Barnabas & Burton
In 2012 popular Goth film director Tim Burton released a star-studded adaptation of the cult classic supernatural TV soap opera Dark Shadows. This map celebrates the show and its vampire protagonist, Barnabas Collins, and stakes them to other vampiric properties—and to Masterpiece Theatre.
Today’s teens may be smitten by sexy vampire Edward Cullen of Twilight filmdom, but their mothers remember racing home after school to ogle the original bloodthirsty heartbreaker, Barnabas Collins, from the supernatural soap Dark Shadows. This Gothic daytime drama, which aired on ABC from 1966 to 1971, featured vampires, werewolves, witches, zombies, reincarnation and time travel, not to mention the chance meetings, cheating spouses, last-minute rescues and jealous lovers that are the stock-in-trade of soap operas.
The show’s popularity endures in its cult following: Loyal fans attend annual conventions, create fanzines and blogs, and write cultural analyses of Dark Shadows and its legacy. The series spawned a brief primetime revival in 1991 and two feature films (House of Dark Shadows in 1970 and Night of Dark Shadows in 1971). Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows movie, scripted by Pride and Prejudice and Zombies best-selling author Seth Grahame-Smith, had devotees newly abuzz. The all-star ensemble cast includes Burton mainstay Johnny Depp (of Edward Scissorhands and Sweeney Todd fame) as the aristocratic playboy-turned-reluctant-vampire Barnabas, Michelle Pfeiffer as Collins family matriarch Elizabeth Collins Stoddard and Helena Bonham Carter as psychologist and hematologist Julia Hoffman.
An angst-ridden vampire searching for salvation and his lost love, Josette, Dark Shadows’ Barnabas Collins paved the way for undead bad boys Lestat (Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles), Angel (TV’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and Edward (Twilight). In the original TV series, Canadian Jonathan Frid played Barnabas, the 18th-century scion of the wealthy Collins family, cursed with vampirism by Angelique Bouchard, a witch whom he beds then rejects. Chained inside his coffin for 200 years, Collins is released to find his ancestral estate, Collinwood, in decline. Convincing the modern clan that he is a cousin relocating from England, bloodthirsty Barnabas soon starts racking up victims in Collinsport, Maine.
In an early interview Frid explained his approach: “Monsters are people. We are all monsters to one another at some time or other. You catch a friend not telling the truth, or you are suddenly suspicious of them, you all of a sudden see a new glow in their faces—a new look. Now that’s what I call a monster.”
A one-season TV revival (1991) featured British actor Ben Cross (Chariots of Fire) as Collins. Cross became the prototype for the character’s look in a Dark Shadows comics series based on this revival.
The sexy, bankable Johnny Depp plays Barnabas Collins in Tim Burton’s film adaptation of the supernatural melodrama Dark Shadows. Depp has often remarked that growing up he was a big fan of the TV series. In an interview on the entertainment website Collider.com, Depp explained, “I do remember, very vividly, practically sprinting home from school in the afternoon to see Jonathan Frid play Barnabas Collins. Even then, at that age, I knew—this has got to be weird.”
Depp specializes in playing memorably weird characters, often under Burton’s direction. In Dark Shadows he uses his idiosyncratic sensibilities to reanimate the cursed, conflicted Collins. About his approach to the character, Depp told Inquirer.net that he explored “the flaws and insecurities of a vampire. Having been in a coffin for 200 years, he experiences the absurdity of a world that he’s just entered, where macramé owls hanging on a wall or fake fruits on a dish are widely accepted. From where he comes, in the 18th century, it would have been ludicrous. I want to see a vampire who’s 200 years old or more experience television for the first time.”
Toronto detective Nick Knight investigates homicides on the graveyard shift. His colleagues don’t know he is a vampire. The TV show Forever Knight (1992–1996) depicts Nick’s humanizing struggle for redemption as he fights crime (and sometimes other vampires) to atone for his 800 years of cold-bloodedness. He has taken responsibility for his actions and now drinks only animal blood. Like Barnabas Collins, Nick struggles with his (considerable) past; like Nick, Barnabas is a vampire wrestling with his identity, a man from an earlier time trying to pass for human in the 20th century. Barnabas even endures a few horrifying attempts at a cure that age him grotesquely or take him back in time and across parallel worlds.
Both vampires have chosen to confide their secret to a female friend (and occasional love interest) who is a medical professional, adding a psychosexual undercurrent by pairing men “infected” with vampirism with the good, “clean” women who treat them. Dr. Julia Hoffman (played by Grayson Hall, a 1965 Oscar nominee for The Night of the Iguana), an expert in psychology and blood disorders, ultimately proves loyal to Barnabas, and medical examiner Natalie Lambert is the only human Nick trusts with the truth.
Isolated, misunderstood, conflicted—Barnabas Collins, in his embodiment of the vampire myth, represents the dark, destructive aspects of human nature. As such, Collins is an archetypal Gothic antihero, a loner with deep feelings. Brooding over lost love and his vampire predicament, a haunted man in a literally haunted ancestral estate, Barnabas moves through a shadowy, uncertain world. Dark Shadows’ soap-opera format—with its serialized story line, cliff-hangers and connections between characters—proved well suited for Gothic themes. Beginning as an 18th-century fad, Gothic literature combines horror, romance and supernatural elements into a heavy atmosphere of madness, transgression, femmes fatales, virgin maidens, secrets and curses. The genre has remained popular across the centuries and across media, including film, television, comics and video games.
Dark Shadows begins with Victoria Winters, a young governess seeking to unravel the mystery of her past in a small New England town. Besides monstrous protagonist Barnabas, who in one plotline attempts to bite and/or marry Victoria, the show depicts many Gothic archetypes: the witchy femme fatale Angelique Bouchard, who curses Barnabas with vampirism, and the virginal Josette Collins, Barnabas’s lost, unrequited love (Josette is also a ghost, another Gothic archetype).
The films of Tim Burton are marked to varying degrees, most quite heavily, by a bright, weirdly energetic Gothicism. From his first short, “Frankenweenie” (produced in 1984, while he worked for Walt Disney Animation Studios, and turned into a feature in 2012), through notable movies such as Beetlejuice (1988), Edward Scissorhands (1990) and Corpse Bride (2005), Burton has created a rich visual language of artfully disordered hair, punky black clothing and pale faces with dark-ringed eyes that has become synonymous with contemporary popular Goth culture. Burton’s decision to direct a Dark Shadows movie resonates with this pop-Goth aesthetic. The troubled antiheroes, high emotionalism, mysterious romance, supernatural shenanigans and haunted houses that supplied Gothic’s first and second waves of popular works—Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto (1765), Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), Edgar Allan Poe’s “Tell-Tale Heart” (1843) and Henry James’s Turn of the Screw (1898), among others—are in full, dark bloom in Burton’s movies. That Burton’s seemingly unfettered, blackly humorous imagination has generated a string of films with lasting appeal among teens and adults is a testament to not only his talent but the timelessness of Gothic themes.
What connects over-the-top horror soap Dark Shadows and buttoned-up Masterpiece Theatre TV series Upstairs, Downstairs? Their treatment of social class. Set in an expensive London townhouse, Upstairs, Downstairs (1971–1975) follows the lives of its wealthy Edwardian residents and their live-in servants. In a similar, albeit freakier way, Dark Shadows centers on a haunted estate and follows the lives and undeaths of its wealthy inhabitants (past and present), their employees and a motley collection of townsfolk and supernatural beings. Though part of an ostensibly “classless” U.S. society, the Collinsport, Maine, of Dark Shadows is rife with distinctly “upstairs” (i.e., Waspy, landed) and “downstairs” (blue-collar) characters. Like their Upstairs, Downstairs counterparts, the Dark Shadows “downstairs” characters have separate plotlines that intersect with their employers’ stories in times of service, romance and violence, and they are given to bawdy behavior and frequently used for comic relief. One vivid similarity between the two shows involves the Upstairs, Downstairs character Sarah, who leaves Eaton Place after being accused of theft and begins a career as a risqué vaudeville performer, and Dark Shadows’ Charity Trask, a minister’s daughter who becomes possessed by the spirit of a cockney showgirl.