“It is difficult to rechannel my thoughts after three years of thinking about nothing but you.”
So it’s not the late 60s anymore, is what I’m saying, and eventually a show that’s as adamantly late 60s as Dark Shadows is going to run into trouble when it tries to outlive its environment.
As you know, the difference between the 1960s and the 1970s is that in the 70s, America discovered the concepts of responsibility and safety. In late 1969, the innocent flower children of Woodstock met the lawless, murderous Hells Angels of Altamont, and the good trip became a bad one, to our lasting disadvantage.
At that point, the American people decided that maybe giving their children exposed metal hot plates as toys wasn’t such a great idea, and maybe we should try wearing seat belts, and using child-proof caps, and not letting the Manson Family stay in the guest house. You know, the whole actions have consequences, gravity is real, sometimes people are assholes thing that ruins so many promising utopias.
We’re going to leave the show and go play outside today, because Dark Shadows always makes the most sense when you’re not watching it. Instead of today’s episode, we’re going to look at this week’s issue of Newsweek — dated April 20, 1970 — which features a final head-to-head cage match between Dark Shadows and its good twin, Sesame Street, as an influence on America’s youth.
Back in a November 1969 post, we talked about Sesame Street as an existential threat to Dark Shadows, especially in terms of its relationship with the young set, and six months later, we can see the results of this culture clash.
In 1968 and ’69, various licensees offered Dark Shadows merchandise aimed at middle-school kids — gum cards, board games, Halloween costumes, View-Master reels — even though the show is clearly not suitable for children, according to our enlightened post-1970 modern worldview.
Dark Shadows features black magic and werewolf attacks, stabbings and chokings and leaping off cliffs. The police are essentially nonexistent in Collinsport, a town where differences of opinion are settled through the medium of vampire bites. But kids loved the show, and the network responded to the juvenile interest in this macabre murder play by moving it to a later timeslot, so that middle schoolers could get their daily dose of vengeance and despair.
And then along comes Sesame Street, an educational show produced by the Children’s Television Workshop, a do-gooder organization bent on constructing a more healthy relationship between the children and the television. Dark Shadows didn’t actually injure the kids of 1969 in any noticeable way, but the Children’s Television Workshop isn’t satisfied with simply not harming children. They want to make a TV show that actively helps kids, making them better students and better people.
And Sesame Street’s rise coincides with Dark Shadows’ first big stumble. Sesame debuts in November 1969, just a week before vampire hero Barnabas Collins mysteriously turns against his family and friends, and starts working for a gang of murderous space octopi. The Leviathan storyline is definitely educational, but mostly in the area of how to make viewers not watch your show anymore.
So we find ourselves on page 102 of the latest Newsweek, where an article called “Sesame Opens Up” is the direct lead-in to another titled “Turned-on Vampire”. Right from the start, it’s not a super flattering comparison.
Here’s the first sentence of “Sesame Opens Up”:
Although Sesame Street has been on the air only six months, it is already apparent that the widely acclaimed program for preschool children is not only an interesting experiment in educational television but a rousing popular hit.
And here’s the opening for “Turned-on Vampire”:
When ABC’s Dark Shadows — television’s first and only gothic soap opera — made its debut in July 1966, the concept behind the program seemed bizarre in the extreme. A kind of loosely plotted Macbeth with fangs, featuring a cast of monsters, ghosts and aging neurotics ensconced in a haunted mansion, the show drifted along for almost a year with increasingly bleak ratings.
Which is hardly fair. I mean, the ratings started out pretty bleak in the first place.
Moving into the next paragraph in each article, the head-to-head comparison continues; it reads like Newsweek is deliberately drawing this contrast.
Sesame Street is the first public television venture of such vast appeal that commercial stations are running it regularly, too. Half of the nation’s 12 million pre-school children watch it, according to the Nielsen ratings. Housewives and teachers like it as much as the kids do. A Houston teacher reports that when a pupil’s mother turned off the program to chat with her, her kids “howled and screamed until she put it back on.”
Of course, there’s some howling going on at a nearby studio, too.
Each evening scores of teen-agers gather near ABC’s Manhattan studios in search of an autograph — and, in fantasy, perhaps even a bite — from their idol. And even though in recent episodes of Shadows Barnabas the vampire has been chained in a coffin offscreen, Frid continues to receive some 5,000 cards and letters a week from his fans.
Right, the fan mail. Everything that’s ever been written about Dark Shadows has to include the ritual counting of Jonathan Frid’s fan mail.
The estimates began in summer 1967 with 300 letters a week, jumping to 1,500 a year later, and skyrocketing to 6,000 letters a week by December 1968. The numbers have dropped slightly since then — 5,000 is typical, for articles written in early 1970 — but how many preschoolers are writing letters to Big Bird? Probably a lot, actually, now that I think of it, and guess which vampire taught me to count.
But the fan mail ritual always takes a dark turn, thanks to the handful of degenerates who ruin it for everyone.
His mail ranges from sub-teen and teeny-bopper reveries to unsettlingly passionate cries from outwardly normal housewives in their 20s. “Where you are concerned I have no pride,” one ardent 24-year-old woman wrote Frid. “It is difficult to rechannel my thoughts after three years of thinking about nothing but you. You are the only man I have ever loved. I wake up in the night crying, ‘Jon, I love you! I love you!'”
So, I mean, that’s hardly even fair. Nobody prints letters from Cookie Monster’s creepy stalkers. But that’s just one person, it doesn’t mean that all Dark Shadows fans think that way.
Frid’s proliferating fan mail, however, is only the mere tip of the Freudian iceberg.
A young student of black magic in Houston solemnly declares that Shadows is fascinating for “people who go in for the dark religions.” A Chicago dabbler in the occult believes many practitioners of witchcraft take the show seriously as “a watered-down version of the real truth.”
And John Carroll, an editor of the rock paper Rolling Stone, describes himself as “a Dark Shadows freak.” The show, says Carroll, “is incredibly bad. That’s why it’s so good. It has no redeeming social value.”
Okay, great. Thanks a lot, dabblers. Meanwhile, the howling and screaming Sesame viewers are doing just fine.
Remarkably, while the show is candy to children, it is as good for them as spinach. Evidence is piling up that it is an unusual educational tool. The program is a mixture of cartoon, film and videotape, and is broken up into short segments — each of which teaches letters or numbers, or encourages children to solve problems or classify things.
Over the next couple years, they’ll do studies that compare the progress between kids who watch Sesame Street and kids who don’t, and guess what, it works. Sesame Street actually is an educational tool, while Dark Shadows is a problem that America is in the process of solving.
Because this is the moment when America’s bemusement with Dark Shadows turns into a mild but genuine concern.
Many college students — and even a few professors — are also hooked on the Dark Shadows habit. Athough it’s no longer quite as “in” as it once was on campus — many students now dismiss the program as “teeny-bopper fantasy” — thousands of students still watch it fanatically, often after turning on with marijuana or drugs.
On the University of Chicago campus, one student reports: “I know five scag [heroin] freaks who watch it religiously. They shoot up in the afternoon to watch. The show’s supernatural, ugly vibes are just right for when you’re strung out on scag.”
Which, I mean. Honestly. All of a sudden we’re scag freaks.
But that’s the moment, right there, when America stops being amused and indulgent, and starts to get alarmed about this purportedly toxic television show. I’ve been reading contemporary magazine and newspaper articles about Dark Shadows as we’ve been going along, and as far as I can recall, this has never come up before. Nobody has ever mentioned drugs, even when the show was explicitly borrowing from psychedelia.
Here in April 1970, the Sesame Street devotees in Houston are howling and screaming for a fix, and nobody calls them addicts. But Dark Shadows viewers are “hooked on the habit” of watching a daytime television show that is honestly perfectly fine.
Worst of all, Jonathan Frid seems remarkably blithe about this trail of destruction that he leaves in his wake, once every weekday.
All this leaves the 45-year-old Frid a bit stunned but thoroughly pleased. “I’ll bite anything they want me to,” he said last week in his spacious apartment in a luxurious Manhattan high rise. “I know which side of the bread my butter’s on.”
Indeed, Frid has ample cause to be content with his lot. He and the show’s cast are now making a feature-length film for MGM. And the Dark Shadows craze has led to an incredible number of lucrative spinoffs, including an LP record album, twenty paperback novels, a cookbook, five comic books, assorted puzzles and games, and a collection of ghoulish Barnabas paraphernalia — costume jewelry, T-shirts, trading cards, wristwatches and even a grotesque pillow for teeny-boppers to dream their dreams on.
So hang on a second. Wristwatches? Who the hell made Dark Shadows wristwatches?
The answer is nobody, as it turns out; Sesame Street was the one that made wristwatches. But the point is that Dark Shadows is turning the nation’s youth into scag freaks, and they don’t even care, because look at all the money they’re making off the occult-dabblers and the outwardly normal housewives.
They mention that Barnabas is currently chained up in a coffin, but besides that, there’s not a single mention of any storyline or plot point. Dark Shadows appears to have no cast of any consequence, except the passing mention of monsters, ghouls and aging neurotics. There’s no engagement at all with the actual content of the show. But there’s an endless list of merchandise, real and imaginary, which pays the rent for Frid’s spacious apartment in his luxurious Manhattan high rise.
And frankly, even the monster himself doesn’t realize what he’s wreaking.
Frid is still unable to understand the phenomenon competely, but he does offer a few speculative explanations for the popularity of the phantom he plays. “Youngsters today are looking for a new morality,” he observes. “And so is Barnabas. He goes around telling people to be good, then suddenly sets out and bites somebody’s neck. He hates what he is and he’s in terrible agony. Just like the kids today, he’s confused — lost, screwed up, and searching for something.”
That’s the wicked spell that Dark Shadows casts over its impressionable audience, as of April 1970, and it’s a technique that’s going to start grating on the nation’s increasingly sober grown-ups. It turns out moral relativism doesn’t age well, once fantasy meets reality, and people would prefer that their screwed up children don’t look to the self-hating undead as a role model. If those kids are searching for something, then they might find it on the public TV channel a few notches down the dial. So, Mr. Frid, if you notice any more lost children, can you tell them how to get, how to get to Sesame Street?
Monday: Love Potion No. 9.
Speaking of Altamont and the end of the sixties, I just read an amazing new book called Altamont: The Rolling Stones, the Hells Angels, and the Inside Story of Rock’s Darkest Day. It’s got lots of newly-unearthed material on what led up to Altamont, what happened that day, and what happened to the survivors. It’s funny and sad and scary, and I recommend it very highly.
Dark Shadows bloopers to watch out for:
When Sabrina presses Cyrus for answers about the IOU, some studio lights are visible above.
Cyrus says, “Bruno, I cannot let anyone stay here, as long as I’m working on this experiment, including Sabrina! I have to be — for a while!”
The first time Cyrus drank the potion, it was just some red liquid in a beaker. This time, he adds dry ice to the red fluid, and it bubbles and foams up. Then there’s a close-up on Cyrus while they hand him a different beaker, which has much less liquid in it, and is the wrong shade of red.
When Cyrus feels the transformation pain, he bumps into a brick pillar, which moves. Also, I’m not sure anybody ever builds a brick pillar for inside the house.
Behind the Scenes:
After recording this episode, the Dark Shadows production paused for two weeks, to kill time while most of the cast is away filming House of Dark Shadows in Tarrytown. This episode was taped on March 31, and the next on April 13.
Monday: Love Potion No. 9.
— Danny Horn