Dark Shadows: The Head

Barnabas Collins and Julia Hoffman are time traveling again, this time to 1840 to prevent events that will lead to the destruction of Collinwood in 1970. Aside from preventing Quentin’s murder in 1897, they really don’t have a good track record in changing the past, but they have to keep trying.

Since their arrival in 1840, the two have witnessed a variety of goings-on at Collinwood, some of it involving Gerard Stiles, the man who will become the evil ghost who destroys the Collins family and their home. But there’s one item they haven’t yet seen, and it will prove to be the most important clue to the future disaster.

Desmond and the Head Cousin Desmond Collins has brought back a curious souvenir from his travels: A severed head in a glass box. He doesn’t think it’s real at first, but after a couple of people die, he begins to realize he has something truly awful on his hands. Researching some old newspapers, he also discovers that the Head has a history in the neighboring town of Bedford as well as a connection to his own family.

The Head belonged to a powerful warlock named Judah Zachary, who was beheaded in 1692 for witchcraft. One of the judges at the trial was Amadeus Collins. Zachary’s body was buried separately and secretly, and the Head was displayed for a time in the glass case before it was stolen. Legend has it that if the head and body are reunited, Zachary will rise and regain his powers.

Wasn’t this the plot of The Thing That Couldn’t Die? A fine, goofy B-movie, but not the sort of literary classic the Dark Shadows writers normally borrow from.

By the time Desmond has learned all this, however, the Head has already exerted its influence over him and he’s compelled to search for its body.

Following the clues he’s uncovered, Desmond eventually finds the entrance to a secret vault hidden beneath an unmarked slab in the cemetery. Within the vault is a coffin pinned down by a giant wooden cross. But the face plate in the coffin lid is accessible and, when he opens it, Desmond sees a gold mask encrusted with jewels.

Headless Body under a crossDesmond enlists the aid of a friend in getting the coffin out from under the cross–the friend’s name need not concern the viewer, since he won’t be around long enough for anybody to care. When Desmond goes out to get a cart to convey the coffin away, his friend decides to take that nice golden mask for himself.

This is a bad mistake; there’s no head or skull beneath the mask, and the headless body that sits up to get the mask back is in pretty good condition considering it’s been there for nearly 150 years.

By the time Desmond returns, he finds only a dead friend and an empty coffin.

The headless body has climbed up out of the vault and is roaming the grounds of Collinwood, as many a monster has before and since. It’s the kind of thing you’ll see with the lion-tamer who had his head bitten off in the original 13 Ghosts or the headless biker in the “Chopper” episode of Kolchak: The Night Stalker–a costume with a massive, hollow torso to conceal the head of the actor/stuntman inside. Not terribly convincing, but amusing to watch fumble its way around.

Now that he’s done his job, Desmond is released from the Head’s influence and is horrified at what he’s done. He goes to his cousin Quentin for help, since Quentin knows more about the occult than he does. The two Collins men try to track down the Body before it can be reunited with the Head.

When the hapless governess at Collinwood literally stumbles over the Headless Body in the woods, she becomes its second victim. Julia and Barnabas find the poor woman and hear her last words about a body without a head before she dies.

Now, given that people at Collinwood tend to keep secrets, it surprised and delighted me when Barnabas goes to Quentin and asks him, in effect, “What’s this about a headless body wandering around?,” Quentin immediately tells him the whole story about Judah Zachary. This brings Barnabas and Julia into a position where they might actually be able to do something before it’s too late, although both do wonder why, in all their previous research into this era, they never heard a thing about Zachary before.

The death of the last governess brings Daphne Harridge to Collinwood. She arrived mysteriously in Collinsport a few episodes earlier and was hanging around town. Quentin offers her the job. Julia warns her against accepting it, since she knows that it will mean Daphne’s death before the next year is out. But Daphne has her own reasons for wanting to go to Collinwood, and she disregards the older woman’s warnings.

Around this same time, the Head in its case is taken from Rose Cottage, but it wasn’t the Body that came and got it. Desmond suspects his mother’s companion Leticia of hiding it to try and protect him from its evil influence.

Leticia makes friends with the Headless BodyIt turns out that Leticia does have the Head, but not to protect Desmond. She’s fallen under its spell herself and is helping it to reunite with its wandering Body.

Leticia searches the woods until she finds the Headless Body, makes friends with it, and takes it back to the secret vault where the Head is waiting.

It’s not just a matter of putting the one back on top of the other, though. Some delicate surgery is needed. Leticia gets the one doctor she has at hand–Julia–and brings her to the vault.

Once the Head gazes into the doctor’s eyes, Julia agrees to do what’s needed. After all, it’s not the first time she’s sewn body parts together and brought the dead back to life.

Dr. Julia Hoffman, doing some Mad Science I know they’re under the influence of Evil, but I really enjoyed this sequence where Julia attempts to reanimate a body on a slab in a makeshift laboratory, with a faux-Cockney,  music-hall clairvoyant as her lab assistant.

Women have always been woefully under-represented in the Mad Sciences, so it made me happy to see them working at it in 1840. Julia even employs the traditional reanimation technique of lightning bolts, although I’m sorry to say that she doesn’t get to use one of those elevated platforms to take her and her latest creation up into the storm, the way mad doctors with bigger budgets have.

Not that Julia’s mad herself, but she does get into some pretty weird situations.

A little magic comes into the process as well, since Judah Zachary must be wearing the gold mask in order to come back to life. Desmond carried it away with him after he disposed of his friend’s body, and Leticia has to go and steal it from his room at Rose Cottage.

I absolutely loved that Julia attached electrodes to it, though I doubt that gold is that good a conductor of electricity.

The Body reanimated by a bolt of lightningTheir first effort isn’t entirely successful. When lightning strikes, the body glows, sits up, and waves an arm, but afterward lapses back. Its vital signs are very weak. Julia leaves Leticia to look after it while she retrieves some more adrenalin from her medical bag, which she brought from the future with her.

But Gerard Stiles has been following Leticia since he saw her steal the gold mask, and finds the hidden vault and the new laboratory within it. A second bolt of lightning animates the body again, but in the panic that follows, the lab is set on fire. The body of Judah Zachary is crushed under some rubble; since she and Leticia are now free of its spell, Julia assumes that it’s dead. No harm done, and perhaps that’s why she and Barnabas never heard about the Head and Headless Body.

After things have calmed down, Gerard returns to the vault. He’s still after that jewel-studded gold mask. He finds it all right, and the Head, which wasn’t crushed. It gazes up at him and Gerard takes it back to Rose Cottage in its glass box, which has also survived intact.

This is where Gerard transforms from a smarmy conman into the embodiment of evil we’ll see in the future. The Head still needs a body, and thinks that Gerard’s will do nicely. And Gerard’s head is better looking than the one it currently has.

Gerard naturally fights against this possession once he realizes the Head’s plans for him. He even throws the Head off the cliff–but it’s a well-established trope on Dark Shadows that if you try to destroy some evil object, it will only come back again.

And so the Head does, brought back to the front door of Rose Cottage by Nicholas Blair!

Gerard fights the Head's power Actually, it’s not Nicholas Blair. Same actor, Humbert Allen Astredo, but he says his name is Charles Dawson. He’s still a devil worshiper, so same difference. He’s a descendant of one of Zachary’s original 1690s coven, and those who remain have been waiting for Zachary’s return and revenge upon the descendants of the people who persecuted him. That means the Collinses, of course.

Zachary cursed the Collins family way back when, which explains why they keep having all these awful, supernatural things happen to them over the centuries. It didn’t all begin with Angelique.

Speaking of Angelique, she’s back too. This isn’t the Angelique who was on friendly terms with Barnabas and Julia in 1897 or happily married to a mortal man in 1970; those are still in her future. This is the witch who’s still obsessed with revenge on Barnabas and returns to visit and gloat over his chained-up coffin in the secret room at the back of the mausoleum once a year for the past 40 years. Only, when she arrives for this year’s visit, she finds the room empty.

Tracing Barnabas back to Collinwood, she announces herself as his wife, Valerie. She’s extremely jealous of both his proto-romance with Roxanne and his close friendship with his supposed sister Julia, which she can’t understand even after she learns that both of them have come from the far future. She kills Roxanne using one of her little dolls, sticking a pin in the neck right where the bite marks are; this turns Roxanne into the vampire she was fated to be.

Once Vampire Roxanne has arisen, Angelique sics her on Julia to try and make her a vampire too, but Barnabas manages to save his friend by sacrificing Roxanne. Everybody now knows there’s a vampire running loose around Collinwood, but they don’t know it’s Barnabas.

Lamar Trask, who was also in love with Roxanne, believes that Barnabas, and Quentin, are practicing witchcraft and are responsible for what happened to her. Gerard/Judah does his best to further this idea as far as Quentin is concerned.

Miranda at Judah's trialAngelique has a part in Gerard’s/Judah’s quest for revenge. While Gerard was still struggling for his own identity as Judah Zachary was slowly taking over his mind, he saw Angelique and identified her as Miranda. The name meant nothing to Angelique at first, until she had a flashback to 1692, when she was a Puritan maiden involved with Zachary’s coven and agreed to give testimony against him to save her own life.

Judah Zachary certainly hasn’t forgotten nor forgiven it. So any witchy plans Angelique has for the Collins family will come up against his warlocky ones.


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.