Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Put a Lid On It

I'm always a little relieved when some fad sweeps through the culture without requiring my involvement. I might not be able to avoid the ripples that radiate in my direction, but I don't have the need or desire to get wet. It's a bit like the Macarena craze of the mid-90s; you knew it was out there somewhere but you didn't have to do a thing about it.

The Twilight saga is one such fad. With the current release of the third film in the series, it's pretty clear the latest incarnation of the stalwart vampire genre is holding on strong. But really, it's such an anemic franchise, if you'll forgive the pun, so chaste and yearning and unconsummated, that it's hard to believe the legions of Twitwards, as one blogger calls them, still find it so enthralling, especially after such prolonged teasing and foreplay. The phenomenon is comparable to the fervor ignited by generations of androgynous pop stars, from Davy Jones to David Cassidy to Justin Bieber -- they function as idols of worship for tweens because their boyish appeal is so non-threatening. And middle-aged wives aren't being unfaithful to their husbands if they're supporting an entertainment figure who looks like he should be mowing the lawn. The only difference is that the current craze reflects the particular aesthetic of our day: the latest round of unobtainable vampires and werewolves have abs you could crack walnuts on. 

I'm old enough to remember a vampire craze that now seems largely forgotten. It was a daytime occult soap opera called Dark Shadows, and its very unlikely super star was a former stage actor from Canada named Jonathan Frid, already well into his 40s at the start of the show's run in 1966. The premise involved an 18th-century vampire named Barnabas Collins who appears at the spooky seaside family estate of his extended cousins and stirs up an ongoing supernatural saga. Like the current vampire franchise it involved the search for a lost love, the loneliness of immortality, and the quest for normalcy. My best friend and I would run home from Catholic school to catch the show every week day, which, now that I think about it, may have constituted a form of blasphemy to the dour Sisters of St. Joseph who ruled us with an iron, knuckle-cracking yard stick.

We loved the show because it was set in Maine, where we lived in a small town, and because it served up a never-ending parade of werewolves, ghosts and ghouls. The series contained enough time travel and parallel universes to rival Lost, and the production values were so clumsy that you often glimpsed a technician walking through a crypt or a boom microphone dangling above Barnabas' coffin. Still, many performers who appeared on Dark Shadows went on to far greater success, such as Kate Jackson, who got her start on the program.

Yet the show became so popular that Frid became a cultural icon. His haggard, not-very-handsome face, with its trademark five-pointed bangs (decades before Bart Simpson debuted his own pointy 'do) looked out from dozens of magazines each week for years. There were even full-length feature films to syphon off more lucre from a very willing public. 

The unique conundrum of the vampire has been an enduring entertainment platform for a century now. I think that's because a story about being different will always have an audience, especially for adolescents struggling with the universal truths of growing up. For Jonathan Frid the full flush of fame eventually faded and he found himself typecast as a fanged night wanderer with a wolf's head walking stick. But ever the trouper, at 85 he still makes personal appearances and receives a steady flow of fan mail that long ago ebbed into something closer to a trickle. 
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