It’s a story that starts out a little rocky, but don’t worry: it has a happy ending.
I didn’t anticipate the happy ending when it all started of course. I’d been planning my trip to attend the Dark Shadows 2016 Festival for almost a year: I made sure to get the date on my work calendar to ensure I’d have that time off, I made my plane reservation months in advance when I got my stock payout in November (for a festival that wasn’t happening until the following June), and I started looking around at souvenirs and books to get signed by the series’ stars. It was the 50th anniversary of when the show premiered, so I was hoping that it would be a huge showing; I even had a glimmer of hope that maybe Kate Jackson, who got her start on Dark Shadows before moving on to other great shows that also helped shape my childhood like Charlie’s Angels and Scarecrow and Mrs. King and who attends DS events only rarely and sporadically, would feel compelled by the milestone to make an appearance. The stars are getting older and so many of the core cast have already passed away, including Jonathan Frid, Joan Bennett, and my personal favorite, Grayson Hall. Even though I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect, I put the Dark Shadows Festival on my bucket list and was ready to get that one marked off.
Now, the DS Festival is pretty low tech. You have to wait for things to be posted on the website and then send in checks (seriously, actual physical checks – is this the 90s?) through the mail. I watched the website pretty diligently and got my checks on the way about 2 months before the events and started to gather all of my DS goodies in preparation for my trip. I almost died when I had a letter from the Festival in my mailbox, containing what I assumed were all of my event tickets. I almost died again when I opened it and found my original checks and a letter explaining that all of the Saturday events and most of the Sunday events were already sold out and that if I wanted to attend the events that were still left, I should submit new checks – and to hurry, because those would probably sell out as well.
I was devastated. I’d been planning and obsessing over this festival for almost a year; as much as I wanted to go and meet the DS stars, my occasionally practical mind knew that it didn’t make sense to pay flight and hotel to go to a few random events. And even though I would be very close to New York, I would waste so much time travelling back and forth to the DS events in Tarrytown and just random time-killing activities in the local area. And after all the planning and anticipation, I knew I couldn’t be there, and not be there. You know?
So I went into research mode. My flight was non-refundable, but for $200 I could change the location. I already had the time off in our very busy calendar at work, so I started Google searching for any other random events that were happening at the same time:
Drag Convention June 24-26
Sci Fi Convention June 24-26
Comic Book Convention June 24-26
Movie Convention June 24-26
Writer’s Conference June 24-26
Makeup Show June 24-26
Horror Convention June 24-26
With that last search, I finally hit on something that piqued my interest: a little convention called Days of the Dead. They have five annual events (Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta, Indianapolis, and Louisville) and their Indianapolis event was scheduled for the same weekend as the DS festival. I’ve always been a fan of horror movies, especially 80s slashers, and there were a couple of people on the list I was interested in meeting, namely Kristy Swanson from the original Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Ginger Lynn, the former porn star who has found quite a bit of mainstream success in horror films and in the 90s comedies Vice Academy 1, 2, and 3. They still had a few VIP tickets available which gave some good benefits like early entry, line cuts, and some swag. I felt a little bit let down, but called Carlson Wagonlit and had them switch all of my hotel and flight reservations to Indianapolis. It wasn’t what I had hoped to be doing, but I was determined to make the best of it.
Once I made that decision, things started to fall into place. The change fee on my ticket was $200, but because I was flying into a major hub instead of a small, regional airport, I saved $198 on the new fare so my trip change only cost me two dollars. The hotel where the con was happening was already booked, but I was able to get one nearby that would save me about $50 a night on what I would have been paying on my other trip. And as the event drew closer, they kept adding more and more people and events I was very excited to see. Shawnee Smith from the Saw franchise and Stephen King’s The Stand. John Heder from Napoleon Dynamite (how he fits in with a horror con I’m not exactly sure, but I was down for it!). Derek Mears from Friday the 13th. John Franklin and Courtney Gains from Children of the Corn. Linnea Quigley, one of the biggest scream queens from my teenage years and the other star of the first two Vice Academy movies. The vendor list included Lunatick Cosmetics Labs, one of best indie brands I’ve discovered in the last couple of years.
Then, about a week before I left for the trip, they announced another special guest: Felissa Rose from Sleepaway Camp.
I remember seeing the box cover for Sleepaway Camp as a kid at the Kenmare Jack ‘n’ Jill. My love of horror was bubbling beneath the surface and I was still somewhere between enjoyment and pure terror. The cover art featured a tennis shoe impaled on a large hunting knife and hand-written letter from a kid feeling nervous about the strange events at camp before the line just trails off. I didn’t see it then; I didn’t have my first viewing until high school. But even then the visuals had an impact on me.
Once I saw it, I was captivated (though I wouldn’t be able to fully describe why until later, when I was writing about the film for my MA thesis). On the surface, it seems like just another 80s camp slasher along the lines of Friday the 13th, The Burning, or Cheerleader Camp. But there are a number of things in this movie that set it apart from others in the genre, and parts of it I’m still grappling with to this day. First of all, the victims include not only adults and teenagers, but also younger children. Generally in these films, the victims are at least older teenagers, if not adults. Think of Halloween: Michael Myers dispatches babysitters without thinking, but the children in their care are generally safe. Many read slashers as morality tales where those who sin (through drinking, smoking pot, or having naughty nekkid time with their fellow victims) are killed while the uptight, virginal “final girl” is the one who survives, and so it makes sense that pre-adolescents would represent innocence and therefore be safe. But Sleepaway Camp is less about guilt vs. innocence and is more keenly focused on puberty and sexual awakening. And no one is safe.
If you haven’t seen it, I’m about to ruin the ending for you so I guess this is your obligatory spoiler alert (though if you feel you need a spoiler alert for a movie that came out in 1983, then you probably need to be punched in the face). Although her hot-headed cousin Ricky (Jonathan Tiersten) is put forward as a sort of red herring, it’s easy to guess that awkward teen Angela is actually the killer. What you might not guess is the reason why she’s doing it: in a series of flashbacks tied to the film’s opening in which a brother and sister are involved in a boating accident, we learn that Angela is actually Peter, the little boy from the accident, who has been forced by his guardian Aunt Martha to present himself as a girl. Once you know that, the murders have an added significance: it’s not just that the victims teased Angela, but their teasing always had some sort of sexual component to it or forced Angela into a confrontation with the reality of her body, and of the disconnect between that male body, the female persona she’s been forced to present, and her budding sexuality (and this is further framed by flashbacks that reveal that Peter and Angela’s father was in a same sex relationship).
Slasher films have a long history of portraying troubled constructions of gender (back to cross-dressing Norman Bates in the progenitor of the slasher genre, Psycho) but this film is the most explicit exploration of this theme that I’ve found. It became the focal point of an entire chapter in my thesis, and I’m still working my way through its depictions and what it might all mean. To say that I was excited to meet Felissa Rose, whose gape-mouthed primal scream as the credits rolled is still one of the most unsettling moments I’ve experienced in a horror film to date, is woefully inadequate.
I. Was. Obsessed.
I decided that I was going to do the whole con in full face. Forty dollars for a photo op seemed a little pricy to just add some snapshots to my collection…but if I could use them as promo images for my website, then that seemed like a much better value! I packed up some horror-themed outfits (including what I felt was a pretty nifty interpretation of Jaws) and hit the road. I checked into my hotel the night before, had a nice dinner at a restaurant called The Library, and got myself ready to paint a face for the coming day. And on the opening day I got there early – no way I was going to let that VIP pass go to waste!
Once inside I looked around for Felissa’s booth, but first stumbled across Ginger Lynn Allen. I’m a huge nerd for the Vice Academy movies, so I hopped in line to meet her and buy a signed photo of her and Linnea in Vice Academy 2. While I was waiting I realized that Felissa’s booth was actually right next to Ginger Lynn’s (nice detective work Nancy Drew!). As I noticed her, she just happened to look up from the poster she was signing; we made eye contact and she said, “Honey! I love you!” before going back to what she was doing.
I made my way through Ginger Lynn’s line (she was wonderful and so sweet; in addition to signing the photos I purchased she gave me a limited edition collector card from her XXX days because she thought I was fabulous) and then popped over to Felissa’s line. I immediately noticed how animated she was, and how open and genuine she was with everyone she met (it’s hard to know what to expect when your only exposure to her is as the nearly silent Angela in Sleepaway Camp). Instead of just talking about herself and her current projects (a new movie Death House is coming out in 2017), she was asking everyone about themselves, how they came to be at the con; there were several people she recognized from previous events and it was clear that she was a familiar face for those who follow the “horror circuit.” She’s gregarious and has an infectious laugh, and falls into conversation with people easily. When she said that I was going to be her favorite person at the con, I was smitten.
I was a little bit of an oddity at Days of the Dead, but not in a bad way – I don’t think a lot of 6-foot-2, plus-sized drag queens descend on these events! People were very friendly, asking to take pictures and inquiring about my outfits, and I didn’t get many strange looks. People who are fans of horror are used to getting more than their share of side eye from people who don’t understand the fandom, and the people I met were ready to welcome in another proud “freak” to their clan, even if I was a different sort of outsider than they were used to. For all the black clothing and heavy eyeliner and dark imagery, the whole event had a very warm, familial atmosphere. People would just stop to talk to one another about their favorite movies, their favorite bands, and their favorite moments of the day. There were a lot of volunteers to help people find their way around the event, but if you looked lost (as I have a tendency to do!) people were great about stopping to help. When large numbers of outsiders get together, it can go really, really well or it can go really, really badly; luckily this was definitely one of the times where people took the opportunity to relax and have a good time with others who share their love of an often maligned genre.
It was like coming home.
And most of the stars were extremely welcoming and really tried to create genuine connections with the fans. These aren’t people like Brad Pitt or Meryl Streep who sign a contract, show up on a set, and collect their millions of dollars like it’s just another day’s work. They are working very hard, often independent of any large studio to support them, to create films and projects that they love deeply. Yes, they are there to sell things like signed headshots and souvenirs (my personal favorite was a wooden stake signed by Kristy Swanson that she said she cut herself), but doing this helps them create the work that they love (and that we, the fans, also love). It reminds me of all the fantastic drag performers I know who work really hard to make the dollars that are shoved into the openings in their costumes as appreciative tips. They don’t do it for the dollars – they do it because they love performing, and love the connection with an audience – but the dollars help them do what they love, and help them do it bigger and better and more often.
In fact, I felt a sort of kindred spirit in a lot of these talented performers, working to create meaningful work in a world that often doesn’t treat creative people very kindly. I’ve gone into many shows and projects, especially those I’ve produced myself, wondering if I’d even make back the amount I put into the planning and production. I’ve paid a DJ with my rent money and just crossed my fingers, hoping we’d get enough people through the door for me to make it back (we did!). I’ve uncrumpled sweaty dollar bills in my hotel room at 3 in the morning, trying to do quick math to see if I’ve made back what I spent on gas, food, and the room for an out of town show. It’s not always easy, and I’m glad to spend some money to help support people that I think are doing fun, creative things.
It turns out that going to a horror convention and meeting all sorts of interesting, creative people is what should have been on my bucket list all along. If it wasn’t for the Dark Shadows Festival’s low capacity and refusal to update to modern technology, I might have spent a weekend sipping tea at the Lyndhurst Estate and chatting politely with Kathryn Leigh Scott about her time working as a Playboy bunny. And don’t get me wrong, I think that would have been great; meeting Kathryn Leigh Scott and Lara Parker is still on my bucket list. But I never would have found this other great community full of outsiders and artists who are doing their best to scare the pants off of willing audiences. I wouldn’t have met Jenny, a fabulous photographer who creates gorgeous images through her lens, or Kristy Swanson and her assistant who were so into this enormous drag queen, insisting that I come back to show off my outfits each day. I definitely wouldn’t have met Stacy, a fierce film distributor who is working to bring the voices of talented female filmmakers to audiences. I wouldn’t have gotten the chance to get killed off in a horror movie (another bucket list item!) – look for info about Cool As Hell 2: The Quest for God’s Bong as the release date gets closer!
And I never would have found Felissa Rose, the silent teenager whose murderous rampage has been rattling around in my brain, in my personal and academic lives, for at least two decades. To find out about the movie, and about her life since then; to see her emerge into my life as a real person instead of a celluloid image. And I wouldn’t have felt as refreshed and renewed in the creative process that I love so much. Seeing so many artists getting together and connecting with each other and with fans was inspiring and reminded me of why I do what I do as a performer.
I found all sorts of things I didn’t even know I was looking for.
(Just for kicks: here’s the ending of Sleepaway Camp if you want to see it – though I recommend you watch the whole thing!)
Tags: Angela, Aunt Martha, Brezinsky Photography, Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Carol Clover, Champagne Dreams Productions, Children of the Corn, Courtney Gains, Days of the Dead, Days of the Dead Indianapolis, Derek Mears, drag art, drag king, drag performance, drag queen, drag show, drag troupe, Felissa Rose, Final Girl, Friday the 13th, Ginger Lynn, Ginger Lynn Allen, Halloween, Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers, Indianapolis, Janessa, Janessa J, Janessa J Champagne, Janessa Jaye, Janessa Jaye Champagne, Jason Voorhees, Jaws, Jenny Brezinski, John Franklin, Jonathan Tiersten, Kristy Swanson, Linnea Quigley, Michael Myers, Miss Jaye, PJ Soles, Psycho, Saw, Saw 2, Saw 3, Shawnee Smith, Slasher Films, Sleepaway Camp, Stephen King's The Stand, The Blob, The Burning, The Stand, Vice Academy, World of Champagne