Monday, June 6, 2016

Dark Shadows: A 50th Anniversary Appreciation

Trapped in the House of Dark Shadows

Although officially a child at the time, I never ran home from school to watch Dark Shadows during its original ABC network run. I was a wee bit too young. The show premiered in 1966 and I premiered in 1965. While Barnabas had Willy renovating the entire Old House I was busy strategically piling multi-colored Fisher Price plastic donuts on a stick. My sister Sue, however, is ten and a half years older than me. She not only ran home from school to watch the show, but likely outran the practicing track team to do it.

She and my Mom, who was chain smoking herself into a crypt of her own, would perch on the edge of the sofa and watch the gothic goings on and frequent character swapping without a scorecard—no easy feat in the days before DVD, streaming and Wikipedia.

Me? I sat on our cheap carpet honing my future Scrabble skills with wooden blocks and leaving Lego booby-traps all over the floor, sipping my Bosco chocolate milk and trying to ignore the creepy music and dishwashing liquid commercials (“Palmolive? Your hand is soaking in it!”) I was used to being shushed and otherwise ignored for 30 minutes each weekday until I was almost six.

Sue not only watched the show, but she had the magazines (“Win a Dream Date with Quentin’s Sideburn Comber!”) and the paperbacks (Barnabas Collins and the Zombie from Bayonne, New Jersey) and I even recall a pink-bordered trading card or two pinned to the window frame or Scotch-taped to the edges of her mirror right next to Bobby Sherman. She was a fan.

Me again? My sole lingering critical observation from those hallowed early network days is “Boring. Too much talking, not enough biting. Is it over yet? Mom needs to get up and make me more Bosco.”
In any case, I was tangentially familiar with the show. Even though everybody talked ENDLESSLY, Barnabas the “vampire guy” still had neat bangs, Maggie was pretty for a girl, and witchy Angelique had big eyes and easy to draw cheeks. (Decades later I confirmed the loveliness of the two ladies at my first of many DS Festivals and stick to my youthful contention that Kathryn and Lara are worthy of a cavalcade of wolf whistles. I believe they hastened me into puberty, definitely by 2011.)

When my sister’s boyfriend invited her to the drive-in to see House of Dark Shadows I didn’t object. Sue had just recently started dating, and Mom and Dad frequently sent me to chaperone. They figured it was much harder for her to get in trouble with her kid brother in tow. Yes, at five I was a defender of righteousness and a staunch guardian of morality and virtue. Little did my parents know that all the guy had to do was hand me a dollar and I’d be at the drive-in’s snack bar and playground for at least an hour. Good thing my sister was basically a good kid or I’d conceivably (pun fully intended) have gone broke buying holiday gifts for 37 nieces and nephews over the subsequent years.

Anyway, when they putt-putted off to the Hackensack Drive-In one night in late October or early November of 1970 to see a double feature of House of Dark Shadows and Movie Title Lost in the Mists of Time, five year-old Frankie was peering over the back seat hoping there might be some biting. You know, at least on the screen.

After my snack bar run and fully sugar-fueled, I assumed my position on the roof of the car with a speaker of my own. I even brought my cuvvie blanket from home to wrap myself in to ward off the autumn cold. I had my popcorn tub and a can of Purple Passion soda.

I was all ready.

I was not at all ready.

First off, nobody told me this movie was in dying—er, living—color. Second, right behind the opening credits the story started with a missing kid. I fully contend there’s no better way to get a prepubescent viewer’s attention than to have a kid in the movie go missing.

As the next 97 minutes unreeled and rereeled I sat on the roof and reeled a bit myself. The vampire attacks were bloody and the staking was like nothing this almost six year-old had ever seen before. The fact that just about everyone who was anyone (SPOILER ALERT!) actually became a vampire totally traumatized me. I couldn’t even invade my sister and Junior Lothario of the Week’s privacy to beg more money for the snack bar. Why would I? The zit-encrusted kid behind the counter was probably a vampire himself by now. This was my last night on Earth. It was the end of the world as I knew it, but I certainly didn’t feel fine.

That memorable night in 1970 did not affect my sister and her date in the same way. This was probably because they were older, wiser, and also because neither of them likely saw the movie until it came out on VHS twenty years later. I was alone in the dark, a preteen pawn of Dan Curtis and money hungry MGM. If I had known the castle where they actually shot the movie actually existed a mere thirty miles away in Tarrytown my cuvvie blanket and little trousers would probably have needed to go in the garbage.

The movie ended. Sometime later, when my sister’s date finally noticed the climax had passed, he had to lift and stuff me back into the car. I was immobilized. I might as well have been chained up tight in a coffin or bricked up in a wall for all of the pliability I exhibited. My sister, in all of her sixteen year-old maturity, was suddenly in a state of panic.

She had broken her brother.

Even worse, Mom might find out he was relegated to roost on the roof for the whole movie. He might have caught a chill. He might get sick. You know, if he lived and didn’t die of fright. It was still touch and go.

She was doomed.

Of course she began a process of brainwashing and manipulation that Frankenheimered me more than The Manchurian Candidate. “You’re fine! It wasn’t that scary! It was actually kind of silly! Haha! Ha! I wouldn’t have taken you to see anything scary! You’re fine! FINE!” (repeat for five miles).

Here is the sum total of my side of the dialogue that night:


I arrived home whiter than Josette’s party shroud, still staring into the black abyss of a golf producer-turned-filmmaker’s soul. Although my catatonia passed, the next day my mother kept me home from school and called our faithful quack for an expensive house call. I have no idea what he thought I had, but he chased me around our living room with a needle. I kept screaming “It was just bloody!” Everyone present thought I meant the needle. Unconsciously echoing my sister, they kept telling me it was fine. FINE!

The next time my mother and sister put Dark Shadows on I ran shrieking to my room—which may have seemed a bit of an overreaction because the current storyline had a non-scary character named Leticia arguing with another non-scary character named Gerard and offering to take a mask into town to have it appraised (circa Episode 1120). I didn’t care. It was unquestionably safer in my room. People may start biting and gushing any moment.

A decade and a half later, after many years and at least a dozen late night Hammer films broadened my horizons, PBS reran the series. I was scared of this??

Even later, when all 1225 episodes were released on DVD (okay, 1224 and an afghan of fragments—you know, picture THAT afghan) I watched the whole run. As a community college literature instructor I this time appreciated subtle and sophisticated aspects of the show that bored me to tears in the late sixties. There were literary adaptations of varying quality and tenuous adherence to the source material—which I believe were Classics Illustrated comics consulted after writer Sam Hall’s dog ate the pages. The writers were truly skillful in keeping casual viewers in the loop while stringing regular viewers along until Friday with endurance-straining repetition and a glacial plot pace. The cast was to be applauded for some genuinely fine combat acting in the living merry-go-round hell of live-on-tape television. Over those 1224ish episodes there is much to love, to laugh at, to cherish and revel in. From Sy Tomashoff’s iconic Collinwood drawing room set and hallway to the exteriors that exist only in rumor after 1966, from Victoria’s endless confusion to Quentin’s silence for months, from time hopping with sticks to arguably the best bloopers in television history, it was a truly wonderful and unique program—one unlike anything else before, since, or likely to come.

The fiftieth anniversary of Dark Shadows is a time to rewatch and celebrate it all, from Alexandra Moltke’s arrival to Thayer David’s series-concluding monologue. Just let me know when you get to House of Dark Shadows.

I’ll visit the snack bar.

FRANK JAY GRUBER In addition to his freelance writing and editing gigs, Frank Jay Gruber teaches literature, composition and online course development at Bergen Community College in New Jersey. He sometimes covers New York and Philadelphia area events for, appears on convention panels and writes for genre websites like The Collinsport Historical Society. CNN interviewed him about Star Trek in his collectible-covered lair and consulted him about Dark Shadows after Jonathan Frid’s death in 2012. You can read his extremely infrequent musings and follow him on Twitter @FrankJayGruber.

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