June 27, 1966 to April 2, 1971… Do you remember where your children were?
Let me refresh your memory and enlighten others…We were in front of our largely black and white analog television sets, staring in disbelief and sheer terror at ABC’s classic, first-time ever, ghost-filled, monster-riddled, vampire-driven gothic daytime soap opera, Dark Shadows. And now, Barnabas Collins, vampire patriarch of Collinsport, Maine, is dead. Again. And this time, for real.
Jonathan Herbert Frid, 87 years old, died Friday, April 13th, with muted public mention. Vampire fans everywhere should send flowers.
Frid, fomerly of Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, provided the template for an entire generation’s expectation of vampiric characters. Just like Bela Lugosi in his day, Frid created more than a character – he created a kind of vampire profile in that second season of Dark Shadows that was more powerful in its poses than any dialog any writer could have written. Just a still photo of Frid in character is enough to raise the old goose-bumps… Thank you, Mr. Frid, for all of those sleepless nights and a permanent fear of draperies…You were perfect!
Barnabas Collins is the one vampire that still scares me. I remember dropping my Barbies in abject terror, eyes riveted to the screen seeing my first TV ghost, probably my first werewolf, and only my second vampire ever. I seem to recall a regularly scheduled visit every afternoon by every known monster during that series (despite my mother’s warning that this would give me nightmares and I might be scarred for life). My imagination still pops with memories of that huge gothic mansion marked by its original West Wing, abandoned, and sealed up with sheet-covered furnishings and – I swear – the exact same chairs that were in my grandparent’s house… all concealing mysteries and ghosts and untold terrors hidden behind secret doors in forbidden rooms.
I never looked at dress dummies the same way again. Abandoned clothes, carelessly heaped upon chairs, unattended dolls and furniture with claws for feet were transformed for life, feeding this Horror writer’s imagination since the first real clue of what the Collins Family was to its namesake town – about year into the series (hence, the presence of Barbie and friends). But slow starts aside, creepiness was everywhere in this daytime drama… It was a one-stop mood event – unequalled in set design, special effects, costuming and plot twists… For those of us adequately traumatized, not even cobwebs are innocent anymore. It was the first time I can honestly say I understood the value of all story elements synthesizing together into a cohesive mental suggestion of atmosphere.
At the heart of things, was Barnabas Collins as played by Frid. An actor since preparatory school (according to an actor profile provided by IMDb, http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0294847/bio ), Frid “was a graduate of McMaster University, attended London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, and later earned a master’s degree in Directing from the Yale School of Drama,” going on to become a leading actor in Canadian and American repertory theatre, and working in major on- and off-Broadway roles. Yet he may well have portrayed this generation’s first “conflicted” vampire introduced in what may also have been the first soap opera storylines involving time travel, multiple dimensions, parallel universes and flashbacks… themes which are echoed occasionally in today’s soaps, but with strained storylines that typically miss the creative mark. It makes me appreciate Mr. Frid’s contributions even more.
So after hearing the sad news, of course I Googled Barnabas Collins… and dredged up more memories in the process. This is one of the few times I love Wikipedia for reminding me of the minutia that made my childhood world revolve… Mentioned in its summation of Dark Shadows is this little gem:
“Dark Shadows found its perfect demographic niche in teenagers coming home from school in time to watch the show at 4:00 PM Eastern / 3:00 PM Central, where it aired for almost all of its network run, the exception being a 15-month stretch between April 1967 and July 1968, when it aired a half hour earlier. With mothers (and, sometimes, grandmothers) usually away from the television set at that time of day in order to tend to household chores such as preparing the family's dinner, the young people got control of the family set and claimed the show as a badge of the then-burgeoning youth consciousness in the culture at large.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dark_Shadows
Oh yes, we did. And that was exactly how I came to be watching when the show took its horrifying turn to the supernatural… Mom was in the kitchen, blissfully unaware that her young, unattended children were gulping up images that would make their hair stand up straight and mar them for life. It was great!
Episodes made it into our dress-up play, and poor Ken had his own secrets from innocent little Skipper…Yes, indeed, Dark Shadows shaped more than one childhood during its iconic run. It doesn’t even matter that in retrospect one may snicker, or roll the eyes. These were the days before special effects could exceed the imagination…They were the days of Alfred Hitchcock and Rod Serling, where it was up to the director’s vision and the actor’s ability to transcend the limitations of the technology to carry the mood.
Ironically, the ingredients that made its very success were the ones that led to its demise. Mirroring today’s programming environment, Dark Shadows was one of the first soaps to be cut in the name of a recession (again according to Wikepedia), using the rationale that its young audience was not the purse-string holders of the house and therefore irrelevant, and that other genre-themed television series former heavyweights were on the wane (such as Star Trek and The Man From U.N.C.L.E). One has to smile in secret revenge – just contemplating the classic status of those shows, and wonder even now when television executives make their rational decisions, if they are aware of their own past underestimations. Just like today’s soap slaughter, in spite of a letter-writing campaign of angry fans, ABC did cancel the daytime drama on April 2, 1972. Thank heavens for whoever forgot to destroy the original videotapes – and Syfy, which reaired most of the series between 1992 and 2003…
So if you haven’t had the pleasure of seeing Mr. Frid acting the part that turned so many of us toward the Horror, Science Fiction, and Fantasy genres, you are missing a goldmine of genre history. Remakes (including the new Tim Burton movie slated for release in May of 2012) have been attempted, finding some measure of success – but more for their differences than for their technological or directorial advances in reinterpreting the first drama. The original Dark Shadows has that odd, kitchy grit that makes you proud to have been terrorized by the first revelations of horrible and fantastical truths – even as the set fell apart around its actors, and stage hands wandered like time-traveling ghosts through melodramatic scenes. It has that strange, fickle magic that cannot be anticipated but just seems to coalesce into the genre of classics which evade most productions.
Dark Shadows ruined many a night’s sleep, made me a lover of ghost stories and Spectral Fiction, kept the door open for me to fall in love with my uncle’s collection of Science Fiction, and introduced me to Fantasy, Light and Dark. But the one figure which haunts me most in that grainy, black and white memory of the closed-off wing of Collinwood is that of Barnabas Collins. Thank you, Mr. Frid. You did something most of today’s Hollywood has been unable to do with all of the big name directors, the massive star power, and all of the technological advantages of our time: you scared me. You scared me good. And you will be missed by the few of us unable to get those images out of our heads…even as we’ve grown up and graduated to appreciate actors of your stature who achieve some appreciation on the Shakespearean stage where immortality is no mean trick. For better or worse, you will be remembered. A real vampire, after all, lives forever.