Today I want to talk about one of my favorite tv shows – Dark Shadows.
***This post contains spoilers for a 50 year old tv show. If that bothers you, don’t read this.***
I love Dark Shadows so much. It’s so ridiculous and campy and melodramatic, and the plotlines are absolutely outrageous, but some of them are pretty ingenious. One of the great things about Dark Shadows is that you really don’t have to know what’s going on in order to enjoy it, the quick opening monologue will catch you up enough. So when I first discovered it in reruns on the SciFi Channel in high school, I had no problem jumping into the world where Victoria Winters had been sent back in time through a séance to 1795.
Backing up just a bit, I should explain that I had a little knowledge of Dark Shadows before the first time I saw it. My dad had often made references to “Barnabas Collins, the reluctant vampire”, and my mother had told me about this ridiculous show where, when a character died off, they brought back the actor as a different character. But that’s about as much as I knew going in.
Lately, I’ve been craving more Dark Shadows in my life. Being a completist, and having an annoying need to do things from the very beginning, I determined to watch all of Dark Shadows, from the very first episode when Victoria Winters arrives in Collinsport, through the very end and the last movie (Tim Burton’s interpretation notwithstanding). Lo and behold, ALL of the show is available on Amazon and included in a Prime subscription! Happy dance!!!
There’s a caveat, though, and I offer it here as a Public Service Announcement. On Amazon, you’ll find Dark Shadows seasons 1-26 (they must be actual seasons, like spring, summer, and winter, because the show did not run for 26 years), and then there’s also Dark Shadows: The Beginning seasons 1-6 (they’re each about 35 episodes, so about 7 weeks per season). That which is labeled Dark Shadows begins with Willie Loomis finding Barnabas’ coffin, which is nearly a year into the series, according to Wikipedia. So Dark Shadows: The Beginning is the first 200 or so episodes, the pre-Barnabas parts. If you’re like me, this is where you start, and that’s the section I’m going to talk about today.
According to everything I’ve read, Dark Shadows was conceived as a supernatural soap opera from the beginning; there were always supposed to be gothic and horror elements in the show, from the very first episode. But those early episodes are nothing like the Dark Shadows I knew and loved.
First of all, in the early days, the writing and pacing are just awful. And I say this in comparison to the standard that was set in the show’s later seasons. Sure, the writing was always campy and over-acted (or overly under-acted?), but the story moved along at a nice clip, whether it really made sense or not. In these early seasons, though, it’s like they had no editors in the writers’ room – things get repeated over and over, scenes are slow and laggy, entire conversations are had where a few lines of dialogue would suffice if the writing were just tightened up a bit. For well over 100 episodes, the show is concerned with a single storyline, that of the revenge of Burke Devlin. Sometimes several episodes take place in the same day, following different characters, and other times a week’s worth of episodes or more go by without any real plot progression.
Secondly, there are constant references to ghosts, goblins, and “the Widows”, but there is NO supernatural element present until episode 52. In that episode, a book opens by itself and the marker reveals the name Josette Collins. That’s it. There isn’t even anyone around to see it. Eventually, David takes Vicky to the Old House and shows her the portrait of Josette; after they leave, Josette’s ghost comes down from the painting and takes her sweet time walking across the grounds. It’s not until episode 85 that we get a ghost interacting with anyone, when the ghost of Bill Malloy appears to Vicky while she’s trapped in the closed-off wing of the house. It’s all so mundane, it really hardly feels like Dark Shadows at all.
For the most part, the first hundred or so episodes feel like any other soap opera. There’s a bunch of love triangles, a ton of misunderstandings, a few attempted murders, one or two deaths, a minor kidnapping or disappearance here and there – all perfectly ordinary soap opera fodder that you might see on All My Children, Guiding Light, or Days of Our Lives (no sex, though – this was in 1966, long before they started showing sex on daytime tv). There were many points in those early episodes when I thought that if I didn’t know it was going to get better, that it was going to eventually become the show I love so much, I wouldn’t put up with this crap. If I didn’t know what would happen later on, I would have quit watching the show quite some time ago. So it was little surprise to me to learn that Dark Shadows was on the verge of cancelation when Barnabas was introduced.
Another problem I found in the early episodes is the characters. Not only are they ill-formed and badly written, but they’re all kind of one-note jokes. Roger Collins is an asshole who hates his son and treats just about everyone else with terrible disdain (except Carolyn, more on that in a minute). Carolyn Stoddard is a total brat who acts like a spoiled child though she’s supposed to be 18, treats her steady beau, her friend, and her family like trash just so she can get some attention from an older man, and goes off on anyone and everyone for little to no reason. David Collins is played as a purely sinister nine-year-old, called “an incipient psychopath” by his own father, and said to have killed the last thing he claimed to love (a kitten he drowned, according to Carolyn). Sam Evans is a drunk, Maggie Evans constantly makes jokes and laughs about everything. Elizabeth Collins Stoddard is the unflappable matriarch, but a terrible liar and with none of her inscrutability that would come into her character later. Vicky Winters is basically the ultimate innocent ingenue – quite bland, and entirely blameless. It’s hard to care about these characters as they’re written at this point, especially knowing how they grow later.
And there are some really weird, incestuous vibes going on at Collinwood! It’s all about Roger. With Elizabeth, the way he talks to her and the way he calls her “my dear” and such things, it feels so much like Riff Raff and Magenta from Rocky Horror. Carolyn as much as tells Vicky she has a crush on her Uncle Roger – she waxes eloquent about how charming and wonderful he is, and how much better he is than her steady boyfriend, Joe Haskell. Vicky doesn‘t blink or even act shocked, she just points out that Carolyn doesn’t exactly have the option of choosing her uncle over her boyfriend. Meanwhile, Roger constantly addresses Carolyn as “Kitten” and they put off some serious sugar daddy-type vibes. Then, when Roger starts trying to get close to Vicky and seems to be hitting on her, it feels creepy because he seems so much older than she is, and Carolyn gets snippy about it, which just makes it creepier. Or maybe it’s just that Roger Collins is a creepy bastard in general and puts off that vibe with all women.
David Collins is the one I really feel bad for, though. Carolyn and Roger refer to him as a monster, a horror, a devil, and worse, often to his face. Everyone uses the word “ridiculous” in response to things he says, far too often. His father wants to put him in an institution, and openly says that he hates the boy. His cousin laughs at him and calls him names and taunts him. His aunt and his governess brush him aside and accuse him of lying even when he isn’t. If we look at him from a 21st century perspective, it’s no wonder why the child is so troubled, why he lies and steals and says he hates everyone. We’d see it as a natural consequence of the way he’s treated and we’d say he belonged in counseling, not in jail or a mental hospital. Every time an adult takes David seriously, or at least doesn’t laugh at him or rebuke him, I immediately like that character, even if they’re supposed to be a villain – which is most of them. Elizabeth and Vicky sometimes accept David as he is, but usually they chastise him or tell him he’s wrong. Burke Devlin accepts David, but he’s a villain, and the housekeeper that he planted at Collinwood also takes David seriously when he talks about going to talk to his ghost friends, but we’re not supposed to like them, as they’re trying to destroy the Collins family. It creates a weird dynamic that makes David look like a villain as well.
Things finally start to get moving in episode 123, when Laura Collins, Roger’s estranged wife and David’s mother, turns up. At long last, we get a new storyline starting as the last one is still trying to wind itself up, in true Dark Shadows fashion. And in episodes 125 and 126, it finally starts to feel like Dark Shadows, with several ghosts intervening to save Vicky Winters from the insane caretaker.
Throughout the Laura Collins storyline, the show feels much more familiar. The pacing continues to be awful and slow, but the show seems to be finding its footing. People are oddly compelled to do things against their wills, they have strange dreams and nightmares, and there are questions about a mysterious death and whether Laura Collins is really who she says she is. Vicky becomes not only interesting, but a driving force in the story – so much so that Carolyn just disappears for a few episodes and I didn’t even notice until she turned back up.
It’s odd to realize that this is the first supernatural thing that the Collins family is dealing with – this story happens long before the séance-induced time travel and the vampire in the family. I was more used to seeing the cast of Dark Shadows reacting to the supernatural with a certain understanding and nonchalance, not this confusion and disbelief they’re using in these early episodes. It’s hard to believe, but most of them don’t even believe in Josette’s ghost at this point. But eventually Laura Collins is shown to be a supernatural threat as she puts Elizabeth in a persistent coma by some form of magic, and the family calls in a doctor of parapsychology. Correct me if I’m wrong, but wasn’t that the same title held by Drs. Venkman, Stanz, and Spengler?
In the 21st century, when Fox Mulder and Ghostbusters are both so ingrained in the popular consciousness, all this jabbering about parapsychology seems very innocent and silly, but in the 1960s, I guess it was more of a big deal. The writing makes a point of explaining the field and how it works and why it should be taken seriously, and it’s quite impressive. That is, until this Dr. Guthrie calls Laura Collins “the undead”. I am not ok with this! “The undead” refers to those creatures which are dead but not dead, meaning vampires and occasionally zombies, depending on the rules of your universe. It does not refer to other immortal creatures like werewolves, witches (in the Dark Shadows-verse, anyway), or phoenixes (phoenices?). Sure, Dr. Guthrie defines it as “you lived, and died, and returned to walk the earth again”, but that is still not the same thing!
At the very least, this storyline provides some vague subtextual explanation for David being such a weird kid and so in tune with the supernatural. Although it’s never said outright, it’s pretty obvious that David is half-phoenix – that is, half magical. You’d hope that this would get at least some of the adults around him to take him more seriously, but nothing really changes. And, as if poor David needed another reason to be messed up, he watches his mother burn to death not ten feet from him, while she was trying to get him to burn with her.
In episode 196, the next storyline gets properly started with the introduction of Jason McGuire. Unlike most of Dark Shadows, this new arc feels abrupt, because it’s marked by Liz Stoddard’s return from the hospital after recovering from the curse, which ended when Laura Collins died. I can understand there wasn’t really a better way to do it, but it still feels clunky. And in episode 201, there is FINALLY an end to the Burke Devlin arc – a truce is called between Burke and the Collins family, at least in anything outside of business.
The Jason McGuire arc also introduces another villain: Willie Loomis. Introduced in episode 199, Willie Loomis is probably the most terrifying character I’ve run across since Buffalo Bill in Silence of the Lambs. He’s incredibly sleazy, quietly but heavily menacing, and totally dehumanizing to women. Interestingly, given the time, none of his advances are treated like something women just have to expect or put up with. His attitude toward women is used as evidence of how dangerous he is, and Carolyn, Vicky, and Maggie’s fear of him is treated as completely justified. Maggie is such a jovial personality, anything that stops her from laughing and joking is unsettling. There is a scene where Willie orders Carolyn and Vicky to make him breakfast, and their fear is palpable. Any woman will be able to relate to the feeling of being trapped between trying to get away and trying not to upset a man who seems unstable. Eventually, Willie traps Carolyn in the drawing room and she has to pull a gun on him to get him to back off.
Two episodes after Carolyn escapes being raped by Willie Loomis, the actor playing him was replaced. This kind of replacement has been done twice so far in the series, once with Sam Evans, and once with a smaller side character, but each time, there was an announcement after the opening sequence. This time there was no announcement. I can’t find anything to back this up, but I want to believe that this change was made because the original actor was just so freaking scary! The new actor still has a little creepiness about him, and he still menaces the girls a little, but it isn’t so chilling and uncomfortable to watch.
Having spent so much time building up Willie Loomis as such a terrible person, it’s very fulfilling to see him get his comeuppance by opening a coffin only to be grabbed by the throat. But it can’t quite wash the taste of his sleaze out of your mouth, particularly when you realize he wasn’t killed.
There you have it, friends, the first 209 episodes of Dark Shadows. It’s not what I expected from what I knew of the later years of the show. We’ll pick up next time with the first appearance of Barnabas Collins, and the impressive fact that Jonathan Frid actually looked young at one point!