Willie gets an early morning—er, early afternoon—visit from Roger:
WILLIE: Please. I want to sleep.
ROGER: Yes, I’m sure you do. But I’m afraid at the moment that’s impossible. You’re leaving. Come on, get up!
WILLIE: Leave me alone, I’m sick.
ROGER: That, as you know, is a blatent lie… The whole household is aware you drove off last night, and probably didn’t return until early this morning. You couldn’t possibly be sick. Come on, get up!
Willie has really endeared himself to the inhabitants of Collinwood, hasn’t he? Even Jason thinks he’s up to something, and Roger is literally prepared to throw him onto the street.
Okay no but seriously, there’s a lot of embedded social beliefs and practices in the whole arc of Willie Loomis’ victimization by the hands of Barnabas Collins, and at the risk of ostracizing myself from all of my followers, I’m going to talk about how an interaction between underclass drifter and a member of the “landed gentle class” manages to embody a lot of the actual work and social practices in older white American communities.
(Like anybody actually wants to hear about WASPs, it’s not like they already don’t have the majority of the social power and representation in media. Which they do, but this interaction manages to subvert this really well.)
So okay it’s technically the stereotypical arc of someone languishing after being bitten by a vampire, but it’s so different because this is a lower class dude, not some sexy helpless teenage girl who dies tragically before her virginity can be taken by the nearest buff heterosexual dude.
Willie Loomis is the epitome of the sketchy creepster you don’t want to meet outside of a bar, he’s already gotten into fights with just about every member of the local community, pulled a knife on someone, awkwardly creeped on every female inhabitant, and just otherwise showed he isn’t fit for proper civil human interaction.
But Willie also shows his dumb hurt at being treated like trash by these people. He is acutely aware of his position, at being the newcomer in an insular and reclusive community, at being someone with little money and fewer cordial manners, and chafes at their disgust and openly protests their rejection.
"What makes you so much better than me?" Is what his first few episodes are summed up as. "Why don’t I deserve the same love and security that you all have?" And for Willie, he’s the representation of one of those people who was just born in the wrong place, and got caught up with the wrong people, and before you know it, you’re an adult and stuck in a rigid socioeconomic class that no amount of physical travelling can propel you out of socially.
Willie is the representation of the people who fall through the cracks in society. When he goes missing for 3 days, the only reason why anyone worries about him is because they figure he’s up to no good, not that he has any inherent worth in saving as a person, or that they’re worried in his well being. The want to know where he is, so that they know he’ll be gone. When he returns, his acute and startling illness only evokes feelings of suspicion and mistrust, and outright contempt, especially by the upper class.
Willie does his share in defying the carefully cultivated social norms and rituals in such a rigid place as small town, old school Maine. This doesn’t endear him to the members of the community, and then he tops it with a dose of thoroughly unacceptable treatment of women (Willie, no amount of insisting to a girl that she should like to be touched will ever make it okay for you to touch them), and by the time we get to his comeuppance arc, we the audience are chomping at the bit for Willie to get his due. (Stop grave robbing, Willie, that’s just gross.)
But by the time he is literally faced with a demon who preys on humans, drinks their blood, victimizes them by inciting unwanted sexual reactions, and brought to the brink of death, we as the audience question our rightness in ever wishing a fate like that on anyone, and as such we question our morality as members of society.
Willie Loomis is the one character I’ve seen in dozens of vampire adaptations that treats being attacked by a vampire as anything close to what it’s folklore equivalent was supposed to evoke. This man was attacked by an actual demon, imprisoned for several days while he was being used as a physical resource for that demon, and then physically beaten into complacency.
And no one worried about where he was or if he was okay. And it’s startling, because it’s such a realistic reaction and easily recognizable. If you took “vampire” and replaced it with “psychotic serial killer”, your stomach might drop a little bit, because suddenly the parallels to social behavior are all too real. This is why the poor, the underclass, the unwanted members of society are often the prey of actual predators in our society, vampires notwithstanding.
Because no one will miss them when they disappear for a few days, every one just assumes they took off on a bender, or their newest boyfriend or girlfriend, or are laying low after committing some shitty deed. Only when they show up dead or in a hospital does anyone feel bad that they didn’t check up to see if the victim was alive or okay. Because their worth as a person has been overriden by the behavior that society perceives as unacceptable.
And here you have this very real and very immediate depiction of human suffering, by the lowest of society in this show, and it’s being brushed off by the members who could do the most to alleviate that suffering. The man who has the most wealth and social power and connection, the man who won’t be held accountable for his own heinous deeds (he managed to get some other guy as a patsy for his own vehicular manslaughter charge, guys), won’t even spare a shred of concern or compassion for another man who is obviously ill.
And it’s fantastic. It’s so realistic, and so identifiable in society that it’s almost palpable. I felt acutely uncomfortable watching many of these scenes, because I’ve been where Willie is. I’ve been the “histrionic”, dismissed, overlooked, and thoroughly ill lower class member. And because so many of my own social practices are unpalatable to members of the upper class, my worth as a person has been negated so that I’ve been passed over and ignored when I’ve actually been severely sick.
Being told to get up, get out, get out of sight and out of mind so that we don’t spread our suffering all over the lives of people who have too much money and social consequence to have to be bothered to give a shit about what happens to us. Because part of our culture is that while it’s rude to impose on people, if you have the wealth to help others, you would be a good person to use that wealth to do so.
And Willie here fluctuates between imposing on people, and genuinely needing help. He starts out as imposing greatly by being the creepiest house crasher ever, and then slides steeply into being a totally helpless and very seriously in trouble person.
The very worst thing is that no one helps him.
Willie ends up sliding completely through the cracks of society, and instead of dying from a drug overdose, or being killed by his abusive partner, or sold into human trafficking, he’s lost his soul to a demon. He’s held captive, and his very will and consciousness are bereft and held by a new owner, and Willie is lost as a human being. No one stepped in to say, “Geez, maybe I should check and make sure this dudes body and immortal soul isn’t in danger,” because they were too busy thinking, “I really hope someone teaches him a lesson one day.”
Willie’s final reward is to be shot repeatedly in the back and sent to a mental institution after regressing to the nascence of his emotional, physical, and mental abuse, and returning to his absolute fear of being lost to the dark.
Because he was lost to the dark, and no one ever sent out a search party to look for him.
Thanks, this was a wonderful analysis of Willie Loomis and his plight.
Can I add he was the closest thing we got to a hero during the Maggie Evans kidnapping arc? He stood between her and death-by-enranged-vampire so many times. He did his—somewhat ineffectual—best to protect her right from the beginning. (The sad thing is, no-one, not even Maggie, would ever know this and give Willie his due.) What’s more, Willie became the first person to call Barnabas Collins out for his actions. Pretty great, when you consider he started as a creepy minor predator in his own right. Perhaps Willie’s story wasn’t so much about how he was “lost as a human being”, as how he recovered his own humanity in adversity.
Oh, I would definitely say that there’s loads of different ways his character arc can be interpreted, and that there even are multiple thematic threads going on at the same time.
I would personally balk at saying he’s recovered his own humanity in the face of adversity, as though anyone, even a fictional character, needed to face imprisonment, creative forms of rape, various forms of abuse, and all sorts of trauma in order to acknowledge or recover some notion of worth.
I would agree that his experiences with Barnabas forced him to understand life and his own behavior in a different way, but not necessarily a better way. However misapplied, Willie had a sense of self worth and the idea that he could and would defend himself before his attack. He repeatedly told everyone from his old friend to complete strangers that he wouldn’t abide by their treatment of him.
After the attack, there was no standing up for himself, because he had no more inherent worth as a person— even when he tried to regain agency and flee, his will was subverted and brought back. He was broken and remade, but he no longer had any say in what his final shape would be.
I think he stood up for Maggie because he never wanted what happened to him to happen to anyone else, which isn’t necessarily something he wouldn’t have done before. I think Willie was very accustomed to victimization and suffering beforehand, but that before he encountered Barnabas, he figured it was everyone out for themselves, and that they had to defend themselves against the perils in life just like he had.
But Barnabas was a different story, and entirely outside the scope of normal life. Even for Willie, who is ostensibly a world traveler, his grasp of how much ill treatment you can withstand before you’re down for the count didn’t historically include vampires. But as is repeatedly stressed through Barnabas’ monster arc, Barnabas is more than just a creepy and awful guy. There are loads of awful people on the show, but until the supernatural gets involved, everybody is more or less equal in their ability to fuck each other over.
But Barnabas is a literal demon who possesses the trump card in razing a person’s self worth and agency. Barnabas is no longer a person, and not everyone believes in demons or vampires, and therefore it’s not in everyone’s experience to protect members of society against them.
Maggie is a cherished girl. She has a loving father, a devoted boyfriend, and numerous friends and acquaintances in Collinsport. Maggie has inherent worth as a person because her presence alone can make people happy.
With Barnabas threatening her, he’s threatening the tenuous web of social relations and sanity in the working class in Collinsport, which has tendrils all throughout the Collinsport society. They can protect Maggie from men like Willie with a quick beating and some fast social ostracizing, but they can’t protect Maggie from men like Barnabas, because at least during his monster arc, Barnabas is literally an embodiment of the dark. He’s no longer human, and he doesn’t abide by human social order and niceties. Barnabas won’t be dissuaded by people telling him “no”, because he has ways and methods that don’t include the range of human sanity or morality any longer.
He mocks norms by indulging in their pleasantries, but when all is said and done, Barnabas always has the last word, because he has the ultimate power of controlling life and death, because he doesn’t need to acknowledge either one of these.
And Willie knows that no one left of worth could stand between Maggie and Barnabas. How could they? Anyone who is engaged in society has to play by their rules, believe what the rest of society believes— and what sane, law abiding person believes in soulless blood-sucking demons? No one.
But Willie doesn’t have any worth. The last tatters of his self respect. the last spark of indignation at the way society treats him, denies him respect and kindness, and warmth, was removed when Barnabas Collins sucked his agency out through the gash on his arm. If blood is supposed to be a representation of the deepest part of oneself in this series (and Barnabas says as much, during the Doc Woodard arc), then when Barnabas nearly drained Willie of his blood, he very nearly drained Willie of the deepest recesses of his human regard.
The way I read Willie standing between Maggie and Barnabas wasn’t that Willie was recovering his humanity. He had nothing left to lose, and not even his life was something worth preserving if defying Barnabas was anything to go by. He was acknowledging that he was no longer anyone who had the social worth and luxury of denying Barnabas’ existence and his proclivities. There was no getting out, no getting saved, nobody from up above was going to swoop in and save him— just as nobody was going to save Maggie.
I think he recognized Maggie as being a precious girl, and someone worth saving. But I think he saw that about her anyway, long before he was taken by Barnabas. But I think that once his perception of being able to reach out and touch the more accepted members of society was removed, and once he realized no one else would save her, it was left up to him. And even then, he thought he failed, because all that happened was that Barnabas destroyed the girl through his predation and madness.
So yeah; for the way I read it, Willie didn’t actually attain humanity after being preyed on (I think that’s a really slippery slope anyway, and falls in line with the trope of the weaker members of society gaining strength through victimization, and I don’t think that’s ever an okay thing). I think that what made Willie human and vital and free was actually taken from him after the attack, and his humanity was only steadily eroded from there.
I do agree that his behavior was more socially acceptable after the attack, but the reform was at the cost of his self worth and sense of agency, and begs the question of whether or not it could have been done some other way. (We get the hint that yes it could have been, if Willie had more resources that would have allowed him some other life path to gain resources through more socially acceptable means. His sole champion, Jason, suggests that Willie is fiercely loyal to his friends, and he could have been a very different person if he didn’t have to be a thief and a con artist.)
Added, I think Willie had an appreciation for goodness and kindness in people even before his attack, given his attempts to spontaneously elicit it from people without ulterior motive. (I do believe he didn’t mean to be a massive creep on Carolyn, but that doesn’t excuse the fact he was a borderline rapist, but it does go to show you he wanted something other than money like Jason.) But then he’s so fantastically maladjusted to constant rejection from society that he’s reached the end of his rope, and when they’re understandably freaked out by his social fumbling, it frustrates him even further and he lashes out.
I don’t think Willie was a sociopath or a psychopath before the attack, or that he was unaware or unknowing of niceness or morals. I think he was all too aware of them, and the fact that he felt it was never a place he could attain, even though he was constantly striving for any kind of access and was constantly rejected from that place.
But for me, the bottom line is that after the attack, it was nothing Wille could ever dream of trying to attain again. No amount of good manners or positive reception from others could restore his ability to be his own person. Willie was always Barnabas’ from then on, and could never belong to a better place in life.
He would always be slave to something, but now he would never have a chance to try to climb back out.
Not “attain” his humanity—“regain” his humanity. There’s a difference! I find it telling that the first reaction we see from Willie after he re-appears is *remorse*. It’s as if he can’t empathise with his own victims until he becomes a victim himself. The irony is that the very thing that re-connects Willie with the human race—becoming Barnabas’ prey—is the thing that isolates him from it.
(I can’t say what Willie’s arc was originally going to be, because the whole Barnabas story became so thoroughly derailed. At a guess, though, I’d say that since Barnabas was slated for a staking, Willie was headed for redemption. Probably the closest we’ll ever get to what they originally had in mind is “House of Dark Shadows”.)
I agree though, that “Dark Shadows” is riddled with issues of class and corruption, and ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’. Barnabas Collins himself is the ultimate Collins “insider”. While everyone suspects Willie of *something*, it’s surprising how many people refuse to believe that Nice Mr Collins could be guilty of anything!