Barnabas’ Column #13: DARK SHADOWS’ LGBT Connection
Something which sets DARK SHADOWS FESTIVALS apart is the obvious presence of gay men and lesbians. Gay men and lesbians are part of STAR TREK and STAR WARS fandom of course, just as LGBT people are part of life’s everyday fabric, but it’s different in DARK SHADOWS fandom. At any DARK SHADOWS gathering, LGBT attendance is disproportionately higher than other fan fests.
Some have said that DARK SHADOWS’ gay fan base is greater than 50%. While no statistical studies have been taken to back that number up, it’s certainly undeniable that DS has a huge following among gay men and lesbians. Gay men and lesbians seem drawn to this strange, spooky soap opera, regardless of whether or not they grew up reading monster magazines or tuned in to their local CREATURE FEATURES show.
What is it about DARK SHADOWS that appeals to a Queer viewership?
DARK SHADOWS was, at times, quite brilliant. The saga of Barnabas Collins (Jonathan Frid) cursed into vampirism by the lovesick, scorned witch Angelique (Lara Parker) is an epic tragedy. Barnabas’ curse spills over to his family—virtually the entire 18th century Collins clan is wiped out in a matter of months. Classically trained Frid, who performed Shakespeare on stage throughout his career, played Barnabas as though he were playing Hamlet. He was given speeches the likes of which had never been heard on daytime TV before or since, and Frid proved that he was more than up to the challenge. For many viewers, DARK SHADOWS was their first encounter with anything even remotely resembling classical theater.
But DARK SHADOWS wasn’t produced at the Old Vic. It wasn’t shot at Pinewood, and Laurence Olivier wasn’t its director. DS was a soap opera, a daytime serial produced on video in a tiny TV studio in Manhattan. Though it borrowed heavily from literature and the horror classics of Universal Studios, it was produced on a soap opera budget. Five episodes were shot live-to-tape each week, while the sometimes frazzled cast often had to deal with period costumes and special effects that were unheard of on other soap sets. This resulted in the DS cast routinely going on camera slightly under-rehearsed. The results could, at times, be amusing, as DS actors were known for flubbing their lines.
The daytime TV budget didn’t exactly allow for elaborate special effects. When a bat appeared in the window, it looked like what it was: a paper puppet dangling from a screen. As the series introduced more and more monsters, as the storylines became more melodramatic, the cast began to perform their lines at a fever pitch which often approached hysteria.
In between its flashes of greatness, DARK SHADOWS could be quite campy.
In his 2011 book, TV MILESTONES: DARK SHADOWS, Harry M. Benshoff refers to the “cult of camp” which coalesced during DS’ 1960s heyday. It was a cult which appealed primarily to gay men. According to Benshoff, this cult “laughed at the excesses of Hollywood’s naive heterosexual melodramas, while simultaneously celebrating the bigger than life personas of actresses such as Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Mae West, etc.”
“Camp aficionados,” Benshoff wrote, also venerated “the stylistic excesses of certain genres such as the musical, the melodrama, or the horror film”.
These highly stylized, over-the-top excesses were often in evidence on DARK SHADOWS, particularly in the lovingly outrageous performances of Grayson Hall. Hall was an acclaimed New York stage actress who knew how to project her character’s emotions to audience members sitting way back in the cheap seats. Hall, who was nominated for an Oscar for playing a repressed lesbian in John Huston’s film of Tennessee Williams’ THE NIGHT OF THE IGUANA (1964) never pulled back for the more intimate television cameras. She recited her DARK SHADOWS dialogue at a fever pitch, almost as though she were acting in a silent movie. She quickly became one of DS’ most beloved performers. It’s not unusual to see gay men attending DS FESTIVALS in drag as Dr. Julia Hoffman, Hall’s signature role.
Jonathan Frid, now known to have been a gay man, lived and worked at a time when coming out of the closet was career suicide. The “lifelong bachelor” remained “discreet” about his private life until his dying day, just as Barnabas Collins had to go to great pains to hide his vampirism. When 1960s viewers watched Frid’s often magnificent performances, they were watching a man in the closet playing a man in the closet. This at a time when what was then called the Gay Liberation Movement first captured media attention. DARK SHADOWS’ popularity peaked in 1969, the same year that a sizable crowd of gay men, drag queens and transgenders fought against police harassment at Stonewall Inn, a popular gay bar in New York City, the event credited with launching the gay rights movement.
What, many have wondered, did DARK SHADOWS mean to young, closeted gay kids who watched the show as the world around them changed?
“Perhaps my gaydar was already working as a pre-teen since there were an extraordinary number of gay men among the cast’s leading actors,” says Patrick Henry, 53, an original DS viewer. “In addition, the motivations of many of the characters were extremely complex, so gay men could relate to all the forbidden attractions and twisted relationships.”
“With characters like Barnabas, Angelique, Willie, Adam, and so on, there was often an element of being an outsider, of not quite fitting in,” Henry adds. “That must have created a distinctive connection between the series and its gay fan base.”
Jim Provenzano, now an acclaimed gay novelist, expressed similar thoughts. “I suspect that I and other gay viewers must have had some sort of pre-teen ‘gaydar’ when watching DARK SHADOWS,” he says. “While I understood the closet the characters of Barnabas and Quentin lived in, I also empathized with the hunky actors’ travails, be they Quentin’s time travel and lycanthropy, or Joe Haskell’s (Joel Crothers) idealistic sense of honor while constantly being attacked by one treacherous incident after another.”
“The expanded storylines and the Gothic sensibilities sometimes mirrors aspects of gay life,” Provenzano continues. “We deal with the terrors of hatred, the longing of desire, and sometimes the discreet balance of choosing when to reveal our true identities for fear of being attacked as freaks.”
Wallace McBride, who isn’t gay, runs the popular, Rondo winning DS website THE COLLINSPORT HISTORICAL SOCIETY. He also sees the appeal of DS to those who live as outsiders. “So many of us are misfits,” McBride says. “There’s something comforting about Collinwood, where being a misfit is the status quo. There’s no such thing as an outsider on DARK SHADOWS. This aspect of the show might be compelling to people whose sexuality might have put them at odds with their own families.”
This column was written to coincide with LGBT Pride Month. Nearly 50 years since DARK SHADOWS made its debut, the misfits and the outsiders have become part of the mainstream.
Thanks to Wallace McBride for re-designing the iconic DS logo with the colors of the Rainbow Flag.
As as went to press, we were informed of a campaign to help longtime horror fan Harry H Long recover from the recent fire which destroyed his house and severely burnt parts of his body. Long has a lengthy history in journalism. He’s written many genre related stories for Scarlet: The Film Magazine, among others, and is the editor of the long running retro-horror fanzine Van Helsing’s Journal. Long has also written extensively for publications in the Erie, PA area, where he lives. He lost his home and nearly lost his life. If you’d like to help out, please PayPal a donation to firstname.lastname@example.org
We wish Harry Long a Happy Pride Month and a speedy recovery.