“He revels in every form of torture and bloodshed known to the mind of man!”
“It’s the third one,” says Dr. Julia Hoffman — blood specialist, hypnotherapist and the world’s most adaptable person. “The Kun hexagram.”
“What does it signify?” her captor asks, and Julia consults the reference material.
Julia’s flipped back in time to the late 19th century, where she’s currently assisting mad god Count Petofi, the Butcher of Ozhden, as he attempts to bend space and time to his implacable will. He needs to take his legendary magical hand to the far-off space year of 1969, and he’s going to use the I Ching, a Chinese divination technique that he has no prior experience with. So now he’s casting the I Ching wands, and Julia is looking in her Junior Woodchucks guidebook to see which of the 64 hexagrams he’s laid out on the table.
She’s doing this under duress, if that helps. Julia does a lot of things under a lot of things.
“There will be great progress and success,” she reads, and Petofi’s face lights up. “The character Kun shows how a plant struggles, with difficulty, out of the earth, gradually rising above the surface.” Petofi is utterly thrilled, but there’s more.
“The top line is divided,” Julia warns. “The horses of the chariot are obliged to retreat. There are weeping tears of blood.”
Petofi grabs the book out of her hands, and snarls, “I will hear no more!” Then he sits down in front of the hexagram, meditating furiously.
Now, this is where Count Petofi and I part ways. If it was me, the weeping tears of blood would give me pause. But what do I know, I don’t even have a legendary magical hand. I just have regular default hands. I didn’t even know magical hand was an option.
So Count Petofi gets down to business and concentrates on the hexagram, which begins to whirl around in circles. In his mind, he sees the door with the hexagram on it, and then he imagines himself, approaching the door.
And this is actually a potentially hazardous moment — not just for Petofi, but for the show. This I Ching business was extremely exciting the first time they used it, a brand-new spectacle that kick-started the whole 1897 time trip. But this is the third time they’ve done an I Ching ritual in the last six days — one apiece for Barnabas, Julia and now Petofi — and they’re running the risk of making this routine.
That’s happened before on Dark Shadows, several times, and the result is weeping tears of blood. The Dream Curse is the obvious example — the exact same dream sequence, repeated eleven times over a period of several months. The show also ran the mad science Bride of Frankenstein experiment into the ground, to the point where they didn’t even bother to hook up most of the equipment after a while.
As much as I love the gorgeous simplicity of the hexagram and the door, doing it three times in a row probably means that they should stop doing I Ching sequences. (Spoiler alert: they do not stop doing I Ching sequences.)
But when Count Petofi opens the doors of perception and steps through, he’s greeted by a huge Chromakey gypsy hand waving a scimitar, so maybe it’s okay if they keep doing this for a minute. Based on recent experiences, I was expecting more doors. A huge scimitar hand is an interesting new development.
And look at that, for a shot. That’s gorgeous. The Chromakey gypsy is only supposed to use the scimitar to cut off Petofi’s legendary Hand, but he’s having so much fun that he decides to go for the neck. It’s outside protocol, but what do you expect from gypsies?
This gives Petofi the upper hand, so to speak. “Whatever you are, you are not empowered to destroy me,” he declares. “If you were, you would know where to strike. Not the throat — the Hand! Now begone, and take that wretched thing with you!”
And the scimitar hand backs off, thinking, Damn, I did it again! Stupid scimitar hand. Maybe I should finish that culinary arts degree after all.
Cut back to the mill, where Petofi remains in the trance, muttering about “gypsy swine,” like he always does. Julia takes the opportunity to hightail it towards the door, but she runs into Petofi’s pal Aristede, who’s been guarding the exit. He checks on Petofi, and is disturbed to find his master basically unconscious in a chair. “He’s in the deepest part of the trance,” Julia explains, because she has the ability to tell how deep a person’s trance is going to be, thanks to the imaginary tricorder that she keeps in her utility belt.
Aristede advances on her, backing her up against the wall. “How do we know you’re a doctor, anyway?” he says. “You could be trying to kill him. Is that what you’re doing?”
She stands right up to the homicidal knife-wielding maniac. “Why are you so frightened, Aristede?” she spits. “Is it because your ‘great Petofi’ isn’t as immortal as you believed?” Because Julia.
I know I’ve spent a lot of time over the last week just quoting things and then saying that Julia is awesome, but I can’t help it. I’m going to keep doing that, until she stops being awesome. She needs to meet me halfway on this.
Returning to Petofi’s astral adventures, we find the incorporeal Count on a brand-new set which appears to be a gypsy tribunal waiting room. There are heavy wooden doors and scattered candles, obviously, because it’s Dark Shadows, and we can hear a gang of gypsy dudes doing an a capella routine, bellowing a threatening musical number in whatever language gypsy dudes speak.
We’ve also got some Twin Peaks dream sequence red curtains, and there’s an occasional table holding the golden scimitar, plus the box that the gypsies are planning to keep Petofi’s Hand in, once it’s removed from his wrist. The Kun hexagram is mounted on the wall, symbolizing great progress and success, but for other people. Petofi should have asked the hexagram to be more specific.
Horrified, he throws open the doors —
— and there’s a huge Barnabas face, baring his fangs and looking fantastic.
Behind the other door, there’s just a roaring fire, so Petofi looks around, trying to find another way out. Then he raises his arm — and to his astonishment, his own magical Hand turns on him, reaching for his throat.
Back at the old mill, the non-astral Petofi is also busy choking himself, as Aristede and Julia look on in horror. And there you have it, the perfect scene.
So I have to apologize to the writers, the directors, the I Ching and the entire Western Zhou dynasty for comparing these sequences to the Dream Curse. The I Ching is full of surprises, and they can do this as often as they like.
Last week, we talked about Julia’s use of the I Ching as an LSD trip, a consciousness-expanding psychedelic experience that was terrifying, but ultimately brought her to the place that she needed to be. What Count Petofi is having right now is basically the textbook definition of a bad trip — a dark vision of everything that he fears, forcing him in desperation to an act of self-harm. This is what happens when you take the brown acid.
The effect of LSD is hard to predict — not just from one person to another, but from one experience to the next. There are good trips, where you have the profound mystical insight that you’re connected to everything in the universe, and there’s no such thing as pain or war or homework. And then there are bad trips, where you’re threatened by scimitars and you have to fight your own extremities.
So the general approach to dropping acid is to create an environment where you feel safe and comfortable, with people that you trust, and stimulation that will enhance the good feelings. People who are relaxed and happy have good trips; people who are in a bad head space have bad trips.
Taking this idea to the next logical step, people who have bad trips have done something wrong, and there’s some judgment associated with it. They were in a dark place, they had bad vibrations, they weren’t prepared for the experience, and they should have known better. If LSD reveals truths about the universe, and the universe is alive and connected and beautiful, then the people who receive that truth are good, and the people who don’t receive it have been rejected by the universe. There must be something wrong with those people.
That idea has a Puritanical edge to it, wrapped up in a fuzzy Santa Claus suit. Good trips happen to good people.
Now, I’ve never actually dropped acid myself, but in the ’80s and early ’90s I read a lot of DC comic books, which was basically the same thing. The people who wrote comics in DC’s Vertigo line were heavily influenced by their LSD experiences — Alan Moore and Rick Veitch on Swamp Thing, Grant Morrison on Doom Patrol and Animal Man, Peter Milligan on Shade the Changing Man and Neil Gaiman on The Sandman. They all involved imaginary dream spaces that connected people to “the Green” or “the Dreaming” or “the Madness”, and invariably, the characters that we’re supposed to like are accepted and rewarded by the larger consciousness, and the characters that we don’t like are rejected or driven mad by it.
Alan Moore was the trend-setter here, bringing a literary tone and adult themes to Swamp Thing, and establishing the core Vertigo style. In Moore’s Swamp Thing, the main character wasn’t just a hapless scientist who was turned into a muck-encrusted monstrosity; he was a plant elemental, the embodiment of Nature and a functioning biosphere. Swamp Thing became an eco-focused god, who handed out rewards and punishments. People who liked to hang out in swamps and smoke pot were connected to the Green, and people who dumped toxic waste were punished by it.
In a pivotal 1985 issue, Swamp Thing and Abigail confessed their feelings for each other, the payoff for a years-long romantic storyline. Understanding that as a plant, he couldn’t really offer Abby a lot in the physical department, he grew a psychoactive tuber for her to eat. What followed was a ten-page acid trip, where Abby’s consciousness merged with the pulse of life across the entire planet, expanding her awareness and connecting her with the Green in orgasmic ecstasy. It was both an on-camera sex scene and an extended acid trip, and Alan Moore got away with putting all of that into a comic book in the middle of the Reagan era because he was very clever.
The moralistic punishment/reward system became more explicit a few months later, in an issue focused on a hippie named Chester, who found one of Swamp Thing’s lysergic sweet potatoes, and gave pieces to a couple friends. The nice friend had a sweet “everything is made of light” trip, and the nasty friend had a terrifying vision of monsters that ended with him jumping into traffic.
At the end of the story, Chester mused, “Maybe that stuff just brings out what’s in a person already… This fruit… it’s like some kinda cosmic litmus paper, right? You eat it, an’ it tells you whether you’re a good person or a bad person.”
So there’s your subtext, if you want it. You had to be pretty direct in your comics in the mid-80s, to make sure kids understood that taking LSD was awesome.
And the interesting thing is that Alan Moore’s secular hippie Puritanism also applied to the afterlife. In another 1985 issue, Abby’s soul is ripped from her body, and Swamp Thing has to journey through Heaven and Hell to get it back. The entire issue is an exploration of Alan Moore’s fictional afterworld, and guess what, Heaven is a good trip and Hell is a bad trip. That makes three issues in a single year, advertising recreational drug use to children.
The key message is delivered by Etrigan, a friendly demon who spoke in rhyme:
Think you God built this place, wishing man ill
and not lusts uncontrolled or swords unsheathed?
Not God, my friend. The truth’s more hideous still:
these were carved by men while yet they breathed.
God is no parent or policeman grim
dispensing treats or punishments to all.
Each soul climbs or descends by his own whim.
He mourns, but He cannot prevent their fall.
We suffer as we choose. Nothing’s amiss,
all torments are deserved… none more than this.
So, again, people who have bad trips are bad people, filled with hang-ups and dark vibrations. And that doesn’t just apply to the drug experience — it animates the hidden rules of the universe, determining how a soul spends eternity.
This was a very appealing worldview in the mid-to-late 80s, when the rise of the conservative right-wing dominated both the United States (embodied by Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush) and the United Kingdom (the Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher). Secular hippies and atheists and artists and college students felt marginalized and powerless, unable to stop the advance of an agenda they saw as cruel and destructive.
Under those circumstances, the idea that there’s a higher form of justice that trumps civic law is immensely comforting, especially if that justice operates on feel-good karmic principles that give a moral thumbs-up to whatever you were planning to do anyway. Sodomy and recreational drug use are super fun and don’t hurt anybody, so even if the law says that they’re illegal, the moral force of the universe agrees you should go ahead and do it, because the people who disapprove are just squares with hang-ups.
Neil Gaiman extends this idea in a 1990 Sandman story, which is about Lucifer closing up Hell and letting all the damned souls free, because he’s tired of dealing with it and he’s a self-actualized 90s yuppie. In a lengthy rant, Lucifer explains that even the Devil believes in moral relativism:
They use my name, as if I spend my entire day sitting on their shoulders, forcing them to commit acts they would otherwise find repulsive. “The Devil made me do it.” I have never made one of them do anything. Never. They live their own tiny lives. I do not live their lives for them.
And then they die, and they come here (having transgressed against what they believed to be right), and expect us to fulfill their desire for pain and retribution. I don’t make them come here.
They belong to themselves. They just hate to have to face up to it.
A couple issues later, a likeable ghost character says, “I think Hell’s something you carry around with you. Not somewhere you go.” And in the ether of the yet-to-be-born, the spirit of Etsy pricks up its ears and says, hey, that would look awesome painted on a little plaque.
The reason that I’m going on about the moral philosophy of thirty-year-old comic books is that this progressive liberal graphic novel worldview basically became the way that I view the world. It’s silly to say this, but when I was in college and trying to figure out whether I was going to believe in God or not, one big chunk of evidence in favor of “not” was that I found Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman’s conception of Heaven and Hell more compelling than the Jewish version.
And since most of the people I know also have this worldview, especially the Jewish people, then that means the hippie LSD good trip/bad trip concept survived way past the drug scene and into mainstream culture, and we are all partaking, whether we realize it or not.
Meanwhile, back on Dark Shadows, we see the LSD worldview upheld by the I Ching and even by Petofi’s own Hand, which are both spiritual forces that report to a higher form of narrative justice.
When Barnabas dropped the I Ching acid, he got what he deserved — a trip back in time, where he could confront the evil that was threatening his family. Julia did the same — going through a shattering experience, but getting what she wanted out of it. Those are the good characters, more or less, and they’re rewarded with medium-to-good trips.
But Count Petofi is partaking without the proper mindset, and the I Ching slaps him down with a devastatingly bad trip, his worst fears springing to life. The cosmos is telling Petofi that he should probably stop messing around with the I Ching. Spoiler alert: he does not stop messing around with the I Ching. Chaos ensues.
Tomorrow: Graduation Day.
The comics that I’m referencing in this post are:
- Swamp Thing volume 2: Annual #2, and issues #24 and 43
- The Sandman #22, 23 and 25
Dark Shadows bloopers to watch out for:
After Petofi stares down the scimitar hand, the scene shifts back to the old mill, where we see the I Ching hexagram and then Julia’s face. You can hear some rustling sounds as Petofi hurries back to the mill set, and sits down at the table. A moment later, when Petofi says “Gypsy swine,” there’s another thump from the studio.
When Aristede fusses over Petofi, Julia says, “He’s in the deepest part of the trance.” A moment later, when Aristede demands to know how long this will last, she says, “He’s in the — he’s gone beyond the door.”
As we return to Petofi’s vision, the camera pulls out to reveal him standing in the gypsy tribunal waiting room. He’s staring directly at the camera, as per usual, but he’s not standing in his light, so his face is in silhouette. Possibly in response to this, the camera jiggles around for about five seconds before settling down.
When Beth hides from Aristede, there’s a hollow thunk sound from the studio.
There’s supposed to be a string tied to the doorknob, which pulls the trigger on the gun. But when Barnabas opens the door, activating the trap, he doesn’t find the string on the doorknob. The gun just fires, and then he walks into the room.
Behind the Scenes:
After we see Petofi strangling himself on the gypsy tribunal set, the scene fades back to the old mill, for a shot of Aristede and Julia looking on in horror. This shot lasts for a while, because Petofi has to run back to the mill set. While we’re waiting, somebody is making Petofi choking noises, so that we know what they’re staring at. It’s not Thayer David making those noises, so I wonder who it is.
Tomorrow: Graduation Day.
— Danny Horn