Why do Dark Shadows fans hate so much?
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Dark Shadows was a daytime drama like no other. From June 27, 1966 until April 2, 1971, it brought tales of vampires, werewolves, witches, ghosts and time travel to daytime-TV audiences. For three of its five-year run, Dark Shadows was one of the most talked-about TV shows in the USA. It commanded a daily audience of 20 million viewers. The series was featured in The New York Times and Newsweek magazine, a then-unheard-of achievement for a soap opera.
It was the April 1967 introduction of Barnabas Collins, a 175-year-old vampire, that catapulted Dark Shadows into the stratosphere. Barnabas was portrayed by Jonathan Frid (1924-2012), a classically trained stage actor who played the role as though he were playing Shakespeare. Audiences were mesmerized, and Frid, then 43, found himself cast as a most unlikely sex symbol and teen idol.
Jonathan Frid was a gay man. In 1967, coming out would have been career suicide, so he remained "discreet." But during the 1970s, in the years immediately following the Stonewall Riots, Frid may have taken a few steps out of the closet. He could often be seen enjoying cocktails at Julius', a popular gay bar in New York's Greenwich Village, and was photographed at the gay beach on New York's Fire Island with his Dark Shadows co-star Louis Edmonds.
Many gay fans have said that the sight of Jonathan Frid, a closeted gay man playing a closeted vampire, awakened the first stirrings of their own sexualities. Yet at Dark Shadows Festivals, the annual fan gatherings, and in Dark Shadows chatrooms on Facebook, discussions of Frid's sexuality or gay subtext on the series have been deemed taboo. Many LGBT fans report being bullied and threatened for attempting to discuss these issues.
One person who feels the brunt of these abuses is Gio Sue, an openly gay Italian man in New York who works in musical theater. Sue told the B.A.R. he receives daily hate mail as a reaction to his Facebook page, "Jonathan Frid Was Gay and That's OK."
"If Jonathan Frid had come out, would his so-called fans have celebrated his bravery, or would they have branded him as demonic as his character?" Sue asked, speaking to the B.A.R. "The true demons are the ones who refuse to recognize all the aspects of Mr. Frid's historic legacy as they terrorize other gay fans."
"I find this page to be offensive," Dark Shadows fan Thomas Cianci wrote to Gio Sue on April 29. "You're using the name/likeness of movie/TV legends to further your own ends and bring attention to yourself. Now that is what I call offensive and disturbing."
On June 29, Sue was banned from "Jonathan Frid Treasures," a Facebook chatroom, for attempting to start a discussion of Frid's sexuality. Elana Nacanther, who runs the Jonathan Frid Treasures Group, told the B.A.R. that Sue was banned because his post was "not on topic."
"I'd rather not say anything on the subject because as far as I'm concerned a person's sexuality is none of my business," Nacanther said. "I don't want my love life discussed, so why would I invade anyone else's privacy?"
Other gay fans report incidents in which physically disabled fans were laughed at for being "ugly," or where fans with mental disabilities were taunted for being "sick."
"Although there are many kind, reasonable people who enjoy Dark Shadows and its fandom, there are far more self-centered, unkind, in some cases even cruel, unfeeling souls who delight in causing others pain and strife," gay lifelong fan Tim Goss told the B.A.R. "They seem to look for vulnerability or weakness, then pounce."
Goss said that he was at a loss to understand why the conduct is so virulent. Jim Pierson, who runs the Dark Shadows Festivals, and members of the Dark Shadows cast have been made aware of the behavior. Pierson told the B.A.R. that claims of discrimination against LGBT people or people with disabilities are "false and erroneous."
"I am sorry that you believe yourself to be a perpetual victim, and I hope you will seek careful counseling from qualified professionals," Pierson said. "Avoid those with whom you have tangible, legitimate conflict in your life."
" Throughout Dark Shadows fandom, there are superficial people that have cruelly offended others and divided themselves into packs," said Joe and Jean Blasy, a straight couple in Sacramento, both staunch LGBT allies. "Their purpose is to target the victims whom they hate. I wonder if they intentionally want to make trouble because they're so bored with the life they have that they need to bully people."
Jean Blasy told the B.A.R. that at a recent Dark Shadows Festival, an irate fan whom she's never spoken to slammed a door on her shoulder. Blasy has no idea why she was attacked, and most likely won't be attending future Dark Shadows fan events.
"I'm sorry to see what Dark Shadows fandom has become," David MacDowell Blue, a lifelong fan, said. "It's a cesspool of seething hatred. The worst fandom ever."
"To witness so much homophobia and bullying among the fan base of a long-defunct TV series is disheartening," added Patrick Henry, a gay Dark Shadows fan in San Francisco.
"When strangers gather in crowds, whether for a festival or on social media, some people seem to feel more at liberty to say whatever they damn well please," said Marie Maginity, a political columnist who writes Dark Shadows fan fiction under the pen name Mad Margaret. "On Facebook, Dark Shadows fans have got into vicious fights over which characters should have been romantically involved, whether or not a certain actor was gay, or personal differences."
Is Dark Shadows fandom a mirror image of the bruised egos that seem to have taken over our society, or is it just the victim of old-fashioned homophobic hate? It appears to be a little of both. Where does that leave gay fans, many of whom have faced a lifetime of exclusion from society?
"The worst mass shooting in US history since Wounded Knee," Gio Sue wrote at the "Jonathan Frid Was Gay" page on the day of the recent mass shooting at Pulse, the gay club in Orlando. "This is why the truth about our public figures is necessary. And one more reason to honor the memory of a great gay man."
Two years of Dark Shadows episodes are streaming free of charge at Hulu: hulu.com/dark-shadows-1966. The complete series can also be purchased in a coffin-shaped DVD box set, and a new 50th Anniversary Dark Shadows best-of compilation is also available on DVD.