Nostalgia as Horror in the 2012 Dark Shadows Film

We see a shadowy figure gliding down a dusty hallway. He weaves a candlestick through the cobwebs, passing a clouded mirror. It only reflects the candle. Suddenly, a new light emerges by the window. An iridescent woman hovers, twitching horribly, in the bloody nightgown she died in. Her mouth slides open, screaming without sound. These figures are familiar to horror, you’ve probably seen them reformatted in multiple projects. Film and television reuse recognizable character types like vampires and ghosts because they are recognizable, or old. They are a pre-established character in a much larger Gothic network that nearly every horror project draws from and contributes to. But more importantly, they are relics in their own narratives. It’s never a new manor, it’s old with history. Ghosts and vampires are literally dead, but they are also symbolically stuck in the past, never fully immersing themselves in the present. They are an icon for old superstition and curses. Horror develops old gods and monsters; it suggests that there is something in our past which we can never detach ourselves from. Even if we forget our past, it does not forget us.

I would argue that film adaptations are aware of this relationship between old and new, and actively emphasize it in their narratives. They know you’ve seen their story and characters before, they work from that expectation. The original Dark Shadow television show is a good example of this awareness, as it was created nearly three decades after the classic horror films it evokes. The series returns to these character types and elements but does so to demonstrate how Gothic horror trails behind modernity. It is interested in the overlap between past and present, and ultimately argues that nothing really dies, people and ideas are just reordered into new forms. It makes sense that the later 2012 film is equally focused on issues around nostalgia, as like the show, its subjects are long undead.

“This is a very silly play.”

Television haunts modern cinema, or rather, modern creators. Each person has a foundational show, sometimes several, which resonate and define how they experience later television and media. I can remember rushing home to catch an episode, terrified that I would be late, or that someone would spoil it. There is a kind of worship in that, a need to finish the story, to come back and visit with familiar characters. That is not something cinema can access, as although certain films return with sequels, there is a delay between the original and the successor. Not so with television, which is a weekly event, not to mention reruns. Shows also rely on dedicated audiences, the kind which will keep up and continue to return. That dedication stays with a person simply because they spent so much time with that series. Enough time that the characters and themes from these shows begin to bleed into their own creative work. Some directors are quite upfront about that influence, particularly Tim Burton. Although he is currently working on his very first television show, Burton has previously adapted several shows into his films. Sometimes his use is quite nuanced, just a few characters and sets that are a clear reference to Vincent Price or some Halloween Special. But Burton has also done direct adaptations, like the 1989 Batman and Batman Returns from 1992, where he translated the cheesy 60’s show and early comics into something cinematic. His work knows where the line between invention and familiarity lies in adaptation, and how to balance these factors. But Batman didn’t define Burton’s television years, a different more gothic show did: Dark Shadows.

I had never heard of Dark Shadows until I saw Burton’s film, so I think some context is necessary. Dark Shadows is a soap opera which ran from 1966 to 1971, during which it aired 1,225 episodes. There were new episodes nearly every day, so you can imagine how convoluted and bizarre the narrative became during its 5 years on TV. Actors were often replaced, entire characters changed personalities between episodes, and the narrative occasionally contradicted itself, because even its creators couldn’t remember everything that had happened in the show. Because the narrative is convoluted, regular viewers often collapse events onto one another, remembering the key character arcs rather than the details in those arcs. That means that certain characters are forgotten or blended with other figures, and so the show exists today in this strange nostalgic place where people remember things that didn’t happen or forget entire seasons. You could probably just guess an event in the show and have a 50% chance of being correct. Did it have time travel? Probably. It had ghosts, but did the ghost possess a nanny who looked like her, but wasn’t her, but sort of was? That also sounds about right.

Like any soap opera, the production staff knew that most viewers would miss things or forget episodes, and so it was constantly refreshing itself without departing too far from its Gothic landscape and tone. The best way I can describe this approach is as a form of CPR. Dark Shadows takes elements from classic horror films and literature, and just performs CPR on them. It resuscitates them over and over, brings these figures back, waits until they have lost popularity, tidies them away, and then shoves them back into the narrative later. Dead to alive, back and forth. Death is already uncertain in soap operas, what with characters constantly faking their deaths, or coming back as ghosts, even having a secret twin who is actually them. Dark Shadows works well in this genre because soap operas already operate with the same undead rules as Gothic dramas. Nothing ends, not people and certainly not the show.

“If a man can become a monster, then a monster can become a man.”

Burton’s 2012 Dark Shadows focuses on the legacy of the original show. More specifically, Burton’s film is interested in how nostalgia reinvents the past, much like how it reinvents the show. It returns to the 70’s with modern eyes, taking place in 1972, which coincidentally is the year after the show was canceled. The film plays this game where it reintroduces familiar objects and songs as though they are unfamiliar. The show itself is an example of this, as my generation and the subsequent have most likely never heard of the show, but older audiences have. Yet even these older audiences have probably not revisited the show since it was on TV. As such, there is this blank space where the film can dramatically change things and present it as though it has this pre-established place in the original narrative. In attempting to condense the show’s entire cannon, the film returns to the past and transforms into something new and nostalgic, making it more colourful and stylized than it ever was. For example, the film focuses on the vampire Barnabas Collins, who didn’t appear in the show until episode 211. While this demonstrates how much material the film had to contend with, it also illustrates that the film worked with what was popular. It focuses on the moments and character who sustained, and what people thought happened in the show, not what was prioritized during the show’s original run.

The show isn’t a comedy, but it is inherently funny because it is a soap opera. Burton’s film goes straight for this comedy, transforming the narrative into a Gothic comedy where frightening characters often intermix horror with jokes. I think that is a reflection on how other modern projects have dealt with the discrepancy between past and present material. So many contemporary adaptations of early shows or films use comedy because it’s an easy way to do something cheesy, that was in the original work, without having to replicate the dramatic tone this cheesy event had. They can show something ridiculous, like a vampire rising dramatically from his coffin, while also kind of shrugging as though they know it’s strange, but what else were they to do? There is a sequence in Burton’s film where Barnabas tries to find a suitable sleeping spot, and alternates between hanging like a bat over a bed, curling up in a cupboard, and even slipping into a large cardboard box. He eventually settles on a coffin, but the film can’t just show him in a coffin, because he is trying to assimilate to the modern world. This moment represents Barnabas trying to be modern, or more specifically, trying to escape from the monster world, but eventually realizing that the old ways are the only ways that work because he is an old being. You could go even further and suggest that Barnabas, being from the 18th century, doesn’t know what our vampire definition is because he hasn’t been exposed to vampire films and television, as we have. So, although the audience knows that he needs to sleep in a coffin, he doesn’t, hence the funny scene.

This shrugging approach continues throughout the film, even in its props. There are several sequences where Barnabas struggles to understand what a modern object does or why it looks a certain way, because he has never encountered these objects. The audience watching has, but even then, the objects look different to us because they are from the 70s. It feels like Burton’s film is constantly turning to its audience, eyebrows raised, and then asking if they remember the 70s. The audience pauses, especially Burton’s younger fans, but before they can answer, the film begins name dropping things. It condenses the most popular music and fashion of that era, the fun things, without mentioning a single political events or problem from that era. The film would not have been successful at all if Barnabas work up and it was 2012, as the film needs this middle ground. As a reflection on nostalgia, it must be somewhat outright about how different the past is before it can suggest that this version of the past is directly related to what modern culture wants to remember.

“Blood is thicker than water. It is what joins us, binds us…curses us.”

One of the criticisms the film received is that it gets so caught up in culture shock that it begins to feel quite repetitive. However, I would argue that repetition is entirely purposeful. Burton knows that his material is old, and that the show hasn’t been on TV since 1971. Rather than immersing the story in this era, without much discussion, the film asks us to pay attention, knowing that this is the past and that we can never fully return to that era. Barnabas is still confused by his environment and technology, even at the end of the film. There is no sequence where Barnabas masters technology, he just mixes old school vampire hypnotism with business to regrow the family fortune. The old continues to work in the present, and so the film comes with one major takeaway: certain things never change. Family members live and die, but the concept of family remains, as does its strength. That extends to Collinwood Manor, which acts as another old family member. Barnabas knows every secret entrance and cupboard in the place, so although the house has been repurposed, there is a core familiarity which sustains. There is this strong determination to survive and rebuild with whatever is left, even when the manor is destroyed at the end of the film. The same goes for the audience, as the 1970s are not entirely different than our own, and we recognize several features. They look different, but there is that familiarity. For instance, in an early scene between Barnabas and Elizabeth, Barnabas opens a secret door with a dramatic flair, only to reveal macramé storage. The secret door still works, but it holds something different. In other words, the need or intention is still there, but it’s appearance inside is different. In another scene, Barnabas destroys a television set because he thinks there is a “tiny songstress” inside. We recognize it as a television, maybe like the one we are watching the film through, but the way it looks and the singer it depicts aren’t as modern.

I think Burton’s film is largely interested in transforming the term reinvention to resurrection, giving this adaptation a more familiar tone, which is ultimately a reflection of it’s modern audience. There is a heartbeat to it, not just a style change. Rather than modernizing the story, or changing its cheesy elements, it tries to bring them back to life in some regard. It’s not a matter of altering them, it’s more focused on where these pre-established characters land inside modernity. How they fit to this nostalgic view, or more importantly, how we return to the past from a modern standpoint.

Want to read more? Check out my introduction to 1960’s horror television.