“Mr. Collins called them astral disturbances. They’re very difficult to describe in words.”
Yes, of course they’d repealed the Witchcraft Act by 1840; don’t be ridiculous. I know that Judge Lang said last week that the former royal colony of Massachusetts was still somehow bound by make-believe British law, and in accordance with the imaginary “Law 119”, dated 23 April 1696, a citizen can be charged with witchcraft if there are depositions from six citizens naming the perpetrator of said evil, but Judge Lang also thinks it’s a good idea to sew parts of dead people together. The man’s an ass.
The truth is, the English stopped prosecuting witches in 1717. The English Witchcraft Act of 1604 was repealed by Parliament in 1735, giving a clear signal that you can collect as many depositions as you like, but if you want to get rid of an unwanted governess then you just need to go ahead and fire her.
In an overdue burst of rationality, the Witchcraft Act of 1735 said that witches weren’t a problem in society; the problem was all the non-witch people who claimed to be witches in order to further their career development. According to this law,
“If any Person shall pretend to exercise or use any kind of Witchcraft, Sorcery, Inchantment, or Conjuration, or undertake to tell Fortunes, or pretend, from his or her Skill or Knowledge in any occult or crafty Science, to discover where or in what manner any Goods or Chattels, supposed to have been stolen or lost, may be found, every Person, so offending, shall, for every such Offence, suffer Imprisonment by the Space of one whole Year without Bail or Mainprize, and once in every Quarter of the said Year, in some Market Town of the proper County, upon the Market Day, there stand openly on the Pillory by the Space of One Hour.”
The 1735 law was then repealed by the Fraudulent Mediums Act of 1951, which made an exception for “anything done solely for the purpose of entertainment.” This was good news for Lara Parker, who pretended to exercise witchcraft quite a bit and otherwise would have wasted a lot of hours standing openly on the pillory.
But it’s wealthy landowner and recent pop icon Quentin Collins on trial today, accused of several plot-related torts and malfeasances. Over the last few weeks, he’s been discovered kneeling over the freshly-killed corpses of two different murder victims, but those charges have been dismissed, because nobody really liked those people anyway. Instead, Quentin’s been charged with messing around with the occult, which if it was a crime would empty out Collinwood within a matter of days.
But the point of a witch trial story is to demonstrate how public anxiety and petty personal ambition can subvert the rule of law, twisting the institutions of civic society to persecute the innocent in the name of justice. Of course, this being Dark Shadows, there’s no such thing as innocent; it’s more a question of which undead psychopath you’ve chosen to align yourself with.
In this case, there are some spots in Quentin’s track record that would give even a rational jury pause. For one thing, he’s erected a mysterious Staircase Into Time in his basement workshop, which is neither mad science nor magic, but somehow allows people to successfully travel from one century to another, except for Quentin himself, because he’s never bothered to try it out. He wears an enormous ugly ring with the X-Men logo on it and refuses to take it off, even in prison, where I didn’t know that you got to keep your accessories. He also humiliated his wife by writing poignant movie soundtracks with his mistress, who he then abandoned and drove to suicide, and now he’s taken up with the dead woman’s sister, who he’s brought into the house to hang out with his fifteen-year-old son, toying with a loaded revolver that she carries around in case she wants to murder somebody.
Still, that’s pretty innocent for this deranged storyline. The real villain in this story is the person who sailed to Macau to purchase the preserved head of an ancient warlock and then brought it home in a glass case to display on his mantel, so that the long-dead sorceror could give him instructions through his dreams to murder an old man and unearth a hidden tomb to release a giant monster. That’s the guy who’s really to blame for all of the tragedy and despair that will haunt the Collins family for the next hundred and thirty years. That person isn’t Quentin, of course; it’s his defense attorney.
“Am I to believe,” says Desmond Collins, rising to his feet to lodge an unspoken objection, “that the court can accept this kind of hysterical testimony?” It turns out that it can; in fact, that’s the whole idea. Quentin’s hysterical wife Samantha has dressed up and come all the way downtown to testify against him, and she insists that Quentin has communicated with the dead, and invited an alien spirit into their house. This happens to be perfectly true, so I don’t quite understand the outrage. Everyone in this courtroom agrees that their world is populated with the unresting dead, because it is, and it’s too late to switch genres now.
Samantha goes on to say that Quentin’s new mistress has seen the ghost, which is also true, so Desmond objects again. “If it is a fact that Collinwood is haunted,” he says, marching up to the judges sitting in the reviewing stand, “it has nothing to do with the charge against the defendant!” It absolutely does. This may be the world’s first entirely justified witch trial.
Heroic prosecutor Charles Dawson pulls a slim book out of his magic bag of lawyer tricks, and Samantha identifies it as her husband’s diary, which has made its way into Dawson’s possession somehow and is entirely admissable.
“Your honor,” he announces, brandishing the book, “the state intends to show that the spirit of which Mrs. Collins has made reference appeared at Collinwood in response to a summons made by Quentin Collins and Daphne Harridge.” Then he hands the private journal to the witness, and says, “I invite you to read the pertinent passage to the court, Mrs. Collins.”
It turns out the passage is unbelievably pertinent. “Last night, I held a seance with Daphne,” she reads. “We were desperate to contact Joanna’s spirit. She did appear to us, but only for a fleeting second. I must keep trying; I must find a way to communicate with her.” Which is pretty much a slam-dunk for the prosecution.
Desmond leans over to ask the accused, “Did you write that?” Quentin closes his eyes, and looks down. Dear God, you’re an idiot, Desmond says, but not out loud.
“Your honor, I offer this as Exhibit A in the state’s case against Quentin Collins,” Dawson announces, and hands someone else’s property directly to the judge, who immediately opens it, and then there’s an amusing little bit of background judge acting with the main judge leafing through the pages, as the judge sitting next to him cranes his neck to see if there are any other good parts.
Samantha continues to testify, and Dawson asks her to clarify if the spirit that she saw was the one that Quentin Collins conjured up. That’s the breaking point for Desmond, who rises to object once again.
“I obect to the phrase ‘conjured up’!” Desmond cries, and the judge bangs his gavel.
“Objection sustained!” the judge rules. “Counsel’s statement shall be stricken.” There is no further information about why this phrase is any worse than anything else anybody’s said in the last three minutes.
Then there’s an amazing moment of martial-arts courtroom pwning that has to be seen to be believed.
“I have no further questions for Mrs. Collins, your honor,” Dawson says, and turns away from the witness.
As Dawson strolls toward the bench, Desmond gets up to begin his cross-examination. “Mrs. Collins –” he opens, and then Dawson interrupts, “However, before the counsel cross-examines the witness, I would ask the court’s permission to call Miss Daphne Harridge to the witness stand.”
Naturally, Desmond lodges another objection, saying that he has the right to cross-examine Samantha, and Dawson speaks in a soothing tone. “I’m not challenging your rights, Mr. Collins,” he coos. “You’ll be given a chance to cross-examine the witness.” This is upheld by the legal system.
“I wish to remind you, Mr. Collins,” says the judge, “once more, that the ordinary procedures of the court are not operative in this trial.” You can say that again.
So that’s where we are, jurisprudence-wise: a world where drama is more important than reason, as it should be. Dismissing Samantha and calling Daphne gives us a delicious moment of soap-opera snubbing as they pass, a distaff counterpoint to the boys’ legal tussle. This is what it’s all about, anyway, the public denunciation of everyone’s shameful secrets. This is why Nabisco paid money to tell us all about Shredded Wheat in the interludes between these insane shouting matches. Nabisco doesn’t care about historical accuracy in daytime television witch trials. Why would they?
Then there’s the blocking for Daphne’s testimony, which takes us to a whole new level of imaginary courtroom stagecraft. Dawson starts out demonstrating typical Dark Shadows lawyer form, snatching the occasional peek at the teleprompter as he establishes that having the seance was Quentin’s idea, and that the spirit of Joanna Mills appeared to them.
And then we’re on the move, as Dawson takes a couple steps around the witness stand, heading south. “Tell me, Miss Harridge,” he begins, as he walks off into the unknown.
He comes to rest directly behind her, forcing her to turn around and face away from the judges. “Why were you willing to participate in this seance?” he asks.
“Because Mr. Collins asked me to as a favor,” she says as she crosses her arms, a gesture utterly lost to anyone else in the courtroom.
And then Dawson sneers, “Yes, but why you in particular?” as he points a finger directly into her face.
And all is forgiven, really, for the sake of this shot. Pulling Samantha off the witness stand mid-testimony, circling the witness like a barracuda, and all of the many objections, legal and narrative, to every single thing happening on this courtroom set today. The purpose of this television show is to arrange actors on the screen in interesting patterns, possibly including werewolves, and when they do so, then it’s Dark Shadows done correctly. I have no further questions.
And then they bring Samantha back on for a cross-exam, and Hell’s foundations quiver. Desmond’s legal strategy involves casting doubt on the idea that ghosts exist, which I believe we already established that they do, two minutes ago, so I’m not sure where he’s going with this.
Desmond: You have alleged that you saw spirits of the dead —
Samantha: It wasn’t an allegation, it was a fact.
Desmond: Can you describe these, uh, “ghosts” you claim to have seen?
Samantha: Yes, I can. This ghost was a woman.
Desmond: And what was she wearing, and what did she look like?
Samantha: She was young, and she was wearing a cape.
Desmond: Precisely where did you see her?
Samantha: In the drawing room, at Collinwood.
Desmond: And how did you know she was a ghost? Did she speak to you, or have you seen many ghosts in your life?
Dawson pipes up with an objection, and the judge offers a resigned moan of “sustained”, but nothing stops the runaway train.
Samantha: I knew it was a ghost because she disappeared before my very eyes!
Desmond: Did she say anything to you before she disappeared?
Samantha: No, she didn’t say anything!
Desmond: In other words, she just appeared, and then disappeared!
Desmond: Then why do you insist on putting this at the head with Quentin Collins?
I don’t really know what that last line is supposed to mean, but it rates another objection, which is sustained, to no effect. Desmond makes four statements in this sequence that result in objections, and those objections are sustained each time, and it has no consequence to the scene except to raise the volume. By the fourth time, Samantha interrupts her lawyer in the middle of objecting to scream, “I’ll answer the question. No, I do not love my husband!” It’s pandemonium.
“Anybody can hold a seance, your honor!” shouts Desmond Collins, the best legal mind of his generation. “Anyone can try to communicate with the dead! That does not constitute witchcraft!”
So once again, we see that Dark Shadows is in tune with the times, speaking out on the great social issues of the day. Desmond is standing up for the right of all Americans to talk to the dead anytime we want to. This is what I want from Dark Shadows, this anger and energy and disregard for basic common sense. Objections overruled!
Tomorrow: The English Way of Death.
Dark Shadows bloopers to watch out for:
Desmond objects, “I have every wight — right to question this witness now, before you call another.”
As Samantha did on Friday, Daphne places her right hand on the Bible to swear in. You’re supposed to put your left hand on the Bible, and hold up your right hand.
Dawson begins questioning Daphne: “Do you — uh, did you in fact take part in the seance which she mentioned?”
Dawson objects: “Objection! Counsel is leading the… witness.”
Desmond asks Samantha, “In other words, she just appeared, and then disappeared.” Samantha answers, “Exactly!” Desmond continues, “Then why do you insist on putting this at the head with Quentin Collins?”
Desmond says, “I must insist that we adhere to this charge, and Samantha’s Collins’ testimony has nothing to do with this charge!”
When Samantha tells Quentin, “Your paramour has been discharged,” it’s followed by three overlapping music cues.
During the credits, a shadow crosses the set twice.
Tomorrow: The English Way of Death.
— Danny Horn