Updated: Mar 30, 2020
By John C. Alsedek:
It's the summer of 1967, four o'clock on a weekday afternoon. You turn on the television. On CBS, a doctor and nurse are discussing their feelings for each other in the sterile environs of a hospital. On NBC, a business executive and his secretary are discussing their feelings for each other in the sterile environs of an office. Meanwhile on ABC, a 200-year-old vampire has a waitress imprisoned in his crumbling, cobweb-strewn mansion as he brainwashes her into thinking she’s his long-lost love. . . .
Welcome to Dark Shadows.
Dark Shadows was a Gothic soap opera created by writer/producer Dan Curtis, whose original concept came from a dream he'd had about a young woman on a train at night—and that’s where the whole 1,225-episode run began, with Victoria Winters (as played by Alexandra Moltke) taking a night train from New York City to the fictional coastal town of Collinsport, Maine. There, she is to serve as tutor to David Collins, the youngest member of the rich, reclusive Collins family. The expansive Collins estate, with not one but two haunted mansions (Collinwood and The Old House), was the focal point of the series, and while various town residents and outsiders played important roles, it was really the story of the Collinses—both living and dead.
The show premiered in June 1966, airing from four o’clock until four-thirty. From the very start, it was a very different animal than its soap opera competitors; virtually all the action took place at night, and the stories went to unlikely places. For example, an entire story arc was devoted to young David trying to kill his father; another involved the boy’s long-missing mother returning—only to turn out to be a creature of legend. But the main storyline involved a secret being kept by matriarch Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (played by 1940’s film star Joan Bennett), a secret so disturbing that it had kept Elizabeth from leaving the Collins estate for almost twenty years. That storyline moved front and center later in the first two hundred episodes, when blackmailer Jason McGuire (Dennis Patrick) and later his violent, unpredictable friend Willie Loomis (John Karlen) moved into Collinwood as very unwelcome guests.
But what Dan Curtis & Co. were doing wasn’t quite enough to grab a viewing audience. Dark Shadows started with a 4.1 rating in its first six-month season and only managed a 0.2 bump in the second, placing it firmly at the bottom of the ratings among daytime soap operas from 1966–67. Word came down from ABC that if the show didn’t improve significantly in the third six-month season, there wouldn’t be a fourth. So, what did Curtis do? What anyone else who was an inveterate horror fan would do: he added a vampire.
In Dark Shadows Episode 211, Loomis broke into the old Collins crypt at a nearby cemetery with the intention of liberating some family jewels that were rumored to be buried there. But what Loomis ended up liberating instead was Barnabas Collins (Jonathan Frid), who had been placed under the curse of vampirism two centuries earlier. From the moment the hapless Loomis pried open the coffin lid, Dark Shadows really became the Barnabas Show—and afternoon television viewers were enthralled. The show especially appealed to teenagers, who found it vastly more interesting than other programs airing in the same timeslot. At its peak in 1969, Dark Shadows was drawing in excess of nine million viewers per episode and was doing so well that it knocked both timeslot rivals Match Game on NBC and House Party on CBS right off the air.
From 1967 until 1970, Dark Shadows evolved into an ever-stranger horror show, incorporating witches, warlocks, werewolves, time travel, and even a parallel timeline. The character of Barnabas Collins changed as well; initially a psychopath who thought nothing of savagely caning a servant or terrorizing young David, he morphed first into a tragic figure and then into the protector of the Collins family. Frid himself became a national sensation, even hosting a Halloween party at the White House for the daughter of then-President Richard Nixon.
In 1970, Curtis produced the first of two big-screen Dark Shadows films, House of Dark Shadows. Here, Curtis was able to show significantly more blood and gore than he could ever get away with on television . . . and he did! But while House of Dark Shadows did good box office business, it didn’t help the TV show’s ratings, and the show went off the air before the second film, Night of Dark Shadows, was made. A letter-writing campaign was launched to try and bring Dark Shadows back but to no avail.
Surprisingly, Dan Curtis was relieved by the cancellation, feeling that the show had run its course and was out of ideas. But just like Barnabas himself, Dark Shadows wasn’t quite dead. A new version ran on NBC in 1991 starring Ben Cross as Barnabas and even Highlander's own Adrian Paul as Jeremiah Collins. While initially garnering strong ratings, it kept being preempted and moved around the schedule, thereby never really finding its audience. And then, of course, there’s the 2012 Tim Burton film version starring Johnny Depp.
For me, Dark Shadows is one of those shows that holds a special place in my heart. Watching it when I was maybe two years old is one of my very earliest memories; rediscovering it as a 10-year-old in late-night syndication is another cherished memory. Now it’s on HULU, and I revisit it on occasion. Compared with other old favorites such as The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits, Dark Shadows comes across a bit clunky and slightly chaotic; one of my joys in re-watching them now is to see how often I can catch someone reading the teleprompter (or an actual script) on-camera, how often the boom mic slips into frame, how often one of the actors will accidentally go off-script and force the others to adapt. But when looking for bloopers on Dark Shadows, one has to remember that the show was pretty much all done live—it was like doing a different 30-minute stage play five days a week with minimal rehearsal time. And for as much as some of the performances may come across as a little hammy or melodramatic, each member of the cast also delivered some truly outstanding work, and I’ve got a soft spot for every single one of them.
And speaking of having a soft spot for something . . . Dan Curtis produced another of my very favorite shows, one that I love in spite of—or perhaps because of—just how ridiculous it eventually got. Next time, we talk Kolchak: The Night Stalker . . . until then, thanks for tuning in!
Writer, producer, and radio-drama aficionado, John C. Alsedek, shares the history of radio and the impact it has made on the world of entertainment.