In seventh grade, I had a routine: go to my friend Katy’s house, do our advanced math homework, play Yahtzee and watch “Dark Shadows.” After the credits, I would run the three blocks to my suburban San Diego cul de sac under the bright Southern California sun in abject terror, unaffected by the sound of the marching band practicing on the football field. The next day, I’d do it again. Algebra. Barnabas. Terror. Supper. “Laugh in” and “All in the Family.”
I had been too young in 1966 to watch from the beginning, so cracking the giant casket of DVD’s of the complete original series that ran from 1966 to 1971 had the feeling of opening an old yearbook, or a photograph album. Just the spooky theme music and the image of the dark waves crashing on the Maine coast, inspired memories of math homework and flat-out fright. When the front door of Collinwood opened, it was a happy homecoming to that formal black-and-white foyer that was straight out of a Hammer horror set.
From the first episode, with the foreboding voiceover spoken by the orphan Victoria, I slipped into the warm bath of the past: the glacial pace of a soap opera that stretched daily from Monday through Friday, parsing out some thrills, letting slip a cookie fortune’s worth of new information, building to that end-of-week revelation that would leave the viewer breathless for Monday. At the end of each episode, there’s often a tease for “The Dating Game,” or that ‘new’ show “The Newlywed Game.”
But, more than nostalgia, the show holds up. It has its surprises — a scene at the local pub bursts into wild sixties frug dancing that could come out of a beach party movie. The characters drink and spew familial bile that goes back decades, if not centuries. A woman cries in the night, inconsolable. Portraits stare down from the formal drawing room walls with bad intent. It’s completely addicting. And I haven’t even gotten to my favorite part yet — the portals in the house between the past and present that allowed the actors to play the dual roles so beloved by more mainstream soaps.
I loved the series when I was young because it showed a world where the ocean wasn’t the surfer paradise of the Pacific, but the brooding, relentless, frigid Atlantic. That unforgiving waves crashing on a rocky coast were where you’d land if you jumped off the cliff. And characters were always standing on that precipice, contemplating bleakness, or discussing in urgent whispers how they want to get out of Collinwood and contemplate jumping themselves. Why had all those governesses leapt from that spot to their doom in the past?
The irony was that, as an oddball teen who shunned the sun, I had those same feelings of foreboding, and the desire to escape a suffocating home, without the external justification. Nothing could have been less scary than those repetitive sunny seventy degree days, my ranch house with the basketball hoop hammered over the garage, the breakfast nook where we ate our meals regularly at 5:30 p.m. while the Vietnam War appeared in nightly installments on the evening news.
I think that was part of the reason that for me, and possibly for director Tim Burton who lived two hours north in land-locked Burbank, the show had such a tremendous appeal and resonance. Wholesome suburbia struck me as so much scarier, and the gloomy, death-obsessed supernatural soap, “Dark Shadows,” provided release.