Vampires, ghosts, and werewolves, oh my. Those were just some of the beasties on that spooky sixties soap Dark Shadows. And here were some of the show’s fans: teenagers, housewives, and hippies—who purportedly appreciated the trippy, otherworldly subject matter and play with time dimensions (oh, my).
The show had a huge following in its heyday, but an equally impressive cult following these days. It holds a place in history as the first Gothic daytime drama, as ABC’s first color soap opera, and, though this is a watershed tougher to measure, it was the first series with a broad Goth appeal. Even if spooky theatrics didn’t make for a kid’s regular TV viewing, they found themselves racing home from school, and moms found themselves racing out of the kitchen, postponing the preparation of that eve’s scrumptious family dinner for a half-hour of thrills and chills.
Dark Shadows was created by Dan Curtis, who would later compel viewers to whisk away tears in mini-series The Winds of War and War and Remembrance. The idea of a young lady governess who came to a seaside village to care for a rich little boy purportedly came to Mr. Curtis in a dream. Which makes good sense, because creepy Collinsport, Maine, and the even creepier Collinwood mansion (home of the Collins family) were certainly dream-ish places—dreams of the “bad” variety, that is.
After several months on the air, unfortunately, the show’s ratings were also of the “bad” variety. In a stroke of desperate revamping (awful pun intended), Curtis added a character named Barnabas Collins—an almost two-hundred-year-old vampire. This particular gentleman of the night was played by former Shakespearean actor Jonathan Frid, who seduced legions of viewers with his blend of ghoulishness and humanity. After Barnabas proved a success, other supernatural characters were also unearthed—ghosts, werewolves and a witch named Angelique.
As the story went, the mansion’s thickheaded groundskeeper opened a dank crypt when he was poking around for buried treasures, and out came vampire Barnabas, who fed on local townspeople but felt guilty about the way he took his nourishment. Sympathetic Dr. Julia Hoffman agreed to help him find a cure for his nighttime eating habits, then promptly fell in love with him. But here’s the kicker—the vamp wasn’t what we’d call today ‘emotionally available’—he still pined for his wife from the 1700’s, Josette DuPress (and the local girl, Maggie, who happened to look just like her). So, in that most addictive and watchable type of TV romance, poor Julia’s love went tragically unrequited.
Though exteriors were shot in Newport, Rhode Island, the stages for the interior scenes were located in New York—noteworthy because a lot of local talent cycled through the more than one hundred sets: Harvey Keitel, Abe Vigoda, Marsha Mason and Kate Jackson among them. The actors worked at a breakneck pace, with special effects-laden shots and a mandate from the network that they not do retakes—all of which meant there were bloopers galore: microphones in shots, gravestones falling over, cigarette smoke from the crew wafting by the camera (during interior shots, mind you), stage hands wandering into live scenes, lines forgotten and bumbled. Plus, because characters so often came back from the dead and slipped in between centuries and time dimensions, the show’s put-upon actors regularly called their scene-partners by the wrong character names…at least until their particular storylines became cemented in their heads.
Though teenagers, housewives, and reportedly, former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis were the show’s earliest fans, millions followed suit. Otherworldly, Halloween-ready characters were also seen on shows like Bewitched, The Addams Family and The Munsters—for the counterculture of the time, there was something very appealing about these counterculture characters. They were a guilty-pleasure break from media’s squeaky-clean Stepford family paradigms.
An instrumental piece of music from the show called “Quentin’s Theme,” featuring a celeste piano, broke the Top-20 singles chart, becoming the first song from a soap opera to do so. Its male stars became teen idols, there were dozens of tie-in novels, comic books, records, games, View-Master viewer reels, trading cards, a Broadway play, and two feature movies: House of Dark Shadows in 1970 and Night of Dark Shadows in 1971. And of course there was the feature film in 2012.
On April 2, 1971, with ratings that were still quite alive, Dark Shadows went off the air after a five-year run (and production on Night of Dark Shadows began). Hearty support from viewers guaranteed years of successful reruns on local stations through the 70’s and 80’s. In response, the producers decided to trot a new Dark Shadows back out for a 1990 TV movie and new prime time episodes with a whole new cast in 1991. That experiment was un-undead within a few months, but there are still Dark Shadow conventions, clubs, fanzines, memorabilia and much-visited websites. Like many of the show’s characters, affection for this ghost opera just won’t die.