Feb 25, 2015

Dark Shadows: Barnabas and Willie

In the spring of 1969, my friends and I began running home from school as fast as we could (my house was the closest) to catch the last ten or fifteen minutes of Dark Shadows (1966-71), a soap opera about the brooding, guilt-wracked vampire Barnabas Collins (Jonathan Frid) and his immensely wealthy, occult-obsessed family.

He enters the story when the slim, stuttering ne’er-do-well Willie Loomis (John Karlen, left), prowling around the Collins estate on the stormy coast of Maine, discovers a secret room in the old mausoleum, and inside it a chained coffin.  At this point, most people would flag down the next bus to Boston, but the none-too-bright Willie decides to open the coffin.  A bejeweled hand shoots up and grabs him by the neck.

The next day Barnabas Collins presents himself as a long-lost “cousin from England” and talks his way into possession of the ancient, decrepit Old House.

Willie inexplicably moves in with him, telling his friends that he has taken a job as Barnabas’ servant; yet he is obviously more than a servant.  The two spend an inordinate amount of time together, and are on an altogether chummy first-name basis, a liberty taken by no other servant on the estate.

The truth, of course, is that Barnabas bit him, and now they are co-conspirators if not secret lovers.  What is a vampire’s bite, after all, but a form of sexual congress?

Gossip about the early years of the series reveals that the producers were so skittish about potential homoerotic readings of the relationship that they gave Willie a heterosexual crush, and mandated that same-sex neck-biting must always occur off-camera.

Eventually the strain of living with a vampire is too much for Willie; he has a nervous breakdown, and is confined to Windcliff Sanitarium. Later, Barnabas misses Willie, and asks him to return.  Willie eagerly agrees.  Later that evening, their friend Julia Hoffman (Grayson Hall) is sitting alone in the drawing room of the Old House, evidently keeping guard, when someone comes to the door.  “Barnabas isn’t here  – he’s with Willie,” she says with a diffident glance upstairs – to the bedrooms. Exactly what is Barnabas doing up there to welcome Willie home?  

When Barnabas announces his plans to cure his vampirism by transferring his spiritual essence into a different body, Willie worries that the new Barnabas will not be attracted to him (or, perhaps, that he will not be attracted to the new Barnabas):
Willie: Suppose he don’t like me?
Barnabas:         He will be exactly toward you as I am.
Willie: You don’t know that!  You might come out of this all different. . .It won’t be the same.

Although Barnabas barely acknowledges his affection, Willie obviously cares deeply for him, with an unstated and perhaps unconscious homoerotic desire.

As Barnabas zapped back and forth between time periods and parallel worlds, he encountered different characters played by the same cast members, and John Karlen managed to infuse all of his characters with a sometimes frivolous, sometimes dark and passionate attraction to the vampire hero.

When Barnabas visits Collinwood in the year 1897, he meets Karlen as Carl Collins, a fop only slightly toned down from Oscar Wilde’s green carnation crowd.  Carl grabs his shoulder,  touches his hand, takes his arm, and whispers softly in his ear “You look so nice!  We’re going to be close friends, aren’t we?  We’re going to be buddies!”  And thereafter, whenever he has a problem (usually involving ghosts or werewolves), he throws himself into Barnabas’s arms, overtly presenting himself as a lover.

Many of the cast members were gay, including Joel Crothers, left (who played Maggie Evans' boyfriend and remained her best friend in real life) and Louis Edmonds (patriarch Roger Collins).

When Don Briscoe (werewolf Chris Jennings) took time off to appear in the gay-themed Boys in the Band (1969), he brought Chris Bernau and Keith Prentice back with him.

Most of the others were gay friendly, including Grayson Hall (who was nominated for an Oscar for her role as a repressed lesbian in Night of the Iguana), Katherine Leigh Scott (Maggie Evans), Roger Davis (who went on to star in Alias Smith and Jones),  and the vampire himself, Jonathan Frid.

Most soap operas, like One Life to Live, were unremittingly heterosexist, requiring us to seek out subtexts, but Dark Shadows had ample male characters who were immune to the charms of eyelash-fluttering governesses and sought out each other: David Collins, heir to the family fortune; the fey Noah Gifford (Craig Slocum), who has an unspecified and “sinister” relationship with the golddigging Lieutenant Forbes (Joel Crothers); Aristede (Michael Stroka), a brooding, androgynous “manservant”; the nerdish mad scientist Cyrus Longworthy (Christopher Pennock); and the darkly sensuous Gerald Stiles (Jim Storm) who was not shy about expressing his devotion to werewolf/man-about-town Quentin Collins (David Selby).

No wonder we ran home from school as fast as we could to watch.