Dark Shadows: Back to our Gothic Roots

When we last saw Barnabas Collins, he was back in 1796 and about to be staked in his coffin. I was just going to leave off there, but since I’m going on with a little more Dark Shadows after all, I’ll just say that he didn’t get staked and managed to return to 1969 safely. What a relief.

The old stories are all wound up. Aside from the Chris the Werewolf plot, which doesn’t interest me, the other new plotline begins with a retelling of Henry James’s classic ghost story, The Turn of the Screw; the ghosts of two persons who once lived at Collinwood try to act through the two children presently living in the house.

QuentinIn this Dark Shadows version, Quint- er- Quentin was a member of the Collins family at the turn of the century but just as much of a ne’er-do-well as James’s drunken, womanizing groom. The woman he was involved with was a servant in the house, named Beth.

A very old man who calls at the house (played by Abe Vigoda even though he was only in his 40s) sees Quentin and recognizes him from when he was a boy himself about 70 years ago. The old man dies immediately afterwards before he can tell anybody, and it takes the household at Collinwood a long time to establish the identity of the ghostly presence.

Actually, it takes them some time to realize there’s a new ghost around at all. Quentin works behind the scenes, hiding in his room in the west wing with his antique gramophone and old-fashioned telephone, directing the children do his bidding.

Since the Henry James story features a governess and housekeeper alone with the kids, so Maggie and Mrs. Johnson bear the brunt of David’s and Amy’s creepy behavior; none of the adult Collinses believe them when they say there’s something wrong with the children. Quentin makes an appearance to terrorize Mrs. Johnson, and even Maggie thinks the older woman is seeing things until Quentin also shows up to frighten her after she tries to discipline David for his awful behavior. With Quentin’s encouragement, he only gets worse.

Beth Beth also makes occasional appearances to try and undo whatever evil Quentin’s up to.  Neither ghost ever says a word but Beth, like Josette, weeps when the situation calls for it. Beth has some sort of affinity for Chris the Werewolf and leads him and Barnabas to an intriguing clue–an infant’s coffin buried in the woods rather than the cemetery with an amulet protecting the baby from werewolves.

By the time the Collinses are alerted to the danger, it’s too late. David in particular is already under Quentin’s control. Professor Stokes’s efforts to exorcise the evil ghost have no effect, and Quentin takes over Collinwood.

While Quentin stands triumphantly smirking on the stairs with his favorite song playing loudly on the gramophone, the entire family is forced to abandon the place and goes over to the old house. I hope there are enough bedrooms for them all over there; the only one we ever see used is the one Barnabas fixed up for Josette, and whenever we see Barnabas himself sleeping, it’s in the armchair in the drawing room.

Even though David is over at the old house with the rest of the family, Quentin still has a powerful hold over the boy and just won’t let go. In order to combat Quentin, Barnabas uses what the show calls the powers of I Ching.

Now, I thought I Ching had something to do with fortune-telling and spiritual guidance, but if you use it against an evil ghost, apparently you go into a trance and get thrown back into time to the point when that ghost was a living man. At least, that’s what happens to Barnabas.

The year is 1897 and Collinwood is at the very beginning of its decline.

The Victorian Collinses. I love that three-seat chair in the foreground! First, let’s meet the Victorian Collinses. As when the show went back to 1795, there are few new actors and all the old familiar faces are in new roles.

Quentin is revealed to be a younger brother of Edward Collins, the grandfather of Roger and Elizabeth. Quentin was the family’s black sheep and has been away, traveling the world for the past year.

Edward is played Louis Edmonds, who usually plays Roger, but now he has a mustache that points sharply in opposite directions like the Pringles logo. There’s also a sister Judith (Joan Bennett), and the youngest brother, Carl (John Karlen).

Edward has two children, and their new governess is Rachel Drummond, played by Kathryn Leigh Scott. Barnabas immediately notes her resemblance to Josette and tells her about it; since his love for Vicky came to nothing, he goes back to his Josette obsession.

Just as he did when he first appeared in 1967, Barnabas introduces himself to the Collinses as a distant cousin from England, a descendant of that Barnabas whose portrait hangs in the front hall. He takes up residence in the old house. Going back into the past turns Barnabas into a vampire again, but this primarily affects him in that he has to be in his coffin by sunrise.

When he arrives, the old house is inhabited by a couple of caretakers–Grayson Hall and Thayer David, playing gypsies. Magda and Sandor. Swarthy makeup and dark wigs, colorful clothes and Eastern European accents. They will aid Barnabas in hiding himself during the day, but they aren’t entirely trustworthy.

Barnabas has arrived in 1897 in the middle of a family crisis. The Collinses’ grandmother is dying, and does so before she can pass on the Dark Family Secret to Edward.

The secret probably has something to do with Barnabas, given the way Granny reacts with horror when she first sees him. The old lady has also hidden her will and not told anyone what she’s left to whom. Since the Collinses all despise each other, they are individually eager to find the will first to learn who gets what before anybody else does.

Quentin’s plan is more elaborate than his sister’s or brothers’. When he discovers that the old lady has had the will concealed in the lining of her own coffin, he steals it to make a forgery leaving everything to himself. He has the assistance of the family’s shady lawyer, Evan Hanley, who is played by the same actor last seen as the Devil’s envoy, Nicholas Blair.

The two men seem to be up to more than common crime; they have an odd conversation in which Quentin alludes to “meetings” they both attend and certain ceremonies. (When the lawyer speaks of the delicacy of his position, Quentin replies that he’s seen the man in many positions. What am I to make of that?) It eventually emerges that they dabble in the occult together.

Granny doesn’t lie still in her grave after the theft of her will. First, one of the lacy gloves she was wearing at her funeral is found lying on the floor. When Quentin returns to his own room, it’s been trashed as if someone’s searched it thoroughly. Quentin is at first inclined to think that Barnabas is responsible, since the newcomer is interested in the business of the missing will and asking too many questions. Then he hears the tell-tale sound of a heartbeat. Then Granny shows up to speak to Quentin directly.

Granny's hand Granny’s ghost tells him she won’t rest until he gives the stolen will back; Quentin responds by throttling her and reburies her in the cemetery. The sound of her heartbeat starts up again, and a hand comes up out of the earth!

Quentin wakes. It was all just a dream… or was it? It may be a mind-game Barnabas is playing with him; he showed similar powers the last time he was a vampire.

Suspecting that Barnabas is behind this and being generally suspicious of him anyway, Quentin gets his lawyer-friend to join him for a spot of curse-casting at the cottage. It’s their intention to summon up a demon to aid them in getting revenge on Barnabas, but the entity they call up is another old, familiar face. That’s right–Angelique is back. She’s happy to cause Barnabas more pain, but she isn’t interested in what the two occult-dabblers want. She has her own ideas.

Except for these supernatural goings-on, the storyline has the nice, old-fashioned feel of an Old Dark House movie or the set-up for a classic murder mystery. In the end, the will is returned to Judith, who receives almost everything Granny had to leave. The next heir is Edward’s young son Jameson, skipping over Edward. Quentin is permitted to always find a home at Collinwood, so Judith can’t kick him out, although she does otherwise take full advantage of her new rights as mistress of the house.

Once these games of Who’s Got the Will? are completed, the story moves into the territory of another literary classic.

When I was watching the very first episodes of Dark Shadows, I said that Victoria Winter’s original story was vaguely Jane Eyre-ish. Well, we’re returning to Jane Eyre now, with more marked similarities.

Besides the will-hunt, odd things are going on at Collinwood. True, odd things always go on at Collinwood, but the new governess Rachel is a baffled witness to some that seem to indicate one family secret in particular.

Rachel notices lights in the tower room, even though she’s been told that nobody goes up there; the place has been left unused since Naomi Collins committed suicide a century earlier and it is said to be haunted. But a ghost wouldn’t require daily visits from the maidservant Beth, nor food on trays, nor baby-dolls purchased in the village. Beth claims that the latest doll is for Edward’s daughter Nora, but the little girl never receives it.

Then someone sets fire to Edward’s bed. It’s not Rachel who rescues him and puts the fire out, since there’s no intention of setting up a romance between the two. Edward is no Mr. Rochester. Instead, it’s Beth who saves Edward. Rachel is out in the hallway to hear the commotion and the conversation that follows. That fire-setting someone is still in the bedroom with Beth and Edward, unseen by the viewer in a high-backed chair, but the other two speak to this person. After they think that Rachel has gone back to sleep, they escort this person back to the tower room. Rachel watches as the flickering light from their candle proceeds from window to window.

CradleWhen Rachel asks her what’s going on, Beth tells the governess that her curiosity will get her into trouble. This doesn’t stop Rachel from prying around. She goes up to the top of the tower and tries the door, but it’s locked. All we see on the other side of the door is a rocking cradle.

So, somebody’s definitely shut up in there, but who can it be?

One thing that we and Rachel both learn is that there’s a mystery surrounding Edward’s wife. He isn’t a widower; when Barnabas assumes that he is, Edward stiffly informs him that his wife is “away.” When Rachel asks Beth what to tell the children when they ask when their mother is coming back, Beth says that she won’t be coming back, that Edward refers to her as “the late Mrs. Collins.”

Beth, speaking through the locked door, calls the person on the other side “Jenny.”

Rachel, at the prompting of the gypsies, finally gets hold of a spare key and sneaks back up into the tower for a second try. She unlocks the door and peeks inside…

We don’t get a good look at Jenny–only a glimpse of a woman in a black dress with wild and tangled Bertha-Masonish dark hair over her face. The minute Rachel’s in the tower room, Jenny attacks her, grabs the key, and escapes.

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Author: Kathryn L Ramage

Kathryn L. Ramage has a B.A. and M.A. in English lit and has been writing for as long as she can remember. She lives in Maryland with three calico cats named after the Brontë sisters. In addition to being the author of numerous short stories, reviews, essays, and period mystery novellas, she is also the author of a series of fantasy novels set in a dukedom called the Northlands on an alternate Earth whose history has diverged from ours somewhere during the medieval period.