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The movies aren’t usually a place you go to be loud and proud—let alone make meaningful new connections. But Benjamin Jackson remembers the first time he was invited to a backyard movie night that promised precisely that.
A new resident of Colorado at the time, Jackson had been looking to connect with fellow queer folks living in Denver. He sat nervously in a folding chair on the grassy lawn in Five Points—he hadn’t been surrounded by that many people in months, but the fresh air and socially distanced seating made him feel comfortable enough to leave his house. When the chatter quieted, a projector flickered on to display that night’s campy film of choice onto a white sheet strung across the fence. The small speakers hooked up to the laptop didn’t produce much noise, but no one seemed to care. They all mouthed the movie word-for-word.
“A movie, yes, is a shared experience—but at the same time, it’s not a direct social interaction. [Rainbow Cult] is what builds the queer community,” Jackson says. “I think a lot of people are looking for opportunities like these to socialize.”
Several years later, Jackson is now a regular attendee of the same monthly gathering that’s come to be known as Rainbow Cult—a movie series hosted by local film scholar Andrew Scahill that’s focused on bringing the LGBTQ+ community together through interactive cult classic cinema.
Scahill, who also serves as an assistant professor of film studies at the University of Colorado Denver, focuses much of his academic work on the importance of an audience’s reception of film and how we experience different genres with our bodies. His 2015 book The Revolting Child in Horror Cinema: Youth Rebellion and Queer Spectatorship explores this further, examining the ways that queer people may perceive a film differently than a heteronormative audience.
Building on those ideas, Scahill first launched the informal shows at his home in 2019, inviting members of the LGBTQ+ community in Denver—and any other curious cinephiles—to screenings unlike anything they might find in a traditional movie theater, with live elements including props, callbacks, singalongs, costumes, live drag performances, and more.
“We experience comedy with our bodies,” Scahill says, motioning toward his chest. “So why not expand on that? It’s about changing our perception of the cinema space from being solitary and silent, to expressive and embodied.”
The immersive element changes from event to event. For Rainbow Cult’s June screening, To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, drag queens Juicy Misdemeanor, Anna Staysha, and Mia Staxx separately performed songs from the film’s soundtrack before the movie started. Sometimes, it’s more hands-on: For a showing of Bring It On in March, a guest cheer squad passed out pompoms and taught the audience how to cheer along with the movie. For an extra-special treat, the team took advantage of the tall ceilings to do a routine of their own, flipping their flyers in the theater space.
The interactive format proved popular, outgrowing Scahill’s backyard by August of 2022 and expanding to monthly programming at Sie FilmCenter. Rainbow Cult has since moved to hosting the playful cinema social events as pop-ups at other venues, including Ophelia’s Electric Soapbox and the People’s Building in Aurora.
The unapologetically camp events give queer people a safe space to interact with the art they love, something they can’t always do in standard heteronormative spaces, Scahill explains. “What if you got to see [films] in a group of queer people and allies, cheering on the same villains and laughing at the same over-the-top delivery?” Scahill says. “What if you didn’t have to worry about the sighs of disgust from the back row when two characters share a same-sex kiss? What if you felt safe in the dark to wear a tiara and gay-gasp-express-yourself exactly how you want to?”
Scahill also draws inspiration from queer theorist Vito Russo, modeling his events after the way Russo would use film lectures as a space for advocacy and activism. Scahill has since started a scholarship for queer film students named after Russo, which Rainbow Cult patrons have the option to donate to. The event also partners closely with CampSeen—a weeklong program in the foothills hosted by Denver nonprofit YouthSeen—which gives LGBTQ kids the opportunity to meet other kids like themselves in a safe environment.
“You don’t have to dress, act, or look a certain way in order to feel a sense of belonging and community at a Rainbow Cult event,” says Brandon Gil, another regular attendee.
And as the event continues to outgrow its various venues, that’s Scahill’s guarantee: to make every theater Rainbow Cult travels to feel just as accepting as his own backyard.
Rainbow Cult will host its next event, a screening of Clueless, July 25 at the People’s Building in Aurora. Drag queens Minerva and Freda Slaves will be in attendance as Cher and Dione, who will assist with raising funds for Project Angel Heart. Tickets are donation-based. Find more information on upcoming screenings at rainbowcultshow.com.