Me and My Shadows
by Craig Hamrick
People often ask me how my Dark Shadows experiences started. I came at it a little bit backwards. I was born in 1966, a few months after the show premiered -- and it was canceled before I was old enough to watch. So, I didn't see any episodes of the show until more than 20 years later, when it was released on video. Still, Dark Shadows was an important part of my childhood.
I grew up in a little town in Kansas, called Coffeyville. I was a bit of a nerd. I wore thick glasses, was physically awkward, and loved books more than baseball. I was that stereotypical kid who always got picked last on the playground. I couldn't quote NFL statistics like the rest of the boys my age, but I did know the words to dozens of Broadway show tunes.
And sure, like any other boy my age, I had that famous Farrah Fawcett-Majors poster on my bedroom door -- but already I knew I was more turned on by her Six Million Dollar Man hubby, Lee Majors.
Like any blossoming gay kid in a small town, I sometimes retreated into a world of my imagination. And one of the fixtures of that world was a big, spooky house called Collinwood.
I loved old TV shows, and I was a collector. I prowled garage sales and thrift shops, acquiring TV-related comic books, board games, trading cards -- and especially books. I had novels based on all my favorites: The Partridge Family, Get Smart, Bewitched, The Munsters and even The Brady Bunch. And then one day I happened across a book that altered the course of my life. I didn't recognize the title: It was called Victoria Winters, but small letters on the cover proclaimed, "Based on the hit ABC-TV show, Dark Shadows!" Without much thought, I added it to my collection.
I must've been about 10 years old when I picked up that first Dark Shadows paperback, and I'd never even heard of the TV show. But when I sat down to read it, just a few pages in, I was hooked. The story centered on Victoria, a young, beautiful governess at a haunted, seaside mansion called Collinwood. Vicki was an orphan, and she had come to Collinwood to discover who she was; she hoped she was related to the Collins family, but she wasn't sure. When that book ended, it still hadn't been revealed who Vicki's parents were, and that lingering question compelled me to find more of the books in the series.
It took me a few years, but I finally collected the whole set of DS novels. Their distinctive olive-green spines with black, block-letter titles were easy to pick out in the dusty bookshelves of Coffeyville's used book stores and church thrift shops. When I grew old enough to drive, I widened my scope to neighboring towns like Caney and Independence, Kansas; and Bartlesville, Oklahoma. (I later learned that Nancy Barrett, the beautiful blonde featured on the cover of my favorite volume -- Barnabas, Quentin and the Vampire Beauty -- had grown up in Bartlesville, but that's a whole 'nother story.)
I was disappointed to eventually learn that Vicki never found the truth about her past. She simply vanished. In one book she was still the governess, and in the next, a character named Maggie had taken her place at Collinwood. But still, I loved the quest, searching for those books. And reading them was a great escape. I dreamed of living in the spooky, big house that was pictured on the cover of some of the books. Eventually I even found a few Dark Shadows comic books, and those were fun to read, too.
Dark Shadows was all mine. No one else my age had ever heard of it. There was nobody to talk to about it, and in a way I liked that. My love for Dark Shadows was just one of many secrets I kept buried when I was a kid. Maybe I identified a little bit with Barnabas Collins, who had to hide the fact he was a vampire, just like I had to hide the fact I was realizing I was gay. Or maybe Victoria's uncertainty seemed familiar; she wasn't sure who she really was. Neither was I.
As I got older, I still didn't feel comfortable being "out" about who I was -- not to my friends, or family members, or co-workers. So, I did a lot of self-editing. I didn't talk about my love life (not that there was that much to talk about). And more times than I can count, something amusing would occur to me that I wouldn't say, because it either dealt directly with my sexuality, or it might offer a clue that would give away my secret.
I'm a little sad to admit that that's how my life was until my mid-20s. And interestingly enough, Dark Shadows -- the world that had been a refuge for me as a child -- helped me realize it was ok to step out into the light.
I rediscovered Dark Shadows in 1989, when I was 23. I was in college, and years earlier I'd left those paperbacks and comics behind at my parents' house. At a video store, I recognized an old "friend" -- Barnabas Collins on the sleeve of a tape. I rented it, to get a chance after all those years to finally see the show that had inspired the books I'd loved so much.
It was a thrill to watch some of the characters I'd read about spring to life. By modern standards, it wasn't exactly great television: The pace was slow, the sets were obviously put together on a limited budget, and some of the actors had trouble remembering their lines. But there was something hypnotically magical about the show. Just like the books had hooked me when I was a kid, the TV show really drew me in.
At the end of the tape, there was an ad with an address for the official Dark Shadows fan club. I wrote and got a list of all the fan-produced newsletters and books that were being published at the time. I ordered a few of them and became aware of "fandom." To my surprise, I wasn't the only person in the world who remembered Dark Shadows. There were even annual conventions: Dark Shadows Festivals in Los Angeles and New York City.
In 1993, I attended a Dark Shadows Festival at the Marriott Marquis in Times Square. I'd been to New York briefly, twice before, but this visit I'd decided to really get a look at the city.
I'd made a friend named Max on the Internet, and we decided to be roommates at the Marquis. Max lived in Los Angeles, but he'd spent a lot of time in New York, so he knew his way around and he showed me the sights. My fondest memory is of a trip we took one night to Greenwich Village. We went to a piano bar called Marie's Crisis. It was my first visit to a New York gay bar, and I was a bit overwhelmed. The pianist played Broadway show tunes -- but unlike when I was a kid, I wasn't the only one who knew the words. Everyone sang along. I got goose-bumps standing in a room with 50 or 60 gay men, all singing "Somewhere...there's a place for us...." It didn't take a ton of bricks to make me realize that place was right where I was.
That weekend, at the Festival, for the first time I didn't edit myself. If something funny popped into my head, and it happened to give away my sexuality, well, what did I have to lose? I said it. And everyone around didn't shun me; they laughed. It was my first tentative step out of the closet. I acted like myself, and I was accepted. And spending that weekend in New York with Max was like a little preview of what it might feel like to have a boyfriend, and to live in a city. It was a bit overwhelming, but very exciting.
When I got back home to Kansas, my mind was reeling. I still wasn't quite ready to come out, but it was finally occurring to me that there was life outside the world I'd lived in so far. Within a couple years, I found the courage to pack a couple of suitcases and move to New York. I didn't have a job. I didn't have a long-term place to stay. But I knew I had to try.
Things went surprisingly well. I quickly found work as a freelance editor and writer at several large publishing houses. And a few years later, I opened my own photography studio in Manhattan.
I also became one of the luckiest Dark Shadows fans. I worked on writing projects with several of the New York-based stars of the show, including Louis Edmonds, Diana Millay, Marie Wallace, and the long-reclusive Nancy Barrett. They became my friends, part of my self-made, growing New York family. And hearing first-hand stories, I learned about the history of the TV series. Later I also met and worked with some of the West Coast-based actors, including David Selby and Lara Parker.
One of my first projects was a book I wrote -- Big Lou, about the life and career of Louis Edmonds, who played Roger Collins. Soon after moving to New York, I approached Louis with the idea of writing his biography -- an idea he loved. And we never specifically discussed whether we'd talk about the fact he was gay, but it was just part of the book, from our first interview. I couldn't imagine telling his life story without talking about the great loves of his life, both of whom were men.
The first edition of Big Lou took about a year to write. And just like I was telling Louis's life story without holding back, I began telling my own that way too. I came out to my friends and family members.
One of the greatest thrills I've had in my career has been reading fan mail about Big Lou. So many people -- gay and straight -- have written letters and e-mails to Louis and to me, thanking us for telling his life story bravely -- for treating his sexuality very matter-of-factly. And for years, people have come up to one or both of us at the Festivals to say the same thing in person. Sometimes they turn out to be gay and visiting the city from a small town, just like I did.
You can't say a story ends "happily ever after," while it's still in progress, and my story is. Things have worked out well in New York. As a freelance writer/editor and photographer, my clients have included Martha Stewart Living, Fortune magazine and BBDO advertising. I met a wonderful guy named Joe, who I live with (and we occasionally visit Marie's Crisis). And Dark Shadows has remained an important part my life -- a TV show that helped me discover who I was and where I was meant to be.