A few months ago I noticed that Netflix was streaming the original Dark Shadows ABC daytime soap opera, no doubt coordinated with the release of the film adaptation set for May 2012. After a moment’s hesitation, I knew that I had to go back – return to my five-year-old self and confront one of my deepest fears: Barnabas Collins, the agent of many childhood nightmares that left an imprint of anxiety on my psyche that may have never been fully erased. I was about to conduct dangerous psychotherapy – on myself.
My babysitter watched the show religiously, and since I, even at age four or five, was quite TV-centric, I sat beside her on the sofa, filled with dread and fear, for the show truly frightened me, but with my television addiction already in evidence, I could not simply look away. Also, I was savvy enough not to let my babysitter know that I was internally terrified and tormented by the program, because such a confession might have resulted in my banishment to the swing set in the back yard, leaving me with my nose pressed against the family room window burning with envy as my sitter sat on the couch glued to her story.
At least I wasn’t alone. Some quick research proves that marketers were highly aware of a legion of children watching gothic horror during their misspent days. Even Milton Bradley got in on the action with a board game, and kids could add the hearse-like Barnabas Vampire Van to their collection of Tonka trucks while reading Barnabas comics alongside Spiderman.
I don’t think viewing this commercial for the Milton Bradley board game did me any favors either:
I also made a mental note not to discuss Dark Shadows in front of my parents, as even at that early age, I knew of TV transgressions from spending time with other families. I had been denied viewing rights to the shows I enjoyed at my own home by other kids’ parents at their houses, either because “it’s for grown-ups” or “it’s too nice outside.” My own parents more or less gave their kids carte blanche when it came to television and film, which meant that I watched not only far too much TV in general, but also far too much inappropriate programming. I knew then Dark Shadows was not intended for a pre-schooler, but I would never have risked revealing anything negative about it that might have curbed any access to our giant TV, which was built into a huge hole in the wall, with the back accessible through a closet door, which I was forbidden from opening, and behind which I spent a great deal of time surreptitiously studying the massive machine which brought me so much delight, and, for half an hour each weekday, so much terror.
And now, suddenly Dark Shadows was looming on the giant TV of my adulthood, a flat LED with no mystery in the back. I was ready to confront Barnabas in the digital age, my childhood angst simmering, waiting to show itself once more and maybe seek retribution – against me for willfully inflicting the Collinwood saga on myself so many moons ago.
The streaming episodes of Dark Shadows begin with the introduction of Barnabas. There were some 200 episodes beforehand, so I had to get schooled quickly on what had transpired before:
The show was in danger of cancellation, so they really shook things up with the introduction of the supernatural, first through a ghost, and later, more decidedly, with a vampire. Therefore, my first viewing as an adult was also the series’ launch of Barnabas, the vampire with the Collins name, thought long dead, but really lying in a coffin in a secret tomb within the family crypt. I had a ringside seat as Barnabas walked into Collinwood Manor for the very first time:
My initial reaction upon re-viewing was not of terror, but rather, of shock: shock that the show looked so embarrassingly cheap and that it moved about as fast as sludgy water drips through my washing machine pipes clogged with dog hair. How could I have been scared by this? How could I have even sat through it? Don’t pre-schoolers demand more stimulation than what a brooding, crawling daytime serial has to offer?
I could not fathom any reaction from a small child other than boredom. Then it hit me: the music. Background music runs through most of the 21-minute duration, and it’s all creepy and spooky. Sometimes it runs even when nothing remotely scary is happening. I think it was going when the matriarch and her snotty brother were complaining about how bad the cook’s food was. The music was surely more frightening than Barnabas.
Or was there something else?
As I viewed more episodes and Barnabas began biting people – always off-screen, usually strongly suggested before the fang marks are revealed – I did find a certain menace to Barnabas. His unexplained power over people – so far including the no-goodnik Willie Loomis, who mistakenly let Barnabas out of his coffin while grave-robbing, and the kind-hearted café waitress Maggie Evans, whose downfall came through her fascination with his gold and silver wolf-head cane – was more eerie than outright scary, and therefore left me with a feeling of angst that I was unable to articulate and therefore unable to purge.
Normal folks who suddenly became wild-eyed and exhausted looking, refusing to get out of bed in the day and then disappearing into the night – all that was no doubt more unsettling than people yelling and being chased around by a man in a cape. As a small child, I could have related to yelling and chasing, but not to hypnotic trances and complete personality permutations, along with unexplained and intense attractions to Barnabas, who, about two weeks after his debut, had become increasingly unnerving.
Barnabas was an enigma leaving residual unease after each scene, and the unease mounted as he extended his presence from the Collinwood Manor to the town of Collinsport and its hapless, unsuspecting residents. Barnabas distressed me in a way that I could not express, even if I had wished to do so, which would have fittingly and perhaps rightfully ended my distressing relationship with him. (Substitute a swing set for a serial drama and you’ve just ruined one five-year-old child’s day.) Barnabas Collins had become the fear with no name.
In the early stage of my re-entry into Dark Shadows, I didn’t actually remember anything specific from the show except Barnabas until the cast ended up in the entry hall, where it seems at least half of the running time takes place.
Since the show is so, so cheap, they pad the script with endless discussions of what had happened, what might have happened, and what could happen next. This saves them the trouble of having to construct an extra set or hire additional actors to show what actually happens, in addition to filling up the 21 minutes without the bother of writing additional storylines. (I suppose the ever-present exposition and summarization was helpful for people who led busy lives and could not watch five episodes a week, unlike my babysitter and me.) In fact, some of the episodes have literally only three actors actually appearing. We are reminded of other plot threads through the characters’ endless discussions, or better said, their expositions, paraphrasings, and summarizations – and re-summarizations. In one numbingly boring scene, several characters spent about five minutes in real time at the local pub discussing the disappearance of a cow. At one point I had the sense that one actor might have flubbed a line and the other actors just started the scene over from the beginning. The dialogue feels that circular.
Yet how almost enchanting was my re-discovery of the entry hall of Collinwood Manor, or The Great House, where so much takes place, well, so much talking anyway. It also features a giant portrait of Barnabas, whom the Collins family all think is their long-dead relative. The undead Barnabas coincidentally bears an uncanny, some say identical, appearance to the portrait of the living Barnabas, right down to the gigantic ring on his finger. Everyone comments, and comments, and comments, on the remarkable similarity of the man in the portrait to the Barnabas now ensconced in The Old House (a decrepit mansion not far from the The Great House, where the not undead members of the family reside).
At first I thought that I would watch only a few episodes, especially when I came to the glacial pacing and the exhaustingly inordinate amount of time spent on repetitive dialogue. Then I realized that I had already built the show into my grown-up schedule, 21 minutes of unhurried, undemanding viewing – right before turning in for the night. The soporific effects of the show were wholly unpredicted, and now they had become a necessity.
As a child, I could not go to sleep because of Dark Shadows; as an adult, I cannot go to sleep without it.
Moreover, I have come to appreciate aspects of the series. It is representative of a time gone by, not just my childhood, but of television entertainment, which did not depend on multiple shots, quick editing, and physical action to keep the viewer engaged. Instead, it offers atmosphere, frequently camp, though the intent of creepiness is discernible, and I can easily watch the show through either lens, or usually both simultaneously.
The cheapness that I initially reacted against makes the program somehow more tactile, as if I could imagine myself putting up a fake wall or stringing cobwebs over styrofoam gravestones. There is an odd appeal in the obvious artifice quite different from CGI. I know that everything on the set is real, even if there is nothing behind the walls and the staircase in the entry hall leads to nowhere. It’s a staircase I could thunder up or mope my way down, just like the characters. The fakery is real.
Atmosphere is key in Dark Shadows, and it is set right off the bat in every episode with the opening narration of Victoria Winters, the governess for a child portrayed by an actor who can almost never begin his line as scripted. She speaks in a oddly remote, disaffected voice, always introducing herself (“My name is Victoria Winters”) before establishing the tone, always ominous or bleak.
Her strangely detached voice rolls over a shot of either The Manor or The Old House, cloaked in the thick fog featured in her speech. The intro intrigues me; I wonder if as a child I understood any of what she was saying – it sounds like a stilted recitation by someone broadcasting from another dimension. Maybe this was building up my vocabulary (“fog” seems an omnipresent word in the opening) and my sense of figurative language, as bad similes are piled up one upon another to make Collinwood/Collinsport sound as gothic as possible.
Let me not forget to credit the performances. Jonathan Frid is actually quite good as Barnabas. He overplays all the time, but holds back just enough so that you wonder what schemes are spinning in his mind. His acting skirts the line of a cartoonish at times, but never to the extent that Barnabas’s machinations can be discounted; he may be risible, but his aura of danger never wholly subsides. He can be erudite and impeccably mannered, but at the same time quietly threatening in his hyper-focused gazes and imposing stances. Everything that comes out of his mouth seems to be part of a master plan about which only he knows. In addition to making the obvious double-entendres about his undead state, he slyly coaxes and manipulates everyone in his sphere, even if they are not under his spell, which I believe comes after a bite. Barbabas shares much more in common with vampires of the schlock and classic horror films of the thirties and forties than with the hyper-sexed, martial arts masters in contemporary vampire stories. Frid’s performance contributes to the atmosphere, both to the superficial cheapness and to the underlying uneasiness.
Also entertaining is disgraced Hollywood star Joan Bennett
as Elizabeth Stoddard Collins, the Collins matriarch. (In 1951, Bennett’s husband shot her agent out of jealousy and she was blacklisted thereafter.) In the beginning episodes, Bennett delivers her lines as if it were a nuisance to be on the set at all. Her character always seems angry or upset; I can’t tell how much this owes to the script and her acting, or how much it relates to her being a former Hollywood leading lady relegated to playing the matriarch on a low-rated daytime soap opera that showcases a vampire. But like a trooper, she delivers her lines with a straight face, no matter how preposterous the writing. After someone goes missing, she demands an all-out manhunt, and when someone dares tell her, “I’ve looked everywhere conceivable,” she can retort, “Well then you’d better start looking somewhere inconceivable!” without so much as a sly grin. I am looking forward to seeing her evolve, if only in terms of wardrobe, as the series presses through the late 1960s into the early 70s and becomes a national sensation. Maybe by then Joan Bennett will have felt vindicated.
I haven’t read about what is still to come because I like to be surprised, which can be a challenge in the Information Age. I am ready to learn more about the minor characters and all the backstories, and I know that werewolves, zombies, ghosts, Kate Jackson, and time travel have all been promised, but I’d like these stories to unfold s-l-o-w-l -y like everything else in Dark Shadows. It might be like watching it as a small child again, except this time I have nothing to fear but the end of the series. In about 2,000 more episodes.
I cannot wait for this!