Tuesday, February 5, 2019

The Dark Shadows Daybook: FEBRUARY 5


Taped on this date in 1969: Episode 688

When David begins writing stories about men with strange urges and unusual hair, is he of a certain age or just possessed by the occult? Ned Stuart: Roger Davis. (Repeat; 30 min.) 

Ned Stuart arrives at Collinwood seeking information on Chris Jennings, an old acquaintance of whom he is strongly antipathetic. David, manipulated by Quentin’s song, writes a story of a man who becomes a wolf. He then goes to the mausoleum to open the door that protects Chris.

The real phantoms in Dark Shadows are the metaphorical phantom limbs represented by absent, missing, or neglectful family members. At times, they seem to outnumber the characters who show up, and their influence quietly resonates throughout the series. I wish I could attribute this to the revealing, emotional wounds of the author. Because it was ongoingly crafted by committee, this is a frustrating impossibility. But it may have an even greater significance considering how many people and perspectives were involved in the production. It may -- may -- be something shared and important about the community behind Dark Shadows. Everything works at the home of Collinwood, except for what they claim to hold dear: family.

Victoria is looking for parents. Carolyn is missing a father. David is missing a mother. Barnabas, a fiancé. And then there are those who try to take the place of those absent -- or who find themselves cast in those parts. Julia, for instance, is neither Josette nor Ben, is ultimately Jeremiah. Part of him, anyway, as far as Barnabas is concerned.

In 688, missing family and surrogate family permeate the action. They’re present on both ends, and only at the climax do they threaten to collide. Ned is avenging his sister, a woman robbed from his life by a catatonia resulting from witnessing Chris’ transformation. On his part, Chris is an acid to family wherever he goes, if inadvertently. By turns he is absent, missing, and neglectful. He shows up in Collinsport after his twin brother dies, making him a living reminder of missing family. His cousin Joe is on his way out. He’s rarely in his sister’s life. It may be for her own good, but she has no idea.

So, between a grieving Ned and a both grieving and grief-infecting Chris, we get David by way of Quentin. One, arguably driven by paternal neglect, one driven by a curse ultimately resulting from abandoning a pregnant wife, and by default, becoming a neglectful parent. Dark Shadows can be a harsh, Victorian noir universe. It doesn’t care about what you know and didn’t know. Or what you meant to do. It cares about what you did. And whatever you do, don’t do it to a gypsy. This entire strain of family misery can be traced to a gypsy curse, and that was triggered by a Collins: Quentin, a man whose spirit is now becoming David’s father figure. It’s the ghost of a man, responsible for a son’s death, becoming an almost fatherless boy’s puppetmaster, and striving to eliminate the last descendent-recipient of the curse his actions initiated -- Chris Jennings, a man with no idea he’s a Collins.

The figure of the gypsy spikes briefly on Dark Shadows, but the significance is quietly seismic. Although they cause intense misery for Quentin and others, they do so in defense of family. They represent absolute familial dedication and, between Petofi and Quentin, they do not like bachelors. They may not have a home, but they have hearts as strong and impenetrable as iron when it comes to their relatives. Not only do they menace the Collins family, they shame them by implication. Compared to the Rakosi tribe, Collinwood is like the Golden Corral of clan cannibalism. It’s little but bile and betrayal, and most parents would secretly sell the kids for the right offer. It’s classic WASP culture, where family often results from antiseptic obligation rather than the earthier drives of passion or good, old-fashioned, religious guilt.

If the writers and crew share anything, it’s a well-represented WASP background. Dark Shadows talks about a lot of things, but the fallout from a WASP upbringing is one of them. Even with an Irish name and a paucity of a religious life, few are as WASP-y as the Collinses. It’s a tart commentary on an entire swath of America that’s usually taken for granted or not spoken of. Maybe because of the illusion of uniquity. Maybe because repression prevents it, and repression and codes of silence are two hallmarks of WASP behavior. The suggestion is that within the bedrock of what we think of as the American aristocracy is a fundamental untrustworthiness. What should you be able to trust? Family. What should always be there? Family. Yet, in Collinsport, your emotional welbeing and, for some, very life expectancy can be measured in the degrees of separation between you and the founders.

Whether they knew it or not, the writers are revealing and perhaps exorcising the demons of a culture that claims to have none. In this case, the secret that keeps getting out is symbolic of the Cosmic WASP’s cultural nightmare -- a werewolf. Hirsute. The ultimately familial animal, existing in packs. Lying under the skin. Literally, a dog. Driven by guttural impulses. A creature with late night stirrings that make brunch impossible. The very symbol of impurity, and you can fill in the blanks for any non-WASP group that may be sparking today’s round of protestant paranoia.

No matter how long since they’ve moved into Collinwood, that family may never run out of things to unpack.

This episode was broadcast Feb. 12, 1969.

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