In the earliest days of Dark Shadows, the villains were rather pedestrian soap opera fare. Burke Devlin served as our first villain, a wealthy ex-con returned to his home town seeking revenge against the most powerful family in town. For a while, young David also played a villainous role, as a disturbed little boy full of so much hate that he would even attempt to murder his own father.
While these things were going on, we also began to glimpse a gothic past with the ghost of Josette DuPres still hanging around, haunting the halls of the Collins estate. And let’s not forget the wailing widows and the mysterious weeping from the locked room in the basement.
In those earliest black and white days of Dark Shadows, two different types of stories went on. The villains lived in one world, the supernatural in another. But then, on December 14, 1966, a well-coiffed blonde sat down at a table in the Collinsport Diner, and from that point on, the supernatural and the villainous began to merge, forming the groundwork for the kinds of stories that would eventually become the backbone of TV’s first gothic soap opera.
In those early days of Dark Shadows, the action moved so slowly that it was in fact several days before we discovered the identity of this pretty blonde, and a few more before we find out exactly why she is here. While we’re waiting for this information, all we know is that somehow she does not “fit” in Collinsport. The women here do not dress like this, look like this, act like this. We sense that she is from another world, a world far, far away from this tiny fishing town.
By the time we wrap up the Phoenix storyline, we will at last know all the details regarding the tremendous distance Laura Collins had to travel to find her way back to Collinsport—not through space, but through time. And we will know that the creators of our strange little soap opera have made the decision to go out on a limb and bring us the kinds of stories that do not involve ladies sitting around the kitchen table, drinking coffee.
When Laura first appears, she is so mysterious, our initial instinct is to not trust her. That instinct is good, as we soon find out her motive in coming back to Collinsport is to take away David. And even though at this point David is pretty much a brat, if not a downright juvenile delinquent, he’s still a kid, and we don’t like to see the grownups playing with his emotions, using him as the rope in their legal and emotional tug-of-war.
Laura’s “love” for David is obsessive, and like anything obsessive, it’s scary. This is not a well-balanced, healthy person. Of that much we are sure, though for a long time we’re not privy to the exact reason why she makes us feel so uneasy.
Fairly soon, we have a side story of Sam Evans painting a portrait of Laura, standing in flames. The act of painting takes place against Sam’s will, as if his hands are being guided by forces unseen. We don’t realize how or why this is happening, but we know Laura must be tied into it somehow.
In fact, it is the ghost of Josette Dupres, who has been lurking around just outside the action to this point, who has “assisted” Sam in committing this image to canvas, in hopes of alerting the citizens of Collinsport to the danger presented by their newest resident.
Laura is not happy with the fact that the portrait has been painted, or with Sam, and especially not happy with Josette’s interference. And whenever someone gets on Laura’s bad side, bad things start happening. Eventually, Laura will cause a fire that burns Sam’s hands, so that he is not able to paint for some time. When Elizabeth challenges Laura and appears to stand in the way of her getting David, Laura causes a mysterious catatonic state to fall upon the matriarch of Collinwood. It is a testament to Elizabeth’s strength of character that she eventually overcomes the mystical “spell” placed upon her. Parapsychologist Dr. Peter Guthrie, who has been called in to investigate possible supernatural explanations for Elizabeth’s illness, does not fare so well. Just before the residents of Collinwood are about to conduct a séance in hopes of contacting Josette, Dr. Guthrie dies in a car accident, courtesy of Laura.
Dr. Guthrie is gone, but in his wake he leaves much valuable information. Through Guthrie, we are put on the path to discovering the rich history behind the Phoenix. You see, Laura Murdock Collins was not always who she seems to be. We now know that a Laura Murdoch keeps appearing every 100 years, always dying by fire, and sometimes taking a boy named David with her into a fiery death.
Now it is 1966, this Phoenix has reappeared, and it is her grandest desire that history should repeat itself.
Brrrrr. Creepy. Yes, though the Phoenix can be as hot as fire, her intentions for young David chill the soul. Her coolness towards everyone that gets in her way is enough to make you think she has ice in her veins, rather than blood.
This is a good villain. Okay, so she doesn’t have fangs, like the vampire, or claws like the werewolf. Instead, she appears perfectly normal—even more than normal, she is attractive and refined. And that, my friends, is what is so scary and dangerous about her. Someone like Laura would never be suspected of evil. No, not at all! On the surface, the worst you can say is that as a mother, she is perhaps a bit too devoted to her only son. Surely we must understand! Who could find exception with that?
The story unfolds so slowly, with so much mystery, that for most of it, we only know that something is not quite right, but for a long time, we’re not quite sure what.
And if WE are uncertain, how much more is this the dilemma for David? We are on the outside, looking in, but for David, a confused and lonely boy of nine, here at last is the mother he has been idolizing all this time, while he is being raised by a stern, uncaring father. When Laura suddenly returns, part of David wants to embrace her, but another part hangs back, wary, always wondering why he does not feel comfortable with her. Yes, this is the mother he has dreamed of for so long, but his instincts warn him that the dream is safer than the reality.
In reality, Laura is overbearing towards David, pushing him hard to make the decision to come away with her rather than stay at Collinwood. But the harder she pushes, the more he resists.
When David first sees the portrait of Laura that was mysteriously painted by Sam Evans, though everyone else recognizes it as something evil that should immediately be burned, David falls in love with the portrait and finagles to hang it in his room. I think he feels that this portrait of his mother is “safer” than the actual person. With the painting, he can admire her from a distance, rather than have to deal with the scary possibilities his actual mother is suggesting for his life.
There is a spot on the bottom of this portrait that is blank, unfinished. As time goes on, the details become clear, and one day, suddenly, we see what it is: David, standing next to Laura in the flames.
This can’t be good.
It is during this Phoenix storyline that we first go to Eagle Hill cemetery, and first meet the Caretaker. It is during this storyline that Dr. Guthrie enlists Joe Haskell’s help as a “grave digger.” Yes! During the Phoenix storyline we have our first grave digging! We also have our first séance!
So all these marvelous supernatural elements begin to come together during for the first time, in the story of Laura Murdock Collins, obsessive mother, both beautiful and deadly.
I know that Laura will make more appearances in Dark Shadows, but I cannot speak about them here, because my viewing at the moment has only gone so far. But it has gone far enough to know that here is a villain, a monster if you will, capable of destroying lives. Later she may wreak more and deadlier havoc, but the havoc she wreaks in the early pre-Barnabas days of Dark Shadows, is enough to make us wish she will never come back.
But of course she will come back. She is a Phoenix, and that’s what a Phoenix does. And it’s that defining characteristic that makes for such a scary villain, because you can’t kill a Phoenix. Like clockwork, the Phoenix will rise from the ashes, to torment you again and again. Think of all the movies you’ve seen where you think the villain is dead at last, but then…whoa! NOT dead. Rises up again and does a little more damage before the hero finally does indeed, without a doubt, crush them into oblivion.
Laura’s like that. Only, you can never really crush her into oblivion. You can burn her to ashes and she will STILL come back, an ever present threat. You can knock her down, but you can’t knock her out. Never at ease, once you’ve tangled with an evil Phoenix, you must always be on your guard, looking over your shoulder. That’s psychological suspense. That’s the terror and the horror of the Phoenix.
And when she comes back, there’s a good chance she’s going to be even more dangerous than before. What was it that Shakespeare said? Hell hath no fury….? Like a Phoenix, who has been scorned and thwarted, whose anger and discontent has been left to simmer on the ashes of her former incarnation, just waiting for the opportune moment to reappear and send the world into turmoil. If at first you don’t succeed, Laura, just come back as a Phoenix, and do it… all… over …again.
The Phoenix was our first supernatural villain. Her storyline burned a clear pathway for the overflowing of the supernatural horror elements which would come to distinguish Dark Shadows from every other soap opera at the time. Her flames obliterated not only the tiny fishing shack on the Collinwood Estate, but also the insipid sprinkling of mundane storylines where our “big bads” were nothing more than naughty boys and pissed-off businessmen. Laura Collins paved the way for the vampire and the werewolf, for the kinds of stories that would become the Dark Shadows we know and love, and for that we owe her a debt of gratitude.
To see other entries in today’s Dark Shadows blogathon, please visit The Collinsport Historical Society.