Monday, November 2, 2020

The Dark Shadows Daybook: Oct. 26

Taped on this date in 1967: Episode 351


When Barnabas bites Carolyn, will they learn that true love is relative? Carolyn: Nancy Barrett. (Repeat; 30 min.)

Barnabas, having bitten Carolyn and regained his middle-aged youth, finds that his niece is a ready and willing assistant. He alludes to granting her eternal life in exchange for her loyalty, but we sense the beginning of her mixed feelings as he orders her to secure the love of Victoria Winters for him. As she goes to Collinwood to begin, Barnabas entertains Julia’s desire to stay on, even if he is refusing her injections. She may be a servant, he says. For now.

There are so many trigger warnings I feel like I need to put on this, you might as well stop reading now and find a Bill Keane anthology to sit out the next few paragraphs. Seriously.

Dark Shadows hovers above the semblance of realism because, if it touched the surface of it, it would enter into a realm of ugly taboo, and thus become unwatchable. Yes, all horror deals with some echelon of the taboo. That’s why it’s horror. But, you know, it’s safe taboo. It’s either a threat we know can’t really exist or a set of consequences so ludicrous that it’s just as safe. Yeah, sure, it’s a metaphor, but no one’s really worried about being stuffed in a wicker man. Similarly, if we look at the moments of Dark Shadows that are actually scary, and I’m thinking of the kids being replicated in the dollhouse much later on the show, they are always written off as nightmares. Even by me. And nightmares aren’t real. All we have to do is remind ourselves of that, and the spell is broken. 

There is another realm of horror that may not even be scary, but it reads as quite, quite real. “Standard” horror comes up and says, “Look, here’s a thing that could never happen, but what if it did?” Cue Count Floyd. Ohhh, scary! Yeah. Kind of removes the glamour when you tear off the shmata. The more rarified strata of horror can’t happen that often or sustain itself for very long. No one would watch after an episode or two. This episode slides into that nuanced world of “no.” It wraps itself up in immense and impish charm, jealously, and Cinderella wish-fulfillment, so we don’t notice nor object. We get distracted by the fact that Vicki is “the real focus,” and so we skim around what almost happens. And what almost happens is that Barnabas and Carolyn make a really functional couple.

Yeeesh. Just writing that makes me wanna take a bath.  

So, yes, incest. That’s bad enough. It’s just, you know, one of those things primally revolting. I have the luxury of writing about this with no proximate female relatives in my life. A luxury because I can speculate without it being, well, as creepy. Incest has to have some kind of dark appeal (hello, VC Andrews), and if it didn’t, such a wealth of the laws in Exodus would be about something, anything, else. 

Fortunately, stories involving incest almost inevitably involve force and negation of will. And this does, too. But sometimes there’s a ghost image of truth that seeps in through the frames, and there’s one here, very clearly. It brings out a dark pleasure in the characters and viewers. The dimension that makes the episode safe is the element of mind control under which Barnabas holds Carolyn. He’s a bloodhungry heavy, what can you expect? She’s under his spell, so file it the same way. But the impression I get is that Carolyn authentically wants this relationship. Yes, Barnabas has power. Maybe the power that doesn’t really matter. But at last, Carolyn has the power she’s always wanted at Collinwood: she has the secrets. She has The Big One right up front, and and is promised more to follow. Secrets are the primary currency in her era of growing up in the house. That, and a sexual fixation on natty and vaguely (?) effete father figures … urbane, available, safe, and now? Delivering, and delivering in a big way. It’s not that the mind control has clouded her judgment. It’s seems more as if it has erased the social agreements that have held back this dynastic union. There is something disturbingly right about this couple. It comes across in the spirit of dreamy and zen ease and comfort with which Jonathan Frid and Nancy Barrett slip into this forbidden inevitability. Barnabas already lurks in the folds of transgression. We just spend most of the show ignoring it. Here, he not only steps into the light, but does so proudly, and draws in Carolyn, who has just as little regret. She seems to be beyond even the need to “discover” that there was nothing to be afraid of.

Keep in mind, I’m describing. Not endorsing. The fact that I feel compelled to remind you of that is a testament to the danger in which the show is trading. 

From the first time she calls Roger “dreamy” and he calls her “kitten,” this element has effervesced around the series. But we never take it seriously. And Dark Shadows has two realms of characters: gods, destined to live unscathed by the Major Threats, and everyone else. Aristocrats and civilians. Carolyn was a beautiful piece of set dressing up to now. She was there to get upset about what was happening to everyone else, but that was it. She seemed safe. Bad things happen to brunettes in this universe, but not Carolyn. Those are the rules. 

But the rules just broke. And the manner of it, with Barnabas so unspeakably old when he attacks, just underlines the horrific disparity that satisfies both of them. In fact, it seems to be the blood of a relative that really, really hits the spot. Just as she’s sated afterwards, Barnabas is not only revived, but is practically smoking a cool, toasty cigarette of satisfaction. He’s at his most blissful as he passive-aggressively roasts Julia, who’s suddenly lost too much ground to even feel jealously. Because, frankly, she’s been a bully. She’s been an envious and mean-spirited bully. Just because she’s doing it to a monster who’s equally vindictive, it doesn’t matter. She’s chosen to slowly torment Barnabas, and now, at last, he has the temporary satisfaction of a true friend to help him strike right back. If only by implication. The class envy is rattling the lid at a full boil, too. It’s clear that it took and will take a beautiful, cool blonde aristocrat to really DO the job that Julia only apes. Not only that, a Collins. No, Julia, not even the taboo against incest will give you a fighting chance. You thought you could rewrite the rules of age, class, social expectation, and nature by insinuating yourself into this realm. 

The punishment of minimizing Julia isn’t an attack. It isn’t torture. It’s just the humiliation of suggesting that you are, at best, temporarily adequate. Oddly, it’s exactly the sort of feminine punishment that Carolyn might have suggested. So, who’s feeding off whom between Barnabas and Carolyn? 

It’s a slice of truths and observations so forbidden in their inevitability that the show cannot remain around to see what actually happens. It skips town to 1795 like a grindshow exhibitor the morning after the circus tent comes down. Dark Shadows has too much make-believe on the agenda to speak such truths with any regularity. But it would be dishonest to not make us stop and think, “What if?” Only for a moment. Anything more is too much, even at Collinwood. 

This episode was broadcast Oct. 30, 1967.

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