Ok, so I realize that I’m probably going to lose a little diva “street cred” when I admit this, but the highlight of October 2012 for me isn’t my Halloween costume (or rather, costumes – I mean, it IS the Gay High Holy Day!), a new piece of fabulous jewelry, or even some naughty sexual escapades which still make me blush to remember (don’t worry, you’ll read all about them eventually, in my memoirs!). No, for me the best and brightest October had to offer was the day that the Dark Shadows: Complete Original Series box set was delivered to my door. Well, technically to my OLD door – apparently changing your address in Amazon’s ordering system is something like solving a Sudoku puzzle. A close second is the day that Amazon featured the Dark Shadows: Complete Original Series box set as their Gold Box Deal-of-the-Day with FREE 2-day shipping for Prime members. Pause for reaction. If it wasn’t for Johnny Depp and Tim Burton teaming up to make the Dark Shadows film that came out earlier this year, most of you probably wouldn’t have any idea what I’m even talking about. Wait, you mean that was a series? Not only a series, children, but a soap opera.
My critical brain knows all of the reasons why I shouldn’t like DS as much as I do. The acting is over-the-top, even for a 7-plus foot tall drag queen like myself. Cheap sets shake when doors are slammed too hard and booms often make an appearance in the shot. The effects amount to little more than rubber bats on strings and a few gobos. Joan Bennett (Elizabeth Collins Stoddard) frequently forgets her lines or calls characters by the wrong name and Jonathan Frid (Barnabas Collins) spends most of the series rocking some pretty ridiculous guy-liner. There are so many reasons and yet the truth is that the heart loves what it loves. And what this heart loves is Lara Parker’s crazy eyes. Seriously, she looks like a nutjob.
As I tore into the layers of cardboard cushioning my new coffin-shaped, metallic embossed treasure, I started to think about all of those guilty pleasures that get nerdy hearts everywhere racing with anticipation and pleasure. What is it about certain books and movies and TV shows that spawn such dedicated (and sometimes obsessed) pools of fans? Why should a low-budget gothic soap opera that only aired for 5 years continue to live on in reruns, in VHS and DVD releases from MPI Home Video, in tie-in books and comics, in audio series produced by series stars like Lara Parker (Angelique Bouchard) and Kathryn Leigh Scott (Maggie Evans/Josette DuPres), and in live events like the annual Dark Shadows Festival?
There is something about the supernatural that appeals to a certain type of fan; in fact, Dark Shadows started as simply a soap opera with gothic elements and struggled for ratings until, faced with cancellation, producers introduced the now legendary vampire, Barnabas. Once the show turned toward the supernatural, it took off and added more and more occult elements including witches, werewolves, time travel, mad scientists, and more. But the supernatural alone can’t explain it. After all, there are higher quality supernatural thrillers out there. Perhaps it’s the campy nature of the show, its foibles and gaffs, that make it feel more real and true to certain audiences than other slick, perfected “highbrow” offerings. There is something to be said for a group of actors committing to their project and doing their best to deliver; part of the nature of true camp, as outlined by Susan Sontag, is that the participants treat their work with the utmost seriousness. And for all of their histrionics, the actors on Dark Shadows are nothing if not serious about their work. They are creating capital-T Theatre!
What I find most interesting about the development of fan communities is the fierceness with which they patrol what they see as their territory. When the trailer for the new DS film was first posted online, I remember reading flaming critiques, paragraph after paragraph of bile about how Johnny Depp and Tim Burton were destroying the sanctity of the Collins family – all from a 30 second television preview! There is a sense of ownership that develops in many of these fan communities: they want their beloved show to live on, but only under their terms. When a fresh eye is turned to the source material, the “true” fans balk, horrified at any and all changes.
The new Dark Shadows offers many changes for fans of the original series to rant and rave about. It would be impossible to create a film without making some concessions to format: after all, Burton and crew had the task of boiling down an iconic daytime show with 1225 half-hour episodes and a multitude of storylines and character changes into the confines of a feature-length film. Perhaps I’m forfeiting my “true” fandom by saying I think they did a fairly good job of it, and the film included quite a few subtle nods to fans of the original series. The inclusion of Windcliff Sanitarium and cameos by Frid, Parker, Scott, and David Selby (Quentin Collins) were the most palatable; other choices seemed to raise more ire in fan forums: combining Victoria Winters and Maggie Evans into a single character, making Carolyn a werewolf (an homage to the character of Quentin Collins, whose popularity was arguably second only to Barnabas, without complicating the film’s plot), and using intentional humor to mirror the campy tone of the original series.
But whether they loved it hated it, what fascinates me most is the level of devotion that fans can achieve. And not just for Dark Shadows. Fans of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel are just as loyal and passionate about their supernatural shows. Droves of middle-aged women calling themselves “Claymates” follow American Idol runner-up Clay Aiken’s career like Will & Grace-era Dead Heads. Marvel and DC continue to wage their war to capture the hearts of comic book nerds with their tales of spandex-clad superheroics. Battlestar Galactica fans divide up into classic versus reimagined and lob insults at one another from across the cultural divide. Soccer moms across the nation blush over their secret fantasies unearthed by Fifty Shades of Grey.
And perhaps the worst of the worst: “Twi-hards” devour books and movies filled with (poorly written and acted) romance and terror cooked up in the Mormon-housewife mind of Stephanie Meyer, and fiercely debate the merits of Team Edward versus Team Jacob. Here’s a newsflash Twi-tards: the only redeeming feature of any of this dreck is that scenes of Taylor Lautner and the wolf pack can be cut together into some pretty good soft-core fantasy material. And if you are on Team Edward, you need to understand something about your life: you are a fag hag. And not the positive, well-adjusted, hip and trendy kind. The tragic, under-sexed, buying-Fancy-Feast-in-bulk for your 27 furry “life companions” kind. How did I make this conceptual leap, you might ask? Simple: any man who sparkles in the sunlight and wants to sit on your bed and pet your hair is gay. Kinsey 6 gay. Farting unicorns gay. Either accept it and move on to a sweaty FWB relationship with the hot werewolf, or get ready for a lot of lonely nights at home. Enjoy your lifetime subscription to Cat Fancy, loser.
You might have guessed from reading the previous paragraph that I have not set up camp in the Twilight fan community. That’s another thing about fandom: it’s ever so easy to mock and degrade the obsessions of others while holding on to our own without a second thought. Because at least Dark Shadows is good, right? RIGHT?!
So, tell me about your obsessions: what you love, what you hate, what you love to hate. What’s your guilty pleasure? What’s your particular freaky fan obsession? Don’t leave me alone out here!
Tags: Angelique Bouchard, Barnabas Collins, Battlestar Galactica, Carolyn Stoddard, Chloe Grace Moretz, Collinsport, Collinwood, Dark Shadows, Dark Shadows Complete original series, David Selby, DC Comics, Elizabeth Collins Staddard, Eva Green, fan obsession, fandom, Fifty Shades of Grey, Grayson Hall, Helena Bonham Carter, Janessa, Janessa Jaye, Janessa Jaye Champagne, Johnny Depp, Jonathan Frid, Josette DuPres, Julia Hoffman, Kathryn Leigh Scott, Lara Parker, Maggie Evans, magic, Marvel Comics, Michelle Pfeifer, MPI Home Video, Pomegranate Press, Quentin Collins, Stephanie Meyer, supernatural, Tim Burton, Twilight, vampires, Victoria Winters, werewolves, Willie Loomis, witches