Note: This article first appeared earlier this week in my Substack newsletter.
Not long ago, I wrote an essay about the supposed “curse” of James Dean’s Porsche 550 Spyder, inspired by the recent announcement of the rediscovery of one of the few original parts of the car to have survived since the crash that killed Dean and totaled the car in 1955. The transaxle assembly went up for auction at the end of May, and the auction ended in the most predictable and disappointing way possible—with all of my various intellectual interests colliding into a flaming mass of stupidity. Paranormal cable TV star Zak Bagans purchased the part for $382,000 in order to install it in his Las Vegas museum dedicated to horror and the paranormal, where he will present the “cursed” car part in an exhibit room dedicated to James Dean and the occult.
What more could I ask for than a story involving James Dean, bad cable TV paranormal shows, and horror? It’s all of my research in one package. Well, for one thing, we could expect Bagans to have at least a little awareness of what he is actually perpetuating by dedicating a room to the occult lore attached to James Dean, sandwiched near exhibits on Jack Kevorkian and David Koresh.
Since I laid out the story of the “cursed” Spyder previously, I won’t belabor the details of the various people whose deaths and injuries are associated with parts salvaged from the car. But I will note that the so-called “curse” didn’t become established lore for a long time after Dean died. The first mention I am aware of claiming the car to be cursed came in George Barris’s and Jack Scagnetti’s book Cars of the Stars in 1974, and not all of their story was true. In fact, Barris made a lot of it up. From there, the story got repeated in pop culture, notably in a 1975 edition of the DC comic book Ghosts, in which Barris’s account is presented in pictorial form as a true story—the only time I could find where a celebrity’s name appeared on the cover of the decade-long run of supernatural stories.
Now here is where the trouble come in. That period, 1974-1975, was an important one because it coincided with the twentieth anniversary of James Dean’s death and the publication of four biographies of Dean, to be followed soon after by an NBC TV-movie. It was during this period that stories of James Dean’s sexual involvement with men saw print and briefly entered public awareness, confirming growing rumors about Dean’s sexuality that had circulated sub rosa for two decades. At the same time, in those same years, Dean’s image had been adopted by the gay community, and gay newspapers and magazines carried articles by culture critics like Parker Tyler and Jack Babuscio discussing his sexuality in the context of the push for gay rights in the post-Stonewall era. Their argument was that his queerness was essential to his appeal, not a detriment, and his membership in an “oppressed sexual minority” added political and social significance to his life and work, qualifying him as an icon of gay liberation.
Barris’s supernatural story came at just the right time to capture an unease those who grew up idolizing Dean as the ideal man and lover now felt about his deviant sexuality. In the wake of his death in the 1950s, fans, occultists, and even a Belgian intellectual, Raymond de Becker, had seen in him a new pagan god, an American Tammuz, Adonis, or Attis. (Of course, de Becker was an ex-Nazi collaborator and pederast, so take his horniness with a grain of salt.) Young people worshiped Dean, communed with him as the ancients did with their gods, and sought messages from him from heaven. As late as 1974, David Dalton could literally argue that (the straight) James Dean was a re-embodiment of the Egyptian deity Osiris and a restorer of the supernatural order. And his readers didn’t think it was weird. Indeed, they made his book the best-selling Dean biography for the remainder of the twentieth century.
And yet, it’s very weird. Other celebrities were not widely identified with pagan gods. It was an impossibly bizarre moment in American history that collectively everyone chose to forget once the fever broke.
But then audiences read about him having sex with men, and suddenly he could be a god no more. And just as the Christians diabolized the Greek gods into hell’s minions, so, too, did the formerly divine Dean become a supernatural monster, cursed like some Gothic spirit to haunt the site of his death, vengeful like some demon, killing those who owned parts of his car. Stories circulated that he had called on diabolical spirits and tried like some inverted Lucifer to breach heaven’s gates in supernatural rituals to contact the dead. Tabloid writers imagined him a horror movie monster, undead in some asylum, or a self-flagellating sinner burning his own flesh to purge the sexual sins within.
The connection between homophobia and these stories was patently obvious. With a shudder of disapproval, Venable Herndon explicitly linked homosexuality and self-abnegation in his 1974 Dean biography, collecting ridiculous stories of Dean’s supposed extreme S&M sex acts from aging patrons of gay leather bars and psychoanalyzing them both in the context of Dean punishing himself for his sins and in terms of—seriously—astrological predictions that made Dean’s life and death an inevitable working out of divine justice. Like I said, efforts at diabolizing the formerly divine weren’t really hidden.
Some of the stories were old. The tabloids of the 1950s accused Dean of running a Satanic cannibal biker cult and of being the victim of a witch’s curse, reflections of the enmity he engendered in Hollywood due antisocial behavior. But those stories didn’t stick because they didn’t match the faith and belief of his fans. The newer stories, paralleling in a symbolic way the homosexual rumors that those outside the gay community suppressed but could not forget, stuck. They were amplified and canonized in sensationalized works like Hollywood Babylon II and a raft of biographies of awful Hollywood types (rapists and abusers among them) that attempted to celebrate their “genius” by demonizing Dean. This week’s news report even spoke of “Dean’s dark iconography” as though he were an occult figure from the Gothic depths. This is one reason that the media long bifurcated Dean into image and man, his famous photos standing separate from the person, one iconic and the other ignored.
Bagans will titillate his visitors with the occult stories and spin a supernatural tale out of rumors and lies. But he ought to consider that these stories have a sordid history, spun from homophobia and the sense of betrayal Baby Boomers felt in learning that the man they idolized was one of “them”—a queer, and therefore evil. It’s not a message I’m eager for Bagans to perpetuate.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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