Wednesday, November 7, 2018

The Dark Shadows Daybook: November 7


Taped on this day in 1967: Episode 361

When Julia Hoffman squares off against vengeful ghosts, will she find her only safety in madness? Julia: Grayson Hall. (Repeat; 30 min.)

After escaping the bleeding burial site of Sarah Collins, Julia finds herself isolated at Collinwood. There, the ghost of Dave Woodard torments her, mocking her on the phone.

Not counting the terrifying prospect of watching endless episodes about a missing pen, horror on Dark Shadows falls into two eras. More than once, I have heard that Dark Shadows was far scarier in its earlier days, and I agree. For me, that has to do with something far more than the evil days of Barnabas Collins or the fact that we tended to see the earlier episodes at younger, more impressionable ages. The difference is in the origin of the fear, itself. 361 epitomizes the earlier brand of horror on the series, and given where it falls in the run, the installment also sends it off shrieking. 1795 is swiftly approaching, and when it comes to terror on the program, there is everything before and everything after.

Prior to the first flashback, no one knew anything about what was haunting Collinwood. Boy, Vicki, you think YOU don’t understand? Even Barnabas was an unreliable witness, because it was always possible that he was lying, driven mad by his time in the coffin, or both. The residents of Collinwood were born into (or arrived at) a fog of rumors, family legends, inexplicable events, and the overwhelming sense of doom it all composed. Look at Sarah. Maybe she’s making blood spurt from her own tomb. But maybe it’s Dave Woodard or maybe it’s Maybelline. Either way, I can’t go on the record to say what’s going on or whose friend or enemy she might be. All I know is that there’s blood on my shoes and Brewster’s is closed at this hour. She’s a kid... kind of. And that is about the closest we get to explaining her mercurial weirdness. Clearly, she has more power than we usually see her wield. That brings us into Riddle of Epicurus country. Why doesn’t she use it more? If she won’t, that makes her just plain mean. If she can’t, then is some greater force exerting control? Or worse, it’s probably something that, like Vicki, we just can’t understand. The early months of the program are full of legends just barely invading the real world. There’s nothing to hang on to, but there are just enough self-closing doors and materializing objects to remind us that we’re hopelessly outgunned. This is the era of a truly haunted, existential show where the forces of memory and the past obviously want something as they scare the bejeezus out of us, but they won’t tell us what. I don’t even know if they’re having fun while doing it. Like the weather, it may be a force that occurs for a mix of seemingly random, but wildly macroscopic events. No matter how unpleasant Gerard is, he ultimately has a goal. He has a clear-if-strage strategy to achieve it. In this era, there are no experts. Even the so-called authorities are powerless. That sense of constant victimization to the caprice of mystery is a profoundly existential brand of horror, and it kept us tuning in.

Until it had to deliver. And then we kept tuning in, anyway.

Once Vicki goes back in time, she takes us as eyewitnesses, and we become a shared audience to what the hell is really going on. After that, everything has a cause. Everything has a solution. Everything has a name. And we often spend just as much time hanging out with the Enemy as we do our heroes. Defeating it all might not be easy, but we are finally insiders to an extent that even Liz, Roger, and Carolyn, growing up in that madness, never were… until we all were, together. What we lose in fear, we make up for in adventure and all-around fun. We get to name and index the evil to such an extent that we even see the Devil’s office chair at one point. Death shows up at a bar, and in this case, it’s not the beginning of a joke. That’s a wonderful, three year payoff for loyally putting up with the mystery of Collinwood. We are all Collinses at that point.

361 takes us to such a point of fright -- at least as witnesses -- that the show really can’t top itself. Grayson Hall delivers a bravura performance in what is almost a one-woman show as the unseen torments her. She needs answers or she’ll break. So will we. 

This episode was broadcast Nov. 13, 1967.

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