The very first man I had a crush on, when I was just a kid, wasn't entirely conscious. He was in a zombie trance. And his name was Quentin Collins.
Quentin was a dreamy zombie in a scary, odd little television series called Dark Shadows. He was played by David Selby with a glazed stare and sideburns the size of the Florida peninsula. I bought the Dark Shadows album just for the Quentin poster inside -- which eclipsed the images on my bedroom walls of Bobby Sherman and David Cassidy. Lots of other Gay boys must have caught sight of Quentin, because I'm convinced there are a disproportionate number of queers who love being scared to death.
Dark Shadows was the beginning of my fascination with all things gruesome. After short stints growing up with magic kits, Ouija boards, and candlelight seances in my garage, I found the perfect outlet for my morbid fascination at the movies.
Before there was Freddy Kruger or Jason, there was Vincent Price. Late in his career he slummed his way through several gory, perfectly fabulous movies, including my favorite, "Theater of Blood." The opening of that fright fest was truly an adolescent milestone for me.
After standing in line for over an hour, I discovered the movie was rated "R" and wasn't allowed inside. I walked home with visions of decapitations and mayhem fading like an old blood stain. But then my mother made her grandest gesture of my childhood.
She went back with me for the late show.
My gratitude for her company was short lived. I knew I couldn't be seen sitting in an R-rated horror movie with my mom, so, on the pretense of going for popcorn, I abandoned her to sit with other kids in the third row.
We screeched with delight as Vincent Price -- who murdered people by recreating the killings of Shakespearean tragedies -- slashed his way through the movie. I enjoyed the bloodbath but felt guilty about Mom sitting patiently in the back, and sheepishly returned to her before the second reel.
I realized she wasn't mad when she tipped her popcorn bag in my direction. I munched happily, turning to apologize just as Vincent approached another victim.
"Hush honey," she said, anticipating me. She had a grin on her face, a half giggle in progress really, and was glued to the screen. "Watch this ... it's The Merchant of Venice!" Throughout the rest of the movie she recited Shakespeare along with Vincent as he slayed with hideous delight. That night, through Mom's love of literature and my love of creative executions, we hooted and bonded through all the gore our eyeballs could handle.
At college, I met Lesley and found another Gay man riveted by horror movies. We quickly became the closest of friends, trading videos with names like "Susperia" and "Carnival of Souls." We also created the concept of The Raker.
In every scary movie, there is one character, usually early on, who warns the soon-to-be-victims to beware. "Don't go to Camp Blood!" they'll shout, or they'll ominously whisper that "People around here tell of a ghost with an ax, and they say that late at night..." We coined the term from a character in Friday the 13th who dispensed warnings while raking leaves.
The old man who threatens to snitch on the murderous girl in The Bad Seed is the Handyman Raker. The professor who warns not to disturb the sea -- lest Godzilla be awakened -- would be the Professor Raker. Amy Irving tried to stop the bloodshed in Carrie, making her the Girl Friend Raker. It's more fun to ignore the Raker, of course, because then you get to experience the thrills and chills ahead.
While Lesley and I laughed through the slasher movies of the 1980s, real life rakers like Larry Kramer were sounding alarms about an emerging health catastrophe. Like the teens who never watch their backs in the slasher movies, Lesley and I didn't pay much attention to Larry's warnings. The Gay community's nightmare had begun, and Lesley developed AIDS in the early years of the crisis.
Even on his worst days, Lesley and I would see a matinee of the latest shocker -- and somehow find it unconnected to the surreal horror he was actually living. Lesley soon developed a weak demeanor and a glazed look, a zombie Quentin without the sideburns.
The night that Lesley died at home, several of us camped out in the living room, passing time during our vigil by watching The Brain That Wouldn't Die. We thought Lesley would appreciate the irony as he lay comatose in the adjoining room.
Lesley had stubbornly refused to acknowledge his own dying process, even though his doctors had sent him home and halted treatment. Finally, in our last conversation before he slipped into a coma, Lesley solemnly admitted he didn't think he was "going to make it." The concern in his sunken eyes, his wanting me not to be upset and to "brace" myself, showed a courage beyond my comprehension. He was -- and I believe he would appreciate the distinction -- The Self Raker. And the next hours were scary in ways that horror movies could never have prepared me.
These days, the Gay community has some very outspoken rakers. Writers Gabriel Rotello and Michelangelo Signorelli warn that the HIV slaughter will continue -- flare up again, even -- as long as our culture remains sexually permissive. At the other end of the spectrum, Sex Panic! is raking furiously, convinced our sexual rights are being stripped away.
Not that many people are listening. As always, it's exhilarating to ignore The Raker. This way we all get to experience the gruesome horror that lies just ahead.
Mark S. King lives in Atlanta, and has just completed his first book, In A Place Like This. He can be reached at email@example.com.