Thursday, July 25, 2013

Dark Shadows, Star Wars, and Richard Matheson

I have been away and still have much to do. I would like to acknowledge gifts received by email and to say thank you to the senders. It may be awhile yet before I write again.

I watched House of Dark Shadows tonight for the first time I think since I saw it as a child at the movie theater. (I should say since I saw most of it at the theater--part of the time I spent under my seat.) Watching the movie tonight brought back vivid memories of the last time I watched House of Dark Shadows. The scene at the old swimming pool where David Collins sees his dead cousin Carolyn stands out among them. It was and is a chilling scene. (Before moving on, I would just like to say how beautiful are the women of Dark Shadows, especially Kathryn Leigh Scott, who played the Gothic heroine Maggie Evans.)

I watched Dark Shadows the TV series as a child but don't remember it very well. In the movie, Doctor Julia Hoffman discovers that Barnabas Collins is suffering from a biological condition that causes his vampirism. He has some kind of cell infecting his blood. She attempts to cure him of the infection. I don't know if that also occurred in the show. In any case, what started out as a Gothic romance became science fiction of a sort--like Mary Shelley's Frankenstein now that I think about it. In House of Dark Shadows, the existence of the vampire, a creature of supernatural horror, is ultimately explained in material terms. I suppose it would have been an innovation to make the supernatural merely natural (though highly unusual) in Dark Shadows. The screenwriters must have been faced with the problem of the weird tale in the twentieth century, namely, how do you present the supernatural monster of centuries past when supposedly sensible people no longer believe in the supernatural? The writers of House of Dark Shadows disposed of the problem pretty neatly.

Seven years after that movie was released, another movie showed up on the big screen, a movie that started out as one thing and more recently ended up as another. Despite attempts to classify it as science fiction, Star Wars (1977) is a fantasy, perhaps even a fairy tale. It may have the trappings of science fiction, or more accurately, space opera, but the story is underlain not by science but by a mystical force called--what else?--the Force. Of course the world and George Lucas were different in 1977 than they were in 1999 when the second trilogy got underway. By the dawn of the twenty-first century, the Force was no longer mystical. It was in fact material, more specifically, biological, as vampirism was in House of Dark Shadows. There is a big difference between those two developments however. In House of Dark Shadows, vampirism is made material in order to tell a story, a more or less positive development. In the second Star Wars trilogy, a largely dreary affair, the Force is made material, I sense, to reflect the materialist air of the twenty-first century. In other words, we simply can't have a supernatural force that "surrounds us, penetrates us, [and] binds the galaxy together." Believing in such a thing is, after all, unsophisticated--a display of ignorance and backwardness. I think George Lucas betrayed his own beliefs when he abandoned the spiritual and made the Force merely material. Maybe he was only reflecting the beliefs of his age.

Anyway, House of Dark Shadows has led me to Hell House, a novel by Richard Matheson set in the same year that House of Dark Shadows was released. I have had that book on the dresser waiting to be read for awhile. Both stories take place in a house in Maine. Both of course tell of supernatural events. I was moved to write this evening by something the author, Richard Matheson, wrote on the second page of the story: the man who initiates the investigation into Hell House is eighty-seven-year-old Rolf Rudolph Deutsch, "bald . . . skeletal" and on his deathbed. He wants to know if anything survives. I suspect the makers of Dark Shadows would say yes. George Lucas might have a different answer. The reason I took note of Rolf Rudolph Deutsch's age, however, was that Richard Matheson died only a month ago . . . at age eighty-seven.

P.S. (July 27, 2013): As everyone knows, Dan Curtis (1927-2006) was the creator and executive producer of Dark Shadows, which ran on ABC-TV from 1966 to 1971. After Dark Shadows came to an end, Curtis collaborated with Richard Matheson (1926-2013) on the television movies The Night Stalker (1972), The Night Strangler (1973), Scream of the Wolf (1974), Bram Stoker's Dracula (1974), Trilogy of Terror (1975), and Dead of Night (1977). Matheson wrote the screenplays for all of those movies, while Curtis served as producer.

Copyright 2013 Terence E. Hanley


  1. Re Star Wars. It's funny how every era has its own version of the supernatural. The obsession with spiritualism and ectoplasm in the 19th and early 20th century, for example - and the very Sixties/Seventies fixation with the power of mind over body. And not just body. Reality. So many books written during this period reflect what was largely a drug-induced idea - it's in the 'Amber' series and most Philip K. Dick books: the notion that you can influence reality by willpower alone. I think 'The Force' in the original 'Star Wars' trilogy reflected these beliefs, but times change and I'm guessing Lucas had to come up with a more rational explanation (I've never seen the second trilogy) to suit modern viewers. And if 'The Force' reflects the cod-spiritual beliefs of the day, the world it depicts is inspired by an older set of expectations still current at the time(if fading) of a universe teeming with different life-forms, a universe in which man would eventually travel to any planet he pleased. I read recently that S.F. is about the possible, whereas Fantasy is - well, fantastical. In this respect, surely it's time Space Opera was re-classified as fantasy? The fact that the old 'Star Wars' had such a huge impact at the time, culturally speaking, whereas the new series was aimed squarely at children reflects just how seriously this notion is taken now.

  2. Dear Aonghus,

    I think you're right that ideas about reality, altered states, drugs, New Age thinking, etc., would have influenced George Lucas in the original Star Wars. However, I would say that a materialist explanation for the Force is more rationalistic than rational. As in the original movie, Lucas may have been influenced by current beliefs in making the new trilogy. I think it's more likely that he himself holds those beliefs. In any case, as I implied in my posting, I think that was a step backward, a cynical and disheartening failure of imagination. Any thinking person understands that there is more to the universe than meets the eye and that it can't be adequately explained in material terms.

    I think Lucas' decision to make the Force material rather than spiritual reflects an overall failure of imagination in the making of the new Star Wars trilogy. It's almost impossible to believe that the same man who made the original Star Wars (1977), moreover, American Graffiti (1973), also made the new Star Wars trilogy (1999-2005). My sister's theory is that George Lucas smoked too much pot in the interim. Now there's a material explanation that makes sense: a brain pickled in THC and unable to think straight.

    TH (no C)

  3. Cousin Barnabas,

    Thank you. I'm glad you liked it.


  4. Agreed. Some things work better when you don't try to clarify them. I've always preferred the first half of 'Being John Malkovitch' to the second because it has its own surreal logic. This is spoiled in the second half by an attempt to explain exactly what is going on. And while I might be disparaging about the beliefs underlying a lot of 70's Sci-Fi, those beliefs are what make those books so enjoyable.