Episode 585: The War on Halloween

“One day she’s perfectly rational, and the next day, she’s suddenly back to talking about death, and mausoleums, and being buried alive.”

As the Bride of Frankenstein storyline ends its seventh straight week of boring the hell out of me, I’ve decided that I’m going to sneak off and play a game today — specifically, the Dark Shadows board game, released by Whitman Publishing in fall 1968 to an eager audience of eight-year-old psychedelic soap opera fans.

Sometimes I do a little late-60s archaeology here, and try to imagine how watching the show might have felt at the time that it was airing, using books and old newspaper articles and TV schedules and guesswork. But there’s one thing that I’ve never really been able to get my head around, which is how old the audience was supposed to be.

My basic understanding of the Dark Shadows audience is that it was mostly housewives and teenagers, with side bets on hippies, mental patients and stoned college students. But then something like the board game comes along, and I have to wonder: were elementary school kids watching Dark Shadows? And, if so, why didn’t anyone stop them?

585 dark shadows game box

But here it is, the Dark Shadows Game, offering fiendish fun for 2 to 4 players, ages 8 to adult.

The box has a rather compelling portrait of Barnabas, swathed in a cape so lush and gorgeous that it threatens to utterly consume him. It’s not completely clear what he’s attempting to communicate with those hypnotic, purple-rimmed eyes — looking at his scrawny little legs and the precarious angle he appears to be standing at, my vote is for “help me, I’m about to fall over”, but it could be anything.

585 dark shadows game collinwood

Off to the right, you can see Collinwood, more or less, which is also standing at a somewhat perilous angle. The mansion is beset with bats and stray architectural oddments, and has no front door to speak of.

585 dark shadows game board

The game board is gaily festooned with haunted house embellishments, including gravestones, coffins, dead trees, winding staircases, rats, bats, rattling chains, a black cat, a fierce-looking dog, a woman in white holding a candle, and a bloody hand emerging from a nearby pond.

The object of the game, as far as I can tell from the board, is to navigate your way from the wrought-iron gates past a series of spooky hazards, get pretty close to Collinwood itself, and then take a sharp right turn and end up in a swamp with a vulture looking at you, and then you take poison and that’s the end of the game.

585 dark shadows collinwood tower

Tne board actually has a very good likeness of the Collinwood tower, which is kind of impressive. The rest of the board may be a bit of a mess, but they nailed the tower, and well done.

585 dark shadows game pieces

The game pieces are about as abstract as they could possibly get. Monopoly comes with a fairly whimsical set of tokens, including a wheelbarrow, a boot and a Scottie dog, but Dark Shadows takes that even further. “You can be the open grave,” the eight-to-adult-year-old says, “and I’ll be the guttering candle.”

I like that one of the pieces is the grandfather clock from the Collinwood foyer, which lends itself to some role-playing. If you’re playing as that piece, you can chime the hour, and then the other players take turns trying to hide things inside you.

The good thing about these avant-garde conceptual game tokens is that if you have a fifth player, then they can just say, “I’ll be the vague feeling of dread,” and stand around behind the other players, muttering curses and imprecations. The fifth player wins if all of the other players give up in despair.

585 dark shadows game cards

The gameplay involves cards, which have four suits — bats, spiders, knives and poison cups — as well as special “Vampire” and “Barnabas” cards. Each card has a color, a number and a suit, and you collect the cards that you need to let you move around the board.

Each player starts with four cards, and when it’s your turn, you pick a fifth card from the open coffin in the middle of the game board. Then you have to play one of your cards, and if the card matches the element on the next square — a spider, or a 2, or whatever — then you get to move forward. If none of your five cards match the next square, then you have to discard one of your cards, and you don’t get to move.

There are several places on the board where you need to have a run of the same kind of card — three knives, or three black squares — so you have to make some strategic choices about which cards to save up as you move around the board.

Or, at least, you would if we were playing the game, which we’re not, so I’m not sure why I’m giving you advice on strategy.

585 dark shadows game cards 2

The point is, this isn’t really how a soap opera works, and when you think about it from that angle, this is an extremely peculiar cultural artifact.

As a way to interact with the world of Dark Shadows, it’s pretty far removed from the experience of watching the show. Right now, the television characters are facing problems like, “My servant kidnapped the girl that I was planning to hypnotize and harvest life-essence from.” The solution to that conundrum is not likely to be “save up on spider cards”.

585 dark shadows game essence

But Dark Shadows is conceptually complex, and I suppose this reading of it is just as valid as the weird Paperback Library gothic romance novels, where Barnabas is kind of an itinerant Christian Grey, wandering through the centuries looking for women to demean. At least the woman pictured on the game board appears to be in charge of her own destiny, and is remarkably blasé about the huge gravity-defying rat clinging to the wall above her head.

In fact, the storyline of the game is fairly coherent, compared to the Gold Key comic book series, or the show itself. If you can get past the “I am a guttering candle” premise, then everything else pretty much falls into place.

585 dark shadows game vampire cards

But I can’t help but feel that the Dark Shadows material is fairly low in the mix here. Stripped of everything but a character name, a hairstyle and a location, the show struggles to assert itself. Like many spin-off products, the game is feeding off the life force of the show, without giving anything back that might keep the enterprise moving for another day.

Honestly, the game itself is neither spooky or romantic; it’s mostly just luck, math and patience. You could use different illustrations, and turn this into a game about circuses or pirates, no questions asked. This is essentially Dark Shadows as desktop theme.

585 dark shadows creature castle

In fact, Whitman reskinned the game twice in the 70s. First it was “Creature Castle” in 1975, which is pretty much what you’d expect — gargoyles and mad scientists and hideous things peering through trap doors and so on.

585 dark shadows black hole game

In 1979, Whitman re-released the game as “The Black Hole: Space Alert”, to tie in with the Disney live-action film The Black Hole. Like the movie, “Space Alert” seems utterly dreary — you start out in a survival pod, and then you kind of clamber through the doomed Cygnus, along an endless series of gantries and ventilation ducts. The game comes with a cardboard Space Probe Model that you stick at the far end, and if you win, then you can pretend that you’re the first crewmember to reach safety. At that point, I guess you just blast off. and leave all the other poor saps to suffer, somewhere past the event horizon.

585 dark shadows game tower

Compared to that, I suppose the Dark Shadows game is actually rather cheerful, in its own way. At least you’re still on terra firma, somewhere near Collinwood.

Plus, you can see a light on in the tower room, which means somebody’s probably doing something dastardly. Let’s hurry inside, and see what they’re up to.

Monday: The Invisible Woman.


Dark Shadows bloopers to watch out for:

In the teaser, Julia says, “Barnabas, we still have about an hour of daylight left. Why don’t we keep still looking?”

In act 1, when Julia says, “Yes, Barnabas, it’s entirely possible,” we can hear a door squeaking open, and then someone in the studio coughs.

Barnabas gives Julia instructions: “Don’t argue with me now, Julia. You must simply go over there and be convincing to her, and let her, and make sure you get her out of here by tonight.”

When Barnabas holds the gun on Adam, he tells Julia, “You know what to do, Mag — uh, Vicki — uh, uh — you know what to do, now  — Julia.”

The camera bounces a bit as Roger enters Vicki’s room.


Behind the Scenes:

A little random fact that I learned while I was writing this entry — Dark Shadows is not the only daytime soap opera to get a board game. There were two others, both also based on ABC soaps — a General Hospital board game in 1982, and an All My Children game in 1984. The AMC game looks especially arcane and complex.

Monday: The Invisible Woman.

585 dark shadows board game finish

Dark Shadows episode guide

— Danny Horn

17 thoughts on “Episode 585: The War on Halloween

  1. One of those vampires–the “V” card with the close-up shot–looks more like Count Chocula than Barnabas Collins, and has Bela Lugosi hair with the pointed widow’s peak rather than the spiked fang bangs of Barnabas.

    Regarding today’s episode, when Adam attacks Barnabas and knocks him unconscious, there is something contradictory regarding the plot element where there is supposed to be a connection between the two. Whenever Barnabas feels pain, Adam feels it too–when the spirit of Trask walls Barnabas up and has manacled his wrists, Adam feels the strain on his wrists, when Barnabas is suffocating after Willie and Julia have buried him at the conclusion of the Dream Curse then Adam is suffocating too. So why doesn’t Adam knock himself unconscious when he attacks Barnabas? Shouldn’t hurting Barnabas be like hurting himself? Likewise when Adam strangles Barnabas months ago. This is one area where the logic behind their supposed connection falters.

    1. P.S.: There’s a noteworthy coincidence to the board games of Dark Shadows and All My Children. When the games for the respective shows were released, both had Louis Edmonds in the cast. The year the All My Children board game came out, he was receiving the first of several Daytime Emmy nominations for his work on the show.

  2. Oh wow, I had completely forgotten about the All My Children board game. When I was ten, a classmate of mine brought the game to school every day and we’d play while stuck inside during the winter months during recess and lunch. First there would be a fifteen minute fight about who’d get to be Erica (I was always Brooke for some reason so I’d just sit and enjoy the squabble) then we’d get to play for about twenty minutes. It was pretty complex and we probably didn’t even come close to playing it right. It looked pretty entertaining though if you knew what you were doing.

    Of course, I was ten so that might not be a factual statement.

  3. I’m proud to say I was an original owner of this game back in ’68 or ’69 and loved playing with it (I always insisted on being the grandfather clock). It looks like there are at least a couple of us following the blog who were young’uns while watching the original DS run. I have to admit, though, back then I think I was the only one in my kindergarten and then 1st grade class who watched the show, so I’m thinking this must have been rather uncommon to start so young. (Although this meant I was the only one in my class who knew what the word “startle” meant; it seemed like someone used that in conversation at least every other episode).

    Hey, Danny, wait till you get to the Barnabas Collins game – complete with Jonathan Frid/Nancy Barrett commercial!

  4. “But there’s one thing that I’ve never really been able to get my head around, which is how old the audience was supposed to be.”

     From what I know about Dan Curtis, I think he would have said it was aimed at anybody with a TV. Dark Shadows was a real experiment, in a time when Television was actually still experimental. The last experimental thing I saw on TV was Twin Peaks, 25 years ago. 
    
     One day, in early summer of '66, I was at the town swimming pool when a friend named Bill came over to me and told me that there was soon going to be a "spooky soap opera" on ABC, called Dark Shadows. He had me at "spooky".
     I saw the first episode of Dark Shadows and fell in love with the house and the musical score. It had a character my exact age, named David, who I totally related to, because we both had fathers who were such wonderful people that we both wished they would "have an accident" and "go away". David and I both lived in big spooky houses on a hill, just outside of town. My governess was a television set. 
     Then tragedy struck: summer ended, back to school, and no more Dark Shadows, until the holidays. 
     I spent the next 5 years watching it whenever I could, never dreaming that there would ever be a chance to see any of it ever again. Back then, soap operas were disposable TV, never meant to be seen a second time. I can't emphasize that enough. 
     My mother watched soap operas, but she didn't get into DS. She did know who Angelique was, and that she was a witch, and something that rhymed with "witch", but that was about it, for her. 
    Dark Shadows aim expanded drastically when Barnabas became the main character. I loved the show when I was nine and now, at 58, I love it much more, so I tend to think age has little to do with it. I think it's for people with a slight, or maybe not so slight, steak of eccentricity. 
    
     If only there had been a Laura The Phoenix board game, where the winner is saved by Victoria Winters, and the losers have to set their game pieces on fire. Flammable fun for everyone!
    
    1. My experience is similar, except I was a few years older, in middle school. I watched it over spring break, and was hooked. I lived in the mid-west, and it aired at 3:00 or 3:30. I didn’t get home until 4:00. I remember after a series of dental appointments, where I was allowed to walk to the dentist, I kept having appointments and walked the mile or 2 home to catch an episode. I must have done it twice, but it seemed like all the time. I caught up during the summer. Then, in the fall, I went to high school and forgot all about the mysterious and fascinating soap opera.

  5. There was another DS board game in which you had to construct a plastic mini-skeleton in a coffin as you moved about the board and won bits of bone. My sister and I had a great time playing this game, which, when I think about it, seemed to encourage grave-robbing. How perfectly DS.

  6. You said you wondered who the audience was for Dark Shadows. Well in 1968 I was 10 years old and myself and all my friends had already been watching the show for over a year and a half. Mostly 10-15 year olds where what I though the target audience was and maybe even a bit younger in 1968 since it had become such a phenomenon.

  7. Re: the original audience. My first grade teacher told me I was not old enough to watch Dark Shadows, so I was watching when I was around 6. My mom loved it so she let me watch anyhow, probably the only time she openly disagreed with another adult in my presence. On the DVD coffin set, the earliest plot point I actually remembered seeing when it originally aired was Barnabas sealing Trask up in the wall, saving the middle brick for last. I didn’t know any other kids watching the show, but reading this blog there obviously were, we must have been a silent minority.

  8. Just to add to the “who was watching” information–I was seven years old when DS started. I don’t remember exactly when I started watching it, but I have some vague memory of seeing some of the early episodes. I know absolutely that I and my friends were watching during the 1897 storyline, so I would have been 10 years old then. I suspect I was actively watching the previous year, though I don’t have much specific memory of the 1795 and Adam/Eve storylines, though I do seem to remember Angelique as a vampire (I’m rewatching these episodes now). My grade school got out at 3:30 and DS was on at 3:00 (Central Time), so I only got to watch when I was home sick and during holidays and vacations–I wasn’t even able to be one of the “run home from school to watch Dark Shadows” kids. My mom watched it for me during school days, though, and would tell me what happened when I got home from school (this is know as “1960s videotape/DVR”). I suspect my mom enjoyed watching the show enough since she was a soap watcher. She watched “As the World Turns” religiously and usually one other show, which switched over time from “General Hospital” to “One Life to Live” to “The Young and the Restless.” And I admit I would watch HER “stories” when I was home from school, too!

  9. Yes, elementary school kids watched it. I started watching in 1969; I was 9 years old. My best friend Bobby watched it; so did his Mother. My school friend Terry (a girl) watched it. So did my friends Larry, Jeff, Gary, and his brother John. That’s seven.

    I don’t understand why this is a surprise. Dark Shadows is pretty tame compared to what my grandkids can watch on TV today (and I won’t even discuss the internet). To a 9 year old, it was a “monster show,” no different than what we saw on “Creature Feature” every Saturday.

    BTW, I had both Dark Shadows games when I was a kid, and own a copy of this now. I love the art and have it displayed on a shelf in my home office, along with my Batmobile, Lost in Space robot and lunchbox, and ceramic TARDIS

  10. I’ll chime in as being a ten-year old fan in 1968. But I saw some earlier episodes, the earliest I can remember was the chained coffin and Willie as a jewel-obsessed thief. One episode that made a huge impression on me in the first airing was the one where Nathan Forbes shot Barnabas with a cross-bow. I “misremembered” that action as taking place in the foyer, with Barnabas going into the drawing room, though! A while back I saw the ep again on Amazon Prime and was forced to realize I had been thinking about that scene (incorrectly) for fifty years!

    I saw the game discussed here in a tiny store called “Ben Franklin’s”. Had to have it, but was disappointed in the actual playing process. “Green Ghost” must have set my bar a little too high for the run of the mill board action on the DS game.

  11. Neat info on the games.

    I was watching as a 6 or 7 year old; I figure my older brother (same age as David) was the one who got us started watching. I definitely remember Willie being beaten and unable to escape, and yet never staying knocked down for long, and trying to do the right thing even when he was terrified, even when he was rejected and dismissed. To a kid routinely witnessing and experiencing violence, Willie seemed like a hero to me.

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