DARK SHADOWS: THE SOAP OPERA THAT STARTED SUPERNATURAL TV. PART ONE OF TWO
Your Hawaiian vacation of pop culture
Copyright 2014-2016 by Dr. Mike Rickard
In today's world of endless streaming services and obscure cable channels catering to every demographic, it may surprise you that people still watch Dark Shadows. ABC's classic gothic soap opera debuted in 1966 and while it only lasted a handful of seasons, it became a cult hit, inspiring two theatrical releases, a nighttime revival in 1991, a 2005 TV pilot that wasn't picked up, and a recent theatrical film starring Johnny Depp. It's hard to believe, but this cult soap inspired many of the shows we enjoy today.
Once upon a time, soap operas (and game shows) dominated daytime television. When Dark Shadows debuted in 1966, there were sixteen other soap operas competing with it. The top-ranked soap for the 1965-66 season was As the World Turns while the last place was Confidential for Women (Rating 3.4). Naturally, ratings have gone down due to the fragmenting of TV from three networks into several networks and hundreds of cable channels. Keep in mind that today's top soap The Young and the Restless does a 3.6 rating, barely above what last-place Confidential for Women's did in 1966. Sadly, there are only four daytime soap operas remaining on network TV and those are on the endangered species list as networks look for cheaper programming to pull in similar or better ratings.
When Dan Curtis decided to launch his soap, he went for something a little different, a soap that had a gothic background. Like many conventions, it's hard to pinpoint a definition of gothic. There can be gothic romance, gothic horror, or combinations. Gothic fiction traditionally is set at a remote location (sometimes a castle or haunted house) and has a heroine who is a damsel in distress. Oftentimes, there are mysterious goings-on that question the heroine's sanity. For example, things and people disappear (were they there to begin with?) and hidden rooms abound with strangers lurking about. There may be ghosts, or what the reader thinks is a ghost is easily explained as something normal by the end of the story. While the soap featured your traditional soap opera fare such as jilted lovers, search for parents, revenge, and murder mysteries, it did so in a gothic tone. Eventually it began adding supernatural elements such as a story featuring a ghost and a supernatural creature known as a phoenix. This was the first American television soap opera to deal with supernatural themes. Unfortunately, even this wasn't enough to make the show stand out and with hefty competition, things looked bleak for Dark Shadows. In 1966, three other soaps debuted (Morning Star, Paradise Bay, and Never Too Young) only to be cancelled the same year. It looked like Dark Shadows was going to join them.
With nothing to lose, Dan Curtis decided to really go different with his show. In 1967, he introduced the character Barnabas Collins, a vampire. Due to network standards and practices, Barnabas' vampiric nature was danced around. People had their blood mysteriously drained but it would take a year before the word vampire was used to describe Barnabas. Another interesting situation was that Barnabas' first victim, Willie Loomis, was bit on the arm, apparently because there was concern of a homosexual subtext if Loomis was bit on the neck by a male vampire.
Barnabas became so popular that he went from
being a temporary character to the star of the show. Actor Jonathon Frid became a celebrity and ratings started to rise. Fans got to see Barnabas transform from an evil character into an antihero, and eventually a hero in his own right. Barnabas Collins was one of the earliest sympathetic portrayals of a vampire on television or film. Dan Curtis would incorporate this approach in his 1973 made-for-tv adaptation of Dracula.
Dark Shadows took its supernatural themes and went full throttle with them. There were your traditional soap opera romances but they were always in a supernatural light. There could be a romance with one of the lovers hiding a dark secret, only in this case it might be lycanthropy. When a character in Dark Shadows had skeletons in their closet, it could be literal or figurative.
If you look back at Dark Shadows, you see that they did a lot of storylines that were ahead of their time for daytime soap operas. Dark Shadows used mash-ups (the use of characters from different stories) long before The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Penny Dreadful did. The show's writers borrowed liberally from horror, gothic, and science fiction stories such as Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Turn of the Screw, and Jane Eyre, (to name a few) but they put their own spin on things. Time travel and parallel universes were incorporated into the show, broadening storytelling possibilities.
Dark Shadows had a talented cast that interacted with the show's star, Jonathon Frid. Joan Bennett played Collins family matriarch Elizabeth Stoddard. Bennett was a rising star in Hollywood (appearing in two of film noir's seminal pictures Scarlet Street and The Woman in the Window) until a scandal derailed her career. Academy Award nominee Grayson Hall played Dr. Julia Hoffman (among several roles), a scientist who carried a series-long torch for Barnabas. Stars David Selby, John Karlen, Lara Parker, and Kate Jackson would make the transition from daytime television to night-time television and even occasional film roles.
One of the show's charms was its use of the same actors in different roles. Characters died but the actors often remained, taking on new identities. This made sense since the show was constantly shifting time and dimension. A present-day character who died could play his ancestor or parallel counterpart. An actor might play a heroic character in one storyline and a villain in another. The cast's versatility was on display throughout the show's ever-changing storylines and locations.
Like any soap opera of the time, the stories moved at a glacial pace and melodrama was the order of the day. Each episode was thirty minutes (standard for soap operas of the time) and stories took weeks, often months to tell. Writers had to hook viewers into tuning in every day to see what happened to their favorite characters.
And tune in they did. While Barnabas' appearance didn't turn things around overnight, it was enough to save the show and it only grew from there. In order to lessen the load of Jonathon Frid, a new protagonist was introduced- Quentin Collins. This enigmatic character became the focus of the show's "1897" storyline, an epic that saw Barnabas travel back to Collinwood 1897 to prevent the deaths of young David and Amy in the present. The storyline introduced Quentin Collins and his curse of lycanthropy as well as Count Petrofi, a powerful sorcerer intent on traveling to the future. Ratings skyrocketed and Quentin became a new daytime heartthrob.
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Dan Curtis, a true innovator in television. Not only did he launch TV's first gothic soap opera but he produced several landmark TV productions including The Night Stalker and the two epic miniseries, The Winds of War and War and Remembrance.
Dark Shadows featured a fantastic ensemble cast.
Perpetual damsel in distress Victoria Winters (Alexandra Moltke) found herself surrounded by endless mysteries at the great house of Collinwood.
Dark Shadows struggled in the ratings until Dan Curtis went all in and introduced the mysterious Barnabas Collins.
Joan Bennett was an A-list star who appeared in the seminal noir film Scarlet Street (above) with Edward G. Robinson.
Academy Award nominee Grayson Hall helped round out an already talented cast.
Lara Parker played Barnabas' former lover, now mortal enemy, Angelique. A powerful witch, she would plague Barnabas for much of the series. Lara Parker would go on to write several Dark Shadows novels.