Everything I Need to Know, I Learned From Dark Shadows

I’ve been keeping an eye on the approach of Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows movie.  Things have been heating up over the last month or so: “sneak peek” photos showing up online, followed closely by trailers; then the TV commercials and a steady trickle of buzzy web pieces; and yesterday, the true harbinger of imminence, the subway poster.  I always look forward to Burton’s work, but this one’s had me giddy with anticipation.  Understandable in view of my having grown up glued to the show. Then today came the sad announcement of the death of actor Jonathan Frid, the original (dare I say the real?) Barnabas Collins. Coming, as it did, the day after Dick Clark’s passing, it was a cold reminder that my childhood is ancient history. But as I read through the press releases, I realized there was more meaning for me here than nostalgia or general middle-aged angst.

I said before that I grew up on Dark Shadows. It might be more accurate to say that Dark  Shadows helped to raise me.  Chronically terrified, introspective and eccentric (I was past 30 before I grasped exactly how eccentric), I was not a happy child. We didn’t have Goth or Emo kids in those days. It might have been easier for me if we had but, as I hit adolescence, everyone around me seemed fearfully confident and optimistic.  Everywhere I looked, it was all bounce and shiny hair—except for people in 19th century novels (which, yes, I was reading at that age) and on Dark Shadows. The family at Collinwood were a mess, and that mess was bred deep down in their DNA.  The plot stretched across centuries and involved a melancholy vampire and (later on) a Byronic werewolf, a brittle female doctor and a sultry witch, ingenues in jeopardy and a Golden Age Hollywood matriarch, a Renfield-like caretaker and children with a creepy touch of Turn of the Screw. The black and white setting for all of this was a gothic mansion on the rockiest coast of Maine, all fog and crashing waves, the one place on TV that wasn’t drenched in California sunshine. Even the music was haunting; I can still whistle the theme.

It was a soap, of course, but oddly educational. There were plotlines that derived from some pretty classic literary sources. Fan magazine pieces on the actors led to additional, wider reading (Frid was a Shakespearean actor, Grayson Hall had been in Night of the Iguana). And of course there was a lot of information on the paranormal and other intriguing areas of exploration. Astrology was all the rage back then, but it was Dark Shadows that gave me the courage to buy my first Tarot deck, and it was through Dark Shadows that I heard of the I Ching. The world Dan Curtis created had all the thrills of a ripping yarn, and I could feel pleasantly smart at the same time. But more than all of this, Collinwood was home.

When I was introduced to Dark Shadows, one long dull summer between childhood and teens, I was invited into a world where I somehow seemed to belong—and I was pretty desperate to belong to something, to not feel so very much alone. Thanks to those weekday afternoon half hours, following some often-miserable school days, I learned that it was okay to be different; maybe not easy, but okay. And that nothing is ridiculous if you care enough about it. A lot of what I learned in adolescence still lingers, but the best of what I learned I learned from Dark Shadows.