Dark Shadows 50th Anniversary: Lara Parker Interview

The most hypnotic witch of the TV age discusses horror, history and the magic of Dark Shadows’ legacy.

After a half century, the enduring allure of Dark Shadows is undeniable. Premiering the same year as Star Trek, the spooky soap opera’s fans are as rabid as Trekkies, while never endangering its cult status. The series created two enduring symbols of supernatural entertainment. Jonathan Frid’s Barnabas Collins is well-known as an icon of the reluctant vampire figure. Lara Parker’s Angelique is one of the most recognizable witches from the television age.

The original Dark Shadows daytime series debuted in June of 1966, ran 1,225 episodes spanning genre and period, and ended with a resolved plot finale in 1971. The series spawned a 1990s primetime mini-series, the theatrical films House of Dark Shadow and Night of Dark Shadows, and the Johnny Depp-Tim Burton feature film adaptation.

Many of the actors from the legendary Dan Curtis production will reunite for Dark Shadows 50th Anniversary Halloween In Hollywood on Saturday, October 29th, from noon to midnight. Parker will cast her own special magic with the debut her new novel, Dark Shadows – The Heiress of Collinwood, which will be published in November.

Lara Parker created one of the strongest woman characters on TV at the same time as what was called Women’s Lib was growing. What could be more liberating than witchcraft? Parker was also part of the early independent film movement in New York City, appearing in Brian De Palma’s Hi Mom! with Robert De Niro and her own children. A life-long progressive thinker, Parker continues to explore social hypocrisy in her books.

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Lara Parker sat down for an exclusive phone chat with Den of Geek to talk about the legacy of Dark Shadows, the art of horror and Angelique’s infectious laugh.

Den of Geek: I heard you’re in Salem, not too far from Collinwood, as the Raven flies, did you spend a lot of time in Salem while writing Angelique’s Descent and The Salem Branch?

Lara Parker: I’m in Salem, Oregon, and there’s a big storm up here and so I’m hoping we come through all right.

I thought you were in Salem, Massachusetts.

No I’m in Oregon. There are two Salems.

Did you spend a lot of time in the other Salem while writing the second Angelique novel The Salem Branch?

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I went there for about a week or so and tried to soak in the atmosphere. I went to all the tourist shops and shows and demonstrations of witchcraft. It’s quite a tourist town, especially at Halloween.

Did you see the Elizabeth Montgomery Bewitched statue? You and Montgomery both played iconic witch characters.

No, I wasn’t aware of the statue. Her work was in comedy, yes.

Do you see your character and Montgomery’s as the historic symbols they were?

I’ve been asked that so many times because the women’s movement had begun. Looking back historically, Angelique was one of the earliest strong women characters portrayed on television. She was really the first “Bitch Witch” that became so popular later. But at the time I wasn’t aware of being any kind of social figure. I just felt that I had a good part and I was happy to have a job and go to work and be an actress. It’s a gift. But I certainly didn’t see myself in the larger sense of being any kind of a social influence.

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I think it’s rare to pick up on that in the moment. I think only looking back I see that I was actually fortunate to be, in a small sense, one of the movers and shakers in the women’s movement.

I see you as more than that. I happen to be a big Brian De Palma fan and you were also part of the New York City independent film revolution. At the time, were you aware of how different Hi Mom! was from the Hollywood machine?

Well again, no. Brian De Palma cast me and they actually put in my two children. He was doing improvised theater. We were improvising on film, without lines, without a character to play. It was a whole different thing and I actually was not very good at it. But, yeah, I was aware that there was an experimental film movement, very much so, yes. It was actually very politically focused. Hi Mom! has some kind of show it called Be Black Baby where the people were all dressed up in black face. I was very young and I wasn’t really very aware of what Brian De Palma was trying to do. He was young too. He was experimenting but he went on to do some wonderful films.

Dark Shadows corresponded with Star Trek and both have endured for fifty years. You both took on social issues, them at night and you during the day.

Sometimes we say we’re a mini-Star Trek. I think you put your finger on it. Star Trek is definitely the hero’s journey. All the aspects, including Greek mythology, are there. Whereas Dark Shadows was more gothic romance. But both had good stories, which tend to be rare in the world of entertainment. There’s a lot of pizazz. In my opinion, the Johnny Depp movie, directed by Tim Burton, created marvelous effects and beautiful scenery and costumes. My god, the sets were so astonishing, I could not believe it, but I think it fell short on story. I don’t think we were really caught up in the suspense of what was going to happen and the jeopardy that Dark Shadows, the television show, was so good at.

How does it feel to hand a character you created over to another actress? You had to do that twice with Eva Green as Angelique and the actress in the TV movie.

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It doesn’t bother me. I think that they people who played Angelique have made her bitchy and witchy. Mean and haughty. Eva Green made her very haughty. Lysette Anthony played her as a nasty little girl, but that’s not how I pictured Angelique. I pictured her, as you said, like a heartbroken heroine, who is desperate and determined, but not necessarily mean, as in haughty mean. But that was my choice. There are lots of different ways to play characters, I have nothing against anybody else’s interpretation it doesn’t bother me. I don’t think it should bother anyone.

Well, Eva Green is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful creatures to walk the face of earth, so I did think she was outstanding. But I was hoping it would be Charlize Theron. I wanted her to play Angelique. She would have been my choice.

Was there something in you that was predestined to become an icon for witches and vampires?

No, I think I was very lucky to get that role. Sometimes an actor and a role meld and that transcends the usual job. I think I was just very lucky to get a part that I was able to play that people responded to. I never think of myself as predestined to doing anything. Life is hard. Writing books, for instance, is a lot of work. It takes a long, long time. Even to write one that is borderline pop culture, like the ones I’ve written, takes a long time.

When you performed rituals on stage, were you in a different frame of mind than just acting?

You know, everything that took place in the supernatural ended up on Dark Shadows, including the fact that we revisited many of the horror classics. Starting, of course, with Jane Eyre and the orphan girl goes to the spooky house to be a governess. There’s a creepy guy there and everybody’s very strange. Dracula and Frankenstein, Henry James’ Turn of the Screw, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, all the Poe stories.

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Our writers read all that literature from the late 18th Century when there was so much gothic romance being written and the novel was first appearing. Young ladies were keeping it hidden under their pillows because their husbands didn’t want them to read them. It was a fascinating time in literature. All of those tales got rewritten for Dark Shadows. So yes, there were séances, we traveled back in time, we went to different periods. We got to play parallel characters. The really popular actors, if they died, they got to come back as another character. We did all kinds of magic. We even had a warlock, a devil. I’m sure the writers scratched the bottom of the pan and found everything they could.

You even had a Humphrey Bogart lookalike.

[Laughs] Yes.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1DM01oObdUg

Your witch in Dark Shadows is also supernatural. I watched the Kolchak: The Night Stalker episode “The Trevi Collection” to get ready for this. First of all, great laugh and I love great laughs, maniacal things. How do you get into that kind of evil giggle mania?

I don’t know. I just pushed it. The directors always said, can you laugh louder and harder? Your laugh is not good enough. So I pushed it and pushed it. I tried so hard to laugh that I’d run out of breath. It’s one of those mysterious things. Now, some people think it’s very scary but I never thought it was good enough. I thought “tell me a funny joke so I can laugh harder.” It’s an actual pushed, fake laugh, but I guess that’s what makes it spine-tingling.

Yes, it’s maniacal, on par with Mr. Burns or Sideshow Bob.

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Right, it’s maniacal. At conventions there’s always someone who stand up in the crowd and says do your laugh for us.

When you played a real witch, as opposed to the supernatural and immortal Angelique, you had the evil giggle.

Oh [laughs] when did I have the evil giggle?

In “Trevi Collection.”

I don’t remember that part. I barely remember doing that show. Darren McGavin, right?

I bring it up also because it was of Dan Curtis.

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Oh that’s right. I didn’t even have to audition. That was one of the few times they just called me up and gave me the role.

Tell me about Dan Curtis, he was responsible for both Kolchak and Dark Shadows, what did you learn from him about horror?

Well, Dan Curtis said that Dark Shadows was not horror. He said it was gothic romance. I think there is a difference between horror and terror. Horror is the actualization of terror. Horror is the eyeballs falling out and the blood coming out of the nose and mouth and the bandages and the sliced-open throats. It is the result. Whereas, terror is the scratching at the window or the footsteps down the hall. It’s imagining what could happen. Horror is seeing what did happen.

There are two different reactions to it. Terror draws you in because it employs your imagination and your sense of dread. Whereas horror is repulsive, it’s something, like an accident on the freeway – you want to see it but you want to turn away. You want to get out of the way of it.

Dan said he didn’t like to use too much blood. He didn’t like to use corpses. He liked for the audience to participate and to engage their imagination. I think that has a lot to do with why Dark Shadows was so successful, he was smart enough to see that. A lot of the scenes, the only thing that’s in play as far as scariness is the music, you know – thum Thum THUMM – then you realize that somebody had said something or seen something or just opened a door and looked down a hallway and you have that music. You say “oh my god, what do they see? Who is that?”

It moves into areas of Reverend Trask, again a hypocritical minister who ruined a lot of lives because he accused people of witchcraft. It got a little heavy. The best part of Dark Shadows was when it was more in the imagination. When the vampire was standing outside the window and what was he going to do and how was he going to get in?

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Do you have a particular favorite period in Dark Shadows, any particular favorite time line?

Well, I think the 1795, the triangle. The romance with Barnabas and Josette and Angelique, I think that was probably the best story. That was a really good story because there was no way out of it. There was no way to resolve it. There was unrequited love on all three parts. They worked in a little Julia Hoffman, she was also in love with Barnabas. That was my favorite period sure.

Of course, I always wanted to play the heroine. I didn’t want to be the heavy. I wanted to be the ingénue I wanted to be the one Barnabas was in love with. So, in the end, Dan Curtis gave me the part, Catherine in Wuthering Heights, the very last months of the show. But it was boring. It wasn’t nearly as interesting as the Angelique and Barnabas story.

Well, as the horror fan, I always saw you as the heroine.

Did you? I think that was part of the success of playing it. Other people who have been cast as Angelique just play her as the witch. She’s mean. She’s just evil and mean. But I played her as somebody who was much more of a tragic figure, who was desperately, desperately in love. And her heart was broken. That’s much more sympathetic than just being a mean old witch. I felt that her acts were acts of desperation, not acts of evil.

And Jonathan played the vampire the same way. He didn’t play him as a Bela Lugosi character that came and sucked people’s blood and left them for dead. He played the vampire as an anguished guilt-ridden, deeply soulful, moral person; a vampire with a soul who longed to return to the time before he was cursed, to the life of a mortal.

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But because he played it with his regret on his sleeve, he’s more of a traditional hero. You were a subversive hero.

He is more of a traditional hero. He’s the Byronic hero. He has the hero’s journey. He’s the Aristotelian hero. He’s definitely the Aristotelian hero, the hero who is not evil but who made a terrible mistake and thereby suffers.

I saw you more like the Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity, the femme fatale, who I consider the hero.

I’m glad you see her that way. I never saw her as dark as that. I just saw her as an innocent girl who was used and misused and had the powers within her, the capacity to manipulate the world around her. To try, although she continually failed, to get back what had been taken from her. There was also the social thing. She didn’t want to be a maid. She wanted to be the lady of the house. All the women of the world can identify with wanting to move up in status, in society, to have more money or have more beautiful things. I think that also made her more of a heroine. But I’m glad you see her as the hero. I always see her as the villain.

But I also cried when King Kong died. I thought the Frankenstein creation was a tragic figure. The monsters are just misunderstood to me.

Well, the Frankenstein creation, yes that was a reflection on god, who made man and then abandoned him to this sinful world.

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But so was Kong, he died for our sins. Were you a horror fan before you got on Dark Shadows?

No. I still am not. Someone asked me the other day what was the first horror movie you ever saw and I don’t know if I’ve seen one. I mean, Nightmare on Elm Street, I guess I saw that. I saw the Blair Witch Project, yes, I thought that was great. I thought that was wonderful. But I’m not somebody who regularly goes to horror films. I also did research on a lot of other aspects of horror writing in order to do my thesis.

You taught a horror writing class at NYU. I’m curious, did you read Stephen King’s Danse Macabre?

No, but I have read Stephen King’s discussion of the four categories of horror. Terror is the highest category, then horror. There is low-brow horror and high-brow horror.

In Danse Macabre he says, sometimes when you poke out the eyes of a rich guy, you’re not making social commentary, you’re just going for the gross-out, but people will read things into it. Do you infuse your writing with social commentary?

I do. One of the things I became aware of when I was getting my masters in creative writing, was that for something to achieve, or at least attempt, to become part of the artistic conversation of the time in which we live, it has to connect with some kind of social trend or belief. If it doesn’t, it just kind of hangs there in limbo. A lot of people have a lot of talent for painting or music or writing, but the ones that really move us make some kind of comment on the world around us.

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So I decided to make that one of the priorities in my books. I’ve chosen to talk about people that there is prejudice against. Those discarded members of society that are treated badly because they’re different. This is one of the most interesting ideas in society: Why we are racist, why we are prejudiced, why we turn against people who we turn into ‘the other,’ no matter who they might be, whether they’re homosexuals or Chinese or Republicans. Whatever it is we decide we don’t like. Why do our brains make that decision?

The first book, which was my attempt to tell the story of Angelique, who was born and grew up in Martinique and learned witchcraft, got into the whole idea of the sugar plantations and the slaves that were brought over from Africa to work on the plantations. They were treated so viciously. It was a horrible life for them. That was the beginning of slavery in this country and that introduced the African Americans into society. That was an important topic. So I did a lot of research on the slave rebellions and what it was like on the sugar plantations for the slaves. Angelique had slave servants.

In the second book, The Salem Branch, there, of course, is enormous prejudice. There is fear. The settlers moved across the ocean but, sadly, the devil came with them. They truly believed the devil was in the forest. When they decided to start trying women, usually middle-aged women, for witchcraft, they deeply believed that these women were in cahoots with the devil. Of course, they weren’t. They were impoverished or lonely or abandoned women who were kind of a strain on society. You can read the transcripts and what these accused women were asked and how they answered the questions. It is marvelous dialogue and scenes for my book. They used to strip search them in the courtroom and search for the devil’s sucking mark.

It was such hypocrisy because what they really wanted to do was to see them naked. What they really wanted to do was to take their property. If someone was hung on the gallows and they owned a piece of property then that property was up for grabs. So, women with nice farms or farmhouses would end up being tried and hung. I really liked delving into that. I think there is so much hypocrisy in the world. I think people just talk out the sides of their mouths, our politicians and our leaders. There are two sets of rules, one for you and one for me.

A lot of the third book takes place in the twenties during prohibition. Of course that’s one of the biggest hypocrisies we ever had. If you had a still, you could be arrested and put in jail. If you were part of the Mafia and you shipped liquor you could be put in jail. But the wealthy people had plenty of whiskey and they drank it all time. So, it was one set of rule for you and one set of rules for me. There was so much hypocrisy during the twenties and the whole idea of prohibition was so ridiculous. It wasn’t until they realized they could tax it and they could make more money that they repealed it.

In the fourth book, I decided to investigate the world of gypsies, probably the ultimate outcasts. There’s not a single society in the world that embraces or respects the gypsies. Everywhere they go, they’re despised and considered immoral, thieves, untrustworthy; that they don’t send their children to school so they’re dirty, they live on the road, they live in little trailers. They won’t adapt to society or participate in society, so they’re a threat do the status quo. They’re held in contempt.

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So your social awareness goes back.

Oh I think I was very socially aware. I went to the March on Washington. I became very involved in the political scene, the war against Vietnam. We went to the park and demonstrated. We lit candles. We were very involved in all of that.

You played five leads in six weeks at the Millbrook Playhouse in Loch Haven, Pennsylvania. I recently did a piece on James Gregory, from Star Trek and Barney Miller. He broke records doing live television in the fifties with a similar workaholic style. How do you prepare and move from one to the other so quickly?

Well, we rehearsed all day and put up the show the next week. It’s called “one week stock,” eight hours of rehearsal, all day long, every day for 7 days, and then you open the new show and you play that at night and start the next show, rehearsing all day. I’m actually a quick study. I learn lines very fast and I loved changing characters. It’s a facility that I think comes instinctively. You change the location or the costume, you change the dialect, you change the walk, you change the rhythm of the character, different makeup.

For me, I just sit down in front of the makeup table an hour before we go on and I’d make the character up. The character becomes alive for me. I’m not a very intellectual actress. It’s much more a feel that I get for a character. I did stock where I played Moliere one week and Shaw the next and Shakespeare the next. It’s a challenge but it’s also marvelous fun. It was tense. A lot of times we weren’t really prepared, which gave me a very good training to do soap opera.

In Dark Shadows, we didn’t stop and we didn’t edit. So we would show up at 8 o’clock in the morning, block the show, run it a couple of times, go down into makeup and hair, go down to the set and do camera blocking – where the three cameramen got all their cues and we got the marks on the floor where we were supposed to stand – and then we’d do a run-through and if we were lucky we have a dress rehearsal. Sometimes we didn’t have time because we had to tape it 4 o’clock in the afternoon. We would tape the show and every mistake we made went on the air the next week. It wasn’t edited. It was like doing live theater.

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I love the blooper reels.

Well, it gave it an energy, a kind of over-the-top feel. It was as though we were doing a play. It felt that way too because we had wonderful costumes and hair pieces and eyelashes; great sets and great props; wonderful antique furniture and rugs and stained glass. It was everything that goes with gothic romance. It was actually a wonderful experience. It was a lot of fun.

When you get together with your Dark Shadows cast mates like David Selby or Katherine Leigh Scott for events like these, are you treated differently because you were, in some people’s eyes, the villain?

No. They’re always thrilled to meet all of us. I have a lot of fans who say “you got me through my adolescence. I was an outcast. I was sad. I was gay. I had pimples. And your character, the way you dealt with heartbreak, you dug deep down inside and found this strength, this willingness to not give up, was what got me through my adolescence. I so related to your character.” I’m really happy about that. I was glad I was able to be an example for a lot of young people. Of course my character isn’t the only one that they aspire to, but I think that’s a good thing. The fans love meeting all of us. We have wonderful fans. I have fans that have become, over the years, very close friends.

Did you stay friendly with Kate Jackson during her Charlie’s Angels years?

I saw her every once in a while, but I didn’t stay friends with her. I’m sorry because we were very close when we were on Dark Shadows. We very close friends. But she went a different direction. She became very famous. I’d love to see her again. I loved her, I really did. We had a lot of fun together.

Most of the actors on Dark Shadows were stage actors, so we had a sense of doing a larger-than-life performance. But the scripts were very well written. They were filled with conflict and so there was a lot there on the page to play. I think that some people were more successful at it than others. I think Jonathan Frid was just able to somehow create the reluctant, guilt-ridden vampire and make him sympathetic.

You’ve played vampires, witches and ghosts, and ghosts of witches and other permutations, who is the most fun at parties?

[Laughs] Witches.

Who is the scariest of the monsters?

I think the creatures who come out of the grave are the scariest, the living dead. They’re all scary. I think vampires are very scary. I think they’re supposed to be scary. I think the reason we are so attracted to vampires is because they’re immortal. They are creatures that have eternal life, which is what we all long for. And they also represent sexuality that can be portrayed on the screen. You can portray the hunger, the summoning, the abandonment to the arms of the actual act of biting. Back then you couldn’t portray sex on the screen. Now they do. A lot.

I think that the vampire is very scary because, two polar opposites drawn together in tension is kind of definition of art. With the vampire you have the godlike creature that lives forever connected with something that’s dead. You know how we feel when we see something dead, like a bug or a rat. We don’t want to touch it because it’s got the odor of death, the disease of death and the decay of death. You imagine a human being as all these things. But there’s also this great allure of a godlike figure that has transcended death.

You pull those two polar opposites into one character and you get this push-pull tension where you’re deeply drawn to that character and at the same time you’re deeply repulsed. So there’s this tug and at the same time this push away. It’s a fascinating character. Young women cannot resist the vampires’ summoning. And the other way around too, when I played a vampire I would summon people and they had to come they couldn’t resist.

It’s the deep power of love. You know, if you’ve fallen in love with someone and they call you on the phone and say hey why don’t you come over, you go. Pretty deep parts of our conscious desire and unconsciousness, our will to live and our will to love and our fear of death are all in play with the vampire. So I think that’s very scary, bottom line, very scary. Don’t you?

Dark Shadows 50th Anniversary Halloween In Hollywood will take place on Saturday, October 29th from 12 Noon to 12 Midnight at the Woman’s Club of Hollywood, located at 1749 N. La Brea Avenue in Hollywood. Admission is $20 for adults and $10 for children 12 and under. Lara Parker’s Dark Shadows – The Heiress of Collinwood is available for pre-order at Amazon

Lara Parker also spoke at length with this writer about the art of magic and the psychology of horror in this profile feature at Entertainment 2morrow.