text: Jamie MacDonald
photo: Ainoa Graphic Design

Part and parcel with coming of age came the utter strangeness of sex. Just sex, not sexuality; nobody had one of those in the late 1980s where I was from, in the most middle of middle class towns in Ontario. Sex was weird. Dirty. Hidden. Desire only made you wanton and weak-willed, and ensured that you would end up being the sort of bleach-blonde girl who smoked cigarettes and whose reckless abandon would end up in life doling out exactly the sort of punishment she’d deserve. So yeah, sex was strange.

Children can be total perverts; it’s just that they don’t know that they’re being perverts. When I was a kid my best friend and I played a game called “sandwich”, where you’d take one cushion from the sofa and put it on the floor. One kid would pull down their pants and lie down on the cushion; a second cushion would be put on top of them, and finally the other kid would leap from the top of the sofa (or coffee table, or stairs) on top of the whole mess, squishing the pantsless kid with well-cushioned blunt force. Now, the point of the game was to experience the fear of being jumped on from a great height by another screaming and flying kid – so why the bare bottoms? Simple: because it’s better. Kids are total pervs.

So after grade four I moved away from the neighbourhood and to a new school, where the boys didn’t understand that I was supposed to be one of them, so I had to fit in with the girls and be nice, and it’s a lot harder to be a perv when you’re trying to be nice. I felt I’d been uprooted not so much from my friends, who were replaceable with other friends, but from my place in the social order. Pretend or be alone.

Puberty ran its course. I was a stranger in my body’s chosen role. A stranger at the school dances. A girl who liked boys but dressed and talked like a dyke – a girl who hated other girls. It was easier to remember that desires were frightening and led to trouble, than to try to catch the eye of a boy, who would then be shamed and ostracised by his peers for… something. For strangeness.

In 1993 or 1994, then, was when I piled in a basement with my wonderful strange and sexless high school friends to watch The Rocky Horror Picture Show. I knew it would be kind of naughty, but I loved dancing to “The Time Warp” at school dances and the red-haired boy I was madly in love with was constantly quoting the film, so it must be completely amazing, I thought.

Richard O’Brien wrote the musical that first came out in 1973 in the UK, and while it started out in tiny theatres, it was such an instant box office hit that it grew, and kept playing, and finally in 1975 O’Brien and director Jim Sharman created a film version. The costume budget was $1,600 – double what they used on stage. They made the film. It was completely panned – called “tasteless, plotless and pointless”, and the planned New York City opening of the film was cancelled. It would have disappeared had it not been played at special midnight showings, in the company of cult classics like Reefer Madness. After showing to midnight audiences in New York, it took on cult classic status very quickly, and for reasons that nobody knows or could have predicted, audiences started interacting with the film – dressing up as their characters, throwing toast and rice, shouting out responses to the recorded celluloid characters. It is now considered the longest-running film of all time.

Horror films, as it turns out, is where we learn a lot about sex. I have a theory that I missed out on a lot of formative years of sexuality due to the fact that my parents forbade me to ever watch horror films and I actually obeyed them. Friday the Thirteenth. Nightmare on Elm Street. Hallowe’en and all its sequels. All my friends had seen them by like grade four and whenever they described the most shocking scenes, they reported the sexual scenes at least as often as any of the actual blood and gore. I imagined these scenes in dreamlike detail, having never seen an R-rated film in my life and not really understanding what went on in them.

I understand why now – my parents must have known I was destined to see Rocky Horror and experience a total meltdown of what I knew to be true.

The first fifteen minutes of exposition and cars breaking down in the rain did nothing to lessen the appearance – platform-heels-first – of the beautiful, perverted, disturbing and desirous Tim Curry as Frankenfurter. The corsets, the makeup, the damned damned legs in fishnet stockings – I couldn’t make any sense of what I was looking at. I wasn’t sure if it was something I found attractive, or just dirty and naughty, or just plain wrong. I looked to my friends for some clue as to how they were reacting, but all they seemed to be doing was enjoying the movie. I watched as far too many legs ended up in fishnets; lurid lipstick mixed with suggestive lyrics, and sexuality – oh god, the sexuality seemed not so much transgressive as completely unhinged.

In the most terrifying scene of all, Frankenfurter seduces Janet (why? Isn’t he supposed to be gay?), and then seduces Brad, in the kind of scene between two men that still made my ears turn burning hot as the shame of having desires at all washed over me. And even though in O’Brien’s story, the wanton behaviour of dear F ends with his execution and the whole house flying back into space so that Riff-Raff and Magenta can have a peaceful existence without all this weird drama (but presumably plenty of incest), it was impossible to mistake Rocky Horror as a cautionary tale against queerness and freedom. The heart of the film, that spoke to my sixteen-year-old heart whilst my heart attempted to hide under the covers in panic of having its existence so destabilized, is in the most simple lyric: don’t dream it – be it.

By the end of the film – which, let’s be fair, is also a challenging watch for a teenager on the grounds that it is in fact tasteless and plotless, I had been hit with a queer hammer. It would take another decade or so for me to own it, but there it was.

Rocky Horror came to mind because it’s popular, mainstream, and it’s all been done before. I’ve forgotten, in many ways, just how transgressive so many works were to me when I was a teenager. I forget how I didn’t want to tell my parents about the film because I was so disturbed by it in a way I had no idea how to parse. I can think of nothing I’d more like to do, nothing more noble, than disturb some teenager from everyday suburbia and give them the hammer.

Nowadays, with a gender transition of my own, I’m still a stranger in my own body, but the kind of stranger who has come here on vacation to relax, embrace a different pace of life, and probably stay forever. The smell of my sweat is like a teenage dog. I went from being a tall person for my demographic to one of fair-to-middling height, and have experienced the drop in respect that comes with this. I will always walk the path of the stranger, while around me the dreamlike scenes of normal people ebb and flow, and I say: don’t dream it – be it.