Watching Dark Shadows in the 21st Century
When I was in elementary school I would rush home to watch the saga of the Collins family of Collinsport, in which poor orphan Victoria Winters arrives at the gloomy old family mansion and descends into a gothic bog of family curses, graveyards of various sizes, and monsters of various descriptions. When Barnabas Collins climbed out of his coffin, a vampire, I was significantly horrified.
I had already learned about vampires from a movie that kept me sleepless for a week, “Curse of the Undead” with Eric Fleming (of Rawhide fame). The idea that somebody might climb out of his coffin, bite my neck, and drink my blood, was the most terrifying idea I had ever encountered. But Barnabas Collins, being my second vampire, struck me with less terror and more curiosity. Some of my friends were watching the show, too. We discussed who Barnabas had bitten or his obsession with Josette or his pursuit of poor Vicky, whatever had happened the previous day. When the witch Angelique appeared on the show, I was not so much frightened by her; I wanted to be her, with magical powers to cast spells and such.
By that age I was writing stories, typing them on my typewriter, and sometimes submitting them to magazines when I could afford the stamps. I started a long vampire novel called “The Hoffman Journal,” written in pen and pencil on notebook paper, a story that went on and on and on. I can’t remember whether any of it actually survives, but it would be good if it has vanished, so dreadful it was. But I could not stop myself.
Watching the show now, available on Amazon Prime, I find myself giggling and groaning and yet still watching the familiar story unfold. While it was considered good television at the time, it is simply awful to watch, despite my longstanding affection for it. I feel sorry for poor Joan Bennett, who had a long career in movies stretching back to the days of silent films, only to end up in the Collins mansion where the walls sometimes swayed back and forth and the shadows of boom mikes are visible in the corners and along the floor. The acting is kindly referred to as melodramatic; the actors stand in awkward poses and move as little as possible so the camera doesn’t have to do too much work. I have read that everything was filmed in one take, and it’s clear that the actors barely had time to learn their lines, which leaves them glancing at the cue cards in nearly every scene.
Yet it still works, somehow. Probably due to the nostalgia it evokes, or the sense of camp which was always part of its charm. It was one of the most popular soap operas of its day. To its credit, it made use of hardly any of the usual tropes of soapy shows; unlike the Newmans and the Abbotts, the Collins family was never guilty of serial marriages or constant infidelity. At times the writing is daring, line by line.
What’s most interesting in seeing the series again is its very different, pre-Ann Rice, pre-Twilight take on the vampire. Here the vampire is not an erotic object but a much more mundane one who actually sleeps in a coffin and is vulnerable to harm during the day. Nobody would fall in love with him. That’s his problem. He’s not a superbeing, his powers are matched with weaknesses, and he requires help to survive because of this. I’ve watched the vampire evolve into something strangely pornographic over the decades since this show was aired – the word “pornographic” may seem extreme until one remembers that “Fifty Shades of Gray” has its roots in the Twilight series. It’s never appealed to me, the idea of a sexy parasite sucking my life away. But it is an idea that has taken root in our culture.
I am currently watching Barnabas in 1795, on his deathbed, cursed by his wife Angelique, blood oozing from two holes in his neck, growing paler by the minute, headed for his transformation into the living dead. My mother and I watch the show while eating dinner or playing games on the computer. Being a soap opera, the plot moves at a snail’s pace, so it’s an easy background for multitasking. I still feel sorry for poor Vicky Winters, aware that the actor, Alexandra Moltke, will grow up to be the mistress of Claus von Bülow and thus will be associated with a real life soap opera murder trial. In the show, at present, she is jailed and about to be tried as a witch. The real witch lurks in the background, beautiful Angelique from Martinique, and I still want to be just like her when I grow up.