I have just spent probably the most extraordinary week of my life on a spiritual retreat with an amazing group of my soulmates — none of whom I had ever met face to face until this past Tuesday. I didn’t have to remember to practice joy once over those four days. I lived it!
I’m still processing everything that happened, but I’m sure I will write about it many times in many ways in the coming months. What I want to write about now is the experience that laid the foundation for my being able to give myself the gift not just of going to the retreat, but of showing up with an open and willing heart.
This week I understood something for the first time that might feel self-evident to some of you. But I’d never felt it before, so I didn’t understand that we can only truly feel love when we feel completely safe. This week, as I started to feel that deeply healing sense of safety and love on my retreat, I had a curious sense of deja vu, a kind of inner recognition.
It took me a moment to figure out that what I was feeling among my new friends is what I have witnessed at horror conventions: It is the beautiful cocoon of love and safety that allows people to connect as their truest and freest selves. . .playful, vulnerable, safe, seen, loved, joyful, fully engaged, not judged, alive!
I attended my first horror convention in 1999. I’ll be honest -- I was not at all enthusiastic about the whole thing. Frankly I was scared. Which, you might say, seems appropriate for a horror convention. . . But I was scared not because I am not a horror fan, and I was afraid the fans would judge me or think me disloyal. On top of that, the convention was in Washington DC in August, which seemed horrific in and of itself — since every time I stepped outside I felt like one of the dripping wax figures at the end of House of Wax! But inside was a different story.
There in the fluorescent-lit, garishly carpeted convention rooms of a hotel whose name I have long since forgotten, I met some of my father’s fans for the first time. My biography of my dad was coming out in October. So, I sat at an empty table and, basically, listened . . . to story after story of what my father hmeant to the people whose lives he had touched, both personally and on film. It was utterly extraordinary. The outpouring of love, emotion, kindness blew me away. No one cared that I couldn’t remember the names of the characters or my father’s fellow actors in any of the Poe films. They cared that they got to share their love of my father with me.
I also met other “horror royalty” — Sara Karloff, Bela Lugosi Jr, and Ron Chaney — who took me under their wings and showed me the ropes. Our shared experience of growing up as children of celebrity in a genre to which we all had some resistance created the seeds of lifelong friendships. It proved to be an unforgettable weekend.
A few months later, my biography of my dad came out. Over the next few years, I toured the US and UK giving talks at book signings, and making TV and radio appearances. I briefly popped in at one more horror convention. And that was that. I went on with my own non-horror life for more than a decade.
Then came 2011 — the year of Vincentennial, beginning with a two-month celebration of my dad’s life in St. Louis during the spring. That summer, I was invited to Fan Expo in Toronto — a convention for fans of four different genres — sci fi, anime, fantasy and horror. And by fans, I mean 60,000 people!!
Before I left, the same anxious feelings arose as I had experienced in 1999. While I was en route, changing planes in Dallas, I got a call from my friend Pat. She told me that she had had a dream in which my dad came to her and told her that he wanted me to know how proud he was of me. When she woke up from the dream, she called to share that beautiful moment with me. She then said something that I will never forget and for which I will always be grateful. She said, “You know how you always tell me that you’ve never fit in, always felt like an outsider? Well, so does everyone at this convention. But THEY get to go be with other people just like them, who love the same things they do. So, don’t worry that you don’t fit in there. Go and celebrate that they have found a place where they can feel safe and loved and among people who feel the same way they do!"
From that moment on, everything changed. I walked into Fan Expo Toronto — a visual smorgasbord with Darth Vader walking arm in arm with Hello Kitty; Superman, Batgirl and Chuckie eating lunch at the same table; bloodied bodies chatting with effete elves. . .you get the idea — and all I saw was joy! Pure joy!!! It was infectious: I caught the joy of being with people who knew they were in a safe and loving environment, where they could be exactly who they were without fear of judgment.
From then on, not only how I looked at horror conventions changed, but horror conventions changed me!
When I was in college, if you had told me that 30 years later I would be spending a weekend or more a year, plus the entire month of October, going to horror conventions and film festivals around the world talking about my father, I’m honestly not sure whether I would have laughed or cried. Laughed at the absurdity of me — who couldn’t even watch my father’s scary movies — talking about those films to his fans. Or cried at what I would then have thought the pathetic idea of being in my fifties and still trailing along on my dead father’s coattails.
If, on top all that, you had said that I would not only come to absolutely love it, but also that it would become the door to some of my deepest healing and an integral part of my spiritual path and practice. . .okay, I would have called you just plain nuts.
But there you are. It’s true. Horror conventions have changed my life.
In fact, the whole reason I could give myself the gift of this past week — the gift of being with MY tribe in a place where I felt so completely safe and loved that I could be fully me, and celebrate that me — is because I learned by going to horror conventions that deep safe connection among like-minded people is even possible. As if that wasn’t enough, the whole reason I even conceived of a daily practice of joy came from sharing my father with his fans over the past four years.
So, this week’s blog is a love letter to all of my dad’s fans I have met at horror conventions, film festivals and talks around the world and online.
Thank you. From the bottom of my cracked-open heart. I love you all for everything you have taught and done for me.
You come toward me from a place of unselfconscious joy and love to share your stories about a man we all love.
Some of you tell me stories about how watching his films with your own families became part of your family legacies. Others of you have shared how those same movies literally became lifesavers — a way out of the horrors of your childhoods. Some of you saw my father as a hero, others as a father figure. And some of you were fortunate enough to develop deep friendships with my dad — friendships that shaped the courses of your lives.
As you have had the courage to share those experiences with me, allowing me to see more deeply into you, allowing us to connect through the same legacy — a legacy of love — my own relationship with my father has changed, grown, deepened. That has a been a huge healing for me.
You see, at the end of my dad’s life, after my stepmother’s death, when I finally got to spend open-ended, one-on-one time with my dad, I unconsciously placed an unrealistic set of expectations on him. I wanted him to be that same father of my childhood that my parents’ divorce and my “wicked stepmother” took away. I didn’t understand then that you can’t go backwards. I see now how the pressure I placed on us both became a burden that could only lead to disappointment.
Although we developed a new intimacy, born of sitting on his bed for three afternoons a week over the course of close to a year talking about art, a lingering sense of loss hovered over everything we did. Whenever we were together, I was searching for a ghost from the past instead of being fully present with my dying father. I regret that — for us both. But I know I could not have done any better as the younger person I was then.
It wasn’t until I began giving my talks about my dad and hearing your stories that the past and present finally caught up with one another. Now I have the full and loving, totally present relationship with my dad that I always wanted. I have it in my heart, and I share it with you. Doing that has reconnected me to his joy in living, which was his true legacy to me. Rediscovering and sharing his joy with you has helped me find my own.
This week, I heard that acknowledgement is one of the most important forms of love. When we connect through our shared love of my dad, we both get to acknowledge something, someone deeply important to us. That shared experience is as meaningful a form of love as any I have ever known.
You keep him alive for me — you collect his memorabilia, you tattoo him on your skins, you name your children after him! I only wish that everyone who has loved someone like I loved my dad could feel what I feel when I see how much others love him! I’ll admit that, at first, I thought that my connection to my father “should” be more special — after all, he was MY father. But truth be told, since I was a little girl I have known I shared my father with the world. And as I have gradually released the idea of specialness in my relationship with him by sharing him more fully with all of you, my own life has been expanded by all the love you have shown me.
You bring me gifts expressing not only your love of my father, but things that remind me of that love when I go home. Just yesterday, here in Kentucky where I am attending Wonderfest, I received a beautiful plaque of my father -- a whimsical and gorgeous carving -- along with a stunning drawing by an artist who drew it during a time of illness and healing for himself. He courageously shared that story with all of us on Facebook last December, and yesterday he showed up and gave me that drawing as a gift. Wow!
In addition to the gifts that remind me of my father, some of you have taken the time to get to know me for myself.
Yesterday, Kevin, a man whom my father befriended when he was a teenager by inviting him to all of the lectures and performances he gave within a 200-mile radius of Louisville, exhorting to come and listen (no matter how hard that was for a teenager) and then gave his first art commission, Kevin brought me a gift of a beautiful plate with a painting of a horse — because he knows how much I love horses.
Another man, knowing I share my father’s love of poetry, brought me a poem he had written for me.
And my friend Robert, who along with his cousin Sara (who when she comes to conventions deeply blesses me with her calm presence and invaluable help, and who we all think of as the Mother Teresa of horror royalty) has created an Ohio-based treasure trove honoring my father’s life, came with a gift that brought a huge grin to my face. Robert creates gorgeous paper cuttings, inspired by patterns old and new. I have often told him how much I admired his work and yesteray he brought me my own. He chose a pattern from the 1600s because, he said, it expressed pure joy! That reflection back to me of my own daily practice of joy just melted my heart!
Gifts of LOVE & JOY!
Wherever I go, you — my father’s fans, my fans -- reflect back to me such generosity in your gratitude for my biography, for coming to horror conventions, for giving talks, for creating a presence on social media. Your appreciation and kindness has blown me away.
The icing on the proverbial cake has been my continuing friendships with the other "horror kids". My companion here in Louisville, Sara Karloff, and I have now spent time together all over the globe. As I learn more about her life, I draw parallels to my own that make me feel less isolated in what I thought to be my own unique history. Not only that, we get to share our own fandom — for tennis. Plus, we have laughed so hard sometimes I thought we might pee our pants. If that isn’t pure joy, I don’t know what is!
Joy lives in us. It can never die, but only go dormant. We bring it back by watering and nurturing it in the protected hothouse of love. You all have given me that safe place. I would never have given myself the gift of reconnecting with my joy if you had not shown me it is possible.
So, thank you to every single fan of my father’s who has shared your love of him, your joy in his movies, the artwork you’ve made, your tattoos, your collections, your stories! Thank you for showing me what it means to belong, to have a tribe, to release your inhibitions, to seek your joy, to welcome everyone, to express your love! Thank you for being yourselves. You have changed my life — and I am grateful beyond measure.
Like many of you, my whole life I have never felt like I fit in. Truth be told, until this week, I probably felt a little bit jealous that you all had found your tribe. Where was mine, I wondered? But as I connected with my own soulmates at my retreat, I suddenly got it: You, all of my dad’s fans, ARE my soulmates, too. I might not wear costumes or love my dad’s films in quite the same ways you do, but we share something that is the basis for all connection and healing. We share love!
Now when I go to a horror convention, I, too, feel like I am entering a kind of sacred space — a space where I know I will feel loved and honored. I wish everyone could feel what it feels like to be loved and honored as you do me. If only our places of work and worship could capture the healing power of this kind of sanctuary, the world would be a radically different place. You, my father’s fans, have given me this gift through our shared love. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. I promise you that I will always try to reciprocate with my love and gratitude.