Some of my earliest life memories revolve around television, and episodes of Dark Shadows as they were originally first broadcast are among these. I was born on a Monday in 1966, on the day Dark Shadows was taping its thirty-sixth episode. So I remember roughly the last year of the show. Some episodes I can recall in particular, but overall my memory is of general impressions: the stained glass windows over the landing of the Collinwood foyer, the drawing room, Christopher Pennock’s big ball of orange hair, the contours around Joan Bennett’s mouth, a man with dark hair being walled up with brick, the fresh mortar spilling over some of the bricks as the man stoically looks upon the darkened inner wall of his prison. And, of course, that daily intro with the waves and the rolling Gothic letters and the unmistakable music throughout. Such an early familiarity with something becomes second nature. For instance, no matter how much time has passed, whenever you get a glimpse of those stained glass windows atop the Collinwood foyer, whether in color or black and white, it almost feels like going home.
The earliest episode I can remember is when the man with the longish orange hair is in a room and he turns on the light to see a dark undulating phantom figure, and then to escape it he has to turn out the light and be in the dark with it. At such a young age that resonated with me, because in one’s room at night it was the dark that would instill such terrors and nightmares, and to be free of these images and feel safe again you would have to turn on the light. But in that episode on Dark Shadows, it was just the opposite. That always intrigued me, and is perhaps why the memory of watching that episode as it was first broadcast always stayed with me. When finally collecting the full series on DVD more than forty years later I was eager to revisit that episode, just so I could put a definite date on that very early life memory: It was March 17, 1970, a Tuesday, so now I know where I was and what I was doing on that afternoon in the first half of the four o’clock hour several months ahead of my fourth birthday.
But otherwise, having been so young at the time, Dark Shadows was mainly a visual experience, one that was overlayed by sound — atmosphere in a word. This is where Dark Shadows differs from other soap operas — the main ingredient is atmosphere. Because if story were everything, then Dark Shadows would be nothing. This was a show that continually rewrote its own history as it went along. If you’re looking for a show with story continuity, then you’re not looking for Dark Shadows. In the first year of the show, the viewer is told that Collinwood was built in the 1830s by Jeremiah Collins; but midway through the second year, the history of Collinwood is moved back to the 1700s and Jeremiah becomes a more peripheral character. But they could get away with things like that, when several million viewers hadn’t even been aware of the show’s existence in the first year.
The first year of Dark Shadows has always suffered from comparison. Popular culture, as well as a good many Dark Shadows fans, thinks of Dark Shadows as “the vampire soap opera.” Of course, there were many other elements that were added along the way, like witches and warlocks, a demonic entity who inhabited an underworld from whence such beings were let loose on the earth, a Frankenstein monster, werewolves, evil spirits that would possess children, time travel, zombies, a master race of invisible snake-like serpents, and more time travel. So with all these spectacular stories and beings playing out, on the chance that some fans are curious enough to rewind to the beginnings of Dark Shadows to see what was cooking in 1966 they tend to be disappointed because they find it too slow moving or they feel there is nothing happening at all — at least in comparison to the Dark Shadows to which they were first introduced, the spook show that stopped being a soap opera without really meaning to. Things just happened.
I only became familiar with the beginnings of Dark Shadows in 2012, while collecting the complete series on DVD. So there was no particular nostalgia connecting for me these episodes with younger years. I was able simply to take them at face value. What I saw, I liked. These early episodes have in spades the main ingredient that interests me as a Dark Shadows viewer — “A” for atmosphere.
Once I had all the Dark Shadows DVDs, I watched the whole series through three times. Toward the end of each run, I was always eager to get back to those “newly discovered” 1966 episodes, where the show would spend plenty of time in one of my favorite sets, the diner of the Collinsport Inn, where Burke Devlin would come in to place his various orders for breakfast and lunch while plotting to undermine the Collins family business empire.
Although in viewing the series all the way through I enjoyed every period of Dark Shadows, even parallel time 1841 (though it would require a few episodes to finally take to it), it would always be a relief to get off the edgy monster thrill ride and land back in the relatively sane and quiet summer of sixty-six and then watch as things would gradually unravel. Sometimes when watching these early episodes I think of things to come. Like when Matthew Morgan is atop the Old House pushing a heavy stone urn off the edge of the roof in the hope of hitting Victoria Winters with it, I think of Barnabas, the darkest, most lurid of Collins family secrets, lying chained in his coffin in a room of the Collins mausoleum that no present member of the family even knows about. It’s nighttime when Matthew tries killing Vicki, so Barnabas’ eyes would be open as he lies motionless, the cross affixed to the inside lid of his coffin rendering him unable to move, but just to awaken, for longer intervals in winter and shorter periods in summer, always being alive without really living, to die again each dawn without ever dying, a cycle of unending darkness intended to last throughout eternity.
It’s always interesting to see how Dark Shadows changes from its beginnings, how stories evolve over months and years, how a seemingly uneventful moment in a single episode can set the show on a new course. An elegant yet mysterious woman walks into a coffee shop only to leave town, as well as the earth, months later in a fury of flames. A personable stranger in the Blue Whale turns his head when a certain woman’s name is mentioned by customers in conversation at a nearby table; he has come to town with the secret intention of making Collinwood his home — he will fulfill that wish, but only by being murdered and then unceremoniously buried beneath the floor of the family mausoleum.
But to get to these highly fascinating moments, I’m going to have to write about each and every episode along the way. That means at some point I’m going to have to write at length about fountain pens. So, who knows, just as with Dark Shadows early on, this blog may be facing cancellation after thirteen weeks. Enjoying the viewing of these early episodes is one thing, but writing about each of them in depth is a whole other matter. Still, as Victoria Winters narrates at the beginning of the second episode: “But I’m here now and there’s no turning back.” This is Dark Shadows from the Beginning.
Beginning Monday: Episode 1: “Next Stop, Collinsport!”
— Marc Masse
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