Why “Dark Shadows?”

ABC's "Dark Shadows" - File Photos

The Cast of “Dark Shadows”

Reflections on the Show After Having Made it Through all 1,245 Episodes

I was a huge fan of Dark Shadows as a kid, so I was excited to find DVDs of it a few years ago in a bookstore in Boston. I’ve been on a nostalgia kick since hitting middle age, so I relished the prospect of immersing myself again in that virtual Gothic world that had enthralled me as a child.

The experience wasn’t what I expected, though. Only a few minutes into the first show I thought to myself, “Oh my, this isn’t good.” There wasn’t much of a plot, the dialogue was completely implausible and the acting was extremely uneven. Worse, Jonathan Frid, who played Barnabas Collins, the protagonist, I guess you would say, of the series had conspicuous difficulty remembering his lines and nearly as much difficulty, apparently, locating the tele-prompters.

I was devastated. I remembered the show as compelling, mesmerizing. Could my taste have been so bad? The thing is, I wasn’t the only child, or indeed, the only person to find the show compelling and mesmerizing. It was astronomically successful. Even the actors, who appeared as guests at the height of the show’s popularity, on programs such as Merv Griffin and Mike Douglas, seem perplexed by the show’s popularity.

The idea for the show was sound enough. The writing was at its best when it appropriated plots from Gothic masterpieces such as The Turn of the Screw and Frankenstein. On top of the challenges, however, of uneven writing, gratuitously fantastical storylines, and uneven acting, was the fact that in those days soaps were effectively broadcast live. I say “effectively” because they weren’t actually broadcast live, but the production process was such that they had no opportunity to correct mistakes. So flubbed or forgotten lines, cameramen appearing on the fringes of a scene, and bits of scenery falling over or otherwise behaving in ways that exposed that they were not what they were supposed to be were common occurrences.

So why was the show so popular? People in the televisions and motion picture industries have labored for years under the mistaken impression that it was the story, and or the characters; hence the remake of the series with Ben Cross in 1991 and the recent Dark Shadows movie starring Johnny Depp. It clearly wasn’t either the story or the characters, though, that made the series so popular or these remakes would have been more successful. So what was it?

That’s a difficult question to answer. Despite my disappointment with the first few episodes when I first began watching the series again as an adult, I continued to watch it. Maybe it was just nostalgia that made me do it. I don’t know. I became increasingly caught up in it, however, the more I watched, and it wasn’t because of the cliff-hanger endings of each episode. That is, I wasn’t driven to find out what happened next. It was more that I enjoyed the experience of the production, the company of the actors.

I think the show’s success was the result of a complex combination of things. First, while some of the acting was pretty bad, much of it was superb. It took transcendently good actors to make that dialogue convincing and yet many of the Dark Shadows cast did just that. Second, the amateurish feel the show sometimes had because of the issues mentioned above gave it the feeling of a backyard production put on by one’s neighbors, or one’s neighbors’ children, and because it wasn’t unrelentingly bad but often quite good, it encouraged the viewer to root for the actors, to will them to succeed. “Will they pull it off today?” one would wonder with a mixture of hope and anxiety before the beginning of each episode.

There’s more to the show’s popularity, though. The reason for the uneven quality of the acting may well have been, at least indirectly, part of the show’s success. Dan Curtis, the originator, producer, and occasional director of the show, said in an interview included in the DVD collection of the series, that he selected people for roles because he liked them, not because they could act. He spent time with them; took them to dinner; etc. Many of the actors attest to the camaraderie that existed among the cast, and my sense is that that camaraderie gives the show an intangibly positive dynamic, a warmth that underlies the chill of the repeated curses and hauntings and thwarted love affairs that make up the story line.

This camaraderie was likely also enhanced by what several of the actors describe in interviews as the unique “energy” the show had as a result of the fact that the actors had little time to rehearse, that many were so nearsighted they couldn’t read the tele-prompters, and that there was no opportunity to edit out mistakes. So the show had an “energy” generated by anxiety on the part of the actors, and then an energy beneath the energy in terms of the affection the actors had for one another.

And then there is the fact that the show deals with the supernatural, with magic. It’s sometimes classed as science fiction, but its engagement with the fantastical is much broader. It includes not merely time travel and diabolical scientists, but ghosts and witches and crazed religious reformers.

The hegemony of scientism (the view that all of reality can be explained by natural science) in the latter part of the twentieth and this first part of the twenty-first century is oppressive. People know there is more to reality than is captured by natural science. Few people have the time or opportunity, however, to engage with scientism on a level that would enable them to definitively refute it. So instead of confronting it directly, they evade it by escaping into more emotionally satisfying alternative worlds, worlds where the bad things that happen to good people aren’t simply the result of chance, or a cold and unfeeling universe, but of malevolent forces, worlds that hold out hope that these forces can be defeated by cunning and will, worlds where love transcends time, where the dead are not gone forever, where families stay together, and where home always looks the same.

It was this combination of things, I believe, that explain the success of Dark Shadows. Each one is critical to what made the show great, and it was great, despite being occasionally pretty bad. It wasn’t the narrative, so much, that was compelling as it was the larger fictional world in which the events unfolded and the actors and the dynamic between them, the energy, that made the show great.

Some of the actors so inhabited their characters that it would be impossible to have anyone else ever play them. No one but Lara Parker could ever be Angelique; no one but David Selby could ever be Quentin; no one but Jonathan Frid could ever be Barnabas Collins; no one but Nancy Barrett could ever be Carolyn Stoddard, and no one but John Karlen could ever be Willie Loomis.

That’s why you can’t remake the show according to any traditional conception of a remake. What you could do, and what I think someone should do, is make a continuation of it. Several of the actors, notably, Lara Parker, David Selby, Nancy Barrett, Kathryn Leigh Scott, and Kate Jackson are still professionally active. A Dark Shadows that recreated the same set as the original and that cast Parker, Selby, Barrett, Scott, and Jackson in their original, but now more mature roles, but which also included new characters, could, I believe be a blockbuster success. New characters were always appearing on the old Dark Shadows after all and were taken to heart by the fans because there was still the continuity of the old characters.

There’s an enormous number of fans of the original series out there, some of them too young to have seen the show when it was first broadcast. In fact, these fans gather every year for an annual “Dark Shadows Festival.” Every one of them would tune in to watch this new series.

I like to imagine this new show sometimes. Jon Hamm would make a perfect Barnabas because he is adept at playing a character with a secret. Of course he couldn’t actually be Barnabas since only Jonathan Frid will ever be Barnabas. He could be Barnabas II, though, the illegitimate child of Angelique and Barnabas from their affair in Martinique when they first met. The child whose existence Angelique kept secret for years, the child she later “adopts” who thus now has a double secret: he is a vampire like his father (because of Angelique’s curse on Barnabas’ descendants), and he is Angelique’s (and Barnabas’) real not merely adoptive child.

The plot line of this new series could be driven by the mystery of what happened to the first Barnabas, a mystery his son would be determined to solve in order to escape his own unendurable fate. As a vampire, after all, Barnabus shouldn’t be dead. And yet Frid is dead, so Barnabas would need to be as well. How did that happen? Was it because Angelique removed the curse (which for some reason she cannot remove from her own son), or was it because Julia Hoffman, Barnabas’ personal physician succeeded, finally, in curing him?

I’m uncertain, though, how to recreate the “energy” of the original now that the production process of television series’ has become so sophisticated that anything can be redone, any mistake fixed. Perhaps that was part of the charm of the original series. It was much more like real life with all its blemishes, so when it managed to be great, the magnitude of the achievement was more conspicuous. It was great in the way the real human beings are occasionally great, genuinely great –– without the benefit of a retake.

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