“You’ve had too many victims! It’s over for you!”
Morgan Collins, the self-proclaimed god-emperor of the great estate at Collinwood, has learned that his emotionally explosive wife, who he had always feared was cheating on him with his cousin, was actually cheating on him with his cousin, to the extent that she is currently pregnant with her lover’s child.
Driven mad by this betrayal, in addition to the general background madness of being a Collins in the first place, Morgan has locked up Barnabas and Angelique in the cursed room that plagues this parallel hell. Everyone who spends a night in that room either dies or goes insane, at the pleasure of an angry ancestor who’s determined to spoil everyone’s fun. So far, the trapped lovers have been alternately possessed and throttled, but the evil wizard running the no-escape room hasn’t gone in for the kill.
As dawn approaches, Morgan strides down the hall towards the sealed portal, with a six-shooter in his hand. When he opens the door, if he finds that the couple has managed to survive the night, then he’s just going to shoot them, and take his revenge the old-fashioned way.
So I’ve got some hard news for Morgan this morning: opening that door is not going to benefit you in any way. Letting Barnabas out of a box is what got us into this mess in the first place.
At least, that was the start of this story for me, as a sixth grader on a spring afternoon in 1982. This was the image that caught my attention in TV Guide, this silly-but-haunting picture of a man unleashing something on the world that we didn’t expect, and had never seen before.
The image is black and white and grainy, because this is a screenshot, rather than a publicity photo like all the other ads in TV Guide. The Dark Shadows production team didn’t take a special photo of this moment, because at the time, they didn’t know how important it was. So to my sixth-grade eyes, this ad felt like something that was set apart from regular television, a glimpse into another world.
The ad copy had something of a mixed message. It makes the show sound scary — Barnabas “preys upon the innocent victims of Collinsport” in”the eerie world of Dark Shadows“, featuring “Gothic suspense and intrigue.”
But it also makes it clear that the show is funny, calling it “biting satire in a different vein,” and that’s probably what caught my eye at the time. By sixth grade, I’d been watching The Muppet Show for years and I’d recently started watching Monty Python, so I knew that “satire” was something that I loved. But that’s not a great description of the show, and looking back at it, it feels like this ad was specifically tuned to what I needed to hear.
Young Danny, give this a try, WNBC said, beckoning to me. It’s slow and weird, and you’re not going to understand what the characters are talking about for the first few weeks — nobody told me that this was actually ten months into the show — but at some point, this is going to be funny, and you’re going to love it. And it was, and I did.
And here we are, more than a thousand episodes later, and the show still beckons successfully. They’re calling me back for one last afternoon together, and if they’re not planning to provide the biting satire today, then I suppose it’s up to me.
Today is Friday, April 2nd, 2021 — exactly 50 years since ABC broadcast the final episode of Dark Shadows — and now it’s my job to wrap all this up in a box and file it away in the secret records room, with all of my secret records. But mystery boxes don’t close easily; that’s one of the main things about them. You open up a mystery box, and those consequences are yours to keep.
That’s why we’re here on the last day of Dark Shadows, ending the series in a dank underground mausoleum, with eccentric millionaire Barnabas Collins locked in a romantic clinch with his ex-wife, the evil sorceress and soap vixen Angelique, flanked by two carcasses from the seventeenth century, rather than what this should have been, according to the original plan: governess Victoria Winters and her faithful husband Burke, finally unlocking the mystery of where she came from, and who she has become. Opening a mystery box is funny that way.
And yes, obviously, this is Barnabas and Angelique; we didn’t buy that “Bramwell and Catherine” charade for a second. They didn’t drag us all the way down here to the secret records room to celebrate the happiness of a pair of hypothetical parallel descendants. If these characters were played by any other actors than Jonathan Frid and Lara Parker, it would be the most disappointing series finale of all time, rather than what it is, which is maybe the fourth most disappointing.
Dark Shadows began with Barnabas’ hand reaching up out of that coffin to grab our throats and get our attention — at least, it started that way for me, and for most of the people who have ever watched the show — so it has to end here, with Barnabas eagerly embracing the woman who has caused the most suffering to his family and community.
One thing that we ought to get straight is that this is not the optimal outcome, for anyone. Barnabas and Angelique are the most self-centered, reckless and fundamentally toxic people that this fictional world has ever seen. By my calculations,* Barnabas and Angelique have murdered at least 36 people, including each other. If they’re united now, that means that their destructive tendencies will be directed outward, towards everyone else. Barnabas and Angelique ending up together isn’t a happy ending, it’s a crisis.
So this is the way the world ends: not with a bang, but a rooster. Barnabas and Angelique can tell that it’s nearly dawn somehow, down here among the dead men, in a secret basement crypt that nobody at Collinwood even knew was here until a couple weeks ago. The unresting spirit of Brutus Collins has apparently been tormenting these two sporadically throughout the evening, although they don’t mention if it got any more interesting than the weak-sauce torments that we witnessed in the previous episode.
What we saw yesterday was Angelique suddenly saying that she’s Amanda and trying to stab herself, and then Barnabas staggering around pretending that he’s choking, and in each case, the antidote was for the other person to say, No, [insert name]! You must fight him! Fight him! and then the sufferer would fight him, and the feeling would pass. That’s going to happen again over the next few minutes, with the same results, which makes me wonder how Brutus ever managed to murder any of the previous contestants. Did it not occur to any of them to fight him? That would have been the first thing I tried.
But Barnabas is convinced that they’ve managed to survive against the most desperate odds, because their love is so strong that it can defeat momentary lapses in concentration. I agree that they’re into each other, and they certainly love themselves more than anybody else does, but this has hardly been the epic battle that they’re currently congratulating themselves over. There wasn’t even a spelling test. Brutus Collins has had a hundred and sixty years to come up with immunity challenges, and it appears that he came up with two and then got distracted.
Gazing adoringly into his beloved’s eyes, Barnabas says, “I have money now. We will leave here. We will not harm anyone by doing that. It would be far worse for Morgan, if you were to stay here and play out the mockery of your marriage.”
The spectral laughter of their chromakey adversary echoes through the chamber. “Plans!” Brutus chuckles. “Plans!” So yeah, that tracks. For Brutus, “I’m rich now, let’s go somewhere and be rich people” is a carefully constructed roadmap. This is a guy who took the corpses of the two people that he hated most, injected them with some kind of occult cryogenic juice concentrate, and left them lying out in the open in the middle of his secret lair, so that he could spend eternity glaring at them and thinking about what jerks they were. How different life would be for these people, if he’d known that going somewhere and coasting on privilege was an option.
And then the saddest thing in the world happens.
“Amanda…” Brutus pleads, “Come to me! Forgive me! That is all I want, your forgiveness!”
Momentarily carried away with the cosplay, Angelique smiles and says, “You still love me, Brutus?”
“I have never stopped loving you!” Brutus declares. “Come to me! We shall share eternity…”
So I don’t know what to do with that level of mess. Is that actually what this has been about, all this time? It appears that Brutus wants to share eternity with the woman who’s lying on a slab literally three steps from where he’s standing, because he installed her there, for eternity. That’s why he’s been tormenting his own descendants for a century and a half. Honestly, sometimes I think I will never understand white people.
There’s another moment of half-hearted choking from Barnabas, and then they hear the triumphant crow of Convenient Rooster, broadcasting all the way underground to this windowless chamber that is not specifically close to a farm.
“I will never come to you, Brutus!” cries Angelique. “We will bury these bodies in holy ground, and Amanda will at last have peace. Now go, Brutus, before someone drops a house on you too!”
“You’ve won!” Brutus wails, as he melts away. “What a world, what a world! Who would have thought a good little girl like you could destroy my beautiful wickedness…”
Relieved, the happy couple embrace, although now they have to go and find some holy ground and bury those dusty mannequins. It serves her right, for shooting her mouth off like that.
Speaking of shooting, Morgan’s upstairs at the entrance portal, just waiting for these two to emerge. This means six more weeks of winter.
“So you have ended the curse, Bramwell,” says the gun-wielding goon, “and I guess you want some sort of gratitude from everyone. Well, you’re not going to get it — or her!”
Without further delay, Morgan pulls the trigger and nails Barnabas in the left shoulder, in the same place that he shot him a month ago, in their duel. Melanie and Kendrick were recently wounded in the shoulder, too; it’s been a bad month for shoulders.
After that, everybody still acts like Morgan has another round in the chamber, although with that kind of gun you’d need to reload the primer and gunpowder before taking another shot, and by that time, everyone else could run and get their own murder weapons from the community chest. Still, it’s drama, I suppose, and you can’t deflate two villains in a row just by shutting your eyes and hoping.
So Morgan was the curse, after all, just as we suspected. On the whole, soap operas are supposed to be interloper-friendly environments, because they’re designed to run forever, and if you’ve got a strong love triangle situation, then you try to keep that going for as long as you can keep the audience’s attention. But Morgan has interloped at just the wrong time, when inspiration failed, and everyone on the show was sick of figuring out new things to do.
The day is saved by Julia Hoffman and Willie Loomis, who come running with the rest of their woodland friends, but who are they saving it for? We didn’t ask for an ending like this, so far removed from the show as we loved it. There’s a few more minutes of shouting and secret panels, but the thing that we really want — to go back somehow, to the afternoons that we loved — that isn’t an option anymore.
They say that every ending is a new beginning, but you know how I feel about “They“, and their advice. Sometimes an ending is just an ending. You run home from school, and the thing you’re running home for isn’t there anymore. Now you’re just running.
Plans, plans… what does Morgan think that he’s doing, anyway? How does this end, for him? He shoots his rival, and then he climbs up onto the roof, to hurl the woman that he loves over the edge, to a messy death on the rocks below. And then what?
So I have a theory about time.
When we lose someone or something that we love, it feels like they’re gone forever, like everything that you had and did can crumble into ash, leaving nothing behind.
But time is kind. Time seals up your happiest moments, and protects them. It’s all there, somewhere, preserved by time, and kept safe forever.
It happened. The beautiful and unlikely things that you did, that brought you joy and purpose — as long as it happened once, then it will always have happened. Even if someone wanted to take it away from you, even if they tried, they can’t touch it. This is now a universe where that happened, and there’s nothing that anyone can do about it. It can’t be destroyed. It just needs to happen once.
People think that time is their enemy, that each tick of the clock takes them closer to defeat and grief and the heat death of the universe. It’s not true. Time is the kindest thing that we know.
“Everything will be different,” Melanie says, cured of her madness and heading toward the door. “You’ll see.” And she’s right. Everything is always different, especially on this show.
“Yes,” Flora allows. “But it’ll never be the same. Without Justin… without Gabriel… with Morgan as he is. And I will go on remembering, for the rest of my life, and wishing things were different. Brutus Collins had his curious revenge.”
“Tell me, mother,” Melanie urges. “Tell me everything that has happened.”
Well, it’s hard to imagine telling Melanie everything; it’s six hundred hours long, plus the fanzines and audio dramas. We can go back and play it all again, and remember how it felt, but it’s not the same. It was all about surprise, about opening the mystery box and not knowing what kind of crazy would emerge. It belongs to other people, now.
So we find ourselves here, up on the roof, dangling over the precipice for the final time, concluding the high-wire act that we volunteered for, so many years ago. The curse is broken, and everything is different, and pretty soon we won’t have to look at Morgan anymore.
“If we have turned you into the person that you are now, I’m sorry,” Barnabas shouts into the wind. “We’ve all made many mistakes, we cannot make any more! Let us go in peace!”
And yes, of course they turned us into the person that we are now. At least, they did for me, and there is no need to apologize.
For the first and last time, Dark Shadows will indulge in the sentimental, ending the show with the villain vanquished and two couples united. They hint for a moment that the horror show will go on, with the last-minute twist of an unexpected vampire bite, but then they back off, with an unconvincing logical explanation and a promise that all will be well.
That’s not the real ending, of course. Yes, the mystery box is sealed up once more, but that’s just so that we can hand it on to the next person, like the sixth-grader in 1982 who has no idea what’s going to happen next.
Barnabas Collins steps out of ABC Studio 16 and into the future, as he does in this picture: triumphant, unapologetic, and eager, as always, to scare more children.
Thank you so much for reading this blog. I can’t tell you how much it means to me that you have accompanied me on this insane journey, and allowed me to accompany you on your own journey through Dark Shadows.
I’m going to save some final words for the Zoom party tonight, and then I’ll post more here for everyone who can’t make it.
But I want to tell everyone that yes, I’m done writing about Dark Shadows, but I’m not done with writing by a long shot. There will be a next big project that I’ve been thinking about for the last couple of years, and I’m really excited to get started on it.
The new project won’t be related to Dark Shadows at all, but if you like this blog, then you will like the next one. It’s about the history of another slice of popular culture — how it started, how it evolved, and where it went, traveling forwards through time with lots of side trips and surprises. It’ll be a similar structure and feel to this blog; I’ll be taking all of the things that I’ve learned here, and that’s the starting point for the new project, with a story that’s bigger and more ambitious.
I’m planning to start publishing new blog posts in the fall; there’s a lot to do, before I’m ready to launch the new project. When it starts, I’ll post an announcement here on the blog, and on the Facebook and Twitter accounts, so stay subscribed or just check back in fall 2021.
I’ll see many of you at the party tonight. I love you, and thank you.
Dark Shadows bloopers to watch out for:
Morgan shouts “Brutus!” before the ghost appears.
Bramwell shouts at Brutus, “No, you’ve destroyed too often!”
When Brutus’ ghost disappears for the last time, there’s a movement on the right side of the screen — the stagehand giving Bramwell and Catherine their cue to react.
When Kendrick embraces Melanie, some of her hair sticks to his lips. He turns it into a cute moment, touching and kissing the lock of hair.
On the roof, Morgan goes to the door to shout for Bramwell. When Catherine rushes over, the wall shakes.
When Morgan goes over the balcony, a studio light is visible at the top of the screen.
Julia tells Flora that she should be grateful to Bramwell and Catherine: “If they hadn’t — if they hadn’t broken the curse, none of this would have happened.” What?
In act 4, panning down from the foyer clock, the boom mic makes one last unscheduled appearance.
As the camera focuses on Barnabas’ portrait for the final narration, you can hear footsteps in the studio.
This is my calculation of the number of people that Barnabas and Angelique have killed on the show, including the Parallel Time Angelique.
Barnabas: Jason McGuire, Dave Woodard, Jeremiah Collins, Angelique Collins, Ruby Tate, Suki Forbes, Maude Browning, Abigail Collins, Reverend Trask, Nathan Forbes, Crystal Cabot, Dirk Wilkins, Sophie Baker, Carl Collins, Istvan, Audrey, Megan Todd, Sky Rumson, Cyrus Longworth, 1995 sheriff, Unnamed woman in 1840, Lamar Trask.
Angelique: Barnabas Collins, Sarah Collins, Naomi Collins, Josette DuPres, Bathia Mapes, Dr. Eric Lang, Tom Jennings, Roxanne Drew, Charles Dawson.
PT Angelique: Alexis Collins, Fred Block, Larry Chase, Will Loomis, Roger Collins.
— Danny Horn