“Food. That is food. Can you say it? Food.”
Okay, let me run this one past you: a teetotaling Dracula and his mad-scientist gal pal have brought a handsome Frankenstein man to life, and they’re teaching him how to speak by leaving him chained up alone in a filthy basement. Yeah, I don’t really get it either.
I mean, let’s do a quick inventory of things that Adam doesn’t have: A toy. A window. Someone to talk to. Any kind of toilet facilities. And then they try to teach him table manners. How do they possibly think this is going to go?
So it’s just another day in the Skinner box for Adam; he’s been left alone in his cell, just tugging at his manacles. When his captor/father-figure comes into the room with a tray, Adam tries out a new attention-getting strategy: He says “Barnabas.”
Barnabas is startled, and pleased — and just look at Adam’s little face here. He lights up with this heart-stopping grin.
So I’m just going to take it for granted, at least for this week, that absolutely everyone agrees that Adam is completely adorable. That assumption won’t necessarily stand the test of time, but right now, he is the cutest, goofiest little ball of trouble that you ever saw. Just a week ago, Adam was nothing to us but a couple of shoulders under a sheet. Now he’s the audience identification character.
So our response to Barnabas is even more complicated than usual, because his interactions with Adam are simply baffling.
Barnabas: You know my name. Remarkable! Truly. What a wonderful feeling it must be.
Adam just sits there, grinning and chuckling.
Barnabas: Obviously, you understand something of what I’m saying. I don’t know how much, or what, but I’m going to keep talking to you, because that is the only way you will learn.
Then he fixes Adam with a look.
Barnabas: LEARN. That means… try.
Okay, that’s fantastic. What does “try” mean, again?
Barnabas gestures at the tray, and says, “Food. That is food. Can you say it? Food.”
And hey, guess what? He can. It sounds like this: “Food.”
I assume that the next part of the lesson is to use the word in a sentence, like, “Yeah, food is awesome. How about you go and get me some? I am six-foot-six and this is a tiny little cup of clear broth.”
But Barnabas is sticking with the core curriculum standards. Obviously, after you learn to say “Barnabas” and “Food”, the most important early life skill is to learn how to use a spoon properly.
Honestly, these people and the table manners. Adam even shows that he knows how to put a napkin on his lap.
So Barnabas gives another little speech about the importance of a low student-to-teacher ratio on educational outcomes, and then he picks up the tray and leaves the room.
Seriously, it’s bizarre. Adam objects, and tries to snatch the tray back, but Barnabas insists: “No, no. I must go. I want to tell Julia how much you’ve progressed. I will come back tomorrow.”
It’s like Harlow’s social isolation experiments, but Adam doesn’t even get a wire mother. There are rhesus monkeys who were raised in an operant conditioning chamber that look at Adam and say, Man, that guy’s having a rough childhood.
Adam tries his show-stopper one more time, looking out through the grill on the steel door and moaning, “Barna-bas.”
Barnabas nods, “Good night… Adam.” So now the guy probably thinks that “Adam” is another word for “food”. His vocabulary’s going to be all over the place.
So as Adam moans and yanks on his chain, let’s take a moment to consider the Dark Shadows audience of housewives and teenagers. What are they supposed to make of this situation?
Obviously, we’re meant to sympathize with Adam. He’s cute and good-natured, and desperate for attention. And Barnabas and Julia — the de facto main characters of the show — are clearly leaving him in the most dire child-neglect scenario that you can imagine. It’s self-evidently cruel.
Unfortunately for Adam, the entire point of having Frankenstein on your television show is watching him go on a rampage. Yes, it would be very sweet if they turned Dark Shadows into a parenting seminar for the undead, but Robert Rodan didn’t spend an hour and a half getting make-believe stitches on his face so we could watch him learn the alphabet.
This is the inherent tension of the Frankenstein story, probably. I can’t claim to be an expert on the subject, because I tried to read the Mary Shelley book, like, three times, and I never get past chapter 8. It can’t be done. I’m only human, which makes one of us.
So my primary text is the 1931 Boris Karloff movie, which has way less brooding and way more throwing little kids into a lake. And in that version, at least, the essential tragedy of the story is that the monster is utterly misunderstood. Left to his own devices, he’s a curious and innocent child. And then everybody shows up with torches and pitchforks.
We’re not quite at the pitchforks threat level yet, but stand by for further developments. Adam breaks out of his cell — still calling for Barnabas, which is a plot point time bomb just waiting to happen — and who does he run into but Elizabeth Collins Stoddard.
Liz is the perfect person to have this scene with Adam, for several reasons. For one thing, she’s 5’4″, which makes him look like a special effect. But she’s also the matriarch of the show — the most grown-up of all the grown-ups — and therefore she’s the person who you’d rely on for a mature assessment of the situation.
Naturally, she freaks out completely. She sees that Adam has a chain around his ankle, and decides that he’s an escaped convict, which I guess technically he is.
So life just isn’t fair for Frankenstein. All he wants is to explore the world, to learn about life, and to find someone who understands him. And it turns out the whole world is full of squares.
That means there’s one segment of the Dark Shadows audience that’s guaranteed to identify with this story — the teenagers. Adam is awkward and ungainly, not quite at home in his unfamiliar body. He’s trying to grow up and find his place in the world, and everybody assumes that he’s threatening and destructive. Plus, he’s a little sensitive about his complexion.
That makes the show’s odd approach to child care a little easier to understand.
So far, Barnabas and Julia have been the dangerous, transgressive characters, plotting and scheming against the clueless mundanes. Now, they’re suddenly domesticated — saddled with an enormous, needy child that they didn’t plan for. They’ve become the adult authority figures. But they haven’t stopped being monsters, so they’re just as self-absorbed and cruel as ever.
They’re the parents and teachers who expect you to stay in your room, and be quiet and obedient. You do one little thing — like accidentally reduce a mad-scientist laboratory to its component molecules — and all of a sudden you can’t be trusted with the car keys anymore. And they even expect your bully of a big brother to be your babysitter, when you’re obviously too big to even have a babysitter. It’s not fair.
This turns out to be an important turning point for Dark Shadows. The network has realized that this soap opera is pulling in a wider demographic than the typical group of housewives and shut-ins. There’s a sizeable audience of teenagers running home from school to catch the latest episode, and they’re getting more excited all the time. This show is more than just a successful time-slot winner. It’s becoming a national sensation.
So, as we’ll see next week, May 1968 is the moment that the show chooses decisively to side with Team Teenager. Things are about to get crazier than they ever expected.
Monday: Father of the Year.
Dark Shadows bloopers to watch out for:
There’s a great, awkward moment in the Collinwood foyer:
Roger: Hello, Barnabas. You can run along now, David.
David: I got a new knife!
(There’s an embarrassed pause.)
David: Excuse me. (David leaves.)
When Liz meets Adam in the woods, the burlap covering that simulates dirt doesn’t actually cover the studio floor.
When Adam walks out of the bushes to talk to David, one of the bushes topples over, revealing the flat base that it’s been standing on.
Monday: Father of the Year.
— Danny Horn