Get SF Weekly Newsletters

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Bay of the Living Dead: Why Jonathan Frid's Homosexuality Matters

Posted By on Thu, Apr 2, 2015 at 10:00 AM

Louis Edmonds and Jonathan Frid, sometime in the 1970s. - UNKNOWN
  • Unknown
  • Louis Edmonds and Jonathan Frid, sometime in the 1970s.
Welcome to Bay of the Living Dead, a twice-monthly column about the horror genre.

I ran home from school to watch Dark Shadows. No television show before or since has ever ever fired up my imagination as much as this bizarre, quirky soap opera about vampires, werewolves, witches, and ghosts. 

Dark Shadows ran for 1225 episodes on ABC each weekday afternoon from June 27, 1966 until April 2, 1971. Though officially classified as a soap opera, Dark Shadows "borrowed" many of it's storylines from classic horror tales such as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and Henry James' The Turn of the Screw, as well as venerable faves like Dracula, Frankenstein and The Wolfman. For about three years, Dark Shadows was a national craze—millions of kids were mesmerized by this grand horror show. 

Jonathan Frid, a little-known, 43-year-old Shakespearean actor, became an unlikely sex symbol when he was cast as Barnabas Collins, a 175-year-old vampire who presented himself to his 20th century family as his own great-grandson. He was also deep in the closet; at the time, so was Jonathan Frid. 

click to enlarge Jonathan Frid as Barnabas Collins - UNKNOWN
  • Unknown
  • Jonathan Frid as Barnabas Collins
Closeted-ness was a necessity in the 1960s, when Frid first joined Dark Shadows about nine months into its run. And yet, many viewers knew the truth, especially young, closeted gay kids who were glued to their TV sets every time Barnabas bared his fangs. For many in those pre-Stonewall days, watching Dark Shadows was their first taste of watching a character on a TV show who spoke to their sexual identity.

"Perhaps my gaydar was already working as a pre-teen, since there was an extraordinary number of gay men among the cast's leading actors," said San Francisco resident Patrick Henry. "In addition, the motivations of many of the characters were extremely complex. Gay men could relate to all the forbidden attractions and twisted relationships."

Bobby Collins remembers feeling a "kinship" with Jonathan Frid when he first watched Dark Shadows as a closeted gay teen. "When I found out that he was gay it made me feel better because the actor I most look up to was also gay," Collins said. "

Sadly, a small but maliciously vocal group of Dark Shadows fans has invaded many of the show's chat-rooms as well as the annual Dark Shadows Festivals. They have made it a "crime" to discuss Jonathan Frid's sexuality, often resorting to bullying and threats in order to silence those who know and speak the truth. Not one of these self-appointed protectors of Jonathan Frid's legacy are  members of his family. Nor do they have any claims on his estate.

John Reuben Crews, a Dark Shadows fan and a gay activist, experienced the negativity first hand.

"I'm sure the Dark Shadows cast members wouldn't treat the LGBT community this way," Crews said. "It is a shame that there are so many Dark Shadows fans who are homophobic, even though some of the Dark Shadows actors were actually gay."

Crews, who administers a Facebook page called Gay News, reports that he's been denied membership into a number of Dark Shadows chat-rooms. "It is pretty evident it is due to me being gay," Crews said. "Which shouldn't have anything to do with my eligibility as a fan to join a group."  

Crews, who is a "next gen" fan, discovered the show in reruns long after its initial airing. "I realize that I'm a younger fan, and some from that older generation are still very prejudiced towards homosexuals," he said.

"A lot of the fans do go out of their way to hurt each other," said Heidi Jo Helmick, a lifelong Dark Shadows fan. "I would say that homophobia plays a part in this to a degree."

click to enlarge 10333422_310428189126493_5765789581026603923_o.jpg
"An actor gives a performance to bring joy to people," said Bobby Collins. "When you make the show a negative experience by resorting to bullying and silencing other fans you are negating the good work that actor did."

How closeted was Jonathan Frid? While he never publicly came out, he did, during the many years he lived in New York City, patronize several gay bars. He allowed himself to be photographed with Louis Edmonds, his openly gay co-star, on a gay beach in New York. 

Frid died in May 2012 at the age of 87. He was a gentleman to the end, always conducting himself with the utmost dignity and class. To gay kids who watched him get out of that coffin and search for his long dead love, he remains a pivotal icon. Barnabas Collins, the lonely vampire who felt cursed by the undead state he was forced to live in, gave his young gay viewers, many of whom were forced by society to live equally lonely lives, a hero they could believe in.

It matters that Jonathan Frid was himself a gay man. It matters that his work meant so much to those kids who discovered him when it wasn't OK to be gay. It matters now more than ever as religious conservatives escalate their attempts to chip away at the gains that LGBT people have made, as we're now seeing in Indiana and other red states. We must not only fight for our rights, we must also claim our heroes.

Dark Shadows ended its network run 44 years ago today, on April 2, 1971.Today we remember it's star, Jonathan Frid, and honor him as a great actor and a beloved gay icon.     

Dark Shadows can be purchased on DVD at Amazon. On May 25, it will begin airing on Decades, a new, retro-themed television network. Decades will be available in the Bay Area over the air on channel 5.2 to digital receiver owners.         

Special announcement: This column, Bay of the Living Dead, has been nominated in the Best Blog/Online Column category in this year's Rondo Hatton Classic Horror Film Awards. We'd appreciate your vote.
Please email your vote for Bay of the Living Dead to 
Be sure to specify column title and category when voting. 
We especially urge LGBT-identified Dark Shadows and horror fans to vote. 
Please also vote for my pal Ansel Faraj's film Theatre Fantastique: Madame LaSoeur in the Best Short Film Category. Faraj's film features 4—count 'em—4 Dark Shadows stars in it's cast. 
The full Rondo Ballot can be seen here:             


  • Pin It

Tags: , , ,

Comments (31)

Showing 1-25 of 31


Comments are closed.

Popular Stories

  1. Most Popular Stories
  2. Stories You Missed

Like us on Facebook


  • clipping at Brava Theater Sept. 11
    Sub Pop recording artists 'clipping.' brought their brand of noise-driven experimental hip hop to the closing night of 2016's San Francisco Electronic Music Fest this past Sunday. The packed Brava Theater hosted an initially seated crowd that ended the night jumping and dancing against the front of the stage. The trio performed a set focused on their recently released Sci-Fi Horror concept album, 'Splendor & Misery', then delved into their dancier and more aggressive back catalogue, and recent single 'Wriggle'. Opening performances included local experimental electronic duo 'Tujurikkuja' and computer music artist 'Madalyn Merkey.'"