“Satan is determined to take over Collinwood!”
In the summer of 1969, the young set gather every afternoon at four o’clock to watch one of the great pioneers in educational programming.
Not Sesame Street, of course; that doesn’t start until November. For the summer, at least, the kids’ choice is Dark Shadows, and what they’re learning is that murder is awesome, and you can totally get away with it.
Because I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but lately the show has responded to its rising popularity with the young set by getting noticeably scarier and more murdery.
There’s always been a certain amount of Halloween Express haunted house spookery on the show — your vampire bites, your werewolf attacks, your witch’s brew voodoo maneuvers — but the mayhem’s always stayed on the Chiller Theatre side of the fence.
But the other day, Aristede threatened to beat Magda in the face with a hammer, if she didn’t tell him what he wanted to know. That was followed by Quentin telling Charity that he would kill her with his bare hands if she revealed his secret. We’ve seen an evil stepfather poison his wife. We’ve seen a man imprisoned under a swinging razor blade. There’s currently an open question about whether the eleven-year-old boy on the show still has two working hands.
The threats are getting a lot more physical and a lot more personal, and they strike closer to home. You can reassure a young child that there’s no such thing as vampires, but you have to admit that we live in a world with hammers. In other words, Dark Shadows is not a show with a suggested age range of 6 to 14.
But try explaining that to Milton Bradley, who decided that what America needs this summer is the Barnabas Collins Dark Shadows Game, a little gift-wrapped nightmare that promotes grave robbing as the centerpiece of an occult ritual to summon the living dead. Honestly, sometimes I wonder if the toys and hobbies industry really has our best interests at heart.
This is actually the second Dark Shadows game to reach the public — we discussed the first one, called the Dark Shadows Game, about a year ago. That game was produced by Whitman Publishing, who are also responsible for the Gold Key Dark Shadows comics. The way that you can tell the difference is that Milton Bradley is the company that actually has a handle on what Barnabas Collins’ face looks like.
Given the trend of the game titles, it’s probably for the best that nobody made any more games after this, because the third one would’ve been called the Very Spooky Barnabas Collins Dark Shadows Game, followed by the Bonus Edition Very Spooky Barnabas Collins Dark Shadows Game, and at a certain point you run out of space on the toy shelf.
But let’s crack open the box, and see what’s inside. There isn’t a board, surprisingly; the whole game is just a handful of props. Call me shallow, but I’ve always felt that a board game should have a board somewhere in the mix, but apparently the Milton Bradley Company is a law unto itself.
What you get for your suggested retail price of $2.99 is a coffin full of plastic bones and wooden stakes, a set of cardboard scaffolds, and a spinner. This is what children had, in the days before ColecoVision. This is how leisure time worked.
Now, I have several pictures of the coffin, and it doesn’t look that impressive when there’s nothing next to it to show the scale, but as we’ll see later on, this is actually a pretty solid piece of equipment. If you clocked your brother on the head with this coffin, it would make a noticeable difference in the way his day is going. I’m a younger brother, by the way, and that’s how we judge game pieces. Everything is a potential weapon. Do not let your guard down. Trust no one.
So there’s no use putting it off any longer, let’s just buckle down and I’ll explain how this works. You start out with your empty cardboard scaffold, and you spin the spinner, hoping to get either a skull or a ribcage. If you land on one of those, you can hang it on the scaffold.
But here’s the catch: you have to have a body on your scaffold in order to connect the upper arm and upper leg pieces, and you need the upper arm and upper leg before you can collect the lower arm and lower leg pieces. So on your first spin, if you land on lower leg, then your turn was a waste of time, and you glower at everybody as you grudgingly hand over the spinner.
If you land on Barnabas’ black onyx ring, then fortune smiles on you, because that gives you a free bone of your choosing. Grab anything you like.
From there, according to the rules, “Play always progresses in a clockwise order.” I repeat: Always. This is not a laughing matter for the Milton Bradley people; this is what they do for a living. Do not fuck around with the clockwise order.
If the spinner lands on a stake, then what happens depends on how often you’ve played the game.
If you’ve just opened the box and this is the first time you’re playing it, then landing on a stake means that you take one of the little wooden stakes from the coffin. If you collect three stakes, then you have to give back one of your bones.
If you’ve played the game more than once, then you’ll have to make other arrangements, because it’s guaranteed that every single stake in the box will be irretrievably lost about three-quarters of the way through the first game. Nobody knows what happens to game pieces like these. After a while, they’re just not part of the picture anymore, and you adjust your expectations. That phase of your life is over.
It goes without saying that the stakes are exactly the optimal size and shape to completely freak everybody out when you swallow one. I’m not sure when it was that people went crazy about the safety of children’s toys, but it was apparently sometime after 1969.
BoardGameGeek says that this game takes 60 minutes to play, which seems impossible to me. Watching the show only takes half an hour, and they get a lot more done. Besides, it’s not like there’s room in this game to develop your own individual style. You spin the spinner and you take a bone. Even in elementary school, I think I would’ve put a hard limit of eighteen minutes on this experience.
Now we need to discuss the commercial, which is by far the most interesting thing about the game. The ad is actually structured as if it were a one-minute episode of Dark Shadows, which as far as I’m concerned it absolutely is.
The ad is included on one of the extras discs in the complete Dark Shadows DVD box set, and apparently the only copy that they could find is from a really shitty second-generation black and white kinescope. Ordinarily, that would be a shame, but in this case I think the bad reception is an essential part of the Barnabas Collins Dark Shadows Game aesthetic. This is what the commercial looked like in 1969 on the little black and white set in the den, and this is how Milton Bradley intended you to see it. Their entire pitch relies on your inability to see the game clearly.
The ad begins with your typical opening shot of Collinwood. There’s some whistling organ sounds strumming on the soundtrack, trying to organize themselves into a tune with no great success.
This fades to a quick glimpse of the fireplace, and then a shot of Barnabas sneaking up on Carolyn, who’s reading in the Collinwood drawing room. This is the actual Barnabas and the actual drawing room, and in one split-second, it sums up what everybody who doesn’t watch Dark Shadows thinks that Dark Shadows is like. He just sidles up behind the pretty girl, baring his fangs in the most unnecessary way, and this startles her all the way out of the picture.
That isn’t the real Carolyn, but it’s the next best thing, which is Terry Crawford pretending to be Nancy Barrett playing Carolyn. It’s all the same at this resolution anyway.
“This is Barnabas Collins,” the announcer groans. He’s doing his sonorous Paul Frees Haunted Mansion voice, with extra reverb. “He lives in a strange world! A world of vampires, werewolves and dark shadows!” And then there’s a dramatic ZING! courtesy of the Hammond organ.
The shot of real Barnabas cross-fades to a shot of Barnabas on the box, and then we pull back to reveal the product. Make-believe Paul Frees says, “Now the world of Dark Shadows is yours — in a strange new game by Milton Bradley, the Barnabas Collins Dark Shadows Game!” ZING! There’s a total of six dramatic stings in this one-minute ad, and every one of them is right on the money. I will not hear a word said against those stings; they are phenomenal.
By the way, that’s the actual screencap of the product shot, framed so that you can’t see the left side of the box. That’s because they knew you’re watching this on a shitty black and white TV, and they had no faith that you would be able to see anything other than Barnabas, the bat and the words BARNABAS COLLINS. So they put that in the middle of the shot, and screw the left side.
Then they fade to what I think must be the single most thrilling shot in any Dark Shadows episode — four elementary school kids sitting around a table, playing the Barnabas Collins Dark Shadows Game in the middle of the Collinwood drawing room.
They’ve presented a lot of weird, surprising spectacles on the show — that’s the entire purpose of Dark Shadows — but I think this tops them all. It’s the very definition of avant-garde filmmaking.
The ad transitions from a hazy, dreamlike vision of the show as your parents imagine it to be, to a shot of the box top, and then suddenly there’s you — yes, YOU, with your brother and sister, magically transported inside the television set, so that you can play the game based on the show within the confines of the show itself.
And the most thrilling thing of all is that in this moment when your dreams are actually real and alive and all around you, these black-and-white kinescope children aren’t looking around in wonder and terror and awe, touching all the furniture and then rushing over to the wall, scrambling to be the first one to open the secret panel, like any ordinary child would do. The Collinwood drawing room and its amazing and terrible secrets means nothing to these amazing and terrible children.
The kids have something even more engrossing to attend to. They are focused like four pint-size lasers on the most important thing in the entire universe — the Barnabas Collins Dark Shadows Game.
This has got to be the greatest game ever made.
One of the kids spins the spinner and takes a bone, and do you see what I mean about the size of the coffin? It’s bigger than you’d think. Notice how all of the other kids lean in close, like who even knows what’s going to come out of the mystery box.
“Each player spins,” says the breathless announcer, “and then selects bones from — ZING! — the coffin! But watch out for the dreaded — ZING! — stake!”
“You struggle to complete a skeleton,” the announcer gasps. “A skeleton that GLOWS in the DARK!” Oh, by the way, the skeleton glows in the dark. I didn’t mention that before, because it has no impact on the gameplay.
In fact, the rules on the inside of the box actually say, “The bones and the skull of the skeleton GLOW IN THE DARK, an eerie feature which adds a little extra thrill but is not a part of playing the game.” It’s nice in these cynical times to see that kind of transparency in the game publisher/game consumer relationship. There are no secrets between us and the Milton Bradley Company.
This is the point when the narrator starts to morph from Paul Frees into Frank Nelson, the “mmmm-Yeeeeessssss?” guy from I Love Lucy and The Flintstones. He gets kind of over-excited, and his voice rises at the end of each sentence. To be fair, what happens next is pretty exciting.
“If you win the game, you get a set of Barnabas FANGS!” Yes, that’s the prize for winning the game — you get the honor of wearing the pair of plastic fangs that comes with the game.
On the inside box lid, Milton Bradley acknowledges the issues with this eerie feature as well: “The Toy Fangs are not part of the game and belong only to the owner of the game. They are placed over the teeth of a player to play the role of Barnabas Collins. (They should be washed before a player uses them.)”
This is a complicated concept to get your head around — they’re not part of the game, and they belong to the owner of the game — and all you can say is that it’s Art, and it does not need to explain itself.
Still, as the kid with the Toy Fangs glances offscreen to see if it’s okay for him to close his mouth yet, we should take a moment to consider the implications. The instructions say that the purpose of the game is to construct a complete skeleton, and once you do that, you get to play the role of Barnabas Collins, fangs and all.
So this is a game of competitive grave robbing, and the winner becomes a member of the living dead. I have to stress that, because by this point we have drifted so far away from human civilization that I’m not sure we can find our way back.
But kids don’t really analyze these things in a broader context. They just know what’s fun, and this commercial actually goes some way towards explaining why elementary school kids are watching Dark Shadows, even as the show grows progressively darker.
Kids want to play the active role, and when they’re playing, they don’t think about the morality of the situation. Adults can stand around and fret about what children are learning from this game, but the kids actually have a better handle on what’s going on.
They’re not learning anything from the game. This is play. Nobody’s actually getting hurt; they’re just pretending.
I can remember lots of examples from my childhood where an adult scolded me about the make-believe content in a game I was playing. There were days when I spent the entire afternoon with my friends having swordfights with sticks, and we would just massacre each other in grisly ways. And if somebody’s mom objected, then it wouldn’t make sense. We’re just playing. That’s why we’re doing it with sticks.
So kids will happily take the role of an evil pirate captain, or Darth Vader, or Barnabas Collins. When you’re playing, the distinction between hero and villain is much less important than the distinction between active character and passive character. Of course you want to be the vampire, he’s the one who turns into a bat and breaks into your house. The victim just lies there, pretending to be asleep. There’s no glory in that role.
So I think that’s the spirit in which the 6 to 14 year olds are watching Dark Shadows, and as far as I know, all the kids who watched the show turned out fine, or as fine as they were going to be otherwise. All of the elements that make this commercial a safe make-believe space — the overwrought narrator, the silly dramatic stings, the weird transitions and mistakes, and the excessive theatricality of it all — those elements are present in the show as well.
Yes, Aristede will pick up a hammer and threaten to smack Magda in the face with it, but we know that he’s not going to go through with it. There are a dozen subtle cues that we pick up on without noticing it, which tell us that we’re not going to actually see the hammer crack open her skull. There’s the lighting, the music, the acting style, the stage-play sets and blocking, and the fact that we’re only ten minutes into a half-hour show. The kids don’t lean back and analyze these things, and most of the adults don’t either. They just turn on the show, and unconsciously they pick up all the cues that tell them that this is a make-believe play space. Don’t worry about it. Before you put those fangs in your mouth, somebody is going to rinse them off in the sink for you.
“Milton Bradley makes the best games in the world!” the narrator squeals, seriously tipping over into his “Yeeessss, Mr. Flintsone” persona. “And the Barnabas Collins Game is the SCARIEST! So GET IT!”
And we do get it. The kids get it, too. I think they’re going to be okay; they usually are.
Monday: Deadbeat Dad.
Dark Shadows bloopers to watch out for:
The camera has trouble focusing and framing a shot as Charity opens the front doors for Magda, and then walks back to the drawing room.
Magda laments, “If she dies, then Barn-banabas says that the future is dead, too!”
Aristede refers to his twisted knife as the Dancing Lady. It was the Dancing Girl a couple weeks ago.
Behind the Scenes:
Legendary prop-spotter PrisoneroftheNight sends a note on today’s sets:
“The room in which Quentin brings the pendant to Lenore — one of the most frequently redressed sets of the show’s run — dates all the way back to August 1966, when it was first used in episode 45 as Roger’s office. Since then, it’s been the Collinsport law office of Frank Garner in 1967, the original 1795 bedroom of Barnabas, the 1795 waiting room of the Collinsport Gaol, the front room of the apartment of Professor Timothy Stokes in 1968, and the main schoolroom in Trask’s school. It’s one of the most perfectly realized and serviceable rooms Sy Thomashoff ever designed.”
Mrs. Fillmore is played by Mary Farrell, in her only Dark Shadows episode. In the late 50s and early 60s, Farrell appeared in several Broadway productions that I’m not particularly familiar with, including The Ponder Heart, The Loud Red Patrick, Orpheus Descending, Midgie Purvis and Look Homeward, Angel. In the 1980s, she had a bunch of guest roles on TV sitcoms that I’m unfortunately too familiar with, including The Love Boat, Newhart, Family Ties and Growing Pains.
We see the colorful afghan again today, draped around the crib at Mrs. Fillmore’s house. It was on Charity’s bed yesterday, as Tessie breathed her last.
Monday: Deadbeat Dad.
— Danny Horn