It was the first Gothic daytime drama, ABC’s first soap opera shot in color, and appealed equally to Goth-loving teenagers and their housewife moms. Debuting in 1966, this half hour of ghostly thrills and otherworldly storylines made Dark Shadows one of the most unique – and popular – shows on television.
The series was created by Dan Curtis (who would later make viewers cry with the mini-series’ The Winds of War and War and Remembrance), who said the idea for Dark Shadows came to him in a dream. The story begins with a young governess who moves to the seaside village of Collinsport, Maine to take care of the Collins’ small son at the creepy Collinswood mansion.
Initially, the show’s ratings weren’t particularly good, and in an attempt to keep the show from, er, dying, the character Barnabas Collins, an almost two-hundred-year-old vampire, was added. Played by veteran Shakespearean actor Jonathan Frid, Barnabas drew in viewers with his empathetic blend of humanity and fiendishness. The success of the character paved the way for other supernatural additions such as werewolves, ghosts, and a witch named Angelique.
In the story, the mansion’s groundskeeper was looking for buried treasure and opened up a crypt in search of it. The crypt held the vampire Barnabas, who was then free to feed on the townspeople. But Barnabas felt guilty about his deadly exploits, and Dr. Julia Hoffman decided she would help him find a cure for his need for blood. But Julia developed feelings for our vampire friend, who was still desperately in love with his wife, Josette DuPress, who died long ago in the 1700’s. Conveniently enough, local girl Maggie looks just like her, setting up a addictive love triangle that viewers couldn’t get enough of.
Newport, Rhode Island was the location for the exterior shots, and interiors were shot in New York. Respected local actors such as Harvey Keitel, Abe Vigoda, Marsha Mason and Kate Jackson appeared on the show. The network demanded that the special effects-laden show not do any retakes. The result is an array of bloopers throughout the production – forgotten lines, stage hands getting in the way of shots, cigarette smoke from the crew wafting into the shot, gravestones falling over, and microphones in the shot. Characters were often coming back from the dead and moving back and forth through the centuries – occasionally resulting in the exhausted actors calling a few cohorts by the wrong name.
The fascinating characters and thrilling storylines garnered millions of viewers, including former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. The show licensed the characters out for View-Master viewer reels and trading cards, and it was the basis for a Broadway play and two feature films - House of Dark Shadows in 1970 and Night of Dark Shadows in 1971.
Dark Shadows went off the air on April 2, 1971 after five years on TV, and production was started on Night of Dark Shadows. Strong viewer support paved the way for reruns to be aired throughout the 70’s and 80’s, and a new Dark Shadows production was started for a made-for-TV movie in 1990, along with a new prime time show in 1991. That series was cancelled only a few months later. Tim Burton took a stab at the frightful franchise in 2012, releasing a feature film that starred (as if there were any question) Johnny Depp. While the film enjoyed box office success, it couldn’t match the charm of the original series, which retains it’s un-dead luster to this day. Conventions, clubs, fanzines, and websites still pay homage to this deliciously ghoulish soap opera from yesteryear, a legacy no easier to silence than than Barnabas himself.
If you have fond memories of watching Dark Shadows as a kid, we hope you’ll take a moment to share your recollections of this beloved show with all of us in our comments section.