Premature Burial

I have recently finished writing an article for a collection of essays on the Bible and horror.  Have no fear—I’ll pass along details once it’s published.  I do have to wonder, though.  All those years I was teaching and publishing regularly in ancient Near Eastern studies nobody ever approached me about contributing.  It took coming out of my monster closet for that to happen.  Monsters, you see, are a guilty pleasure topic.  They’re so much fun that they hardly seem like work to write about.  Or read about.  I was a child when Dark Shadows aired as a daily soap opera on ABC.  For reasons about which I’m beginning to speculate I found this series strangely compelling.  Marilyn Ross (W. E. D. [William Edward Daniel] Ross) based some 32 of his over 300 novels on the series.  I collected them as a kid and then got rid of them when I went to college.  I’ve been collecting them again in a fit of nostalgia over the past several years.

I just finished Barnabas, Quentin, and the Crystal Coffin.  The story was actually quite different than typical Collinwood fare.  What drew me to these novels as a child was their atmosphere and, if I’m honest, the fact that Barnabas was a vampire.  Memories of youth are fleeting things at my age, but it may be that Barnabas Collins was my introduction to vampires.  I was four when the series first aired, and I’m not sure if I discovered it before I came across Dracula or if it was the other way round.  Dracula, once I was experienced enough to have an opinion on such things, was my favorite monster.  I liked the others as well, but he was rich and immortal—the things sickly kids in poverty idealize.

In my fascination with Dark Shadows I’m not alone.  Despite Tim Burton’s movie version, Johnny Depp (who is my age) admitted growing up wanting to be Barnabas Collins.  Friends about my age have discovered PBS’s recent re-release of the original series in all its campy glory.  For whatever reason, however, it is the books that always draw me back in.  They, for me, defined the Gothic novel.  Ross’s writing is formulaic and predictable.  His adjective choices feel forced and subtleness was never his strong point.  Still I can’t stop myself from occasionally dropping into the world he manages to recreate in the woods of Maine.  Afterwards I move on to more profound writing, but then, his work is the very definition of a guilty pleasure.

Being Boarded

It might seem superfluous to be reading about pirates when such serious issues face us these days, but my answer to most of life’s problems is to look at the history. Besides, like many people in the early new millennium I was swept into the swashbuckling romance of the purified pirate. I suspect, given the time period, that I hadn’t really thought of pirates for a couple of decades. I knew that in reality a pirate was simply a thief on the seas, a bloke on the water who had looking out for number one down to a capitalist science. I thought maybe Treasure Neverland: Real and Imaginary Pirates, by Neil Rennie, might say a bit about the most famous fictional pirates of the modern era, but alas (or “avast”?). For a book that says in its cover copy “the long dissolve from Captain Kidd to Johnny Depp,” it has only a single paragraph about the modern Hollywood pirate from the Caribbean. That’s not to say that the historical and fictional information aren’t interesting—I especially enjoyed the chapters on Long John Silver and Captain Hook, and women pirates—but the book wasn’t quite what I was expecting.

Rennie does a good job of exploding myths that mostly trace their origins to a bottleneck of historical sources on the subject. It’s good for academics to revisit the origins of ideas, I find. Beginning with the days of Henry Every, the early material is quite interesting. I had no idea that Madagascar was such a pirate haven, being mostly aware of the Caribbean variety. But there are also contemporary swashbucklers about.

Consider, for example, that our country seems to be run by pirates. Thieves are those who claim for themselves what they have no right to take. We have a president and cabinet who are pretty much all of that description. We also have majorities in both houses of congress who seem, on many issues, willing to climb aboard a stolen vessel. In Iceland they have the probity to call themselves “the Pirate Party.” At least you know what you’re getting when you cast your vote for those who say what their intentions are so obviously. Not that Trump didn’t make clear in his words and deeds of a lifetime that he would only look out for himself. People can’t be troubled to check the facts, though. It’s better just to let your anger drive you when you’re behind the curtain. Who looks at Wanted posters anymore? Of course, I would say that. I’m the kind of person who looks at history to solve problems.

Dark Light

It took a few weeks and five states, but I finally got to see Dark Shadows. Although I’d seen the trailers, there was quite a bit over which I remained in the dark. After all, the television series ran daily for several years and the story of Barnabas Collins was never really resolved, to the best of my knowledge. Trying to fit all of that into a couple hours of cost-intensive Hollywood showmanship would be a tall order. I have come to trust the Burton-Depp collaboration, however, and I had read some time ago that Johnny Depp had wanted to be Barnabas Collins when he was growing up. It is difficult nevertheless to resurrect a vampire after some three-and-a-half decades of slumber. Speaking with some friends after the movie I discovered that I was not the only child discouraged from watching Dark Shadows after school as a child. But watch I did.

Barnabas Collins became a monster as the result of a curse. The series—which I remember principally as a series of impressions and images—and the movie make that clear. The man who has lost control of his own fate is a reluctant monster. An aristocrat who lives by draining the blood of the common folk. Despite the humor and carnality of the movie, social commentary is there. Sometimes buried in an iron coffin, and sometimes in a vintage VW bus from the early ‘70’s. It may not appear full blown on the big screen but it pulses through the veins nevertheless. Barnabas Collins is a reluctant and conflicted vampire, but he does kill others to survive.

Why would a kid raised in a religious setting be so drawn to a creature of evil? Perhaps it was because Barnabas was the ultimate penitent. He had to victimize others, but he always regretted doing so. Like any living (or undead) creature, his nature compels him to survive. He is sad about his lot in the world, but is helpless to change it. Like many children of the monster generation I was nourished by a long series of movies featuring impossible creatures, including vampires. The earliest vampire I knew, however, was Barnabas Collins. Although Bram Stoker had set the type nearly a century earlier, my measure of the vampire was the reluctant denizen of Collinwood. Although I read my Bible dutifully, and never missed church, I still found the plight of this lonely monster compelling. The movie may not live up to the standard of all Dark Shadows aficionados, but if it brings a subtlety of moral ambiguity to a generation of absurdly self-assured modern-day fundamentalist children, the curse of Barnabas Collins may really be a blessing in disguise.

Dark Shadows Indeed

Part of my childhood died today. Like millions of others, I have been eagerly anticipating Tim Burton’s new Dark Shadows movie to wash the treacle of Twilight from the vampire’s mouth. Barnabas Collins was the epitome of the conflicted gentleman vampire, fully aware of and repulsed by his curse. After school I would religiously sit in front of the black-and-white television and watch the waves crashing into the cliffs of Maine as the moody story began to unfold in daily episodes. So when I read this morning that Jonathan Frid had died, I knew the vampire had found peace at last. And I was sad.

Although I’ve read scholarly analyses of monster fascination, nothing sets me back to childhood so directly as my beloved monsters. I don’t know why I feel a thrill in my chest and my pulse quickens when monsters appear before me. Perhaps it is a child’s way of coming to grips with a world beyond his or her control, or perhaps it was my way of dealing with a broken family. Lacking a father figure in life, I was fascinated by the gentle care and predatory nature of Barnabas Collins. He really did care, but he still had to bite you in the neck to survive. To my pre-adolescent mind, Jonathan Frid was Barnabas Collins. When I grew old enough for gothic novellettes, I consumed the serialized Dark Shadows books by Marilyn Ross, no matter how predictable or trite. I was reading about my heritage.

I have no doubts that Johnny Depp will portray a believable Barnabas Collins next month. Jonathan Frid, it is said, was consulted and was often present on the set of the new movie as it was being filmed. His turn to portray the tortured ancestor of the Collins family had lapsed, but he was the original. What is the draw of the vampire if not life after death? And although Jonathan Frid is gone, next month I will stand in line to see the resurrection of the vampire on the large screen.

Monsters Are Due on Elm Street

November 1984. George Orwell’s dark vision had not fully emerged, but the veneer had worn off of the fairy-tale world promoted by the evangelical, free-market professors at Grove City College. As a blue-collar kid in a blue-blood institution, I was out of place. The campus was buzzing, however, about a new movie—A Nightmare on Elm Street—for which I finally plucked up the courage to ask a cute coed for a date. I’d never seen a slasher movie before, having sampled mostly traditional monster-flick fare as a child. I felt a sense of accomplishment since some of my college friends had to leave the theater for fear. On the big screen, with no previous knowledge of the plot, the film worked for me on many levels. Last night I decided to watch it again.

My first reaction was a sense of surprise at how much of the movie I still recalled with pristine clarity. For having been nearly thirty years ago, such clarity is a rare phenomenon for many details of life, often reserved for memories of early girlfriends. A second reaction was noticing how religion featured in the film. The girls skipping rope chant, “One, two, Freddy’s coming for you / Three, four, better lock your door / Five, six, grab your crucifix.” Indeed, the crucifix features in several scenes as an ineffectual weapon against Freddie Krueger. The days of defying vampires are over when your own subconscious turns on you. In one of the early chase sequences, Freddie, raising his infamous glove, says, “This is God!” Religion and its overarching concerns with death and suffering come together with horror in that one moment. The traditional power structures of religion have lost their power to defend the troubled teenagers. The only one well adjusted is, ironically, Johnny Depp’s Glen. Even he falls victim to the revenge sought by Krueger.

Surprisingly, the scene I had most trouble recalling was the end. I recollected the bright, hazy sunshine, but couldn’t remember how Wes Craven released his audience from the drama. Of course, there is no end. Freddie came back in countless sequels, none of which I ever watched. Although I wouldn’t know it at the time, Robert Englund based the screen presence of Freddie on Klaus Kinski’s Nosferatu in Werner Herzog’s classic remake of that silent gem. Freddie is the vampire that defies religious cures. Movie villains are among the most adept practitioners of resurrection on the silver screen. The occasional E.T., Neo, or Spock will come back from the dead, but those who repeatedly return are the denizens of our nightmares. As Orwell’s vision continues to unfold in subtle ways, 1984 looks like an age of innocence before the ineffectual god worshipped by the establishment became self-image, writ large, on Elm Street.