“Why am I not opening your doors?”
What, when you get right down to it, is magic?
In the context of a story, anyone can have magic powers, and there really aren’t any hard and fast rules about how they work. Take Angelique, for example — a ladies’ maid from Martinique with reality-warping abilities, apparently granted to her by Beelzebub, the Lord of the Flies.
Angelique started out with some rather modest household voodoo, choking a toy soldier to make Barnabas gasp for breath. But pretty soon, she was raising zombies from their graves, and turning people into cats, and generally wiping the floor with the Collins family.
By this point, she has a baffling assortment of abilities, including the power of getting really super old when somebody paints over her portrait. She doesn’t use that one very much, because it’s hard to weaponize.
And then there’s Professor Timothy Stokes, who doesn’t have any official magic powers that we know of. He styles himself as an expert on the occult, which basically means that he’s a Dark Shadows fan.
We know that he’s written a monograph called Witchcraft in American History, because it’s 1968 and nobody’s invented blogs yet. He also collects artifacts, like the talisman that protected Dr. Lang. I bet he has the gum cards and the View-Master slides, too.
So now Professor Stokes has decided that he’s going to interrupt the Dream Curse, this endless shaggy dog storyline about a nightmare that passes from character to character, until it finally reaches Barnabas and turns him back into a vampire. Stokes will accomplish this daunting task through the medium of hypnosis and hollering.
Carolyn was the last person to catch the Dream Curse bug, so Stokes hypnotized her, and inserted himself into her dream. Now he’ll be the next link in the chain, and he’s going to use the opportunity to challenge the witch directly. He’s got it all planned out.
Julia: But, why will she come?
Stokes: She will come, because I will break all of the rules she has laid down in her Dream Curse. I will speak, and make my beckoner speak. I will say the riddle myself, and I will refuse to open her doors.
He says crazy shit like that all the time. I really, really like Stokes.
And that’s the point, isn’t it? That’s the magic spell. He spent yesterday’s episode spouting the most outrageous necrobabble in a matter-of-fact tone that made it clear that this is the thing we’re going to see next. Now he sits back in an armchair, closes his eyes, and Boom! Zero to REM in nine seconds.
The audience always enjoys watching smart people, because they’re storyline accelerators. We want more things to happen, and Stokes can even make falling asleep look interesting. I don’t think that’s ever been done before.
This puts Stokes in the mythopoetic trickster weight class that I’m so fond of, along with Reynard the Fox, Loki, Bugs Bunny and Miss Piggy. The trickster makes an unlikely announcement to the audience — he’s going to steal fire from the gods, or marry Kermit the Frog, or make a wrong turn at Albequerque — and it makes the story more interesting.
The audience gravitates to the trickster’s plan, and we would be disappointed if it didn’t come true. The trickster exploits his command of audience attention, pulling us into a state of heightened receptivity. We believe in whatever crazy thing the trickster’s planning to do, because the alternative is just less appealing.
As always, the Dream begins with a knock at the door. Stokes strolls over, as casual as you like, and calls, “Who is there? I say, you must tell me who is there!” All of a sudden, the show’s primary storyline stands revealed as the extended knock-knock joke that it really is.
The beckoner responds, “You do not know me!” because people in dreams never use contractions; that’s a well-documented fact. Stokes opens the door, and finds a stranger on the porch. By the look of things, this is either a Smurf, or the dwarf from Agent Cooper’s dream on Twin Peaks.
Stokes strides confidently past his beckoner toward the Dream Curse set, defying all known protocol.
Sam: I will lead you! I must take you there!
Sam: You will die, if you go by yourself!
Stokes: I will not die here.
So he’s actually doing it — breaking all the boring Dream Curse rules. He’s actually got the shaken beckoner telling him not to go into the room.
At this point, I’m not even writing a blog entry anymore; I’m just doing color commentary on the championship bout.
Stokes opens the door. Sam warns him that if he enters the room, he’ll die.
“Actually,” Stokes declares, “I think the worst that will happen to me is I shall be forced to hear that rather pitiful riddle. Or shall I spare myself the pain, and recite it for you?”
And then he just goes ahead and says the Dream Curse poem. He’s just trolling Angelique at this point, and the whole storyline, really.
Stepping in, he takes a look around the misty Dream Curse room. “Work your wonders,” he says, as if he’s been invited to a party that he’s not particularly impressed with. “I am here. Without fear. Without panic. Do you hear me?”
Josette’s music box starts up, and Stokes says, “The music is charming, but it does not make rush to open the door. I will stay here as long as I like. I’m quite comfortable here.”
He just stands there — the triumphant trickster, posing for his mug shot — and insists on turning this time-wasting storyline into a dramatic conflict between two characters. This is actually the most exciting moment in weeks.
And here she comes, the other trickster in the room. Angelique sashays through the door, not amused.
She regards him carefully, and calls him Ben Stokes. The Professor corrects the error.
Stokes: Ben was ignorant. I am not.
Angelique: I can make you as ignorant as he was.
Stokes: Only if I believe you can! And I don’t.
Angelique: You will!
Stokes: No! You are out of your century. I am secure in mine.
Still, he does seem a little rattled. He’s denying her power, but he won’t meet her eye. For all of his bluster, he may have a weak spot that she can exploit.
And I’m scared for him, right at this moment. By traditional soap opera rules, I shouldn’t even like this guy. He’s a new character, suddenly thrust into the middle of an important story, and he’s not connected to anyone in particular. He’s not somebody’s brother or anything. He’s not a Collins. The connection with Ben helps, but that on its own wouldn’t make us love him.
But look how brave he is. He’s not really friends with Julia and Barnabas, but he’s an ally. More importantly, he’s curious — a smart character, willing to turn over tables to see what happens. He’s bringing the moribund Dream Curse story to life, and bless him for that, now and forever.
And then they just start arguing, because that’s what you do when you’re hunting a witch in somebody else’s nightmare. You yell at each other.
Angelique: Why are you so determined to save Barnabas Collins? He is only getting what he deserves. And you have proven yourself a fool!
Stokes: Why am I not opening your doors?
Angelique: Do you know what he is? Do you know everything he has done?
Angelique: Then why are you interfering?
Stokes: Oh… you admit I am! I feel complimented.
His power is all in his words, and his voice, and his unexpected changes of mood. It’s the magic power of surprise. This is a trickster maneuver, which Bugs Bunny does all the time. You do a sudden pivot, and all of a sudden, everyone’s looking at you, and reality warps around you.
But Angelique is a player, too, and she’s got tricks of her own.
She dares him to show her his hand. He does, and she draws a pitchfork brand on it.
Then she smiles, reveling in her power, and says, “You will go to the doors. You will look behind them. You can not escape.”
And then he turns around, and shouts, “Cassandra Collins!”
And that’s enough, apparently. He knows her name. This game is over.
Angelique: Your heart is beginning to beat faster!
Stokes: No, it is not! Because I will not allow it.
Angelique: You are mute! You cannot speak.
Stokes: Your old tricks, Cassandra. Have you no new ones? You’ve grown very lazy.
Angelique: You will DIE!
Stokes: Yes, of course I will die, Cassandra! In my own bed, of natural causes!
He’s got her on the ropes now.
Stokes: Do you think I could forget your face? Do you think I wouldn’t remember the first day you came into my class? The day I introduced you to Roger Collins? You have used me quite enough. Now that I know who you are, and what you are.
And that’s enough; he’s reduced her to Chromakey. She stares at him… and then she fades away. The nightmare is over.
So, if you ever have occasion to fight a witch in the middle of a recurring nightmare, now you know exactly how it’s done.
Stokes is a true wizard; he’s imbued by the writers with all the powers he needs to make the show more interesting. And that’s really all that “magic” means in fiction — that the writer is on your side. You make interesting things happen. The audience will follow you anywhere.
It’s not easy to be more interesting than Angelique, once she’s built up a full head of steam. But Stokes manages it. I think he can do anything.
Tomorrow: Time Travel, part 3: Blood Chemistry.
Dark Shadows bloopers to watch out for:
Stokes misquotes the Dream Curse poem, as pretty much everyone does. In his case, he says “A head of blazing light does burn,” rather than “Ahead, a blazing light does burn.”
The closing credits roll over a shot of the Old House drawing room. Towards the end, as Robert Costello’s credit appears, you can see someone pass by on the other side of the window.
At the end of the credits, the copyright date says 1967.
Tomorrow: Time Travel, part 3: Blood Chemistry.
— Danny Horn