“Through sight and sound, and faceless terror…”
It’s been a little over a year since Dark Shadows opened the mystery box, letting a vampire loose and transforming this relatively aimless show into a bubbling cauldron of visual spectacle and lunatic plot contrivances. One of the most remarkable changes is the pace of the show, which used to just drift from day to day, with long sequences of characters telling each other how worried they are about something.
But not anymore. Yesterday, for example, the episode ended with Barnabas falling asleep in a chair, and dreaming about his ex-wife making a promotional announcement about the upcoming story direction. Continuing this rocket sled to adventure in today’s episode, we’re going to watch Maggie fall asleep, too.
We’re going to see a lot of this over the next couple months. I guess making Dark Shadows is exhausting; everyone’s taking afternoon naps.
Now, you could make a case that wild dream sequences are a crucial part of the Dark Shadows aesthetic.
Dreams have produced some show-stopping spectacles over the last year, including Maggie’s dream of opening a coffin, seeing herself inside, and then turning into a shrieking skeleton. That was only three weeks into the Barnabas storyline — before we’d even seen the fangs — so it was an effective way to alert viewers that something special was happening on this show. It was also a hell of a lead-in to The Dating Game.
But you could also say that at this point, the dreams are being surpassed in the shock department by the narrative itself.
For example, Vicki’s dream a few weeks ago featured the welcome return of Zombie Jeremiah, who crawled out of his grave to warn Vicki that he was only the first of Barnabas’ victims, and that she would be the last.
Now, while it’s always fun when Z-Jay shows up, this was just a reprise of his original role, when he actually clawed his way out of the ground for real, and stalked the 1795 family. They don’t need a dream sequence to produce crazy spectacle like this anymore; they can just go ahead and violate the laws of nature as a normal part of the ongoing story.
Barnabas’ dream in yesterday’s episode was especially redundant, because it was actually outgunned by the previous scene.
At the beginning of the episode, Angelique stole a cigarette lighter from Tony Peterson, the hard-boiled, crusading young lawyer. She used it to cast an enchantment on him, leading him to the gardens at Collinwood and then hypnotizing him with the reflections of the flame in her luminous eyes.
This was a typically bonkers thing for Dark Shadows to do — another magical fantasy-metaphor mind-rape of a character that we like. And it was done, as usual, in the paradoxical DS house style of calm hysteria, where people do utterly impossible things, and then they just proceed with the rest of their day.
This was followed by Barnabas’ four-minute dream sequence, which went as follows: Barnabas sits in a chair, and Angelique walks into his house and talks to him.
That’s it; that’s literally the entire dream. The only thing that made it any different from an ordinary scene is that she was wearing her 1795 Angelique outfit instead of her new black Cassandra wig.
Which means — and this is crucial to understanding the Dark Shadows dream sequence, if such a thing is possible — that the part of the episode that was a dream was actually less exotic and visually inventive than the part that wasn’t.
So the question is: on a television series, what are dreams good for? Dream sequences are a common TV trope, and every viewer recognizes that vaseline on the lens filter and the shot going out of focus means that we’re taking a trip to the other side.
But it’s not immediately obvious why a TV show would bother to stage a special dream sequence, when the whole point of a dream is that you’re not interacting with anything that’s real. What the character does in a dream doesn’t count as story progression, so it’s pretty much a storyline speed bump.
But there are a few basic narrative roles that a dream can play. Probably the most common use of dreams is an exploration of the character’s feelings and fears. Television is a visual medium, and the rule of show-don’t-tell usually requires something visual to show. The easiest way to do that is to follow a character into the interior playspace of their own subconscious, and poke around for a while.
Sometimes, a show uses a dream sequence to help a character make an important decision, playing out possible fantasy scenarios to offer a visual representation of the character’s internal struggle.
And then there’s the incredibly frustrating “gotcha” dream sequence that tricks the audience into thinking that something exciting is happening — some shocking plot twist that transforms the story — and then pulls back from it, leaving the audience in exactly the same place they were before.
On a show like Dark Shadows, where ghosts and magic spells are a literal part of the narrative, you can also get prophetic dreams, where the character gets a heads-up about a potential threat.
The nice thing about a prophetic dream is that it can actually further the story, as it did in David’s dream about a faceless woman trying to hypnotize him with a medallion. In the next episode, when Julia actually did try to hypnotize him, David recognized what was going on, and shouted for help, which moved things along nicely.
The prophecy dream can also be a shortcut through boring exposition, which is always handy. Vicki’s dream about Nathan strangling Daniel was kind of a cheap trick — giving Vicki a heads up about the storyline, without bothering to figure out how she could know it.
But constructing a way for Vicki to overhear Nathan telling Noah about his plans would have taken up at least a couple extra episodes of characters walking back and forth, and the 1795 story was already running out of steam, so wrapping the plot point in a dream and chucking it at Vicki’s head is excusable, as long as they don’t do it too often.
There’s also the odd dreams on Dark Shadows where the character is visited by a ghost, who tells them plot-accelerating secrets.
In one of David’s dreams, Sarah revealed that Barnabas is her brother, and Reverend Trask was haunted in a dream by Maude Browning, who blamed him for dumping her dead body in the water. A couple weeks ago, Vicki talked to Nathan in a dream, and he told her that he’d been strangled to death. This was new information for her, so it didn’t come from her subconscious; she actually made contact with Nathan’s spirit.
But Dark Shadows already lets ghosts run around loose whenever they want, so they don’t actually need to create dreams like this.
Besides, none of this captures what dreams are really like.
The core experience of dreaming — the thing that makes a dream feel like a dream, rather than a memory or a wish — is the feeling that you’re in a restaurant, which is also the library that you used to go to when you were in middle school. And if you try to tell somebody about the dream later, that’s the bit that always trips you up — “it didn’t look like the library, but I just knew that it was the library. But it was a restaurant.”
That’s a thing that dreams do — they mix up symbols and their meanings, so that they’re overinclusive — one image stands for two unrelated ideas, holding both meanings simultaneously. This is an uncanny feeling that everyone knows, but it’s impossible to explain it using normal three-dimensional language.
So it’s really difficult to express that experience in fiction. “The car was my sister, but it didn’t look like her” is a challenging concept to depict on screen.
There are some examples where TV shows and movies manage to achieve this sensation — Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Inception are pretty good at it, and there was a high-concept episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer where each of the main characters had dreams that really felt mysterious and uncanny.
But it’s hard to do on a soap opera budget and schedule, so shows usually just throw something strange at you and call it a dream sequence. And Dark Shadows, which is getting stranger by the week, is starting to get diminishing returns on the dreamscapes.
In fact, we may have now reached the point when dreams have become essentially superfluous to Dark Shadows. So it’s kind of unfortunate that this is the moment they choose to launch a lengthy storyline that’s specifically based on dream sequences.
Anyway, Maggie’s exhausted; we might as well let her get some shut-eye, for all the good it’ll do her.
The dream begins with Maggie in bed — as we saw yesterday, for understandable live-to-tape production reasons, Dark Shadows dreams typically begin with the person in bed getting up and participating in the dream, often in their bedclothes.
I don’t believe I’ve ever had a dream in my life that began with me getting up out of bed, but then again I don’t live in Dark Shadows and therefore my life isn’t a waking nightmare to start with.
Maggie hears a knock at the door, and she gets up to answer it. They keep the swirly kaleidoscope effect going, so the audience understands that she’s not just waking up and walking to the door.
Maggie opens the door, and finds Jeff, Vicki’s new mental-patient boyfriend. This is going to be a big feature of these Dream Curse excursions — in each dream, there’s another character who appears to beckon the dreamer out of the bedroom and into the nightmare. Then that’s the character who’ll have the next dream, and they all link up.
And that’s part of the reason why they’re doing this odd storyline — it’s a way to keep the secondary characters busy for a while. Every story on the show revolves around Barnabas right now, so if you’re outside his immediate orbit, then they need to come up with something for you to do. This is about as stark a definition of “something for you to do” as it gets.
A major motif for the Dream Curse is pretending to be scared of things that aren’t really very scary, in this case somebody knocking on your door and then looking at you.
The cast is usually good at this, because they’re actors, but the show is not really giving them a lot to work with.
Jeff leads Maggie down a dark hallway, bringing her to the dream set. He closes the door, and then recites a poem in voiceover:
Through sight and sound, and faceless terror,
Through endless corridors by trial and error,
Ahead a blazing light does burn,
And one door leads to the point of return.
So the dream is entirely about opening and closing doors, which is pretty much what a Dark Shadows character would be doing anyway. There’s candles and a chandelier, and the smoke machine is pumping away, so, yeah — just another day, as far as these people are concerned.
And that’s the point, really. There’s nothing about this dream that should be particularly scary for Maggie — every day of her life is more scary than this.
But it turns out that this nightmare isn’t aimed at the character. It’s aimed at Kathryn Leigh Scott, the actress who plays her.
The Dream Curse actually has the structure of a Dark Shadows episode, starting with an opening voiceover that doesn’t make any sense. Then the characters pace around in the mist, and open doors. It’s the perfect metaphor for Kathryn Leigh Scott’s role on the show right now.
Two months ago, she was playing Josette, a meaty part with romance and tragedy. Now she’s back to playing Maggie, who doesn’t have anything approaching a story, and it doesn’t look like she’s going to get one any time soon.
But she can’t audition for a play, because here she is, stuck in ABC Studio 16 all day. She’s trapped, with no way out, and nothing to do but open doors and try to look frightened. No wonder she wakes up screaming.
Dark Shadows bloopers to watch out for:
Cassandra interrupts Vicki and Maggie in the Collinwood drawing room, and tells Vicki that Jeff is on the phone. There’s usually a phone in the drawing room, and another in the foyer. Why didn’t we hear them ring?
As act 2 begins, Dr. Lang tries to fill a syringe with some blue knockout juice. The liquid doesn’t fill the syringe, and you can see Lang try a couple times before he decides to just pretend it’s working. Later in the scene, there’s a close-up of the syringe as Lang picks it up, and it’s clearly empty.
Dr. Lang tells Jeff, “You realize you’re making a good mist– uh, a great mistake.”
At the start of act 3, when Cassandra reaches for a leaf from a tree outside the drawing room windows, the camera pulls back and you can see one of the studio lights.
Cassandra picks a leaf and then casts it onto the wind. Obviously, the plastic leaf just falls to the floor with an audible plop.
Maggie’s bedroom set needs to connect to the hallway leading to the Dream Curse set, so they’ve altered the set to put the door in a different place than it was the last time we saw it, before the 1795 story. She’s got a different bed, too.
— Danny Horn