The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Wednesday Addams, a character who spans ’60s sitcoms and viral TikToks

John Astin and Lisa Loring in the 1960s sitcom “The Addams Family.” (ABC Photo Archives/Getty Images)
6 min

Viewers tend to focus on those two long black braids. Summon most any image of the iconic Addams Family daughter, and there is that signature hair. One recent animated film iteration even terminated each braid with a tellingly ominous noose.

Yet the real secret, honestly, was always in the eyes.

Within America’s “first family” of macabre comedy, those distinguishing peepers were in evidence as far back as 1938, when these altogether ooky-kooky cartoon characters debuted in the New Yorker magazine, as rendered by creator Charles Addams.

On the page, the parents in this gothic menagerie, the eventually named Morticia and Gomez Addams, had eyelids. Son Pugsley, too, had white space surrounding his pupils, as did Grandmama and Uncle Fester — and even their butler Lurch.

Daughter Wednesday Addams, though, was always different, even within her spooky brood. Her illustrated eyes were always just solid inky ovals, seemingly simple but as black as young melancholy. Was Wednesday, a “child of woe” as the nursery rhyme goes, staring at us or through us?

Those soulful eyes have been a constant ever since, as each generation gets its own incarnation of Wednesday Addams, Girl Goth.

First on the pop consciousness was Lisa Loring. The actress, who originated the role on television, died Saturday of a stroke in the Los Angeles area at 64. She had other acting credits, including “As the World Turns,” but she is best remembered for “The Addams Family.”

More recently, the character has been much on the world’s screens since late last year, when the Netflix live-action series “Wednesday” made its debut, crackling with Tim Burton’s signature style.

Its first season was reportedly one of Netflix’s most streamed original series last year with nearly 19 billion minutes (Netflix’s top show was “Stranger Things,” not coincidentally another tale of teens battling deadly supernatural forces). “Wednesday” also became a social media sensation partly because of its “Carrie”-esque prom episode, with many young fans taking to TikTok and Instagram to emulate the title character’s spirited dance moves, as performed by its breakout star, Jenna Ortega.

The virality of the dance was an uncanny reminder that Wednesday’s toe-tapping was already a meme, thanks to a popular moment from the original mid-’60s TV series “The Addams Family,” in which Wednesday tries to teach the lumbering Lurch how to cut a rug. For years, online users have delighted in re-setting that scene to an eclectic array of well-known songs, including the Ramones’ “Blitzkrieg Bop.”

Loring, the child actress who sold that scene, joined the two-season ABC show when she was about 5. Loring liked to say she was cast for her pout. But it was those eyes, reflecting innocence amid the quirky darkness and allusions to death, that made Wednesday come alive.

In tribute, Ortega posted to her Instagram stories two photos of young Loring on the ’60s “Addams Family” set, with the caption: “Absolutely devastated. Thank you for everything.” And a friend of Loring’s posted on Facebook to say of the actress, who also appeared in a 1977 “Addams Family” TV movie reuniting the cast: “She is embedded in the tapestry that is pop culture and in our hearts always as Wednesday Addams.”

Those sentiments about Loring represented two ends along the live-action character’s continuum, demonstrating how it has evolved through the decades.

Beginning in 1964, Loring portrayed a sweet and upbeat kid, even when Wednesday was playing with guillotine-beheaded dolls or feeding flies to her pedigreed spider, Homer.

Bob Mankoff, the former New Yorker cartoon editor who once met Addams, went back Monday and watched Loring’s joyous dance scene. “Based on that,” he says, “I can see why the character had legs.” (Loring joked at a 2018 comics convention: “Who taught me to dance like that? I can’t dance like that!”)

Mankoff points out that Loring’s role gave Wednesday a prominence she had not had in the cartoons, where the characters had no names or backstories. “The little girl character who became Wednesday,” he notes, “never even got to voice one caption.”

Yet the characters made a successful transition to TV and have endured in pop culture, Mankoff says, “because they imagine the abnormal as normal, and vice versa.”

A string of other actresses have prominently played or voiced Wednesday on screen and stage — most notably Christina Ricci, who returned to the franchise to play a different role in the Netflix series.

In the ’90s “Addams Family” feature films, Ricci — behind dangerous eyes — delivers a dark tween Wednesday who is capable of sudden acts of terror. That version provides a through-line to Ortega’s Wednesday, who doesn’t even blink at the thought of releasing vicious fishies upon a bullying boy.

Alfred Gough, co-creator of the Netflix series, thinks his show’s Wednesday is popular because “she’s fearless, she speaks her mind, and she tells the truth, whether you like to hear it or not.”

“That fearlessness is something deeply appealing to people in an age when they’re afraid to say what they think,” Miles Millar, Gough’s co-creator and fellow showrunner, added during a recent Zoom interview. “There’s something very liberating about her.”

Gough and Millar hatched their idea nearly four years ago for a series focusing on a teenage Wednesday who is sent to boarding school, Nevermore Academy, where she tries to solve a whodunit. They were thrilled when Burton, who directs some of the episodes, read their scripts and climbed aboard.

The showrunners say Burton was drawn to the concept of Wednesday as an outsider even within an entire school of superpowered outsiders. Thanks to his inspiration, a crucial performance point became Wednesday’s eyes.

As amateur detective, Wednesday zeroes in on those she interrogates with a laserlike focus. Her facial acting is minimalistic, heightening the impact when Wednesday merely raises an eyebrow or uncharacteristically bats an eye. “It was Tim’s idea,” Gough notes, “of Wednesday not blinking.”

On the strength of Ortega’s performance — which is up for a SAG Award in February — Wednesday is riding a new wave of cultural relevance.

“I ran into a former art professor of mine this past weekend who told me that her daughter is ‘playing Addams Family’ on the playground, which is a trip,” says Emma Allen, the New Yorker’s cartoon and humor editor. She adds with a verbal wink: “I’ve been playing a combination of Charles Addams’s Wednesday and Christina Ricci’s Wednesday for most of my life, though at a certain point I ditched the braids.”

Wednesday’s look might change, but Gough thinks there’s a central dynamic that has persisted across the decades.

“What’s great about Wednesday is she’s of the moment and timeless all at once,” the showrunner says. “The Addams Family are, too, because they are a family of oddballs, but they’re actually an incredibly functional family who love each other and celebrate their differences. That’s just universal.”