Are we all monsters? Meet the queer actor who has embraced his demons.
Having battled his own demons of school bullying, facial reconstructive surgery and growing up gay in Thatcher’s Britain, actor Nicholas Vince found cult status in the Clive Barker films, Hellraiser and Nightbreed.
Vince is now inviting audiences to join him on a personal tour of the world of horror with his one-man show, I Am Monsters.
We caught up with Nicholas Vince for a behind-the-scenes look at the production.
As a child, what was it about monsters that appealed to you so much?
They were just more interesting than the heroes. The first monsters I saw were the Daleks on Dr. Who, in black and white on TV, around the age of four. I say ‘saw’ but I was mostly behind the sofa. By the time I was five and half, I remember making the giant ant like Zarbi in the second series, from off-cuts of pastry.
Then, around eight years old, I came across a book – the Golden Treasury of Myths and Legends. Of course, the stories are about the heroes, so we learn their whole life and they tend to be vain, selfish and arrogant. The monsters are more mysterious. We don’t really know why Medusa has snakes for hair and can turn people to stone or why the Graeae have to share a single tooth and eye. Basically, your average hero in these stories is an athletic young man who’s good with a sword with not much else to recommend him. Not being particularly interested in sports, I hardly connected with them. The monsters were weird-looking and often had magical powers.
The monsters also seemed to be the victims long before the ‘heroes’ turned up to kill them.
There seems to be some of sort of queer connection between gay men and horror films – why is that?
I think it’s the otherness of being we find in horror movies, particularly the monsters – be they supernatural or horribly human.
I know from speaking to gay fans of Nightbreed that they’ve identified with the monsters in the film because they’re exotic, strange, delightful, and simply different. There’s a place for monsters in Midian who’ve been rejected by the conforming and dull, grey normal society. Gay men have told me they really wanted to travel to Midian – to a place where they’d be accepted for who they truly are. Not that I believe people should be put in a ghetto in order to find safety. Far from it.
The human monsters in horror films tend to have a deep secret or desire which they’re forced to keep hidden. Even today, many of the LGBTQ community have to deal with similar oppression and self-repression. There’s also the victims of bullying – such as Stephen King’s Carrie – who take a bloody revenge on their tormentors. I suspect, like many of us, I identified with Carrie. The carnage at the prom was bullies getting their comeuppance.
Perhaps gay men also identify with the taboo sexuality found in horror – such as the blood thirsty vampire, or Frank Cotton’s and the Cenobite’s pursuit of the ultimate sexual experience in Hellraiser.
This show is an autobiographical look at your life and career. Was it a therapeutic process to put the show together?
It’s certainly been challenging at times, particularly when I was researching Margaret Thatcher’s government and the introduction of Section 28 – which was announced when we were filming Hellbound: Hellraiser II.
I was reminded of statements made by some of her MPs, particularly Peter Bruinvels, which were truly horrible. That was really distressing – it brought back a lot of the fear I lived with at the time. Section 28 – which forbade the teaching of homosexuality as a ‘pretended’ family relationship – was supposedly a way of dealing with the spread of AIDS. People were dying, and Thatcher’s response was to drive gay people further into the dark.
On the other hand, I’m also telling stories about the fun I had working with Clive Barker – and a whole host of talented people – filming Hellraiser, Hellbound and Nightbreed, celebrating being a monster on screen, and sharing some of my favourite monsters from classic novels, such as Dracula and The Phantom of the Opera. Overall, I’m having fun remembering some really good times.
Do you think today’s audiences understand what it was like in the UK for gay men of your generation?
I think they want to learn. I recently saw Alexis Gregory’s one man show, Riot Act – about six decades of queer history – which is superb, and had a full house of all ages. I hope that means people are looking to the past for lessons on how to fight the obvious rise of intolerance and fascism today.
We’ve come such a long way! I heard a mother on the tram ask her six-year-old daughter – “It’s Croydon Pride today. Do you want to go to the party?”. The little girl was all smiles at that. When we arrived, there were loads of families with kids who were running around having fun and occasionally stopping to watch an elegant, bearded, man in a beautiful evening dress striding across the grass in stilettos. The kids just smiled and carried on playing.
In terms of connecting with the story, I’m sharing some pretty gruesome stories of intolerance. But, the show is about how being labelled – or labelling yourself – a monster is something you can survive and celebrate.
Is it liberating to perform on stage as yourself, without the masks, or is that a new level of terror?
I swing between ‘Oh, my god! This is going to be amazing!’ to ‘Oh my god! What am I doing?’ – usually at five minute intervals.
What do you hope that people feel when watching I Am Monsters?
That, at some point in all our lives – because we’re human – we’ll do something stupid and monstrous in our own mind. Or, there will be people who try to make us feel that we’re monsters and that really you just have to own who you are. It isn’t our flesh, but our acts which make us monsters. By looking at our own darkness, we can understand other people’s.