“I can see you know nothing about the power of witchcraft.”
The notorious Salem Witch Trials were a series of arrests, hearings and executions that took place from March to October 1692. Twenty people were executed, and more than a hundred people were held in prison for almost a year.
The story is often used as an example of the devastating power of superstition and the suggestibility of the mob, but more than anything, it’s actually the story of a pre-Revolution American colony trying to figure out how justice works.
This was more than seventy years before the Declaration of Independence, when the colonies joined together to form a more perfect union. At the time, the Massachusetts Bay Colony was a Puritan settlement. There was no real distinction between civil law and religious law; the judges and magistrates mostly operated according to guidelines agreed upon by the senior ministers in Boston.
The accused witches didn’t have lawyers, or any representation. The charges against them were almost entirely imaginary, based on the “spectral evidence” of the possessed girls who screamed that they saw the witches’ shapes stabbing at them, and allowing invisible birds to suckle from the blood of their fingers. There were a lot of confessions, especially in the later months of the trials, but the confessed “witches” were mostly just answering yes to the magistrates’ leading questions.
And the hearings were just three-ring circus nightmares, day after day. While the defendant stood in the dock, the growing chorus of “afflicted girls” screamed and rolled on the floor, sometimes running up to the magistrates holding out their arms to show tooth marks where the defendant’s spectre had just bitten them.
The defendant would look at the girls, and the girls would fall down on the floor. The defendant would look away, and they’d get up again. That interaction on its own was enough to put somebody in chains for months.
During Martha Corey’s trial, one of the accusers threw her muff at the defendant. When that fell short, she took off her shoe and threw it, nailing Goodwife Corey in the head. The trial just continued after that, like that was normal trial procedure. Martha Corey was convicted, and executed. That’s how witch trial justice worked.
So accused witch Victoria Winters is actually getting off easy here. Instead of Salem witch trial justice, Vicki is being tried according to the procedures of soap opera justice, which are much more relaxed.
Essentially, soap opera justice runs on the principle that every single person involved in the case should say everything that they think and feel out loud at all times, until somebody starts to cry. At that point, the judge passes sentence based on however they feel at the moment, and then the trial is over.
I forget if the jury ever gets to do anything. They’re usually just extras anyway, and who cares what they think.
So if you only watch police procedurals — or, heaven forbid, you actually know something about the legal system without watching it on television — then you might be surprised to see one of the witnesses just walk herself into the Collinsport Gaol to strike up a sarcastic pre-trial conversation with the defendant.
“You made a serious mistake when you rejected my plea last week,” Josette says, because apparently it’s okay to just yell at the accused.
Last week, Vicki warned Josette that if she stayed in Collinsport, she would end up dying at her own hand. Josette treated this suggestion with the respect that it deserved.
Josette: You really expected me to leave, when Barnabas was in such critical condition?
Vicki: Is he better now?
Josette: How could you ask such a question?
Vicki: I don’t know what you mean.
Josette: Why are you pretending to me that you do not know that Barnabas is dead?
This is a weird thing to say, because Joshua made everyone promise to pretend that Barnabas went away to England. Apparently this is the Dark Shadows version of pre-trial discovery.
So now we get a revealing glimpse of Vicki’s defense strategy.
Josette: I don’t know why you wanted Barnabas dead, but I do know that you are responsible for his death!
Vicki: No, I’m not; you’ve got to believe me!
There you have it. That sentence is about to become Vicki’s catchphrase. “You’ve got to believe me!” She says it all the time from now on. In fact, she’s going to say it again in exactly one minute.
Josette: You had it in your power to save him.
Vicki: No, I didn’t; I swear it!
Josette: I begged you to do it!
Vicki: No, that’s not true! He was going to help me. If I could have done anything to save him, I would have. You’ve got to believe me!
The problem with this argument, obviously, is that it’s incorrect. They don’t got to.
Meanwhile, see the guy lurking in the background holding his arms at his sides like he’s recently learned how to act by correspondence course? That’s Peter Bradford, Vicki’s lawyer and putative new love interest. He’s not really very good at either of those jobs.
For one thing, he scowls all the time. This actor, Roger Davis, plays five roles on Dark Shadows, and they just get more and more angry. By the time we get to Harrison Monroe in late 1969, his character is literally an automaton sitting behind a desk, who yells at people nonstop until his head falls off. That is actually true.
And even here, when he’s supposed to be melting Vicki’s heart with his devoted belief in her innocence, he just looks grumpy and confused.
So here’s a sentence that makes your blood run cold: Victoria Winters has a plan.
Last week, her world-shattering idea was to tell Josette where to find the 1965 edition of the Collins family history, which Vicki brought into the past. Now that Josette’s blurted out that she’s going to introduce it in court, Vicki has a new brainstorm.
Vicki: I want you to let me go to Collinwood, and I promise you that as soon as I have the book, I’ll come back.
Peter: I can’t do anything like that.
Okay, good. I was starting to worry that there was something in the water supply at the Collinsport Gaol which lowered the IQ of anyone who sets foot in the building.
Vicki: Don’t you think that I’ll keep my word, and return?
Peter: I’m not doubting your word. I’m thinking about your safety.
Wait, what? Seriously?
Peter scowls, and looks out the window.
Peter: During the past two nights, just being on the streets of this village has been dangerous enough. Two women have been attacked.
Vicki: Peter, if I don’t get that book, my safety won’t be worth much. Please!
Peter: Is there any way that I can get the book for you?
Vicki: No. I know where it is.
Peter: All right, you can go to Collinwood. But I’m not letting you go alone.
So he helps her on with her coat, and walks her out. This is soap opera justice at its finest.
By the way, if you weren’t planning to let the prisoner out on field trips, why is her cloak hanging on a coatrack right next to the door? What kind of a Gaol are you running around here?
Speaking of clothes, check out the ensembles on display as Reverend Trask stops by Collinwood to talk to Josette and Natalie about the case. Fantastic. As far as I’m concerned, they can talk as much nonsense as they want, as long as they’re wearing outfits like that.
Meanwhile, Vicki busts in and starts rummaging around Josette’s room, looking for the book. I thought she said she knew where it was! She’s useless.
So I’d say the charges for the evening so far are: breaking out of prison, theft, breaking and entering, concealing evidence and obstruction of justice. The felonies are just stacking up.
Downstairs, Josette tells Trask about the Collins family history. I’m skipping over a lot of this stuff, because it feels like it’s taking forever.
We’d better get a move on. They’re called the Salem witch trials, not the Salem witch standing around and having conversations.
Anyway, Natalie goes upstairs to get the book, and obviously she runs smack into Vicki. There’s a great shocked expression from Grayson Hall. Take a moment to enjoy this; it’s pretty much the only real action of the day.
Vicki and Peter get away, and when they get back to the Gaol, they discuss their next move.
Peter: We’d better do something about the book. Now that they know you have it, it won’t be long before they come looking for it.
Vicki: I know. If I take it with me into the cell, they’ll probably find it.
Yeah, you think? How big could your cell possibly be?
So Peter, being the brilliant strategic thinker of the group, hides the book in the only place in the whole room that could possibly hold a book. This approach works perfectly.
Anyway, this episode started wearing on me a while ago, so I’ll just close with my favorite exchange of the day. It comes courtesy of Reverend Trask, who never disappoints.
Trask: I demand to see for myself that Miss Winters is in her cell.
Peter: Reverend, we don’t usually have visitors this late.
Trask: I do not wish to VISIT with her!
That’s lovely. So far, this looks like the Trial of the Century, whatever the hell century this is supposed to be.
Tomorrow: The New Black.
Dark Shadows bloopers to watch out for:
There are several noticeable edits in Act 1. Editing videotape was expensive in 1968, and edits left an obvious break in the background music cues, so it’s surprising that they felt like they had to make at least three edits in one scene. Maybe something really unprecedentedly bad happened while they were taping the scene, but I can’t imagine what that could have been.
When Josette tells Vicki “I am going to testify at your trial,” Vicki tries to suppress a quiet cough.
Tomorrow: The New Black.
— Danny Horn