In the second half of the 1960s, several US television programmes became cultural phenomena - Star Trek and Rowan And Martin's Laugh-In immediately come to mind. Many of these programmes had an international impact. However one such one series, Dark Shadows, remained largely a US-based phenomenon, with an almost exclusively teen audience. This Gothic soap opera sent high school students in droves running from the bus to the living room every afternoon, and catapulted its hero, the reluctant vampire Barnabas Collins, to iconographic status as an unusual (and, some would say unlikely) heart-throb.
The series - the world's first daytime soap to handle themes such as vampires, werewolves, witches' curses, and time travel - was broadcast between June 27, 1966 and April 2, 1971 and ran for half an hour every weekday; two feature films were also made during the show's run. But, as with the original Star Trek, the story doesn't end with the show's cancellation. 34 years after Barnabas bit his last victim, Dark Shadows books are still being written, trivia exchanged, DVDs sold, and conventions attended.
In 2001, Dark Shadows was honoured with a special retrospective at the American Museum of Television and Radio, a tribute to the longevity of the series' cultural impact.
Genesis of a Classic
The story of Dark Shadows begins with Dan Curtis, the Emmy-winning producer of CBS Golf Classic, who was looking for a new project. One morning, Curtis told his wife that he had dreamed the opening of a soap opera - a young woman on a train, travelling to a small New England town to take up a position as governess in a forbidding mansion by the sea. His wife thought it sounded promising, so the charismatic Curtis pitched the story to a studio executive over lunch that same day, and a legend was born1.
At the time, the legend seemed very far away. ABC, the network that aired Dark Shadows, was in serious trouble with ratings, and had very few affiliates2 carrying its daytime programming. And at first the series was not very different from the usual soap opera fare - lots of brooding atmosphere, but a fairly naturalistic storyline concerned largely with family secrets. But after a year, faced with imminent cancellation, Curtis decided to 'go supernatural' with a ghost or two3. The ratings rose. When Curtis decided to add a vampire to the storyline, originally intending to 'stake' him after nine weeks, the ratings soared.
Now Curtis was stuck with Barnabas Collins, a vampire character who was receiving more fan letters every week than his alleged leading character, governess Victoria Winters. Curtis therefore had to figure out how to keep both the vampire and the whole soap opera alive.
During the rest of Dark Shadows' time as a series, crowds of fans waited outside the studio every day, chalking the names of their favourite characters on the outside wall. Producer Curtis says that he often cautioned actors when their 'wall count' was dropping.
Shooting a Gothic Soap Opera
For all of its 1,245 episodes, Dark Shadows was shot 'live to tape' - that is, the actors blocked out and rehearsed the episode from 8.00am to 3.00pm each day, after which they performed for the cameras, in sequence, dashing from set to set in their 53rd Street, New York City, warehouse studio. There were no retakes - missed lines, 'corpsing'4, prop failures, and even collapsing sets all stayed on film and were seen by millions of laughing, but forgiving, fans. On the cramped sets, the most frequently seen 'dark shadow' was that of the boom mike, which kept getting in frame.
The pressures of learning lines were enormous, and, in the words of the renowned film actress Joan Bennett, 'I think they only hired nearsighted people. None of us could see the teleprompter5. The most infamous offender in the line-forgetting category was the series' star, Jonathan Frid, who played Barnabas Collins. Basically a stage actor, Frid was a notoriously slow study, and spent his first year struggling with the dual challenges of memorising enormous amounts of dialogue and remembering to keep his fangs in his jacket pocket, ready to slip on when the camera cut away before his signature 'bite' scenes.
As the storylines became more convoluted, the cast evolved into a repertory company - when a character was killed, the actor playing him would either be returned as a ghost, or a completely different character.
In spite of the technical difficulties, Dark Shadows was innovative in its techniques. Director Lela Swift and her talented crew managed to make people disappear, emerge from portraits, vanish in flames, and wander through eerie dreamscapes, all with only three cameras.
For all its travelling around in time, Dark Shadows preserved unity of place - the town of Collinsport, Maine, and the estate of Collinwood, which remained largely unchanged over two hundred years. Still exterior photos established location. Slides of sunrise, sunset, and moonlight established time of day - critical information for vampires and werewolves! Such things were all very ambitious for a genre usually limited to static interiors - not to mention the mausoleum, coffins, and mad scientists' laboratories that littered the series.
The Collins Saga
The basic story of Dark Shadows revolves around the Collins family, a wealthy New England shipbuilding clan. The main plotline of the story takes place in the 'present', that is, the 1960s. When Barnabas, their 'cousin from England' (in reality a 175 year-old vampire who has been chained in the family crypt) arrives, mysterious doings ensue, leading to the typically 'Collins-y' decision to hold a séance. During the séance, the governess Victoria Winters is catapulted back in time to the year 1795, where she encounters the original Collins family6, and the audience discovers the secret history of Barnabas Collins. Barnabas, scion of the shipbuilding Collinses, welcomes the arrival of his fiancée, Josette Dupre from Martinique, for their impending wedding. Unfortunately, Josette has also brought along her aunt Natalie and Natalie's maid, Angelique, a witch who has a history with Barnabas. Spurned by the landowner's son, Angelique embarks on a campaign of terror7 that ends with the death of Josette, Barnabas' uncle, aunt, mother and sister, and the cursing of Barnabas, who is bitten by a bat8 and becomes one of the Undead9. Angelique's machinations do not go unnoticed by the fanatic Reverend Trask, but the blame is placed on the stranger Victoria, who is hanged as a witch. Victoria's hanging sends her back through time to the present.
Thus the pattern was set for a series of adventures, which led the characters back and forth through time, and even into the future and 'parallel time'. Due to his unnatural perdurance, Barnabas was usually the one elected to make the journey; sometimes he was a vampire, sometimes (due to the ministrations of his friend Dr Julia Hoffmann, with her 'cure' for vampirism), not.
The adventures of the Collins family would present the audience with a parade of vampires, werewolves, ghosts, a Frankenstein monster and his mate, and any number of charlatans, mediums, witches and warlocks.
The last episode of Dark Shadows was shown in April, 1971. The series was intermittently shown on PBS (Public Broadcasting System) stations from 1975 until 1990, when it was bought by the US Sci-fi Channel for exclusive broadcast. The international version of the Sci-fi Channel now allowed the show to reach European audiences. In 1991, Dan Curtis produced a brief, unsuccessful remake of the original series.
Much like Star Trek, Dark Shadows has given rise to a vast amount of merchandising, including toys, books (fiction and non-fiction), comic books, and video compilations. Conventions continue to be held.
In addition to the two films (House of Dark Shadows and Night of Dark Shadows), Dark Shadows crossed media lines when composer Robert Cobert received a Grammy nomination for the love theme of the show's attractive werewolf. Quentin's Theme achieved 'top-twenty' status in 1969.
When quizzed as to the source of Dark Shadows' appeal, the cast and crew - every single one of them solid non-believers in the occult - point to the 'timelessness' of its themes: love and death10. They become less sanguine when the intense fan attention is mentioned, and hint darkly at an innate 'morbid' streak in humanity.
But what of those middle-aged people who attend conventions, step up to the mike, and announce, 'Your series saved my sanity when I was 16'?
Dark Shadows should probably be seen in the context of the enormous social change of the 1960s. The Gothic subject matter, with its looser approach to reality, appealed to a generation that was learning to cope with vastly expanded horizons of experience. The storylines accepted, even welcomed, the existence of 'more things in heaven and earth' than had been dreamed of before. Unlike the horror and science fiction films of the 1950s, in which monsters existed only to be obliterated, Dark Shadows offered the viewer a chance to embrace the uncanny. That, and the expanded range of roles the series offered to women and children, and its anti-patriarchal stance, offered a ray of hope to teenagers who felt stifled by their parents' social system, and uneasy at the prospect of finding a new one.
But the series was also loads of fun, featuring deadpan performances that could be taken (according to one's mood) as a serious comment on life, death and love, or simply a hilarious send-up of the horror genre. And this effect can still be experienced today, for a visit to Collinwood is truly timeless.http://www.bbc.co.uk/entertainment/