[27 August 2007]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Give it up, Goth kids. Robert Smith called, he wants his commercialized identity back. Somewhere between Bauhaus and the Backstreet Boys, you got your signals crossed and your lifestyles confused. Dressing in black, smearing cheap mascara all over your face, and hating the world may seem like a viable course of antisocial action, but there’s a better example of feigned personal belligerence to guide your impressionable, inconsistent ideals. While you may think that angst-driven songwriters and heavy metal minions proclaiming their love of Lucifer are the proper path to existence’s evil side, you’re actually as far off base as your fashion sense.
You see, there is only one entertainment entity that completely understood what living inside a gloomy Gothic reality was all about. And its name was…Dark Shadows.
The brainchild of the late Dan Curtis, Dark Shadows started out in 1967 like a standard afternoon sudser, except with a decidedly House of the Seven Gables vibe. The producer was a long-time lover of conventional horror, and wanted his New England set series to reflect the kind of stories that sent shivers, albeit it, ever so subtlety, down the viewer’s suggestible spines.
He began with the basics: the corrupt Collins family, shrouded in money-based mystery, clandestine and cliquish, living on an estate filled with unmentionable secrets and skeleton-encased closets. For a while, he hoped his old fashioned fear factors would woo the audience. But even his young daughter could see the writing on the trick wall. From her suggestion, Curtis added a ghost, and it wasn’t long before Dark Shadows went from almost cancelled to cult. With the introduction soon thereafter of melancholy monster Barnabas Collins, a vampire unhappy with his claret craving lot in life, the series soared to new heights.
Over the course of the remaining 1,225 episodes, Curtis and his writers combed classic genre fiction for every possible storyline and significant scare factor. They brought in faux Frankensteins, rakish werewolves, and all manner of Satanic sprites. Storylines were cribbed from The Portrait of Dorian Gray and The Turn of the Screw, and unlike other daytime dramas, Curtis occasionally wrapped up his narratives, letting one entire plot play out before introducing another.
With its popularity—in first run, in syndication and home video—Dark Shadows developed certain undeniable themes, ideas and elements that can actually be used as the foundation for a truly baroque standard of living. By following these 15 guiding lights, you’ll soon be swamped in everlasting doom and indescribable darkness. For those who aren’t students of the show (and you really should be), here are the basics tenets:
Begin by befriending a small boy.
Though it seems like a small gesture, the average Dark Shadows adult will depend on children to a precarious fault. They will make them their confidants and expositional companions. They will force them into dangerous situations to satisfy some arcane or revenge- oriented need. But most importantly, in a vaguely Victorian world marked by ghosts, ghouls and various other goblins, the kid is a perfect pre-adolescent pawn. The spirit world just can’t get enough of them (see below).
Just remember: taking the role of Governess, especially within a family overflowing with supernatural subtext, is never a wise career move.
Part of the problem that arrives when working closely with the offspring of haunted households is the fringe dangers. Don’t believe it? Just ask Victoria Winters and Maggie Evans. In Vicki’s case, she wound up traveling back in time, getting in Dutch with the local witch hunters, and hung as a bride of the Devil. Maggie, on the other hand, suffered through multiple kidnappings, the almost complete transformation into a vampire, and that infamous run-in with Mr. Juggins (a.k.a., the Spirit of Quentin Collins). Besides, the benefits package usually sucks.
Finally, after establishing your bond with the wee one, watch out for post-partnership possession.
As mentioned before, the small fry found in this potently paranormal setting can be quite a handful. Not only will they spend inordinately large amounts of time plotting to kill their parent (as David Collins did with his father, Roger), but they will disturb, and end up acting as hosts, for the unholy evils desperate to wreck havoc in the real world. And there is nothing more irritating than a 10-year-old running around channeling an angry adult, or worse yet, an amorous undead dandy.
Embrace the occasional gypsy curse, as well as the archetypal swarthy servant.
No matter how loathsome or smelly you may think they are, the traveling vagabond is someone you should get to know. They can come in very handy. For example, when you need a convenient scapegoat, or someone to explain a complicated ritual, these free roaming freeloaders can be the answer to your poltergeist prayers. Sure, they have those unwieldy curses to deal with, blights requiring complicated incantations and various animal ‘extracts’ to control, but such otherworldly options can make life a little easier. Just be prepared to deal with thick accents, bad fashion sense, and names like Sandor, Magda, and Julianka.
Concepts like day/ night, morning/ evening really don’t matter to the undead.
Forget what you know about a normal lifestyle. A Dark Shadows’ home doesn’t comport to the notions of time, space, solitary universes, or singular epochs. No one goes to sleep before three or four in the morning, and they tend to rise before dawn delivers its monster-skirting ways.
Don’t fret over knocking on a neighbor’s door at all hours, as they will more than likely reciprocate at the most inappropriate of times, as well. Besides, the heinous acts of the underworld prefer night to embark on their humanity-destroying ways. Witches, werewolves, reanimated corpses, and sexually perverted Reverends require the dark to cover their cloven tracks.
The hand of a Count is worth two less werewolves in the
If, by some unlucky happenstance, you find yourself linked to lycanthropes, either as a keeper of, lover to, friend for, or sufferer from, remember the disembodied hand of Count Petofi. This Hungarian Diplomat with his Carnaby Street fashion sense and thick-tongued brogue may have lost his extremity in a standoff with gypsies (see above), but thanks to said object’s inherent magical powers, control of such an item can come in quite…handy. But beware of all the ancillary issues that come with ownership. The Count won’t rest until he gets it back, his sinister slave Aristede will constantly hound you, and those incorrigible tambourine players will be on you like oversized earrings on an ethnically uncertain earlobe.
Beware of flammable ex-wives.
Death is never the end for people in a Dark Shadows’ world, so don’t think divorce or separation is any more permanent. Indeed, if you’re like Roger Collins, your former wife, Laura will show up, unannounced, and claim a newfound love for the child she left behind. Of course, the reason for this is simple: she’s a phoenix, an ancient Egyptian entity who wants to sacrifice her son to the god Ra before she is “reborn” in a fiery death. It used to be that rich men only had to worry about adultery and gold digging. But in the gloomy rooms of Collinwood, former brides will also be bursting into flames. We’ll leave the suggested symbolism for another discussion.
Dreams are never good. Neither is time travel.
Disconnected visions of psychedelic surreality…endless doors leading to scary skulls and ominous gravestones…closed down corridors with their doorways leading to various periods in the past…these are the images that will disturb your sleep and the places that will preoccupy your waking hours. It’s not bad enough that oversized estates like Collinwood keep secrets better than Tupperware seals in freshness. Old manors usually stink of subterfuge, walls that open up into adjoining rooms, closets containing entry to hidden horrors…not even your slumber is safe. There, you fall victim to the various ephemeral fates hoping to invade your mind and swallow your soul. Before long, you’ll be part of some karmic comeuppance forcing good and evil to battle for ultimate supremacy. The bottom line is: your new lifestyle will be anything but restful.
The head of the household is destined to go batshit, so be prepared.
No matter how many psychics she consults, no matter the carefully planned precautions she takes, and despite all the warnings about the persons she intends to marry (like that wicked Reverend Trask), the family matriarch is fated to hit the funny farm, and soon. It may start with some scattered catatonia. Then there’s the inevitable fear of being buried alive. And let’s not forget the mentality mangling guilt that results from the misplaced belief that you shot your husband and buried him under the floorboards. Indeed, as head of such a household, you’ll be straightjacket fodder before long.
It is perfectly natural for rich men from affluent and well-to-do families to be slightly effete.
As a byproduct of dealing with Hellspawn children, combustible women, and all manner of professional and personal pressures, you’re average well-bred male tends to express his growing distress by being rather flamboyant and gaudy. Take Roger Collins, for example. With a son who tried to murder him, a former spouse who turned into a torch, and various relatives who are insane, unearthly, or undead, it’s only natural he’d be a tad…highly strung. Even bad boy Barnabas, reigning Collins bloodsucker, spends his days with two questionable constant companions; the manly Dr. Julia Hoffman, and the whimpering Willie Loomis.
Burying people alive, no matter the century or situation, never solves the problem.
While it seems like a novel approach to dealing with a prickly situation, walling up your husband in a basement alcove or barricading your shape-shifting brother in the abandoned west wing is never the proper solution. First, there’s the slow, agonizing death that’s usually involved (unless you are one of the children of the night, for which a consistent ‘thirst’ will be your everlasting bane). Nothing gives future phantoms the desire for vengeance more readily than starving and/or dehydrating to death. Then there’s the fact that the rotting remains end up living along side you. Out of sight, out of mind is one thing, but such corpse close proximity is pushing things a bit.
Be blasé, or better yet blind, about your family’s heritage.
You might as well face facts, life in a Dark Shadow’s sort of domain will be overloaded with relatives you never knew you had, kinfolk faking otherwise incomplete personal genealogy, and the frequent arrival of out of town guests who turn out to be immortal ancestors, or members of the ghoul squad. So it’s best to turn a seemingly sightless eye to all the oddball branches dropping off the family tree. You’ll never figure out a clan like the Collinses, especially since continuity flies directly in the face of standard soap opera antics.
Never anger a hot, psychotic, female witch.
If we can learn anything from the plight of inconsistent Nosferatu Barnabas Collins, it’s never to anger a sexy she-demon with the ability to plague your every eternal step. The blond bombshell known as Angelique will never forgive her former lover for leaving her at the alter, his mind awash with thoughts of his actual true love, Josette. Thanks to the power of black magic, our permanently pissed off paramour will not rest until she sees Barnabas suffer for all he’s done. Even Shakespeare couldn’t have conceived of the fury of this wicked woman scorned. Though they tend to be easily duped, don’t get messed up with sexualized spellcasters. It will always come back to bite you in the balustrades.
No, we don’t know what a leviathan is either.
At some point during your transition into the realm of morbid living, you’re going to run into leviathans. Now, before you ask, nobody knows. They may be zombies. They might be mere monsters. Demons are also a possibility. Whatever the case, these creatures are going to show up and start making demands. Of course, their motives will be as ambiguous as their existence, and the consequence of acquiescence/noncompliance are equally arcane. The best advice one can give when dealing with these ill-defined devils is simply go with the flow. Within a few weeks, they’ll disappear and a new potential terror will emerge on the horizon.
When in doubt, beat your manservant.
Let’s face it – you’re going to get frustrated living la vida Shadows. Nights will be interrupted by unsettling banshee wails, an evening walk in the woods will bring out grave robbers, skinwalkers, and disoriented women in colonial garb. So what exactly does one use as a release valve for all this pressure? Simply – do as the Collins clan does. Get yourself a Renfield like personal valet and smack the everlovin’ snot out of him. Do it often and repeatedly, turning the tentative torture sessions into a kind of backwards sign of affection. Never explain your tirades, and refuse repeated requests for mercy and lenience. And the best part? If you pick the right person, they’ll always come back for more.
There you have it – 15 ways to walk on the defiled side. And these are just the fundamentals. Within each suggestion are a myriad of offshoots (insane women locked in towers, family lawyers in cahoots with Beelzebub, the frequent appearance of vile oil paintings of hate!) and paranormal possibilities. So put away all your books on alchemy, laser off those cryptic Medieval tattoos, and remand your Sioxsie CDs to the nostalgia pile. The entire Collins family is ready to teach you a thing or two about really living on the dark side. Indeed, there’s no room for poseurs on this pathway to the realm of shadows.