel Hill staple.”
A celebration of self amid a pandemic.
Despite early exposure to the movie in Chicago, Isabel saw her first live production of “Rocky Horror” in Chapel Hill. She’d always wanted to go growing up, but there was a curfew for kids out after 11 p.m. on weekends. Plus, as she says, it isn’t the kind of thing you want to go to with your parents — even cool, pro-”Rocky” parents like hers.
So, her first year of college, she lined up outside the theater on a cold October night, dressed as Rocky in gold shorts and Doc Martens and painted-on abs. She knew the movie, her favorite of all time, well enough to quote it. But there was nothing like seeing it in a community for the first time.
To celebrate in 2020, Isabel pulled out the gold shorts to wear for the first time since that October night, even though her body “freshman year of college after being a varsity athlete for four years is very different than being in the workforce for a year in quarantine.”
Dressed as Rocky once again, Isabel sat in her living room and put the movie on. It wasn’t a shadow cast, but she still knew all the lines to shout at the screen. Watching “Rocky Horror” on her own wasn’t the full experience, but it brought her back to throwing toast at the screen in a crowded theater in college, and cuddling up with her parents to watch for the first time at age four.
“Rocky Horror” is about community for Isabel, and acceptance for Kathryn, and self-expression for Maria. But really, for all of them, it’s about a night of celebrating and being themselves.
They weren’t going to let the pandemic stop them from celebrating the cult classic that means so much to them. And until live showings of “Rocky Horror” can resume again, they’ll be waiting in antici… pation.
Edited by Makenna Smith