Like sands through the hourglass

Even if you don't spend your afternoons watching "Days of Our Lives," you probably know about the Salem Serial Killer, thanks to those ultra-campy ads.

By Rebecca Traister

Published May 21, 2004 8:23PM (EDT)

In February, on a girls' weekend in Miami, two friends and I were changing in our hotel room when an ad for the NBC soap opera "Days of Our Lives" came on the television in the background. Heather and Sara and I are adult girlfriends -- we met several years after college. We have, in the course of our friendship, discussed many horrifying things: bad boyfriends, politics, freak birth-control accidents, Sharon Stone at this year's Golden Globes. We had never talked about "Days of Our Lives."

But as we shook the sand out of our shoes, all three of us paused to look at the menacing hockey-masked figure on the television screen.

"So I guess Marlena is the Salem Serial Killer," said Heather. "Yeah, she killed Jack and Roman," said Sara. "And Alice," I added. "What? Alice Horton!?" both women shrieked at me. "I don't think she's really dead," I reassured them quickly.

It was then that I realized that we'd just fallen into conversational lock step about a subject I hadn't fluently discussed for nearly a decade. "Have you guys been watching 'Days'?" I asked.

Nope. None of us had been. Not since college, anyway. But somehow, NBC's ad campaign for the Salem Serial Killer had sucked us in. Since late last year, the Salem Serial Killer had been picking off "Days" characters, including Jack, Abe, Tony, Roman, Maggie and Doug. Each murder had merited its own dramatic commercial, airing during other NBC programming. In early 2004, the serial killer was revealed -- in ads -- to be the soap's longtime diva-in-residence Marlena Evans Brady Black, who has been played since 1976 (minus one four-year absence due to the character's "death") by Deirdre Hall, whom nonsoap viewers may remember from the late-'80s NBC show "Our House" with Wilford Brimley. In February, the promos showed us, Marlena shockingly knocked off "Days'" great-great-grandmother, Alice Horton, who has been on the show since its 1965 debut and is portrayed by 91-year-old Frances Reid.

Yeah, right. As if they would let Marlena take out Alice. I firmly believe that Alice will leave Salem only due to the same natural causes that took her husband, Tom Horton: the death of the actor who plays her. MacDonald Carey, who played the good doctor Tom from Day One, died in 1994, though his voice still intones the show's "Like sands through the hourglass ..." every day. It's clear that whoever the killer is -- and I'm not sure it's Marlena -- no one actually murdered Alice, however much it's looked that way.

I should probably come clean here: While it's true that I have not sat through a full hour of daytime television since graduating from college seven years ago, back in the day I was more than a casual soap fan: I was a fiend. And though I was addicted, from childhood, to particular story lines ("General Hospital's" Anna and Duke and Katherine and Robert, "Days of Our Lives'" Bo and Carly), I was catholic in my thirst for stories on any show. A drama junkie with a sharp eye for detail, I found my own life too boring to satisfy my romantic and imaginative energies. My parents didn't like me watching soaps, for which I'd first acquired a taste with a baby sitter when I was 4. (I learned what the word "rape" meant after Luke did it to Laura in 1979.) So in elementary school I'd sneak home and watch, until my parents relented in junior high and let me begin taping them. I discussed them endlessly with my best friend Judy.

Later, my obsession turned professional: I was a production intern on "As the World Turns" in high school and college. And as a senior, long weaned of my real habit, I wrote my American studies honors thesis on issues of feminism and postmodernism with regard to "All My Children" ur-diva Erica Kane Martin Brent Cudahy Chandler Roy Roy Montgomery Chandler Marrick Marrick, played since time began by Susan "The Looch" Lucci.

The point is, while rusty, I remain a true soap opera professional with a very long memory. To this day, if you have questions about Eden and Cruz or Duncan and Shannon or Meghan and Jake or Reva and Josh or Patch and Kayla or Julia and Mason, I can fill you in. If I look at five minutes of a drama I've never seen before, I can tell you that the extra second the camera lingers on a character's locket means that the DNA results revealing some baby's true parentage and threatening a beloved couple are hidden inside. I can also tell you that within a year, the baby in question will be shipped off to summer camp and return as a nubile teen, anxious to wear halter tops and mate with other chronological infants.

My nose for narrative started twitching back in that South Beach hotel room. If two women who do not watch soaps are conferring with me about a plotline we've only seen ads for, it's the first stirrings of a minor cultural phenomenon.

As usual, I was right. After seven years in New York hearing nary a whisper about daytime soaps, this spring I'd find myself at a party or bar, and someone would shout across a banquet: "Did you see that they caught Marlena?" I am not exaggerating; this has actually happened several times, as Marlena has been apprehended, questioned and killed by police, and a new batch of ads have promised viewers "the biggest twist in daytime history!" When I'd ask the partygoers if they watched the show, they'd say no, only the ads.

"The level of information I have on the Salem Serial Killer is roughly on par with my understanding about that time [pop singer] Thalia's family got kidnapped in South America," said my friend Andrew. "I've just seen the promos." But he's following along. "I'm confused right now because the last ad I saw, Marlena was covered in her own blood in the arms of the guy who was, at one point, Roman," he said. "The next thing I know, I see in the soap opera papers this picture of Marlena with glowing eyes saying that she's not really dead." Andrew said his working knowledge of characters comes from when he used to watch "Days," "back when Roman was actually Roman." (Looooong story.)

Andrew added that one of the bigger surprises of the serial killer plotline has been the death of "that sort of swarthy guy -- was he a Cassadine?" (Andrew had jumped soaps and was remembering a former character on "General Hospital." But he was right; Thaao Penghlis, who played Victor Cassadine on "GH" in 1981, when Andrew was 9 -- well spotted! -- recently portrayed Tony DiMera, a January victim of the Salem Serial Killer.) "There was an ad with him in a circus scene, as the ringmaster, looking really, really frightened," remembered Andrew. "Then there was a person in the hockey mask approaching him. That's all I saw. It looked really cheap but really good."

The "really cheap but really good" feel of the ads may be what's hooking nonviewers. Hockey masks, black cloaks, circus stunts and buckets (literally) of fake blood lend the campaign a balls-out camp factor that has amplified the suspense of multiplying bodies and the killer's fluid identity. Or maybe it's that Hall's Marlena is one of soaps' doyenne icons, in league with AMC's Erica, GH's Bobbie, "The Young and the Restless'" Nicki, "The Guiding Light's" Reva. They've been married, divorced, possessed, killed and revived, cloned, raped, transported in time and space; they require only first names.

My friend Christine, who has been injured and housebound for several months, knows about the Salem Serial Killer. "But not because I watch it," she said quickly. "Because I see the ads. Based on those ads and the one summer [I watched it] when I was 11, I think that what's going on is that Marlena turned evil and she's the Salem Serial Killer. I just remember that she used to be good and now she's this horrible serial killer."

Judy, my best friend from junior high and high school, now lives in L.A. and hasn't watched soaps regularly in years. But by e-mail she wrote, "The only thing I know about 'Days' is that Mickey and Maggie got killed by the Salem Stalker [sic]." Judy is wrong. While both Mickey and Maggie were attacked, only Maggie was snuffed. "The fact that Mickey and Maggie stayed alive this long was shocking enough to me," she continued.

A recent issue of Soap Opera Digest, with a filmy shot of Deirdre Hall on the front, an inset of Frances Reid, and the headline: "'Day''s Most Shocking Twist Yet ... They're Alive!" suggested that the next big reveal in the plotline would come Friday, May 21. I stayed home and watched; it was my first real hour of 'Days' since Carly was buried alive in 1994. It wasn't hard to catch up; the episode opened in what I can only assume was the same prop-department coffin. This time, however, it was Marlena inside, not yet underground but at her own funeral. Thanks to the coffin-cam, we saw her wake up and bang on the lid, heard only by her daughter Sami, who was sobbing over the box, recalling her mother's previous death in her early childhood. The first half of the show was about Sami trying to convince reluctant mourners to open the coffin.

During the hour, I received an e-mail from Heather, of the Miami hotel room. She was at work, and began by telling me, "I'm very jealous that you get to watch 'Days' today." She then offered some of her own predictions about how Marlena's crimes, identity and death will get sorted out. "It seems like the only real answer here is demon possession," she wrote, expressing her disappointment that the show's writers would return to a plot they'd already used with Marlena a decade ago. "I'm a little surprised that they couldn't come up with a better back story -- maybe they will, but a glowing-eyed promo I saw seemed clear on the supernatural arc. Couldn't Marlena in fact be a robot, an evil killing machine that Stefano put in place a while ago to fake his own death (and exact a bunch of other real ones) while he keeps the real (good and pure) Marlena locked up somewhere?" If it turned out that the twin-bot had been in place for years, Heather speculated, "then John would have to experience the bitter reality of having to choose between two loves, just like she did between him and Roman."

This was such a sensitive analysis that I felt compelled to check again: Heather hadn't started watching the show again, had she? "No, I haven't watched the show since college," she wrote back immediately. "But those ads! Had I TiVo, they might just have lured me back in." Then she was off again. "And from what I've heard, it sounds like most everyone in Salem is dead. Who's left? Didn't she kill like 10 people?" she wrote, asserting that "Marlena was bold -- that glowing-eye promo showed her spilling a bucket of blood on a guy and then releasing what we assume is a bloodthirsty tiger in the middle of a circus. Everyone, of course, was paralyzed with fear, and it seemed clear to me that the blood-soaked guy died too. I wonder where she got the bucket of blood?"

I stopped e-mailing Heather and returned to the show, where by halftime, Sami had convinced everyone to open the damn coffin. But alas, the fully alive Marlena had dozed off, and though there were many promising gasps, they just wound up burying her anyway.

I noticed that the daytime Emmy Awards will be on tonight, and that Frances Reid will be honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award, along with a passel of other aged soap veterans. As today's episode ended, with Marlena waking up in her now-interred coffin and screaming for help, it sounded like there was a saw in the background. My guess is that it will be Alice Horton, nonagenarian, in goggles and wielding a buzz saw, who gets her out. I'll have to decide this weekend whether or not to tape Monday's episode to find out.

Rebecca Traister

Rebecca Traister writes for Salon. She is the author of "Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women" (Free Press). Follow @rtraister on Twitter.

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