Friday, October 21, 2011

A Sense of Wonder

My favorite TV show is Dark Shadows. Not the 1990s remake, but the original supernatural soap opera I used to run home from school every afternoon to watch. School let out at 3p.m. and only a large field separated the schoolyard gate from my house across the street. If I was able to avoid detention and outrun the after-school bullies, I made it home in time to watch. There was no videotape back then; if you missed it, it was gone forever.

We tried hard to preserve the ephemeral experience and make it tangible. Posters, trading cards, comic books, paperback novels, and even records (vinyl, for you kids reading this); anything with an image from the show that we could hold in our hands became a treasured keepsake.

Dark Shadows was unique. There were only three networks, and all ran soap operas during the day, but while the other soaps concerned themselves with doctors and lawyers, trysts and affairs, and drama and infidelity, Dark Shadows revolved around vampires, werewolves, ghosts, zombies, and alternate universes – which rocketed it to the Number One spot for the teen demographic. It was also the first soap opera to switch from black & white to color (not that I noticed; we didn’t own a color TV).

It was escapism fantasy and for many years I thought I was alone in my love and appreciation for the show. Turns out there were other fans who were still passionate about the series decades after it went off the air. Like Johnny Depp and Tim Burton, who are filming a new Dark Shadows movie right now; and like an intrepid coterie of fans who brave the New England winter each year to gather for a weekend at the mansion seen in the series.

Last year, I was supposed to do a reading of my story, “The Vampire on Elm Street”, at a Halloween gathering at the mansion, but developed laryngitis from the 40-degree weather. This year, circumstances prevented me from attending, but I made sure that story and others would be available to the attendees by producing a limited edition book of my supernatural tales to help in the ongoing effort to raise funds to restore the mansion.

I wrote an introduction entitled “A Sense of Wonder” that has never (and most likely will never) appear anywhere else, so I thought it might make a good blog entry. So here it is:

A Sense of Wonder

I thought the next story, “The Vampire on Elm Street”, would be perfect for Dark Shadows fans, but I almost changed my mind about presenting it.

I had written a Valentines Day story (also in this book) about a boy who falls in love with the ghost of a colonial girl. It had a cemetery and a hill with a big cliff overlooking the lapping waves in Newport, Rhode Island… sound familiar? My colleague shared it with her 14-year-old and reported her daughter loved it. I mean, she raved about it. “You should make it into a book,” she said. Sensing I had a new fan in the making, I gave my friend the story you’re about to read to share with her daughter. A week later, I asked what her daughter thought of it.

“She hated it.” Ouch! “She said it was too childish.”

That surprised me, because most of my stories aren’t suitable for children, and I considered “The Vampire on Elm Street” to be my Young Adult, all-ages, G-rated short story. A negative reaction from my target audience gave me pause.

Then it dawned on me. The story’s target audience isn’t 14-year-olds. Like most teenage girls, she heard the word vampire and was expecting “Twilight”— brooding, self-obsessed teen vampires in love with adolescent girls like herself. She was disappointed because there were no teenagers in the tale for her to relate to; instead, it centered on a group of eight-year-old kids and, in her mind, that made it “childish”, because when you’re trying to prove you’re growing up, the last thing you want to be associated with is little kids.

But when you’re our age, it’s just the opposite. We yearn nostalgically for our “second childhood”. The “good old days”… do you know when the Golden Age was? The Golden Age is 10. When you were 10-years-old and filled with a sense of wonder. When the wall between reality and imagination was gossamer thin and anything was possible. Unlike Fox Muldar, you didn’t need to “want to believe”… you simply did.

Today, we pop in a Dark Shadows DVD and sit outside the story, laughing at the quivering sets and distracted by the actors’ botched lines. It’s still a great show, but the viewing experience is completely different from the first time we saw it: on black-and-white TV sets, when we raced home from school to be transported into the story; we didn’t notice the shaky sets and blown dialogue because, at 10, or eight years old, we were filled with an abundance of innocence, boundless imagination, and a sense of wonder. We believed in vampires and witches. Barnabas and company became a part of our young lives because we believed.

A Vampire on Elm Street” isn’t about vampires. It’s a nostalgic trip back to the Golden Age, when we still had an abundance of innocence, boundless imagination, and a sense of wonder. It’s about what is was like to be one of those kids who raced home to watch Dark Shadows. And that’s why my friend’s teenager didn’t get it. Nostalgia is appreciated not by those fleeing childhood, but by those in search of the elusive path back.


  1. I, too, would rush home to watch Dark Shadows, I couldn't get enough. I hated the remake, it just wasn't right. Hope the movie version is better.

  2. Same here, guys! At age 11, I'd get home just in time for the previous soap opera - The Edge of Night - to close off with it's black & white shot of water pounding the cliffs, THEN it was time for BARNABAS COLLINS!! Oh my, nothing beat that feeling of watching werewolves [David Selby], vamps & Angelique fill the tiny screen of our B&W TV :D

    But - if you haven't seen the 1970 and 1971 movies they made [House of Dark Shadows and Night of Dark Shadows], make it a point to get a hold of them! Filmed with the original cast~

  3. Originally, Dark Shadows was broadcast at 3:30, right after General Hospital, so I would catch the tail end of that show and soon learned about the trials and tribulations of Dr. Hardy, his blonde wife Audrey, and nurse Jessie Brewer. Then, ABC debuted a new soap at 3:30, One Life to Live. I immediately identified with hard-hitting reporter Joe Riley and was devastated when he was killed off (his car went off a cliff but his body was never found) and his wife Vicki Lord married another newspaperman, Steve Burke, an ersatz version of Joe. I sooned learned that in the world of soap operas (as in comic books) death is a temporary condition, as Joe resurfaced a year later.

    In 1970, I convinced my mother to drive me to the worst neighborhood in town, where the only theater showing House of Dark Shadows stood. The neighborhood was scarier than the film.

    Night of Dark Shadows is a major disappointment, mainly because about a third of the film was left on the cutting room floor, resulting in an unintelligible mess. Yet I still have the movie posters for both.

    All 1,225 episodes of the original series are avaiable on DVD from MPI Home Video.