“I’m a monster! I have no choice but to kill!”
Megan is alone, on the display floor of her antique shop. Her husband left to buy cigarettes a few moments ago. The room is dim, and cluttered with scattered relics.
Megan is worried. Earlier today, she was suddenly overcome with the unshakeable feeling that someone is coming to kill her. She’s correct; somebody is actually coming to kill her. It’s been a weird day.
What follows is a five-minute solo spaz attack of epic proportions. When I was younger and less discerning, I thought of this as The Worst Scene In Dark Shadows. I’m not sure what I think about it now. I’m still trying to work that out.
Here’s the situation: Megan and Philip, the owners of an antique shop in Collinsport, have had their lives interrupted by the Leviathans, a time-traveling cosmic death cult that wants to bring about the destruction of all things. They’ve been chosen by the cult to raise a baby demon-god, and so far they’re not doing an amazing job. The baby is sick, and the ancient book of forbidden knowledge has been stolen. They have failed.
Or at least Megan has, is the view that Philip takes. He spent the whole day hiding behind the bookcase in the Old House, listening to a tape of Barnabas saying “there is no margin for error, punishment is necessary” on a constant loop. Now Philip’s convinced that Megan has committed an error, for which there is no margin.
Meanwhile, Megan’s day has been mostly running around and hyperventilating, trying to hide from an enemy that she’s not quite sure who it is. But she’s glad to have Philip home to protect her, and his plan to leave the shop for a few minutes fills her with a nameless dread.
He tells her, “Believe me, there is no menacing stranger lurking around here in the dark, who’s going to come and attack you,” and then he walks away. From the moment he leaves the screen, there’s a little over five minutes left in the episode, and absolutely nothing else happens.
We’re going to have to walk through this scene in some detail, so bear with me for a minute.
Megan begins the proceedings by drawing the shades and closing up the shop.
Then she sits down to knit; she appears to be making a green and black striped scarf that nobody will ever wear. She acknowledges the futility of it all, by letting out a frustrated whine almost immediately. She knots up the yarn and the needles, and tries to think of something else to do.
She rocks back and forth in her chair a few times, and then the clock strikes, startling her.
It has now been one minute since Philip left the scene.
She jumps up and looks at the clock, and then realizes that she’s still all tangled up in the knitting. She spends a moment yanking yarn and needles off of her, emitting more little frustrated squeals.
Once that’s over with, she decides to calm her frazzled nerves by going over the receipts. She sits on a stool and opens the ledger, and starts shuffling papers around in her hands.
At this point, there’s a loud squeak from offstage, which Megan doesn’t react to. This entire five-minute sequence is basically Megan jumping every time she hears a noise, except she only reacts to the diegetic noises. Inadvertent off-stage noises are ignored. Over the course of the scene, it gets progressively more difficult for the audience to tell the difference.
Then the shade over the door suddenly snaps back up, startling Megan. There’s going to be a lot of startling in the near future. She looks back at the window, relieved that it’s just a simple decor malfunction rather than an axe murderer or whatever she feels like she’s afraid of at the moment.
It’s now been two minutes since Philip left the scene.
She gets up to close the shade and lock the door. The stuffed pig weasel looms above her from a high shelf, the only actual source of menace in the scene right now. She ignores it, at her peril.
She hugs herself anxiously as she steps away from the door, and we hear somebody cough in the darkness. This is another noise that we’re not supposed to pay attention to.
She heads back to the stool for some more unconvincing paper-rattling, when she hears a loud thump which once again makes life insupportable for her.
The noise was caused by a picture frame falling to the ground. For some reason, they’ve decided to mount picture frames on their bannister, a fashion-forward design choice that she may have to rethink. She picks up the picture, and hangs it back on the stair post.
It’s now been three minutes since Philip left.
Walking back to her stool, the camera swings wide and shows the edge of the set, revealing a bunch of interesting things, including a stage light and a tree. The director quickly cuts to another camera, which is also showing a stage light on the other side of the set.
Arriving back in the middle of the room, Megan leans her elbow on something and plays with her lower lip for way longer than you’d expect her to.
Then she turns, slowly, to stare at a door that’s not doing anything in particular. Suddenly convinced that somebody’s hiding there, she opens the door to confront her tormentor. Nobody’s there.
Slamming the door, she drifts back to the center of the room, whimpering and fretting. Suddenly, she hears another door slam from upstairs.
She screeches, “Who’s UP THERE?” and then she turns around and starts to sob. They cut to a camera that can’t see her because there’s a stair post in the way, and they commit to that shot for five seconds.
Four minutes so far.
Now in full panic mode, Megan scrambles through the phone book and calls the apothecary. She asks if Philip’s still there, but she’s told that they haven’t seen him. She shouts, “But he just went there a few minutes ago to buy some cigarettes!” This doesn’t help.
Then there’s a huge CRASH from outside, which makes Megan shriek in terror. The camera cuts to the back wall, and pans from the deer head to the stuffed pig weasel, which is biding its time.
Finally, she turns and makes a surprise face as she hears somebody at the door…
And we close on a shot of our old friend slow doorknob, which turns back and forth as the music goes DUNN DUNN DUNNNNNNNN! and that’s the end of the episode.
So. Then. What are we supposed to make of that?
I mean, obviously, Worst Scene Ever. Right? A bad idea, badly staged, featuring an actress who has a hard time with nuance. It’s not scary, it’s a waste of time, it doesn’t pay off until tomorrow — and when it’s resolved the next day, it doesn’t make any sense.
In tomorrow’s episode, they do a three and a half minute reprise of that scene, but with an ending: Megan opens the door, and Philip lunges for her throat, furious with the desire to choke the life out of her.
Which — what?
I mean, I appreciate that this time, there’s an actual payoff, unlike Monday’s episode. Monday ended with Carolyn staring in horror at whoever’s coming in the door, which on Tuesday turned out to be Julia, who says hello, and then it’s a Carolyn/Julia scene.
This time, they actually deliver on the promise of something scary on the other side of the doorknob, but nothing that happens in the whole five-minute scene has anything to do with Philip. The window shade flaps up, the picture frame falls down. Upstairs doors squeak open and slam shut. These are ghost tricks. How would Philip have accomplished any of that?
Also, obviously, if he’s supposed to strangle Megan because there’s no margin for error and punishment is necessary, then why does he pretend to go out for cigarettes? Was he hoping that she’d spend the extra few minutes finishing the scarf?
So yeah, it seems like the only thing you can say is, Worst Scene Ever.
But I’m struggling to define an aesthetic framework of “good” and “bad” that would put this scene into the “bad” group, and leave the rest of Dark Shadows as “good”. This scene is so deeply Dark Shadows-y that it poses a challenge for how you think about the show as a whole.
Because this is more or less what the Leviathan storyline is like. Gloomy, half-hearted, trying to build a growing sense of unease, and landing instead on Halloween haunted-house spooky. So if I casually throw around the phrase Worst Scene Ever, then that potentially means that the Leviathan story is the Worst Storyline Ever. Which it may actually be, but if so then I don’t want to do that in passing.
That’s an important critique, with the potential to reverberate back and forth along the 50-year history of Dark Shadows, creating structural vibrations that could lead to a dynamic instability, like the aeroelastic flutter that took down the Tacoma Narrows Bridge.
The confounding thing is that my core framework for “good” and “bad” is: surprising is good, and boring is bad. For example, the Dream Curse storyline was bad, because it took a dream sequence — a Dark Shadows feature that’s usually surprising and fun — and turned it boring, through constant repetition and recap. It drained the dream sequence of all meaning, until it didn’t matter which character was dreaming. So it’s easy to say that the Dream Curse was a terrible storyline; it made an interesting Dark Shadows thing into a boring non-Dark Shadows thing. You can identify that as “bad”, with no negative impact on the show as a whole.
But this scene is not actually boring, in that sense. We’re watching an unstable woman in fear for her life trying to attend to the bookkeeping, while her environment plays “I’m not touching you” games. I don’t think there’s any other examples of this genre. Looking at Megan, running an agitated hand through her agitated hair as she yelps and whimpers and rattles the pages is not boring. It’s bonkers.
But the bonkersness of it all disrupts the purpose of the scene, which is to create “atmosphere”. If you wanted to construct a redemptive reading of this scene — a way to claim that this is actually a good sequence — then “atmosphere” would be one of the first words out of your mouth.
Atmosphere means that they’re trying to generate a particular feeling in the minds and hearts and central nervous systems of the audience. We should be going on an emotional journey with Megan, from mild anxiety to full-blown terror, and we should feel that way even if the actual content of the scene wouldn’t generate that feeling on its own.
For example: a character walks down a long, empty hallway in a slasher movie. She’s looking for something, and she has to open various doors. She doesn’t realize that there’s a killer lurking in the shadows somewhere; she just thinks this is an ordinary day, and she wants to find whatever she’s looking for.
But we know that this character is in danger, because the movie is giving us televisual clues — music and lighting and camera angles, and eerie pauses at significant moments. That’s atmosphere.
And that difficult-to-define feeling of escalating unease makes us identify with the character. Your heart starts beating faster, knowing that she’s in danger, and it makes us feel like we’re in danger, too.
That is not how we feel about Megan Todd. She is not an audience identification character. She’s been broadcasting alarms on all frequencies for the entire time that we’ve known her. She transitions from calm and pleasant to absolute scrambling panic and back again in almost every episode, with no apparent stimulus. We can’t feel what Megan feels, because we don’t know what’s setting her off, and because she is ridiculous.
So the difficult question is: If this is “atmosphere,” then does this scene mean that Dark Shadows’ way of generating “atmosphere” doesn’t work?
Megan is jumping at every little squeak and bang, because the scary thing could come from anywhere. The threat might emerge from upstairs, or under the table, or around the corner; even the flapping shade is a possible attack vector.
But when the actual attack comes, they signal it with a slow doorknob, and then you have to wait until tomorrow. Not only is this not “getting attacked with no warning,” it’s the most warning anyone has ever received. We could see this one coming 23 and a half hours in advance.
So the show is not actually doing the thing that it’s pretending to be trying to do, and the real concern is whether the housewives and middle schoolers sitting at home are going to lose patience with Megan, and turn off the set. There is no margin for error. Punishment is necessary. Come back tomorrow for the unsatisfying conclusion.
Tomorrow: Executive Child.
Dark Shadows bloopers to watch out for:
In the teaser, David slightly misquotes the poem: “The water shall nourish each grain of sand, wedged between the sacred ancient stones.” It’s supposed to be “wedged between ancient sacred stones.” Not that it matters.
At the top of act 1, Chris has a hard time opening the cottage door for Carolyn.
The boom mic peeks into view during Carolyn and Chris’ conversation, when he turns to grab the mantelpiece.
As the act break for act 1, Chris picks up a gun — but they cut to the wrong camera, and the audience only gets the vaguest glimpse of a gun. It’s mostly just a shot of Chris’ face and then an unexplained dramatic sting.
Something’s wrong with one of the cameras; there’s a horizontal green stripe across the middle of the screen that appears intermittently.
When Chris reaches for the gun on the mantelpiece, something clatters as it falls to the ground.
There’s another boom mic at top left when Crazy Jenny tells Chris that he mustn’t die.
Megan jumps when the clock strikes nine, but that clock always says nine — it doesn’t work, so it shouldn’t strike the hour. I guess it’s true, a broken clock is right twice a day.
When the credits begin, you can see a stagehand pouring a bucket of dry ice into the smoking urn.
Behind the Scenes:
In yesterday’s episode, Julia asked David to deliver a note that she’d written to Barnabas, on canary-yellow stationery. Today, Chris writes a note to Carolyn on the same stationery. We’ll see it tomorrow, too.
Tomorrow: Executive Child.
— Danny Horn