“You seem to have a terrible effect on everyone but me.”
It always starts with a box.
In the red corner, breaking the chains that bind him and emerging once again from his family’s secret mausoleum to feast upon the juices of the living, we have returning champion Barnabas Collins.
And in the blue corner, with the purple satin drape over his glass cage, we have challenger Judah Zachery, a severed head who’d have a king-sized chip on his shoulder if he still had a shoulder.
This will be the final engagement that determines the ultimate fate of the Collins family — a mixed martial dark-arts battle royale between good and evil, or more accurately between somewhat evil and entirely evil.
It always starts with a box. Sometimes two boxes. It depends on how many boxes you have.
Now, you know that if there’s something I love in this world, it’s a mystery box, full of secrets and story progression. There’s all the coffins, naturally, each one stocked with vampires and enchantresses and dead children wearing pentagrams. There’s the strongbox containing Julia’s notes, which wasn’t strong enough to keep prying eyes away, and there’s the safe at Cyrus Longworth’s place, which is full of monster juice. There’s the boarded-up room in the west wing, and the dimensionally transcendent room in the east wing. There’s the Leviathan box, and the Petofi box, and the box where Erwin Schrödinger keeps his magical quantum cat.
But the most dangerous box of all is the one Desmond Collins totes home from the Far East, which breaks the world and kills the show.
“You’ve never seen anything like it in your life,” he promises, like a deranged conjurer. “Now, are you ready?” We are not.
Because it’s a head, a terrible severed head, packaged in a glass box so it can watch you recoil in horror. Pickled in time like gherkins in a jar, it is both spectacle and observer; it is the abyss also gazing into you. It’s nice, if you like severed heads, but it’s not for everyone.
But the most wondrous thing about this poisonous prop is that Desmond is both excited and entirely blase about it, at the same time.
Flora: Oh! Good lord, Desmond! Take that horrible thing out of here!
Desmond: Mother, it is completely harmless.
Flora: Oh, I’ll never believe that. There’s something evil about it! I can feel it, vibrating things!
Desmond: All right, all right! Well, you won’t have to see it any more anyway, because I am going to give it to Quentin. When I first found it, and I knew how he loved old relics, I said to myself, this is for Quentin. He was always fascinated by the occult. Mother, you don’t have to be scared anymore, it’s all covered up.
So that explains pretty much nothing, which is exactly what this object deserves. It is the ridiculous and the sublime, the thrillingly exotic and the completely harmless. Also, it vibrates things.
And that’s all the discussion it gets, for most of the episode; after this, Barnabas arrives at Collinwood — another fascinating old relic showing up at an inopportune time — and once again, the vampire gets all the attention.
So we’re left with the following head-related questions:
- Is that an actual head?
- Where does it come from?
- How did Desmond acquire it?
- What does he think it is?
- Why did he think his mother would be delighted by it?
- In what way is it “occult”?
- And most importantly: Who’s going to feed it, and take it for walks?
And Desmond thinks that this is an acceptable way to comport yourself, toting disembodied dudes around, and he honestly has no idea why Flora raises objections.
So it’s fantastic, and so far I am entirely in favor of it — a super weird mysterious new prop, presented to us out of the blue, with no apparent connection to anything else on the show. Technically, this is a repeat of a story element from the 1897 storyline — the legendary Hand of Count Petofi, brought to the house in its presentation box — but it’s surprising enough to feel brand new. Dark Shadows is once again staking out its territory as the craziest show on television.
We don’t see the head again until the end of the episode, after Desmond’s met Barnabas, who’s been introduced as another cousin from England. Last week, when Julia showed up in the wrong century, she told everybody that she was expecting to meet her brother Barnabas at Collinwood, and now Barnabas shows up at the house, telling everyone that he’s expecting to meet his sister Julia. This is a self-reinforcing alibi loop that Desmond is absolutely correct about not embracing.
“Why is it we never knew we had relatives in England?” Desmond wonders. It’s really getting to him. “Two strange people show up, claiming to be members of the family — two people who make quite an odd pair.”
Now, it’s absolutely one hundred percent true that Barnabas and Julia are a) not actually members of the family, b) from the wrong century, c) not brother and sister, d) not from England, and e) actual undead monsters who up until earlier this evening have been feeding on the fluids of a member of the extended family, so Desmond’s suspicions are entirely justified.
But — and this is why people shouldn’t bring home severed heads in display boxes from the Far East, let this be a lesson to you — you could just as easily say, “yeah, but you bring home severed heads in display boxes from the Far East,” and there he’d be, without a leg to stand on, unless there’s more body parts in the luggage that we don’t know about yet.
But dig the dialogue; this head conversation just gets more and more complex.
Flora: Desmond, why did you bring this horrible thing to Rose Cottage?
Desmond: I wish you would stop carrying on about this head. There is nothing frightening about it!
So, just, right there — I really am amazed at his attitude about this. As a member of the audience who’s taking an interest in the situation, I’m looking to Desmond for cues about what this thing is and how I should think about it. So far, the only information I have to go on is how the object looks, which is horrifying, but the only thing he’ll say about it is that it isn’t horrifying.
Flora: Oh, I’ll never believe that! I have instincts, and my instincts tell me that this hideous thing is disgusting, vile and evil!
Desmond: I can’t understand your carrying on.
You can’t? How is that possible? So this is starting to look like one of those Schrödinger practical joke type boxes which are both something and the opposite of something at the same time, until you open the box and it kills you.
Desmond: Now I want you to look at it, and see that it is absolutely a carved head of some kind!
Flora: Oh! I don’t want to be in the same room with it! Get it out of here!
So that’s just an amazing line — “Look at it, and see that it is absolutely a carved head of some kind!” I don’t know if it’s possible to work that into a conversation, but I’m going to give it a try, one of these days. What could it mean?
Flora runs off, with Desmond in hot pursuit,
and then the Head opens its eyes
and looks straight out of the television
directly into your face.
It’s phenomenal. And this isn’t even the real head, the one we’ve been looking at and discussing, because the head that Desmond’s talking about is in a well-lit room, while this shot is clearly somewhere utterly else. They don’t even try to pretend that these shots match up with each other, it’s just
sitting there in the dark
and then it does a little eye flare
as the camera pulls in for a close-up
and it is a Head that sees you
and hates you
So that’s amazing. And then Desmond spends the next three minutes covering the head and then uncovering it and then covering it again, which can’t be good for the head’s sleep cycle. I mean, it just got in from the Far East, it’s probably got jet lag.
The next contestant is old Ben Stokes, who stomps in and wants to know why Flora’s so upset, and Desmond says, “I didn’t expect to scare her, Ben. Why, all I did was show her this,” and then you can guess how it goes from there. Ben doesn’t like it either.
And once again, Desmond is astonished by the low approval ratings. “What is the matter with you, Ben?” he asks. “It’s just a reproduction of a head.”
Which is — I mean, that’s not a thing, is it? Do people ordinarily have reproductions of heads that they keep in glass containers scattered about the home?
So there’s only one explanation, which is that Desmond Collins is a hipster, and the head is the October 1840 equivalent of activated charcoal quinoa toast with a kombucha shot. The whole point of owning a head is acting like owning a head is no big deal.
Yes, it is a reproduction of a carving of a head, and yes, it is also an actual head. Yes, it opens its eyes when you’re not looking at it, and yes, it will murder you if you give it a hard time. All of these things are true, and all we can do is wait for the hipsters to get tired of heads in glass boxes, and start fixating on keeping goldfish in mason jars. That shouldn’t take too long; let’s meet back here in 1844, and see if it’s blown over yet.
Tomorrow: Why Are We the Way We Are.
Dark Shadows bloopers to watch out for:
When Barnabas and Ben begin their conversation in act 1, there’s footsteps and noise from the studio.
You can see the boom mic twice today, in the same place — when Ben brings Daniel into the drawing room in act 2, and when Barnabas finds Gerard in the drawing room at the beginning of act 4. They seem to be having problems with the approach into the drawing room lately…
Daniel still has his shoes on when Ben tucks him in bed.
As Ben finishes his letter, the shadow of a crew member is reflected in the glass on the Head’s box.
Behind the Scenes:
The Head’s theme used to be the opening theme from Dead of Night, Dan Curtis’ late ’68 pilot for ABC that tried to bring the Dark Shadows aesthetic to prime time, unsuccessfully. It was composed by Bob Cobert, same as all the other music you hear on Dark Shadows, but this piece is distinctive, with its weird blatters of brass instruments and other spooky type noisemakers. There’s a snatch of the theme at the very end of yesterday’s episode, with the full theme today, when Ben hassles the Head.
Tomorrow: Why Are We the Way We Are.
— Danny Horn