Monday, June 20, 2016

Dark Shadows: A 50th Anniversary Appreciation


A young girl fresh out of college abandons the small town life she’s always known to fulfill her dreams in the big city. Cliché, I know, but this is where my story begins. Growing up in a tiny town in the Pacific Northwest, I had made tight bonds at our local community theatre, but few anywhere else. Since I was a small child, my passion had been film and the performing arts. My passions led to my parents taking me to New York City the summer before my senior year of high school. My path became clear…this was where I belonged. I was enraptured by the idea of making my living working with what I loved. I went on to get my degree in Theatre from the University of Montana. The summer I graduated from college I wasted no time. Within four weeks of my final class I was on a plane. I came to New York City at the age of 23 with two suitcases and the vague promise of a temporary job. I knew almost no one in my new home and for many months I didn’t have much in the way of friends or social outlets.

So I found solace in one place I had managed to find it a few times in the past: the messages boards on the Internet Movie Data Base. I grew up loving fantasy and horror films. I felt a connection to the so-called “monsters” and outcasts they characterized. I saw myself in these creatures who were loners, or were ostracized by their communities. As I child I could often be found in the corner of a room dressed all in black reading Shakespeare or Edgar Allen Poe while the other kids played sports or joined the student council. These influences led me, and I can only imagine many the other lonely outcasts of my generation, to the films of Tim Burton. He had been an outcast himself and so eloquently depicted our own feelings of loneliness and isolation through the ionic characters created in his films. In an attempt to connect with others of my kind, I developed a rapport on these IMDB message boards with other fans. It seemed as though I had discovered a safe haven for kids who felt different and excluded amongst their peers. I looked forward to seeing the familiar usernames on those first threads when Burton’s next film was announced. Shortly after I moved to New York in 2010, my message board friends and I were all eagerly anticipating production to begin on Burton’s newest project: a big screen adaptation of the classic gothic soap opera Dark Shadows.

Until the film had been announced, I knew little about the show aside from seeing its iconic crashing waves appear as a dated piece of set dressing in a few movies. Once I had studied up on the series and its supernatural tendencies, I suspected this show was for me. At this time I was temping at my first job in New York as an evening receptionist in Lincoln Center. The long, quiet hours left me on my own and afforded me plenty of downtime. I remember my eyes feeling glued to my tiny iPhone screen as Barnabas Collins held Maggie Evans captive in the old house. I had real empathy for Willie Loomis torn between his obligations to his master and his love for this young girl. I became totally invested in the world of Collinsport. I devoured every episode available on Netflix and eventually began purchasing the DVD volumes to continue the series. As I delved deeper into the series, I again found a comforting sense of integration and community amongst others who took to these message boards. A new mixture of fans had melted together between the familiar faces I had seen return with each new Burton film and fans who came to the IMBD boards out of love for the original series and its 1991 revival. They too were passionate about the series and looked forward to its return to the big screen. We all shared in the excitement as entertainment magazines began printing photos of Burton’s work in progress. My often lonely evenings and weekends were now filled with conversations about Dark Shadows. I spent hours scouring the internet for new info to share with my comrades.

Eventually we migrated from message boards to Facebook. We created our own Dark Shadows group and began to learn more about who each other really were. For instance my friend who I had previously known only as JDK017, I now knew as Jeff. A few of us even began discussing possible plans to meet in person the weekend the new Dark Shadows film opened. In the beginning it seemed to be mostly a nice thought that was never going to happen, but to my surprise a couple of the closest of my new friends, Carl and Megan, really did make the pilgrimage and flew to New York. The prospect of meeting them in person left me nervous and excited. I had to acknowledge to myself how crazy meeting these people I had only know online sounded and truthfully probably was. To my relief they both arrived as the friends I had come to know over the past two years. There were the awkward moments of hesitation before we finally fell into the rhythm we had developed online. We had a great time really getting to know each other in person. They felt like true friends now as opposed to internet acquaintances.

On the night of May 10, 2012, the big moment had arrived. We made our way to the Lincoln Square AMC with its daunting IMAX screen for the midnight premiere of the new film. There was a sort of nervous but excited energy amongst us. Would the movie we had so long awaited disappoint us in devastating ways? For two hours we sat absorbed in the experience of watching these beloved characters reborn. I remember feeling completely blown away by Eva Green’s performance. Until that moment I had never thought anyone could touch Lara Parker’s iconic portrayal of Angelique Bouchard but was happy to be mistaken. I also was delighted to see a much more proactive Elizabeth Stoddard in Michelle Pfieffer. We left the theater that night with a sense of satisfaction at the culmination of two years of eager anticipation. Although my opinion of the film has definitely evolved over the years I do find it satisfactory many of the female characters were given meatier roles. On the other hand I remain disappointed ,with what the screenwriter chose to do to my beloved Julia Hoffman. Despite these issues it remains one the most significant cinematic experiences of my life. I had spent ,years of my life building up to the excitement of that moment. Being able to share the experience of seeing the film for the first time with my new friends was unique and extraordinary.

That same year I attended my first Dark Shadows Festival. I met more friends (including the above mentioned Jeff) I had made over the previous years online and made many new ones. I was fortunate to meet genuine people who really were the friends I had imagined as I got to know them through the internet. I was able to join this unique community of people who came together every year to celebrate their love of the show and its legacy. The festival was an entirely different but equally moving experience. At first I felt intimidated by this established group of friends who already knew each other. They had formed relationships that spanned decades. To my relief and surprise, I was embraced by many these wonderful people. I wasn’t treated as an outsider or new kid to be shunned from their clique. I was one of them and they were welcoming. I began looking forward to these annual gatherings and haven’t missed one since. Each year it becomes more about a reunion of friends and less about Dark Shadows itself. Since then, Carl, Jeff, and I have been on various road trips to the locations used in the original series, in addition to annual festivals and reunions. A few times we have even met just to catch up with each other without the fandom providing a motive.

Looking back on it now, I realize how significant discovering Dark Shadows has been to my life. For me, the Dark Shadows fandom has been about the wonderful human beings I’ve encountered and how these friends provided comfort and companionship during a difficult transition in my life. For that, this gothic soap opera will always hold a singular place in my heart.

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