Dark Shadows

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Dark Shadows

In the world of continuing daytime drama, or "the soaps," Dark Shadows remains an anomaly. Unlike any other day or evening television show, Dark Shadows' increasing popularity over the course of its five year run from 1966 to 1971 led to the creation of two feature films entitled House of Dark Shadows and Night of Dark Shadows, a hit record album of themes from the show, and a series of 30 novels, comic books, and other paraphernalia—a development unheard of in the world of daytime television. Dark Shadows had unexpectedly evolved from another afternoon soap into a cultural phenomenon and franchise. Indeed, Dark Shadows was in a genre all to itself during this period of twentieth-century television history.

Like other soaps, Dark Shadows dealt with forbidden love and exotic medical conditions. Unlike any other, however, its conflicts tended to extend beyond the everyday material most soaps cover into more "otherworldly" phenomena. Nestled in the fog-enshrouded coastal town of Collinsport, Maine, the Collins family was repeatedly plagued by family curses which involved ghosts, vampires, were-wolves, and "phoenixes"—mothers who come back from the dead to claim and then kill their children. In fact, there were as many curses as there were locked rooms and secret passageways in the seemingly endless family estate known as Collinwood. Characters had to travel back and forth in time, as well as "parallel time" dimensions, in order to unravel and solve the mysteries that would prevent future suffering.

Amazingly, despite its cancellation some 30 years ago and the fact that during its time on the air it was constantly threatened with cancellation by the management of ABC, Dark Shadows is fondly remembered by many baby-boomers as "the show you ran home after school to watch" in those pre-VCR days. It is the subject of dozens of fan websites and chatrooms, an online college course, and even a site where fans have endeavored to continue writing episodes speculating what might have transpired after the last episode was broadcast in 1971. There are even yearly conventions held by the International Dark Shadows Society celebrating the show and featuring former cast members who are asked to share their memories.

The concept for Dark Shadows originated in the mind of Emmy-winning sports producer Dan Curtis, who wanted to branch out into drama. His dream of a mysterious young woman journeying to an old dark house—which would hold the keys to her past and future—became the starting point, establishing the gothic tone which combined elements of Jane Eyre with The Turn of the Screw —the latter of which would figure repeatedly in later plotlines.

The young woman was known as Victoria Winters (Alexandra Moltke). She accepted a post as a governess of ten-year-old David Collins (David Henesy), heir to the family fortune and companion to Collinwood's stern and secretive mistress, Elizabeth Collins (Joan Bennett). Believing herself to be an orphan (she is in fact the illegitimate daughter of Elizabeth Collins), Victoria senses that the keys to her past and future lie with the Collins family.

While plot complications in the first few months of the show concerned mysterious threats on Victoria's life, there was little in the turgid conflicts between the Collins family and a vengeful local businessman to attract viewers, and ratings were declining rapidly. This is when Curtis decided to jazz things up by introducing the first of the series' many ghosts. While exploring in an obscure part of the rambling Collins estate, young David encounters the ghost of a young woman, Josette DuPres. As ratings began to rise, Josette becomes integral in helping to protect David from Curtis' next supernatural phenomenon—the arrival of Laura Collins (Diana Millea), David's deceased mother who has risen from the dead as a phoenix to claim him.

While this influx of the supernatural buoyed up the flailing ratings, it was the introduction of Jonathan Frid as vampire Barnabas Collins—originally intended to be yet another short term monster to be dealt with and destroyed—that established the tone for the show and caused its popularity to steadily rise. Cleverly, Barnabas was not depicted as a mere monster, but as a man tortured by his conscience. Barnabas had once been in love with Josette DuPres and, upon encountering local waitress Maggie Evans (Kathryn Leigh Scott), he attempts to hypnotize her into becoming Josette, hoping to then drink her blood and transform her into his eternal vampire bride. His efforts, however, are thwarted by the intervention of yet another benevolent ghost.

The increasing popularity of the tortured Barnabas and his sufferings in love led the writers to attempt yet another first—in a seance Victoria Winters is instantaneously transported to 1795, and there, along with the audience, witnesses the events surrounding the original Barnabas/Josette love story. This extended flashback—with the cast of actors playing the ancestors of their present characters—ran for months to high ratings as young uncursed Barnabas goes to Martinique on business, and there meets and prepares to marry young Josette DuPres, the daughter of a plantation owner. Simultaneously, he initiates an affair with her maid Angelique Bouchard (Lara Parker), who is herself in love with Barnabas and attempts to use witchcraft to possess him. When he attempts to spurn her, Angelique places an irreversible curse on him and, suddenly, a vampire bat appears and bites him. Though he manages to kill Angelique before he can transform Josette into his vampire bride, the spirit of Angelique appears to her, shows her the hideousness of her future, and in response the traumatized girl runs from Barnabas and throws herself off the edge of Widow's Hill, to be dashed on the rocks below. The fateful lovers' triangle of Barnabas, Josette, and Angelique was repeated in various forms throughout the life of the show.

Always searching for a novel twist, the writers then toyed with the concept of "parallel time." Barnabas discovers a room on the estate in which he witnesses events transpiring in the present, but the characters are all in different roles—the result of different choices they made earlier. This is essentially a parallel dimension, and he enters it, hoping to learn that there he is not a vampire. Kathryn Leigh Scott suggested that this innovation proved to be so complex that it hastened the demise of the show, for both the writers and audience were having trouble keeping track of the various characters in "real" time versus the variations they played in alternate "parallel times." But as Victoria Winters had suggested in her opening voice-over, essentially the past and present were "one" at Collinwood.

Over the course of its approximately 1,200 episodes, Dark Shadows' ratings ebbed and peaked, drawing an extremely diverse audience. By May of 1969, the show was at its peak of popularity as ABC's number one daytime drama which boasted a daily viewership of some 20 million. It was this status that led producer/creator Dan Curtis to envision a Dark Shadows feature film—yet another first for a daytime drama. Despite the show's success, however, most studios laughed off the idea until Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer (MGM) green-lighted it and House of Dark Shadows became the first of the show's movie adaptations. For this big screen incarnation, Curtis decided to go back to the central and most popular plotline involving Barnabas' awakening/arrival at Collinwood, his meeting Maggie Evans, and his subsequent effort to remake her into his lost love Josette. Curtis did attempt to change the tone of the film version of the story—instead of being the vampire with a conscience, Barnabas would be what Curtis originally envisioned him to be; a monster that would motivate the greater gore ratio Curtis intended for the film audiences.

Released in 1971, House of Dark Shadows was such a success that some claim it helped to save a failing MGM, and Curtis was commissioned by the studio to create another film. Its successor, Night of Dark Shadows was a smaller scale effort. Adapting one of the parallel time plotlines, Quentin Collins (David Selby) inherits the Collins' estate and brings his young wife (played by Kate Jackson, later of Charlie's Angels and Scarecrow and Mrs. King) there to live. There he begins painting the image of Angelique, whose ghost appears to seduce and take possession of him. Less successful than its predecessor, but still a moneymaker, there were plans to make a third film when Dark Shadows was canceled and Curtis decided to move on to other projects.

Some 20 years later, in 1991, Curtis joined forces with NBC to recreate Dark Shadows as a prime-time soap opera. In this incarnation, Curtis attempted to initiate things with the arrival of Barnabas Collins (played by Chariots of Fire Oscar nominee Ben Cross) and the subsequent recounting of his history via the 1795 flashback. As he did with Joan Bennett before her, veteran actress (and fan of the original show) Jean Simmons took over the role of Elizabeth Collins Stoddard, and British scream queen Barbara Shelley was cast as Dr. Julia Hoffman. This casting also included Lysette Anthony as Angelique, and Adrian Paul—future star of Highlander: The Series —as Barnabas' younger brother Jeremiah Collins. Despite much anticipation by fans, the show debuted as a mid-season replacement just as the Gulf War began. It was both pre-empted and shifted around in its time slot due to low ratings until the producers finally chose to cancel it after 12 episodes.

—Rick Moody

Further Reading:

Scott, Kathryn Leigh. Dark Shadows: The 25th Anniversary Collection. Los Angeles, Pomegranate Press, 1991.

——. My Scrapbook Memories of Dark Shadows. Los Angeles, Pomegranate Press, 1986.

Scott, Kathryn Leigh, and Jim Pierson. The Dark Shadows Almanac. Los Angeles, Pomegranate Press, 1995.

Scott, Kathryn Leigh, and Kate Jackson. The Dark Shadows Movie Book. Los Angeles, Pomegranate Art Books, 1998.