When I was a freshman in high school, I asked my mom if I could go to a midnight showing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show on Halloween. Almost a full year before, I’d seen The Perks of Being a Wallflower for my 14th birthday party, then watched the DVD version I was given that Christmas countless times. It was – and still is – one of the few movies I never tire of, and I wanted to partake in the quintessential American experience of Rocky Horror, just like Charlie does in the Perks film.  

“No,” she told me.

She first saw Rocky when she was 11 years old, and – by her estimate – watched it at least two dozen times throughout her adolescence at Norman’s Satellite Twin Theatre, in the same shopping center where she would later meet my dad.

In fact-checking myself for this story, I discovered that my mother truly is an icon.

As a mother in small-town Oklahoma she was, by all metrics, a radical liberal, but she still knew better than to let me go to something I certainly was not ready for. I was mildly annoyed by her decision, but once I turned 18 in the fall of my senior year, fully free to do as I pleased, I was too immersed in perpetual panic of college applications to even think about having fun on Halloween.

Flash forward a few years to fall quarter of my third year at Northwestern. On a whim, I decided to buy two tickets to Music Box Theatre’s Rocky Horror performance on the night of Oct. 30 – my 21st birthday – one for me and one for my roommate. Pressing “confirm payment,” I was certain that it would be the most iconic thing I’d ever do.

I started the night by dining at Evanston’s classiest joint, Chili’s Grill and Bar, where I’ve spent every birthday dinner since my Sweet 16. After I took the first sip of my first legal drink (Chili’s “Fangtastic ‘Rita,” complete with a pair of plastic vampire fangs), one of my friends asked me how it felt to be a proper adult.

“I still feel like I’m 14,” I confessed.

Photo by Mia Mamone / North by Northwestern
“Hos don’t get cold,” I said, citing popular internet logic, “but I’m feeling a little chilly.

After returning home and getting into our costumes – an underwear-clad Janet for me, more conservative Brad for her – my roommate and I gauged the dismal weather and decided to treat ourselves to a Lyft to take us to the show. Even though we arrived late, the doors still weren’t open, and we shivered in the freezing mist with hundreds of others as we waited in line. I was only wearing a bra, slip and Amazon-sourced lab coat.

“Hos don’t get cold,” I said, citing popular internet logic, “but I’m feeling a little chilly.

Eventually the wait was over, and we made it inside the building, which was adorned with Halloween decorations, with the lights low. Someone at the entrance marked us both on the cheek with the iconic “V” in red lipstick, signifying our Rocky virgin status, and I tried not to think about how many folks’ face oils were interacting with my own.

In the screening room, there was a dance party forming up front. We joined in, shouting along to remixes of the Ghostbusters theme, “Barbie Girl” and Dolly Parton’s “Jolene.” Most of the other dancers were probably college students and young adults, but I was amazed at how truly glamorous some looked in their outfits, most dressed in lace and straps and glitter.

Photo by Mia Mamone / North by Northwestern

When the time came for the costume contest, only my roommate’s insistence forced me to leave my nice, safe seat to venture to the far wall where the other participants were gathering. We’d gone all the way there; it was my 21st birthday. If there was ever a time to be brave, it was then. I left the lab coat in my chair.

The first round of the contest was just for people in generically sexy outfits; i.e., lingerie or lack thereof (the winner was a woman who opened her fur coat to reveal almost nothing underneath). While waiting for the Rocky Horror-specific round, I made friends with a Rocky and another Janet.

“You look amazing!” the other Janet told me, not possibly knowing she increased my self-confidence by one thousand percent with her compliment. “I love your outfit.”

“We’re basically wearing the same thing,” I reasoned – the only difference being my beat-up sneakers compared to her startlingly white sandals.

“Yes,” she said. “But it’s a great outfit.”

Soon it was our turn, and we paraded across the front of the auditorium to be judged by the other audience members. I didn’t win the contest – and hadn’t expected to, with the fantastic Magentas and Riff-Raffs and Rockys I was up against – but I felt like I gained something as I trotted back to my seat. Self-esteem, perhaps? Confidence? Released inhibitions by way of alcohol? I couldn’t say for sure.

The virgin ceremonies commenced, and I understood completely why my mom hadn’t let me attend the show at the start of high school. Even at 21, watching from the safety of the audience, I was highly uncomfortable, if incredibly entertained. Everything everyone did and said was absurdly sexual and over-the-top, but such is the nature of Rocky Horror. I won’t go into detail beyond that; it really is the kind of thing you have to see for yourself.

The movie and concurrent live performance were what I had expected – I had listened to the music before, seen snippets of the film on TV and grown up in a culture immersed in Rocky Horror. I knew it from Perks, the weird-ass Glee version, the similarly weird-ass 2016 remake starring Victoria Justice. The strangest thing of all was that I had forgotten that Susan Sarandon (of Stepmom, Thelma & Louise and Bernie bro fame) played Janet, so that threw me for a loop. Throwing and popping and lighting the various items from our prop kits was fun, as was the audience interaction, but I’d had a long night. I was simultaneously amped up and exhausted, enthralled by show but already knowing I’d soon need to be alone to rest.

Probably the least damning photo of myself from that night. (Hi, future employers!)

On the way to our apartment, as Russian screamo music blasted through the speakers of our affable Lyft driver’s car, I thought about how truly weird and great my life was. I was a proper adult now, more than halfway done with college, living very far from home.

But what I had said earlier in the night at Chili’s was true – I did still feel 14. And that’s, I think, because part of me will always be that 14-year-old watching The Perks of Being a Wallflower on repeat. I’ll always be introverted and anxious and easily embarrassed at crude humor.

As Madeleine L’Engle said: “I am still every age that I have been.” Getting older won’t change who I intrinsically am. So I don’t know if I’ll go see Rocky again, at least not anytime soon. But it sure is nice to know that I can.