With online streaming has come the opportunity to rewatch beloved television shows from our formative years, and to reassess those shows with an adult perspective, to understand what they meant to us then, what we learned and how they formed us. For someone who grew up in an underpopulated rural environment, with no town or cinema nearby, TV was one of my little windows on the world, and our two and a half television channels were well known and watched. Mostly we were stuck watching what my father liked, but in the afternoon was Dark Shadows, an especial favorite from my pre-teen years.
Now more than fifty years later, I have just finished rewatching the first season. It has been eye opening. As soon as I heard the theme music, I was transported to the mid-1960s, and the bumpy ride home on our yellow school bus, the race down the hill into the house to arrive just in time for this show to come on TV. I would sit with my grandmother, folding laundry and watching wide-eyed the spooky show in soap format. It came on right after my grandmother’s favorite stories and she didn’t think much of it, but oh, my friends did! We would compare notes the next day, and speculate what it would feel like to be bitten by Barnabas Collins, and whether Angelique was really as evil as she seemed, or Josette as good, if this or that secret would be revealed. To my adolescent self this was the height of exoticism, and what I cared about was the characters and the story. I had not yet read any of the 19th century gothic novels upon which this genre was based, and had no critical point of view regarding production values, writing or acting. It was just great fun and I followed it avidly.
Some of it is howlingly funny. The show seems to have been filmed in about 2 or 3 studio sets, all made of the cheapest materials, with one or two (always the same) outdoor shots at the beginning to establish place. The opening off-camera monologue by the character Victoria Winters, meant to carry the story forward and provide a sense of foreboding, is labored and nonsensical, as if translated from a foreign language. The dialogue is often wooden, more so than the set: the scary crypt in which the vampire’s coffin rests might be made of cardboard. Some of the actors are nervous and ill at ease – they glance sideways and stumble over their lines. Sometimes you see the shadow of the microphone. The camera work and directing? Pretty bad.
And yet. From the moment you meet Barnabas Collins, the vampire played by Jonathan Frid, attention is commanded. He was my favorite as a girl but I didn’t know why, other than the frisson of forbidden sexual undercurrent present in every vampire story. I recognize now that it is primarily the voice – a trained voice, an actor’s voice with so much resonance and color as to make everyone around him sound monotone and tinny. In the theatre it is the voice that draws you in – and Mr. Frid had such a voice. There is much deliberate obfuscation during the first season, the story is delivered obliquely, the character’s purpose and intent are clothed in half-truths and you are only aware that he is different, that dark secrets are being kept. On the surface he is predatory, controlling, polished, but also hiding in plain sight. Then comes Episode #23. In the midst of this goofy, cheesy vampire soap arises a true monologue, an actor’s monologue delivered with such depth and pain that it jumps off the screen. Barnabas tells the story of the death of a young woman – who we don’t yet know – on Widow’s Hill, a hundred or more years prior. By the end, tears in his eyes, you have understood without him saying so that this was his great love, and that lying beneath the horror of his vampirism is deepest loss, love and regret. Mr. Frid’s skill shines through – and here you see mastery from someone who, as it turns out, graduated from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and the Yale School of Drama, trained in the classics, and is superbly adept at language and technique. The entire enterprise was for a moment elevated, and I understood why I had been so compelled by the show as a girl. In the midst of mediocre and sloppy production values, stilted dialogue, bad acting and silly stories stood a true talent.
To be sure, the show reflects a pre-feminist era of hysterical females forever in need of being saved, nearly none with real work or aim, defined by the men around them. They are utterly annoying, and there’s a reason why this type of show, with its clichéd music and creepy noise, has been so parodied.
And yet. I went on to study theatre, seriously, and I continue to be humbled and awestruck by the work of gifted performing artists. I understand the decades of training and skill that must combine with talent and hard work to create onstage magic. Those moments of creative beauty are ineffable and important, and I honor them wherever they are found. That a spark was perhaps ignited from something so seemingly inconsequential as a gothic soap opera, in the middle of the afternoon in the middle of Michigan, decades ago, astonishes. Thank you, Mr. Frid, for the richness and the joy.
©Melody S. Owens, Poets Sinews, 2020. Reuse with permission.