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The Public-Access Horror King of the North Shore

Long before YouTube and social media, Bryan Fortin was turning his obsessions into content. Forty years later, as fan culture has exploded into a billion-dollar industry and passed him up entirely, he’s still doing it for the love of the gore.

Liam Eisenberg

The staticky title card is a portal to the past.

… Since 1987, we have become one of Cablevision’s most talked about programs.

As soon as I see those fuzzy white letters on the black screen, I’m right back in my best friend Jeff’s living room. It’s the mid-1990s and two teenagers are sitting on recliners at night, staring at a box television set like Carol Anne in Poltergeist.

We’re a weekly program dedicated to horror movies.

… Let us show you what we’re talking about.

The intro is followed by a three-minute montage—scored by RuPaul’s “Snapshot”—of grainy clips from films like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Halloween, The Shining, Scanners, and Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan. The gory barrage leads to a calmer place: a drab, white-walled hotel room. It’s here that we meet our host, a skinny man in an unbuttoned shirt with middle-parted red hair and a small hoop earring. His name is Bryan Fortin. And this is Zones of Evil.

Normally, the public-access series is filmed on a makeshift set in Fortin’s house. But this is a very special episode, shot on location at a horror convention. Today’s guest is none other than The Exorcist star Linda Blair, who cheerfully answers her spellbound interviewer’s Boston-accented questions.

Though Fortin is clearly awestruck—at one point he asks Blair about her least favorite project, the exploitation film Chained Heat, before realizing he should change the subject—his raw, unpolished curiosity is disarming. He’s a fanboy, but a charming fanboy—a prototype.

“Do you yourself like to be scared?” Fortin asks Blair, whose performance as the demonically possessed 12-year-old Regan MacNeil led to an Academy Award nomination. “Are you more comfortable with being happy or do you like the occasional adrenaline rush?” After explaining that she was raised on classic monster movies but dislikes the violence of slasher films, Blair makes an admission: “It’s easy to scare me. I don’t like to be scared. My heart has raced enough in my life. I don’t need it to race anymore.”

The interview is the kind of hypnotically lo-fi time capsule you might stumble upon while going down a YouTube rabbit hole. But neither it, nor the 300-plus episodes of Zones of Evil, are available online. In fact, it still only airs in three places on the North Shore of Massachusetts: Halloween mecca Salem, Fortin’s Peabody, and my hometown of Lynnfield. If you grew up in the area during the past 35 years you probably came across the talk show at least once—even if you didn’t know what the hell it was. “They would see a clip of a horror movie which would catch their attention,” Fortin says. “That’s how a lot of people got drawn into the show, because they were just flipping channels.” The program had a cult following—if you were from the area, and in some cases even if you weren’t, you knew about it or wondered about it—and it introduced kids (like me) who found it to the gore fests they were afraid to rent from the video store.

For four decades, Fortin has been an underground local celebrity. Strangers’ reactions to him typically come in two forms: You’re that guy from TV! or What do you think of this new horror film? Eventually, being recognized in public became too much for him to handle. He hasn’t seen a movie in a theater since the Friday the 13th reboot in 2009.

But as Fortin grew more introverted, the kind of voracious fandom that he’s long personified has gone from an outsider hobby to a multibillion-dollar industry. Geeks used to have to work hard to find each other. Not anymore. And beyond just making it easier to obsess over pop culture, the internet has legitimized the pursuit. For better or worse, the nerds now have a voice, and the entertainment industry, ever eager to capitalize, is intently listening—and in some cases, even handing over the keys. Fandom isn’t just something Hollywood now wants to appease; because of shows like Talking Dead, Thronecast, and Watch What Happens Live, it is Hollywood.

Fortin, however, hasn’t changed with the times. He still shoots with a VHS camcorder. His only web presence is an ancient Tripod site accented by a GIF of a pixelated spinning, bloody sword. He doesn’t have a podcast. There is no Bryan Fortin Funko Pop.

At 52, Fortin has no interest in altering his approach. He doesn’t want a bigger platform, a bigger audience, a bigger ego, or even a bigger bank account. “I do like the technology of today,” he admits. “But I do get frustrated with that. It’s become easy, you know what I mean? It’s just a snap and it’s there.” Becoming a horror expert no longer takes that much effort, he says. And isn’t something lost if the journey to infatuation is just a click away?

Bryan Fortin, in the Zones of Evil
IMDb

About a week after I first contacted Fortin, a cardboard box arrived at my door. When I opened it, the smell of cigarette smoke wafted out. In addition to a pack of mint gum included as an air freshener, the package contained four episodes of Zones of Evil burned from VHS to DVD, three locally made movies Fortin has appeared in, a few business cards on which an image of Regan MacNeil is printed, and two autographed photos. (He recently sent me a second business card, with a little embossed skull and crossbones in the top left corner.)

The trove confirmed what I’ve always assumed was true: Fortin has meticulously cultivated his mini horror empire. “Even in a very localized sense,” Steven Mallas, his childhood friend and former Zones of Evil collaborator, tells me over email, “I consider what he achieved as an honest-to-god brand.”

Fortin has worked in retail for most of his adult life, but to this day he supplements his income with money earned by selling copies of old Zones of Evil episodes for $10 apiece. In September alone, he says that he received 27 orders from fans as far-flung as Arizona, Florida, and even Canada. It’s unclear how they found the show, but Fortin’s presence at conventions around North America has likely made an impression on his fellow scary movie enthusiasts.

“Horror people,” says the West Peabody–raised Matt Farley, a filmmaker, actor, and musician who’s enlisted Fortin to appear in his low-budget films, “are completists.” Fortin’s collection of cassettes is 3,000 strong. The first time the 42-year-old Farley, a Zones of Evil fan since childhood, visited Fortin at home, he felt like he’d stepped into the ’80s. “Every wall was just shelves of VHS horror movies,” Farley says. “Video stores don’t exist, but we still had Fortin’s at least.”

But Fortin is not just a curator of dead technology. His cache of physical media is his own working personal video library. When he wants to revisit Prom Night, he doesn’t fire up Shudder. He pops in a tape. “Sometimes I like the graininess of VHS because that’s how I originally saw it,” he says. These days, he screens most scary movies that way: “I’m trying to give my DVD player a rest because it’s wearing out.”

Predictably, a man who regularly watches two scary movies per day has an array of opinions on his favorite genre. He’s fond of the juxtaposition of brutal violence and comedy in classics like George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead and Wes Craven’s Scream but dislikes torture porn. He hates modern horror’s overreliance on CGI but enjoys the CGI-stuffed zombie pandemic epic World War Z. He thinks Cujo is underrated and believes that the films of fellow Massachusetts native Rob Zombie are overrated. He adores Jamie Lee Curtis. And his top three horror flicks are The Exorcist, Halloween II, and Friday the 13th Part III.

As teens growing up in Peabody, a largely middle-class city of 53,000 located 20 miles northeast of Boston, Fortin, Mallas, and their friend Jim Demers would spend Saturdays taking in double features of second-run blockbusters like Raiders of the Lost Ark and Friday the 13th. And on days when they weren’t at the theater, they’d pile into Fortin’s house to watch other movies—his parents were the only ones in the group who subscribed to HBO.

Fortin religiously read the influential horror magazine Fangoria, which inspired the group to start their own fanzine. It debuted as Monster Mag before Fortin suggested a new name: Zones of Evil. “I wish he had trademarked that,” Mallas says. “It really does roll off the tongue and could imply a major media empire if it had the financial backing!”

With help from his parents—his stepdad worked at the General Electric plant in nearby Lynn; his mother in post press at the Salem News—Fortin had each installment of the hand-made zine photocopied. The crew bought an ad in Fangoria, which resulted in a number of subscriptions, though most of their readership paid the $1 price in person—at school.

Each month, Zones of Evil featured a mix of letters to the editor, reviews, and essays. The 60-page April 1984 issue has a cut-out still photo of Linda Hamilton from Children of the Corn on the cover and is packed with more ads—for Fangoria, costumes, monster makeup, the Starlog convention, and Atari—than most current-day periodicals. In addition to stories about the animated video game Dragon’s Lair and the fantasy film The Sword and the Sorcerer, the issue features articles that its founder wrote about special effects guru Rob Bottin and New England’s most famous novelist. “Stephen King is one of those guys that you would kill to see,” wrote the then-16-year-old Fortin, who even at that age was unafraid to share his unfiltered thoughts on the world of horror. “He writes his novels with the strangest things, things that you and I hope never happen.”

“The teachers would always buy the magazine,” Fortin says, “and then the next day I would hear, ‘The grammar in these things is awful.’”

In the early days of Zones of Evil, Fortin says, “it was very hard to find people that you could talk to about your favorite movies.” Intense fandom, especially horror fandom, was looked down upon. Now, he adds, “people will admit that they watch horror movies. Back then, people would say, ‘Well, what’s the matter with you?’”

While there already had been nearly a century’s worth of critically acclaimed horror movies by the time Fortin was a teenager, the genre hadn’t shaken its mainstream reputation of being mere violent trash. And fairly or not, the clever, tongue-in-cheek horror hosts—like Svengoolie and Elvira, Mistress of the Dark—who spent decades introducing schlocky films on their local shows added to that perception.

Yet by the late ’70s and early ’80s, things like the wild popularity of Stephen King’s work, the inception of Fangoria, and fan conventions proved that there were a lot of people into the macabre. Zones of Evil was founded on that instinct—without the internet, Fortin had no access to a wider community, but he was sure there were people out there like him. He has dedicated most of his life to creating stuff for them. When they were in high school, he and Mallas started renting camcorders and making shorts where they played characters like Michael Myers, Freddy Krueger, and Jason Voorhees. “It was filmed fan fiction, essentially, but there was a copious amount of love put into it,” Mallas says. “And in a sense, they almost felt original to us. Later on, it amazed me to find out that many other fans did the same thing.”

By 1987, when he graduated from Peabody High, his ambition had grown beyond a fanzine. It was time, he thought, for a Zones of Evil TV show. He didn’t really know what it would look like, just that it should exist. “When I first started there was nothing on TV, or even public access, that I saw that made me want to do this,” Fortin says. “I thought I would do three or four shows and that would be it.”

Selling Peabody public access—think Cable 10 in Wayne’s World—on the concept was easy. Fortin recalls that there was no real screening process; no one even asked what something as sinister-sounding as Zones of Evil was about.

What was harder was actually figuring out how to make a show. He learned how to edit, how to light a set, and how to direct from a six-week course offered by the station; his friends, including Mallas and Demers, pitched in where they could. “I basically pulled in anybody I could that would want to be on TV,” he says.

Fortin remembers dropping the tape of the hour-long series premiere off and receiving zero feedback. “They had no say when I gave them the first show,” he says. “Not even sure they even watched it.”

The first episode aired on a Tuesday at 9 p.m. in late 1987 and featured a discussion about one of his favorite subjects: scream queens. It did not go well. “Even though I was by myself with just the camera, I was shaking and my voice was trepidatious,” Fortin says. “And as I’m editing it all together, I’m looking at this thing and, ‘You look like an idiot. You’re shaking, you’re stumbling on your words.’”

After struggling through his first episode, Fortin took a few months off to regroup. During that time, he realized that the best version of Zones of Evil would be unstructured. He’d riff directly to the audience, like a proto–Twitch streamer. “It was unrehearsed, unstaged,” Fortin says. “I would get up in the middle of a scene and say, ‘Hang on. I’ve got to go get a cigarette. I’ll be right back.’ I did stuff that you weren’t supposed to see on TV, out-of-the-norm type of things.”

The first handful of episodes came and went without anyone making a fuss, but soon, local papers began to write critically about the show, particularly its R-rated content. Then and only then did Peabody TV begin to monitor the program. For a while, Fortin says, he was required to watch each episode with the brass before it aired. “I’d have to sit there with them so they could watch it and say, ‘OK, yep, that’s got to go, this has got to go,’” Fortin says. “And I’m thinking, ‘It’s public access. How can you censor me?’ But at the time they had church bulletins on Cablevision. So I had to go along with what they said.”

Yet as time passed—and as local critics found new things to get mad about—the station became less and less concerned with the sometimes shocking content of his show. “I basically dropped the tape off at the door and said, ‘See you,’” Fortin says. “And they’d just play it.”

For impressionable suburban Boston kids, the show was an entry to a genre that many parents had banned. And for all viewers, it made a statement that pop culture interests—even the stranger ones—deserved to be celebrated and encouraged, rather than denigrated. Zones of Evil may have lacked production value, but it took its subject seriously. “My dream was that there would be a show where people just talk about horror movies like it’s important,” Farley says. “And ta-da, luckily in my hometown these guys were doing it. I wasn’t allowed to watch R-rated movies, but I could watch Peabody public access.”

Fortin on the set of Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You!
IMDb

Zones of Evil mostly covered topics like Nightmare on Elm Street, prosthetic makeup artist Tom Savini, The Munsters, and the making of the Thriller video, but the show was about more than just horror. Fortin’s interests bled onto the screens of the North Shore’s old Zeniths; there were installments about R.E.M., Tiny Tim, Absolutely Fabulous, Star Wars, and Titanic.

In 1998, he shot an episode about filmmaker John Waters’s muse: Divine. Fortin, who had grown his red hair almost to his shoulders, spent 25 minutes patiently telling the iconic drag queen’s story—with the help of video clips. He even showed the most infamous scene in Waters’s Pink Flamingos: Divine eating dog shit. “I got more hate emails for that one show …” Fortin says. Still, he was unfazed by occasional pushback.

“I did [an episode] years ago in the ’90s, it was called ‘Issues & Answers,’” says Fortin. “It was a call-in show. And I got this one caller, and he said, ‘How can you be making a show like this? Guys dressed up in costumes, running around, people getting their heads cut off, ladies running around screaming? I don’t know how you put this on. I never watch the show. Blah, blah, blah.’ I says, ‘For someone who doesn’t watch the show, you just named about four episodes right in a row!’”

Some viewers hated the show’s transgressive spirit, but others embraced it. “He was a real spokesperson for the genre and was so genuinely dedicated to promoting all of us horror stars,” says scream queen Brinke Stevens, a Zones of Evil guest who you might (or might not) remember from such low-budget films as The Slumber Party Massacre, Nightmare Sisters, and Grandmother’s House. “A real sweetheart. And he always had such great hair!” According to Fortin, Linda Blair still sends him Christmas cards.

“There’s just so many options for TV now,” Farley says. “But in 1989 there were, like, 50 channels. So people were watching.” Anyone watching Fortin share his thoughts on The Omen or John Carpenter could see it: No one cared about horror movies more. That, more than anything else, made him a magnet. And the incongruous image of a man riffing alone in a room, taking breaks to smoke butts, made him a local fascination. Spotting him at a North Shore movie theater was basically like seeing Ben Affleck in Cambridge.

Fortin has had a harder time generating that kind of enthusiasm from those close to him. His sister, he says, “hates it.” His mother has never liked the violence. His romantic partners, he admits, haven’t exactly been impressed by his video collection, either. “My past girlfriends would rather throw it away than have it just be there,” he says. “It took up too much space.”

It’s easy to wonder whether Zones of Evil has, like his stash of cassettes, occupied too much of Fortin’s life. But he doesn’t see it that way. “It’s not an obsession where I’m like, ‘I’ve got to keep this going. I’ve been on this long,’” Fortin says. “It’s not like that. It’s like, ‘All right, well, if I stop tomorrow, I stop tomorrow.’” Still, the show is his baby. It may be a demon baby, but it’s his.

At this point, you might be wondering whether Fortin ever fully capitalized on his local fame. If he’d started his program in the last decade, there’s a chance that it would’ve led to a podcast, a web series, or a show on a streaming service. Unlike when he was coming of age, now even the gnarliest scary movies are celebrated.

“Horror fans are the most ferocious fan base there is,” Tony Todd, the star of 1992’s terrifying Candyman, told The New York Times this month. “That allows for a lot of personal appearances and celebrating a genre that’s sort of kicked to the side but also passionately adored—so I don’t see it as a secondhand citizenship.”

The film industry may have cut back on mid-budget comedies and dramas in favor of exorbitantly expensive tentpole franchises in the last decade or so, but it hasn’t given up on horror. Studios like Vertigo Entertainment and Blumhouse Productions, which specialize in the genre, have spent the past decade churning out massively profitable hits.

Elsewhere in the industry, Hollywood has also grown similarly reliant on the fervor of major fan bases. The biggest franchises in the world—the MCU, Disney’s expansion of Star Wars, Game of Thrones—are all entities that had grown massive followings even before they became content universes. Whereas Hollywood used to ignore these fans of “niche” interests, they now hold more sway than ever before, to the point that being an obsessive can be a viable career. The Stupendous Wave, a YouTube channel devoted to all things Star Wars, has made an estimated $1.36 million on the platform alone. Dead Meat, which talks about horror movies just like Fortin does, has made around $3 million since its launch.

Today’s hardcore fans don’t know it, but in many ways they’re all descendants of Fortin—of his unceasing passion, his insistence that even the stuff once considered useless by the mainstream deserves love, attention, and celebration. Zones of Evil may seem stuck in the past now, but it was ahead of its time. And though the sort of fan-made content that he inadvertently pioneered has exploded without him and passed him by, his show is still going.

A few years ago, an employee of Peabody’s public access TV station phoned Fortin and offered him old VHS cameras. “They called me right away and said, ‘We are not going to be using these anymore, do you want them?’” Fortin says. “I said, ‘Yeah!’” Fortin—of course—still films his show with them.

Unsurprisingly, the Zones of Evil of today feels a lot like the Zones of Evil of the past—if slightly less frequent. “It’s sporadic,” Fortin says. “When something good comes up, I’ll jump on it and say, ‘OK, I’m going to do a show.’ Right now, they’re talking about Scream 5, so I’m trying to get a show together on all the Scream movies.” The single host still shoots at his childhood home; save for the occasional appearance of a flat screen, the program could be mistaken for something made in the Reagan administration.

During a 2015 episode about the nearby Danvers State Hospital, a location that has served as the setting for several horror movies and novels, Fortin sits at a table in front of a wall plastered with various Friday the 13th posters. His face has aged, but his red hair is still long.

The discussion eventually turns to the fact that the gothic mental health facility, which locals used to break into and explore in the middle of the night, has been turned into apartments. All of its history, Fortin says, “has been whooshed away.”

“It would’ve been nice if they left Danvers State the way it was,” Fortin says, his face slightly falling.

The world has changed. Fortin has not. Decades after the late-night horror host went extinct, he’s still making a show born in another time, built on material that’s now only a Google search away. He knows this. Yet even after 33 years on the air, after many of his childhood pals have long since drifted away, after nostalgic viewers like me have grown up, he continues to fire up those old cameras. “I’ve stuck to it and just keep plowing away,” he says.

That’s a gift, not a curse. Other people have careers and families. He has Zones of Evil. “There’s nothing really visually there that they can show what they’ve done with their whole life,” Fortin says. “I have all these shows—they’re basically me growing up through the years. I feel like that’s something to be proud of.”

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