"Squeal like a pig!" exclaims my companion, and I smile in the darkness, at once pleased by our familiar grasp of pop culture and disturbed by our mutual reference to the 1972 Southern Gothic vacation horror story Deliverance.
Perhaps my friend will think twice next time there's a last-minute invitation to drive out into the countryside in the middle of the night to attend an event chirpily titled the "Russian River Massacre," but I think not. As our car is enveloped in the richer darkness of giant redwood trees, I seriously consider asking for a pee break, imagining myself wandering into the woods without a flashlight, maybe donning a pair of 6-inch stiletto heels and ripping off my tank top at midriff beforehand. Thankfully, a hand-painted sign offering trailers and backhoes for sale indicates that civilization and toilet paper are not far off, and my grisly, untimely demise is once again postponed.
Guerneville, California's self-proclaimed "gay playground," is just 69 miles north of San Francisco (no doubt a little extra effort went into shearing off a superfluous mile so that even the odometer reading is sexy). The tiny, one-street town -- an odd mixture of artists, hicks, homosexuals, hippies, sports enthusiasts, and working-class families -- boasts the state's largest gay dance club (north of the Golden Gate, that is) and offers karaoke at the Russian River Eagle, flagrant cruising at the Rainbow Cattle Company, and a harmonious combination of pizza and cabaret at the Main Street Station, but, tonight, the burg's dead. Dead as a doornail. Cold and quiet as a corpse. We slither through town, passing through both stoplights before reaching Fife's Resort, the oldest and largest gay accommodation in Guerneville (and summertime home of SunDance, an infamous riverside retreat for buffed and bronzed circuit-party boys).
The woman at the checkout counter is as sweet as a fresh-baked muffin, but there's something not quite right about her, too. Perhaps it's her hands, or the stiffness of her hair; whatever it is, I'm left with a deepening sense of unreality. Her map, detailed with ham-fisted care, leads me down a dark, redwood-lined lane into the shadowy recesses of the resort. Cher's club hit "Believe" emanates from the first cabin, interrupted only by shrill laughter and effeminate howls of "Fierce!" It's too clichéd to be real; I peer into the darkness, looking for the hidden cameras or the clapboard that will read Horror at Sleepagay Camp. After all, I am here at the behest of scream queen Peaches Christ, who spends her time directing comedic horror movies when she's not busy managing San Francisco's Bridge Theatre or hosting her summertime late-night movie series "Midnight Mass." The whole thing, I caution myself, might be one giant film set.
My new address is a small lane shared by a dozen small cabins. Jack-o'-lanterns twinkle on the tiny porches without penetrating the chilly gloom. The cabin kitty-corner to mine displays a drag flag, with its signature emblem of crossed stiletto heels, and a bloody and butchered Barbie doll that hangs from the eaves. In the middle of the road, under a large tree, a group of silhouetted figures turns to watch my approach before returning to the homemade porn being projected on my neighbor's wall. There is a flier posted just inside my door that warns of the presence of one or more substances that may cause birth defects. I begin to feel right at home.
Feeling "fierce" and foolhardy, I tiptoe across the lane just a little before midnight to the cabin where Peaches Christ and her sidekick, Martiny, are making last-minute adjustments to their finery, while "Massacre" co-producers Putanesca and Vinsantos check over late-night details and offer words of encouragement.
"We'll decide on what to do depending on whether or not we have the chain saw," says Peaches as the queeny quartet exits the cabin in a flurry of full skirts, long wigs, and -- even in the case of Vinsantos, who wears overalls -- frightfully high heels.
"I've got the severed head," says Peaches, as if it is the definitive statement. The queens disappear into the darkness along a gravel-strewn path, and I follow.
In spite of the huge bonfire and a tremendous, leering jack-o'-lantern, the large forest clearing staged for "Midnight Mass" is dark enough to hide the crowd of 100 sprawled on blankets and benches in front of a makeshift movie screen stretched between two trees. According to Peaches, it's the most attractive crowd she's ever seen. I stumble across a couple entangled in an embrace and grab a seat just as the spotlight roars to life. Peaches emerges from the woods with a chain saw framed in twinkle lights and a severed head that bears an uncanny resemblance to Martiny.
"Sorry Mar," says Peaches, tossing the head into the gasping crowd.
She's tickled with the Russian River turnout for "Midnight Mass," and she lets us know before introducing tonight's feature, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Within moments, the dark, creepy clearing feels as homey as the Bridge Theatre, which under Peaches' tutelage feels as homey as your crazy (but gorgeous) aunt's living room. She convinces a group of volunteers to jump up and learn the Texas Tranny Two-Step. Putanesca and Martiny emerge from the woods to demonstrate the dance. Vinsantos emerges to judge.
"Swing your chain saw 'round and 'round!" calls Peaches as the costumed revelers careen across uneven ground. The winners, of course, get nothing but Landmark Theatre passes and a "Peaches Loves You" T-shirt, longtime staples of "Midnight Mass," but they are terribly pleased.
As the spotlight is extinguished, the prologue for one of the most disturbing movies ever made scrolls across the screen, warning of the dire incidents that occurred in a small Texas town several decades ago. The crowd settles into fretful silence under the trees.
Slowly, morning comes and goes, and the camp rises and makes its bleary way to the sun deck for "Puta's Poolside Pumpkin Slaughter." Putanesca arrives poolside in a sapphire-sequined ice skating outfit suitable for a Busby Berkeley routine. For $5, she says, you get a pumpkin and a pumpkin carving knife and a little Puta pep talk. It's a lazy, warm afternoon suffused by icy margaritas, unexpected bikinis, and bouncy new wave music. By day's end, a bizarre legion of jack-o'-lanterns leers across the pool. Putanesca, Peaches, and Vinsantos jump in for the judging; Vinsantos' heels float to the surface.
Gayest Pumpkin: Dorothy and Toto in silhouette.
Sexiest Pumpkin: a small hairy creation sucking on its own stalk.
Scariest Pumpkin: a vomiting disaster called Peaches.
Best in Show: a glitter-lipped, drag queen pumpkin that smokes real cigarettes.
Everyone wins wet Landmark passes. Hurrah!
At 8:30 p.m., the "Massacre" crowd appears in the gloaming dressed as drag queens, faeries, monsters, mashers, vampires, clowns, rednecks, and (this year's popular favorite) Amish farmers to follow Vinsantos through town on her "Guerneville Queer Bar Crawl." First stop: a haunted "sex club" at the Xen Resort and Spa.
"I can guarantee, there ain't nothing going on in there," says Vinsantos through her signature sad-clown lips and amplified bullhorn.
Indeed, but for some bales of hay, a dentist's chair, and a lot of black plastic bags, the haunted house is empty. The local sports bar, Mc T's Bullpen, proves more frightening.
"I must be in the Twilight Zone," says a toothless old-timer as we sidle up to the bar. "The Twilight Zone, I tell you."
Another toothless gent chases a plump, drunken woman around the pool table as she shouts, "I don't want to talk to you. You can call me a bitch, but you can't call me a ho!"
Vinsantos is amused until a local guitar-picker begins to sound-check. On to the Eagle, and then the Rainbow and "Club Fab."
The stage show opens and closes with songs by Siouxsie Sioux -- Peaches performing "Dazzle" amongst twirling fire and fluttering confetti, and Suppositori Spelling performing an absolutely flawless rendition of "Face to Face" -- but tranny horror is what I'm really after. As the screen goes dark, we are treated to three new films: Putanesca's Drop Dead Tranny, a tale of grisly murder on the tranny pageant circuit; Peaches' Nightmare on Castro Street, in which an alcoholic drag queen named Squeeky Blonde takes on the role of Freddy Krueger and exposes the real-life foibles of every drag queen in San Francisco; and Vinsantos' 33, a disturbing look at an aging queen. While all the movies are sprinkled lavishly with black humor and Karo syrup, 33 is by far the most genuinely disturbing.
Shot in black and white, with a style reminiscent of, and on par with, Carnival of Souls, 33 tells the tale of an eerie stage performer who, approaching an unkind age, decides to take matters into her own hands -- first, through home surgery, then through bathing in the blood of children. While I know none of the kids was harmed during the making of 33 (in fact, Vinsantos' own son appears as a victim knocked off his bicycle), it is chilling. On the walk home through the tiny town of Guerneville, I am haunted by the young faces and tormented by 33's original score. The terror is made more complete when I return to my cabin to find a missing-child flier pinned to the door. I am pretty sure I recognize the face.