My Obsession: The Dick Van Dyke Show

Was the Sixties sitcom a harbinger of horror?

September 30, 1964: Viewers of The Dick Van Dyke Show receive an unusual treat. Instead of seeing Rob Petrie navigate some avoidable but relatable social or professional snafu, they get a story about Rob, wife Laura, and fellow Alan Brady Show writers Buddy and Sally spending the night in a reputedly haunted cabin. The episode, like most from the show's five seasons, is hilarious, but it's also a mini-horror romp, part The Old Dark House, part Scooby-Doo (which didn't exist yet). It's creepy, with some surprisingly effective horror gags, until – spoiler alert – the ending reveals that everything's OK after all. I don't know how this was received after it aired – TV recap culture had yet to be inflicted on the world – but I do know as I watched the whole series on Netflix recently, that episode didn't seem like an outlier so much as a culmination of something very strange that I began to notice from the first episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show: This cheerful series about the "World's Friendliest Man" is full of references to horror, mystery, and the macabre.

Don't get me wrong, this isn't a thinkpiece where some smartass (that's me) makes the argument that some beloved piece of pop culture is actually dark, unforgivable anti-entertainment to anybody paying attention. Rob Petrie isn't actually a monster, and his marriage to Laura wasn't really a sham. But as I worked my way through the show, the pattern of references to the terrifying or mysterious became so overwhelming, I did something I'd never done: I started a spreadsheet.

Here are just a few highlights from my exhaustive, and as far as I know, unprecedented research:

"When a Bowling Pin Talks, Listen": Richie asks Rob to read him some bedtime stories: "The Tell-Tale Heart" and "The Raven" by Edgar Allan Poe.

"The Masterpiece": Rob buys a tacky clown painting, and when he scrapes away the top layer to see if there's anything underneath it, the first thing he sees is a human eye.

"The Plots Thicken": This episode, about Rob and Laura's parents competing over cemetery plots, gives Rob a chance to do a Boris Karloff impression (which he does several times throughout the series).

"Scratch My Car and Die": Rob gets a fancy new impractical sports car. Its name? "The Tarantula."

"Dear Mrs. Petrie, Your Husband's in Jail": Rob sees a monster triple-feature at the movies – Attack of the Giant Crickets, Dracula's Grandson, and The Monster Who Ate Anything, but the experience is ruined when the kids in the audience spend the whole show cheering for the monsters.

These are just some of the more interesting examples; I have dozens more. Some of them are just a throwaway line or stray bit of business, but once you're attuned to them, they have an incredible cumulative effect. What used to be a show about a comedy writer and his adorable wife becomes part of a zeitgeist, Frankenstein patchwork, of a piece with other TV shows that were on the air at the time – The Twilight Zone, The Addams Family, The Munsters – plus the scary stuff that was swirling around the real world informing pop culture – the Vietnam War, myriad political assassinations (including that of JFK, whose resemblance to Rob Petrie along with Jackie's to Laura was well known), Charles Manson, not to mention Hitchcock's Psycho, which gets an explicit shout-out in the season 5 episode "Long Night's Journey Into Day," a DVD horror special in its own right.

If I were a skilled TV critic, I'd build a subtextual case here, that the real message of The Dick Van Dyke Show is that in the mid-20th century the only truly safe spaces available to an enterprising person were their home and office. Everywhere else, potential disaster loomed, and even the horror of the outside world had a way of creeping in, like the exposed human eye underneath Rob's clown painting, or Sally's mystery boyfriend who turns out to be a mortician. But I'm just a guy with a spreadsheet, so I'll direct you to what Laura says to Rob in season 4's "The Impractical Joke": "There's a little bit of the monster in you." Rob responds by doing the Karloff impersonation again, and everybody laughs.

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