tagReviews & Essays"Dark Shadows," Soap-Horror

"Dark Shadows," Soap-Horror


"Dark Shadows": The Soap Opera, the Horror Show

The original "Dark Shadows" was a unique TV phenomenon. A horror show in a soap opera format, the program was a marriage of as seemingly disparate genres as could be imagined. The reasons the bizarre show succeeded, and how it expanded the horizons of both horror and soap opera, are the subject of this essay.

"Dark Shadows" was originally planned as a "Gothic" soap opera. It utilized the tried-and-true formula of Gothic fiction: a foundling searching for her roots, a secluded mansion, and an eccentric, wealthy recluse. Dark secrets and memories of past transgressions haunted its tormented characters.

A similar experiment had been attempted on the "Guiding Light" a few years previously. Perhaps significantly, the "Guiding Light" experiment failed and the Gothic elements were either discarded (the Mrs. Danvers-type housekeeper returned to her native Scotland) or absorbed into the normal florescent-lit soap opera world.

The Gothicism of "Dark Shadows" also failed, at least as originally attempted. Since the show's ratings were poor, the scriptwriters floundered desperately for a gimmick to save it. Several ghosts of the "maybe they're there, may I'm only imagining it" variety appeared. Then the show "crossed-over" into the unabashedly supernatural with the appearance of Sarah, a child ghost.

When it introduced the supernatural, "Dark Shadows" left behind the grown-ups' reality of pesky logic and cumbersome physical laws for the children's universe--a place where time is endlessly fluid, identity in flux, and the miracle is the everyday. Thus, it was appropriate that the child actors on "Dark Shadows" played their characters not as learners stumbling uncertainly through a world new to them, but as miniature adults: mature, wise, and confident.

The daring horror show/soap opera manipulated soap plot devices with wonderful wit, sometimes by taking them one spooky step further, sometimes by reversing them in a "horrific" manner. "Dark Shadows" demonstrated that the two genres could be made to fit together surprisingly well, probably because they had more in common than anyone had previously suspected.

For example, death on "Dark Shadows" was a way station, not an endpoint. We wait for the character to come back as ghost, vampire, phoenix, or to be reincarnated. We may miss the deceased for a few episodes or we may find them with us the next day in a different time zone, i.e. past, present, future, or "parallel."

This is actually quite conventional within the soap opera genre. After all, any soap opera fan worth his/her salt knows what to expect when a character is believed dead -- but the body is not found or is destroyed beyond identification. Our erstwhile hero will be declared dead. Then we may see his/her funeral and watch as the heirs feud over the will. But it's only a matter of time before we meet the "deceased" again. Usually s/he will have amnesia, a most peculiar form of amnesia in which all faculties are retained but no life history is remembered. (According to clinical authorities, this Soap Opera Amnesia has no medical basis.)

In the web of character relationships that make up a soap opera world, the personalities of "Dark Shadows" had all the possibilities given to the traditional soaps' inhabitants -- plus one. As Robert C. Allen comments in "A Reader-Oriented Poetics," there are "three major types of relationships between soap opera characters: kinship, romantic, and social. Much of the appeal of soap operas resides in the complexity and overlap among these categories of actual and potential relationships for any particular character. Mistaken parentage has been a stock device in soap operas for decades. . . Enemies can become brothers; sisters, merely close friends, fathers, foster-fathers; and so on -- all at the drop of a discovered birth certificate."

The extra relationship open to the denizens of "Dark Shadows" was utter symbiosis: one character could actually become another as the spirit of one individual took possession of another.

Soap operas have traditionally shown that the role is more important than the actor who plays it by their habit of frequently replacing the actor and carrying on with the story line. "Dark Shadows" demonstrated the primary importance of role over performer by reversing this time-honored soap practice: the same actors were cast as different characters. Thus, as Kathryn Leigh Scott observed in "My Scrapbook Memories of 'World of Dark Shadows'", the program's actors "functioned like a stock company, each with our own repertoire of characters." Perhaps this innovation was successful with the public for much the same reason that the rare illness of Multiple Personality Disorder is an epidemic throughout TV and popular literature: it seems the ultimate fantasy of "having it all," one person able to be an old-fashioned hausfrau and aggressive businessperson, demure one minute and lustful the next, rational and then mystical, etc.

In one way, the soap opera format meshed with horror in a fortuitous accident. Prior to "Dark Shadows" had been a stage actor Jonathan Frid and what is known in the theater as a "slow study" -- but the soap opera format required him to memorize his lines in the morning and say them the same afternoon. His distress was the show's gain: the look of controlled panic on Frid's face as he tried to recall his lines became the sexy vampire's signature gaze of enigmatic mystery.

The original "Dark Shadows" did not eschew the standard soap opera themes of romantic passion and unrequited love. Far from it: much of the series centered around witch Angèlique's unrequited love for vampire Barnabas as well as his never-ending attempts to re-unite with his beloved Josette or one of her many incarnations.

In the primary love story of "Dark Shadows," the soap opera format joined with horror's imaginative freedom to yield a special poignancy. Robert C. Allen discusses two relevant types of fictional "duration: story-duration (the days, months, years depicted in the narrative) and . . . reading-duration--the actual time it takes to read the text." In both senses the romantic passions of Angèlique and Barnabas were long lasting. The "reading-duration" lasted through four years on the air. But, of course, the "story-duration" was far more impressive, lasting through centuries. The long, drawn-out plot(s) following Angèlique and Barnabas through so many bizarre travails contributed mightily to making their amorous frustrations sympathetic.

The writers of "Dark Shadows" have acknowledged borrowing scenarios liberally from a variety of classic works. The Picture of Dorian Gray, Frankenstein, Wuthering Heights, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and some lesser-known horror stories by H.P. Lovecraft, are only a few of the works they drew upon.

But no source that I have read has commented on the strong resemblance of the central love affair in "Dark Shadows" to that of the major romance in America's cultural psyche: Angèlique-loves-Barnabas-loves-Joesette echoed powerfully the Rhett-loves-Scarlett-loves-Ashley scenario of "Gone With The Wind." In both triangles, there is a gut feeling that the first two characters ("I'm dirt, so are you. We deserve each other.") really belong together.

The denouement of the Angèlique-Barnabas tale is just as tragic and bitter -- yet also as lingering with hope -- as the fabled ending of GWTW. As the soap opera wound toward cancellation, Angèlique performed an unexpected act of generosity that led Barnabas to the startling realization that she is indeed his "one true love." But before he can tell her, she dies in his arms. Like Scarlett O'Hara, Barnabas has been blind to his true love. Like Scarlett, he realizes the truth when it is too late.

Or is it? The ambiguity of GWTW's ending has surely helped immortalize its love story. Rhett Butler's "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn!" and his disappearance in the mists is followed by the intrepid Scarlett's vow that she will win him back since, after all, "Tomorrow is another day." And millions of fans have been left to fantasize over the possibilities.

Similarly, no death on "Dark Shadows" is ever truly final--though Angèlique's was about as final as it could be since the original series was discontinued shortly after her demise. But the viewer is left with the tantalizing possibility of a resurrection (ghost, vampire, reincarnation) that will unite Angèlique with her Barnabas.

Perhaps it is more than coincidence that a new (though short-lived) "Dark Shadows" returned to television at approximately the same time "Scarlett," Alexandra Ripley's (ill-reviewed but best-selling) "sequel" to "Gone With The Wind," was published. I don't want to suggest anything supernatural (?!) at work here. However, "Dark Shadows" and "Gone With The Wind" are akin in that both stories reflect the greater Western tradition placing romantic love at the center of life and both are part of our evolving American cultural mythos.


A previous version of this essay was published in "World of "World of Dark Shadows"" and has appeared online at "Men's News Daily."

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