The Rise of the Drive-In Mutants

“We are drive-in mutants; we are not like other people.”

In a small hotel conference room that stank of weed, a sea of right hands were raised in pledge. Some hands were parted as Vulcan greetings and others posed as devil horns. The audience was being sworn in by taking the drive-in oath.

“As long as one drive-in remains on the planet Earth
We will party like jungle animals
We will boogie ’til we puke
The drive-in will never die”

Long before I was ever thought of or before the term was invented, my father was a drive-in mutant. A rock n’ roll hippie of the 70’s, that regularly took in the creature features at the local drive-in each weekend. I didn’t know until later in life how much he loved the spook shows and Midnight movies. The very same cult films that I too would come to love in my life. In the mid-90s there was no greater bond between us than to make popcorn on a Saturday night and watch TNT’s Monster Vision. This was my introduction to Joe Bob Briggs, the premier drive-in film critic. Joe Bob would host the double feature and offer obscure trivia and cheap jokes. Usually, my dad would fall asleep before the second movie and I’d be left with my own prepubescent fears in the darkness of our living room. These Saturday nights are some of the happiest memories I have with my old man.

Monster Vision was officially cancelled in 2000 but the man behind Joe Bob, John Bloom, maintained an official website dedicated to his alter ego. His own work had inspired me over the years to continue to pursue writing and film making. Naturally, I did my best to follow his career with mailing lists to stay on top of his columns and events.

A few years back, John Bloom met horror enthusiast, Diana Prince when she attended one of his signings. The two became friends right about the time he was approached for the umpteenth time about a new show. Admittedly going along with it for a free lunch, he was introduced to AMC’s new horror streaming platform, Shudder. The idea was to resurrect the character and continue to host horror films. Unsure at first, Diana Prince encouraged Bloom to accept the offer. Convincing him that the fans were numerous and hungry for a return. When the funding fell through at the last minute, Prince helped secure resources to make the show happen. So as Bloom prepared to get back in the saddle, he asked Prince to be the new mail girl, “Darcy”.

Joe Bob Briggs officially returned in the summer of 2018 with a 24-hour marathon called The Last Drive-In. The response was larger than anticipated, with thousands overloading and ultimately crashing Shudder and AMC servers. Fans were tuning-in to the loading screen of doom, unable to watch the marathon. The few that could log-on got to witness Joe Bob give an emotional sign off at the end. Expressing gratitude to all the fans over the years, as he hung up his spurs. But breaking the internet was good news for Joe Bob, as it prompted Shudder to bring him back with 2 holiday specials and a regular series.

March of 2019 a reoccurring Friday night double feature with Darcy the mail girl. While the first season was airing, Joe Bob hit the road with his one man show, How Rednecks Saved Hollywood. A 2-hour cinematic lecture about the true identity of rednecks and their impact on film, from low budget to mainstream. I caught Rednecks in Milwaukee that spring, learning history of the films my dad loved of hillbillies and moonshiners.

The line to meet Joe Bob was wrapped around the block on that frigid Wisconsin evening. He arrived in a hearse from a local funeral home to a roar of applause from the crowd. When the line finally rotated through, I stood star struck before the man I grew up watching on Saturday nights. He shook my hand and signed my book: To Krystle, a drive-in kind of gal.

2020 ended up being the revival year of the drive-in with Corona virus closing theaters across the country. Reaffirming what Joe Bob has been insisting all along, the drive-in will never die. The Shudder network was generous to everyone on lock down with a second season of The Last Drive-In. Citing more viewers than ever before, fanfare flooded social media with official and unofficial merchandise. 4 more holiday specials were released and promise of a 3rd season.

February of this year, an invitation was broadcast to fans on all platforms. The first ever Joe Bob Drive-In Jamboree, a 3-day event at the Mahoning Theater in Lehighton, Pennsylvania. Scheduled for later this summer, the Jamboree includes an indie festival for guerrilla filmmakers called “Mutant Fest”. The underfunded and DIY directors were encouraged to submit their horror films. All submissions from low-budget to no-budget welcome.

When Joe Bob and Darcy were announced as guests for the fan convention, Days of the Dead, I decided to attend myself. I was curious what such a gathering would be like for fans and celebrities during Covid. If local numbers stayed low and vaccinations continued to roll out smoothly, this would be the first horror convention in Chicago since the pandemic started.

At the Crown Plaza Hotel in Rosemont, employees were cased in plastic at the front desk. Hand sanitizing dispensers lingered in a few corners but there was minimal direction for convention attendees. The main requirement was wearing a mask properly at all times. An unquestioned rule that very few broke. After ping-ponging back and forth between will-call and volunteers, I found my way to the main room. For a few hours, I chatted up strangers and vendors, waiting for my scheduled photo op with Joe Bob and Darcy.

Considering it had been a while since the last convention, everyone was a little rusty on opening night. The photographers had given me the incorrect time slot but were determined to make it right. Runners and organizers would zip back and forth, reassuring me, “Don’t worry kid, we’ll get you a photo with Joe Bob.”

“And Darcy.” I would add every time.

There would be no Last Drive-In without Darcy.

Thankfully, both guests agreed to reshoot before their scheduled panel. Down to the last minute, here came Joe Bob Briggs, ten miles tall in his bolo and boots. Darcy glided beside him in an ethereal evening dress. Both kept their distance and masks remained on at all times through the convention. As part of convention rules, every guest had the right to set their own boundaries for contact with fans. Joe Bob had previously admitted on Diana Prince’s own podcast, Geek Tawk that he had contracted Covid in the beginning of 2020. An experience I’m sure neither wanted to repeat. They said little if anything during our reshoot before quickly moving on to their panel. I thanked everyone nervously, and followed behind them from a distance, taking a seat in the far back.

Right out of the gate, Joe Bob shared that he and local horror host, Svengoolie had been plotting doing a show together at the Music Box Theater. In summer of 2019, both hosts were hinting on social media that they were working on a project. Plans were put on hold due to the pandemic and according to Joe Bob, “Svengoolie is not coming out of his house until Covid is over.”

Joe Bob goes on to announce he’s looking to produce films and has been reading different horror anthologies that come out each year. While admitting that most are not film material, he examines each “in a certain weird way” that could possibly change them into film material. His Mutant Festival this summer is a manifestation of that, as well as uplifting the underdog film makers.

A few days before the convention, Joe Bob had gone to social media reminding his followers of the upcoming deadline for Mutant Fest. Seeing this, I had considered a short film I had helped create in 2013. Friends and I were inspired by an email received from a Joe Bob mailing list. After years of forgetting, here he was in my inbox asking for screenplays and scripts from his fans. Our short was never finished and years later I am the sole owner of the remaining footage. With a run time of 6 minutes and 51 seconds, I updated the movie the best I could and submitted it to Mutant Fest.

I have no delusions about my humble no-budget horror short, but I’m optimistic for horror in general. During the end of his panel, he marveled at how horror has become mainstream in the last 20 years. Diana Prince is now a regular columnist for Fangoria and John Bloom is a man with a vision for avant-garde directors struggling to get their films made. The Last Drive-In has really helped Shudder take off, and the team behind it will likely do the same for the future of horror movies.

The 3rd season of The Last Drive-In with Joe Bob Briggs airs Friday, April 16th only on Shudder.

Eulogy for a Dive Bar

It felt like centuries had passed by my cave before I emerged pale and pink-eyed from
whiskey and song; but the outside world and everyone in it was just as disappointing as they
ever were.
Fuck this city.
I traveled the endless cracked sidewalks of a shitty neighborhood, covered in smashed
tequila bottles and pornographic chalk drawings. A salty shuffle down a glittering path of
remorse and the whole time I’m crying under my black aviator glasses.
Walking around and crying.
It had been a weird day—after an even weirder night.
Several cans of RC were consumed to remedy the best/worst emotional hangover I’ve
encountered within a burning inch of memory. Most of that morning was spent scrubbing off all the sharpie X’s on my arms. I had held my brother down and scribbled them across his cyclist calves too. Intoxicated punk rock Voodoo rituals, I’m sure, just like throwing flaming matchsticks at one another. At this rate, we’ll surely kill ourselves before Halloween.
Well who the hell knows, man?!
The world may never know and God Damn I’ve been drunk a lot.
I was just so happy to have a few days off in front of me that I never bothered to look at a
clock or put the bottle down. Every last one of us pulled up our britches by studded belts
missing teeth and moved onto other dive bars. New mud holes, new shit spoons, and alters of watered-down liquor bottles to pray at. Burning through every poor-to-hip neighborhood from the South side on up, trying to find a place of our own. We sank every dive between here and there that had its moment of catching on just to fill the empty space in our heads and make us feel like we were part of something again.
The ghosts on those walls had a language that caught the beauty and viciousness of ordinary
talk. The plain-speak of thieves, vets, addicts, and terminal disciples that shave in the gutter.
Talk that has a fine, incisive, and dramatic tone to it. And we clung to those words like high
school hangers-on that never made it out of their hometown. Never noticed all the beautiful evenings we wasted in stuffy bars. Never considered that you’d end up on the floor after rocking on loose bar stools with loose women and air guitaring to Bad Company on cue sticks.
I might as well have been God Damned Ed McMahon, handing over my whole paycheck to a different bar each week. And in the morning, only the matchbooks and re-entry stamps will remember where I’ve gone.
There is a point for every old tavern when all the geriatrics start dropping off like flies. Lie
down and die from snuff and rotten livers or they quit drinking on doctor’s orders and hen
pecks. And then our generational blahs invade. Those soldiers of cool and idolized white trash that have fucked up one too many times in the night club district and consistently whined about
bumming smokes.
Fixies for Trixies, Wugazi, and “Jaymo-soco, bro.”
High fives for low lives, blood guts and fire trucks.
Feeling fired and inspired.
A/A propaganda, Buddhism for dummies, and Dharma Bum squat cults pushing up Daisy
Most are waiting for the moment when you stop talking to go on about their own
lives and it’s always a piss and moan twist and shout. Too many overusing the word “like”
and deploying fat jokes at their own expense. Even a polite laugh was a trap.
And here I was in my third decade feeling like a thing from another planet. Only capable of
relating to half humanoids that made careers of singing about isolation like Mark
Mothersbaugh or David Byrne.
So you move on. You move on because they’ve filled every booth and bike rack. Even the
can overflows with their top 40 hits. How cruel fate’s hand is when she puts a dollar in the jukebox.
Trapped in our own personal Hell of a spinning room, the night will roll upon that “break
down” hour. I told the truth and dispensed otherworldly advice, slurred and running to new
depths in circles and circles. Chasing its own tail and carving a gigantic ‘O’ into our brains.
Secrets and sins confessed. Discord, Manipulation, and Girlfriend Island.
These are truths channeled from another realm entirely. Some Shamen can unlock things with tortuous physical acts like sweat lodges or sun dances. Us scumbags consume our weight in cheap beer. So there are no longer arguments about the secret of life. Pretty sure we got it figured out…as long as we are able to find a pen to write it down before it’s forgotten.
Maybe it’s no secret at all.
Winter never fails to turn to spring.
The sun never fails to rise and shine an unflattering light onto our faces.
Hangovers get harder and every morning we notice pasty beer bellies dotted in bad stick n pokes, hanging over screaming hems. Cigarette lines scratched into lips and eyes and coal and makeup smeared across sunken cheeks. Another 7am Sunday morning glimpse into the future where we still lack any sort of direction. Errant ambition.
We could easily just drink away the rest of our youth…
Never giving up the dope, the wine, the stage, or measuring out insomnia through Nick at Nite TV shows, even after the landlord fixes the gas leak.
Under fed and overgrown from bad habits and characters into cardboard caricatures to hang on oily walls. Another brood of seasoned barflies that will live and die by law of the taverns.

-Originally Published in Wonderlust Literary Zine 2015

Hedge Riding the Sidewalks of Chicago

The grinding wheels of freight trains were haunting cries of ambient soundscapes
polluted with graffiti. I watched them crawl along the horizon from my window with my
pumpkin spice coffee as silhouettes of parking lot gulls weave across a grey sky on the morning
of October first. Halloween season was here. The face of it has changed as I have gotten older,
making celebrating more difficult. Living alone in a post Covid19 Chicago raises the challenge
to be merry and spooky even higher. We’re all desensitized to fear of the unknown after 6
months of existing in an apocalyptic horror film. I was determined to celebrate by any means
necessary this year, hell bent on tricks and treats.
With the weather unseasonably agreeable, I decided to start off the month of October
with a trip to the legendary Haunted Trails in Burbank. A Halloween themed year-round
attraction that has been entertaining kids and kids-at-heart since 1975. Reopening in early June
along with Covid19 guidelines, they offered weekly deals to keep business rolling and asked all
patrons to wear masks.
Pulling into the parking lot on a weekday afternoon I was greeted alone by the iconic
fiberglass Frankenstein statue. At first, I wasn’t even sure it was open as not a soul occupied the
park. Even the arcade, loud as ever with every game blaring its pitch, was void of humans. I
wandered for a bit before coming across sleepy teenage employees, surprised at the presence of a
customer trying to treat themself to a windy round of 18-hole mini-golf. The course is decorated
with statues of vampires, ghosts, and The Creature From The Black Lagoon. With no real skill
and not keeping score, I whacked my little green ball through giant skulls and mini haunted
houses at my own pace before buzzing around the go-kart track solo a few times.
Arcades can be a little disorienting to begin with but without screaming children running
in circles around you it’s easy to be consumed by a game and lose track of time. That’s exactly
what happened to me in the Batman driving game and other spooky themed amusements. I blew
a small fortune on ski-ball until my frustration of losing got the best of me. Looking around and
finding the floor vacant, I boldly cheated by walking up the lane and plunking balls in the highest
score slots. The only other occupant was a young attendant at the prize station. She’d look at her
wristwatch frequently and time herself wiping down games with disinfectant, but otherwise it
was a ghost town.
Seemingly hours later I had run out of tokens and felt proudly smug about being the only
patron of the afternoon. It’s weird to have a beloved entertainment institution all to yourself so I
decided to mark the occasion in the photobooth. The irritable 19-year-old inside of me posed
smugly with a vape pen for each photo, puffing away and flipping birds like the punk I used to
be. But the vapor cloud was bigger than I realized when I stepped out to collect my photo strip.
Billowing out from behind the booth’s curtain. I did my best to wave it away casually just as the
security manager stepped out of their locked office. She was in her early 20’s, still a baby but
with tattoos and a serious disposition evident even with a mask. I decided to cash out my tickets
and leave while I could as the weed was quickly starting to turn to paranoia in my brain. Perhaps
the security manager could sense this or maybe she had watched me get high in the photobooth
or cheat at ski-ball like a miscreant. Whichever it was, she escorted the sole attendant to the prize
counter and stared holes through me.
I picked out as many sugary treats as I could from my ticket total, all the while white
knuckling the counter just at the security manager was doing the same. Nervously eyeing the
Bride of Frankenstein tattoo on her forearm, I silently scolded myself for trying to be punk in my
late 30s. Dripping sweat and getting light headed, I collected my candy and made a bee-line out
the door to the car. I sat there for a bit in a sugar buzz, wondering what the big deal was in the
end. It’s not like my parents would have been called or much of anything else besides maybe
getting kicked out. Even a ban from Haunted Trails seemed unlikely. Overall, it wasn’t a bad
start to the month of October and the Halloween season.

Originally published in Haunted Emporium Magazine October 2020

Whatever Happened to Saturday Night?

I first saw the Rocky Horror Picture Show in the late 90s when a middle school friend let me
borrow an edited for tv version, recorded on VHS. It was the beginning of an obsession that has
lasted over 20 years, daring me to dream beyond the walls of my reality at a tender age. The cult
film and its fanfare have always spread a positive message of unity among the strange, where
freaks and Franks could have a sense of community. 2020 marks the 45th anniversary of Rocky
though few have had an opportunity to celebrate in the last six months.
Chicago’s shadow cast, Midnight Madness, have been acting parallel to the movie screen for
over 35 years and the Music Box Theater has been their home base. Averaging one to two
Midnight screenings of Rocky Horror a month until the theater closed March 17th due to
Covid19. Not only was the scheduled performance on the 21st canceled, so were all other shows
until further notice, leaving Midnight Madness in limbo.
For the Halloween season, the Music Box partnered with ChiTown Movies drive-in theater to
bring patrons a safe experience during their more popular October events. Previously, the Music
Box of Horrors was a 24-hour marathon but this year it mutated into 31 Nights of Terror at the
Drive-In. Nightly late film screenings, trivia, special appearances, and double features on the
weekends. Midnight Madness approached the Music Box and expressed interest in continuing
the tradition of their Halloween performances by working something out with the drive-in.
Opening night was cold and rainy, making me unsure of how the cast was going to pull this off. I
was nervous to go to Rocky Horror as if it were my first time with a big V marked on my face in
lipstick. Most of my adult life in Chicago I attended regularly. Each screening and performance
were unique, no matter how many times I had sat through the film. From break-ups to first dates,
hazing of friends and family, or just looking for an excuse to be publicly intoxicated in my
underwear. Though never a cast member myself, some of my oldest and dearest friends have
been part of Midnight Madness, making tonight somewhat emotional for me.
The shows were earlier in the evening than most are used to, but tickets disappeared just as
quickly as they would any other Halloween season. There was no opening virgin ceremony or a
dance party to warm the crowd up this time. Broadcasting live from inside ChiTown Futbol, the
Midnight Madness cast was presented picture in picture, shadowing in face masks and a little
further apart. Audience participation had also changed; throwing props was prohibited out of
respect to the drive-in and there was no roar of jokes being shouted over one another. This
offered patrons the ability to come up with their own call back lines, though one could hear some
classics shouted down the rows of cars if you had your windows open. Historically honking your
horns or flashing headlights was heavily frowned upon at drive-in theaters, but at Rocky Horror
it is the face of modern fan participation. To cast and audience the differences were undoubtedly
awkward at first, but all were quick to adapt. The discomfort faded as we picked up steam
because despite everything, it was happening.
My friends and I sang along as loudly in the car as we would have in the theater. I noted several
other attendees also dressed up in spicy lingerie or as favorite characters. We disrobed briefly to
get out of our cars and do the “Time Warp” before rushing back to warm backseats, giggling red
cheeked and lipstick smeared from facemasks. The Rocky Horror Picture Show and its entire
following is where the punks and weirdos could come together and wave their freak flags. The
tenacity of Midnight Madness to bring that message to the drive-in was a victory in the darkness
of these troubled times.

Originally published in Haunted Emporium Magazine October 2020