The Scarlet Letter

Nonfiction by Tanner Irons

March 9, 2013. Saturday, 10 a.m. The Oriental Theatre is quiet. Every so often a person passes underneath the unlit marquee, never so much as twisting their head to glance. These people pay no mind, but in 14 hours the theater will come alive.


The first thing that struck me was the overwhelming ferocity of the fans of The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Sensual Daydreams. The second thing that struck me was a piece of toast, but I’ll get to that later.

I had wanted to see Sensual Daydreams, the interactive Rocky Horror experience, for quite some time. So I was pretty thrilled when given the opportunity to write this article. My knowledge of the show was limited. I knew that The Rocky Horror Picture Show had been around for a long time. The movie was a bust upon limited release in 1975, only piquing modest interest among a few faithful fans. But who were those loyal fans? What did they see in this mainstream failure?

Standing in line, I was marked, quickly outed as a “virgin,” which, in the world of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, means this was my first time attending the show. A scarlet “V” was lipsticked on my forehead. I could hide no more. Everyone knew. But still, I was excited, and reassured by Melissa Wurm, a former cast member and current fan of the new generation. She said, “Do not take yourself too seriously. This is a place where you will not be judged. Try real hard to be totally comfortable going outside your comfort zone. You might find out you like it.”

The line of nervous virgins and costumed veterans stretched from the theater to the corner of Farwell and North. After waiting, pacing, bubbling with fits of antici—say it!—pation, midnight struck. We filtered into the theater and took our seats. The show couldn’t start soon enough. But as I quickly learned, nothing could begin until us “virgins” had been properly introduced.

We were told to form a line on the side of the theater near the wall. Some of the more stunned virgins, instead, made a line in the center. I do not envy the tongue-lashing they received. “If you can’t line up in the right place, how do you expect to participate at all?” shouted Jerry, a long-time cast member, dressed as Dr. Frank-N-Furter. Jerry was the unquestioned leader of the show, the mature veteran—although I’m sure the word “mature” would offend him endlessly. “Are you always this fuckin’ confused, or are you just scared? I suppose we’ll”—he gestured to the crowd—“just wait while you take your sweet time.”

Finally, after the barrage had ended, we were told to get on our knees. It was a rite of passage, in fanatical terms, to crawl through the legs of each cast member and receive a smack on the ass for good measure. The sight of 40 adults crawling on their hands and knees burned into my memory as I stood at the end of the train.

Finally part of the team, I found my seat and took a deep breath. All around the theater the crowd buzzed, waiting. Chants demanding the movie came from every direction. “What are you doing?” “Start the fuckin’ movie!” “We don’t have to put up with this shit!” And then the movie rolled. But wait! A flicker, a dark screen. The projector had stopped. The crowd grew restless. Their catcalls became increasingly hostile. Why were these loyal fans being so difficult? The answer: because they must. If you’re not impossible, then you are in the minority. The show is meant to be an interactive experience. The crowd plays along with the show’s dialogue. Until you are there, you can’t imagine the pandemonium.

Running from coast to coast, these shows are performed by shadow casts. What is a shadow cast? Good question. Each cast member plays a specific character from the movie. They move throughout the theater, copying all the movements and facial expressions of the film’s actors. They are in the aisles, next to my seat, on the stage, on the floor, in the chairs, in the pit, around the wings. The cast is everywhere. Sensual Daydreams is the longest running version of these shadow casts—not just in Wisconsin, not just in America, but in the world. Performing continuously since 1992, Sensual Daydreams took over for the previous show, Celluloid Jam, and never looked back.

Five minutes passed, and then ten… fifteen… The fans grew even more restless. Had I come for a show and instead gotten a riot? They stood on their seats. They made obscene gestures—some I knew, some I could only deduce. They argued amongst themselves, each trying to prove they were more unrelenting than the next. Directed by the no less outrageous cast, one half of the theater began to shout, “Oral Sex!” In reply, the other half screamed, “Anal Sex!” Back and forth they went like a volleyball match, until I too was dragged into the contest. Louder and Louder and LOUDER! But just then, before it really got out of hand, the film rolled: disaster averted. Like a shot, the famous pair of fire-engine-red lips raced onto the screen. There was no turning back. I would have to ride the ride and hope for the best.

It was then, as the crowd came alive and found their rhythm, that the full effect hit me. These fans mimicked every line, every nuance of the film, as if controlled by some precognitive force. But there was no force, only an obsessive familiarity. It was fans, like the witty and unrelenting ones surrounding me, who had turned the movie into a classic film, a film selected for preservation by the Library of Congress, for crying out loud, a film that lived with every breath of its fan base. It was kept alive by something even more powerful than the science Dr. Frank-N-Furter used to create Rocky.

I began to lose my inhibitions. I shouted at the screen, laughed at inappropriate moments, argued simply for the sake of arguing. It was wonderful. But just then, it began. What began? It began. It was time… time to do “The Time Warp.” The signature dance of the film, “The Time Warp,” is easy in theory. First, they jumped to the left. And then… they stepped to the right. Next, they put their hands on their hips and bent their knees in tight. You see… it was the pelvic thrusts that came next, and really drove them all ins-a-aa-ne. And I knew at once… we all wanted to do the time warp again.

I was a man in a strange land dancing with the natives. Was I intruding on their territory? There was something so steadfast about them all. They moved with such precision and muscle memory that it was as if they were controlled by a single consciousness. “I am at every show possible,” said Sara, a mother of two wearing a poufy dress like the Queen of Hearts’ dress from Alice In Wonderland. This sentiment was not an exception but the undisputed consensus. Rocky Horror was more than just a show. It was an identity. “The one great unifier,” said Wurm, “is that every fan finds the feeling of acceptance in an unaccepting world. The show is one place that all are welcome and all are the same.”

Sensual Daydreams continued at this feverish pace with… ups and downs… twists and turns…. fits of pleasure… fits of pain—good pain. And then it was over. I was awakened from my trance, my daydream. My cell phone screen blinded my eyes as I took it from my pocket. It was almost 4 a.m., yet it felt as if time had stood still. I was covered in rice, water, toast, toilet paper, playing cards, and confetti—all thrown by fans to coincide with the events of the movie. “Rice for the wedding scene, a toast to absent friends.” The movie couldn’t be done already… just like that! I was hooked. Why had I not come to this show sooner?

Repent! I would miss Sensual Daydreams no more. Walking from the theater, I pulled rice from my pockets and hair the entire way home. I moved quickly by the closing-time crowds, bounding with a newfound energy, and in through my apartment door, heading straight to my calendar. April, May, June—I marked every second Saturday, “Sensual Daydreams.

About the Author:

You may also like…