Dark Shadows

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Ben Cross as Barnabas Collins in the 1991 remake of Dark Shadows.
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Cover of The Dark Shadows Companion.
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The cast from the 1991 television production of Dark Shadows.

Dark Shadows (1966–1971; 1991)

(pop culture)

Dark Shadows began in 1966 as a daytime soap opera on ABC television. With low ratings threatening cancellation, the show added supernatural elements to the plot, and then in April 1967 introduced a vampire. This vampire—Barnabas Collins—has joined Dracula and Lestat de Lioncourt as one of the most easily recognizable vampires.

Once Collins was introduced to the show, the ratings turned around and the show became a hit. While the show went off the air in 1971, fans have kept its memory alive to the present day through fan clubs, publications, and conventions.

The Origin of Dark Shadows: Dark Shadows began as an idea of producer Dan Curtis. The beginning of a story had come to him, according to one account, from a dream in which he saw a young woman with long dark hair. The woman was traveling by train to New England, where she had been offered a job as a governess. After she got off the train, she went to a large “forbidding” house. Curtis approached ABC with the idea of taking his opening and creating a gothic-flavored daytime show. He collaborated with Art Wallace in developing the idea, and assembled a production crew that included Robert Costello, Lela Swift, John Sedwick, Sy Tomashoff, and Robert Cobert.

As the story developed, it first centered on Victoria Winters (Alexandra Moltke), the young woman of Curtis’s dream. She was an orphan who had been found with a note, “Her name is Victoria. I can no longer care for her.” The rest of her name was added because she was found in the wintertime. As she grew up, the orphanage received donations for Victoria’s care from Bangor, Maine. On her 20th birthday, Victoria received a offer from a Mrs. Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (Joan Bennett) of Collinsport, Maine, who wished to hire Victoria as a governess for her nephew. This gave her not only had employment, but the possibility of an opportunity to learn about her past.

Collinsport was a small fishing town on the Maine coast. Collinwood, the Collins’s family home, was a forty-room mansion built in the 1700s. The family resided in its central structure and had closed both wings of the house. Also on the property was an older house, built in the 1600s and now abandoned.

At Collinwood, the family estate where she was employed, Victoria interacted with the residents. Mrs. Stoddard, the family matriarch, had become a recluse after her husband disappeared eighteen years before. David Collins (David Henesy), her nephew, was nine years old and somewhat of a problem. He had driven off previous governesses by his undisciplined behavior, especially his nasty pranks at their expense. David’s father, Roger Collins (Louis Edmonds), had a drinking problem and was generally neglectful of his son. Carolyn Stoddard (Nancy Barrett), Elizabeth’s daughter, was a girl enjoying her youthful years and running through a series of loves. The mansion also was home to Matthew Morgan (Thayer David), the caretaker.

The cast was rounded out with several townspeople: Maggie Evans (Kathryn Leigh Scott), a waitress in the local diner who lived with her father Sam (David Ford), an alcoholic artist; Joe Haskell (Joel Crothers), employed by the Collins Fishing Fleet and involved with Carolyn Stoddard; and Burke Devlin (Mitchell Ryan), a businessman Victoria met on the train ride to Collinsport.

Devlin became Winters’s first friend and confidant. He was also the focus of the initial storyline, which was built around his reasons for returning to Collinsport after an absence of ten years. He was certain that Roger Collins had lied in court, and Burke had been sent to prison as a result. He wanted revenge. In the tension resulting from his return, Bill Malloy (Frank Schofield), a local man who tried to mediate the situation, was killed. The supernatural element first entered into the Dark Shadows story when Malloy’s ghost appeared to Victoria and told her that he had been murdered.

Taping for Dark Shadows began on June 13, 1966, and the first episode was aired with little fanfare two weeks later. During the first year of Dark Shadows, an additional character appeared, one that would become of long-term importance to the emerging story. As the supernatural element was increasing, a painting over the fireplace in the Old House came alive. The new character turned out to be the ghost of Josette DuPrés Collins (also played by Kathryn Leigh Scott). After a brief appearance in episode 40, she appeared again in episode 126 to protect Victoria from Matthew Morgan, the murderer of Malloy, who had kidnapped her. Morgan died from fright upon seeing Josette, thus resolving that subplot. Afterward, Josette become intricately integrated into the storyline.

The Dark Shadows audience was introduced to new supernatural subplots almost weekly. Around the 200th episode, a transition began. First, the original Burke Devlin situation was resolved when Roger Collins confessed to manslaughter and perjury. Then a new character, Willie Loomis, took up residence at Collinwood. Almost immediately Loomis called attention to a portrait in the foyer of the mansion. It was one of the family ancestors, Barnabas Collins.

The Emergence of Barnabas Collins: Though the addition of supernatural elements improved the show’s ratings, ABC executives indicated early in 1967 that Dark Shadows was still in danger of being cancelled. Curtis, who had always wanted to do a vampire picture, gambled and decided to add a vampire to the show. Canadian Shakespearean actor Jonathan Frid was finally hired for the part. The original idea was to have the vampire jazz up the show, improve its ratings, and then quietly fade away. That plan would soon be discarded.

Barnabas Collins made his first appearance in episode 210 in April of 1967. Willie Loomis discovered a secret room with a chained coffin in the family mausoleum. He undid the chains and Barnabas came out of his resting place. In the next episode, he appeared at the front door of Collinwood and confronted the family as their long-lost cousin from England. He moved into the abandoned old house on the estate, and soon the community was plagued by a mysterious illness. The symptoms included fatigue, bite marks, and the loss of blood.

As the story unfolded, the audience discovered that Barnabas was a vampire who had lived two centuries earlier. (He actually was the person in the portrait in the mansion.) In his human life at the end of the eighteenth century, he had loved and lost Josette DuPrés, and he still longed for her in his new life at Collinwood. Having noticed Maggie Evans’s resemblance to Josette, he tried to turn her into another Josette. When she refused his advances, he nearly killed her.

By this point in the story, which was being broadcast in the summer of 1967, the ratings had jumped in a spectacular manner—the show became a hit. In a matter of weeks, Jonathan Frid became a star, and quantity of his fan mail soared. Overwhelmingly, the mail was from young women, even teenagers.

Crowds regularly gathered at the entrances to the ABC studio where the show was taped. The first Dark Shadows paraphernalia appeared. Meanwhile, as the story continued, another new character was introduced—Dr. Julia Hoffman (played by Grayson Hall). Called on to treat Maggie Evans, Hoffman became intrigued with Barnabas, discovered his vampiric nature, and offered to help him overcome it. Initially he accepted her ministrations, but he eventually turned on her. He was about to kill the doctor when the ghost of his beloved sister Sarah appeared to save her.

The Origin of Barnabas Collins: With Sarah making her ghostly presence known to a number of people, the decision was made to hold a seance. During the seance Victoria went into a trance and the lights went out. When the lights returned, she had disappeared and her place had been taken by Phyllis Wick. Victoria woke up in Collinsport in 1795. The scene was now set to relate the story of Barnabas’s origin. The son of a prominent local landowner, Barnabas traveled to the DuPrés plantation on the island of Martinique. There he began an affair with Angélique Bouchard (played by Lara Parker), a beautiful servant girl who, it was later revealed, knew witchcraft. Then he met and fell in love with the plantation owner’s daughter, Josette, and they made plans to wed. Barnabas broke off the affair with Angélique.

Meanwhile, back in Collinsport, Victoria had found work in the Collins’s home as governess to Barnabas’s young sister Sarah. The members and acquaintances of the family from the 1960s reappeared as their counterparts in the 1790’s storyline. Barnabas returned from the West Indies to prepare for his marriage but did not anticipate that Angélique would use her powers of witchcraft to disrupt the plans. She caused Josette to fall in love with Jeremiah, Barnabas’s brother. She then claimed Barnabas for herself. Barnabas, in turn, killed his brother in a duel and turned on Angélique. She cursed him and sent a bat to attack him, and Barnabas emerged from the encounter a vampire.

After considering various options, he decided to make Josette his vampire bride. Before he could carry through on his plans, Angélique interfered again and caused Josette to commit suicide. Barnabas told his father of his condition and asked to be killed. His father could not kill him, but did chain Barnabas in a coffin (which Willie Loomis eventually discovered).

While Barnabas fought Angélique, Victoria had been condemned as a witch. As she was about to be killed, she suddenly reappeared in 1967. Only a few minutes of the seance had passed while she was lost for some months in the 1790s. Barnabas realized that Victoria now knew his identity and decided to court her, but he was immediately distracted by the arrival of Angélique as Cassandra, the new wife of Roger Collins.

New Story Lines: With five half-hour shows to write each week—the equivalent of more than a feature-length movie—story ideas were exhausted at a rapid rate. During 1968, the writers turned to classic nineteenth-century gothic novels for ideas, and during the last three years of the show merged subplots from a variety of horror themes into the ongoing story. The major confrontation between Barnabas and Cassandra, for example, was based around a subplot derived from Frankenstein. Late in 1968 Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw inspired a plot that led to the introduction of the second most popular member of the cast, Quentin Collins (played by David Selby).

The storyline again sent Victoria into the past—this time for good. Thus Elizabeth Stoddard needed another governess for her nephew David. Meanwhile, David and Amy (a young girl visiting at Collinwood) went exploring in one of the unoccupied wings of the house, where they discovered a disconnected telephone. While the children played with the phone, a ghostly voice called them to a room where a gramophone mysteriously played music. The ghost of Quentin (his name derived from James’s text) appeared. He attempted to take control of both children, but a female spirit intervened. She blocked Quentin’s effect on Amy, but was of little help to David. Eventually Barnabas was drawn in to protect David. In his attempt to contact Quentin, Barnabas was thrown back to 1897 (the year Bram Stoker‘s novel Dracula was published), the time when Quentin actually lived. Barnabas found himself chained in his tomb. One of his ancestors, however, hired Gypsies, who discovered the mausoleum and freed Barnabas. Again he arrived at the door as the long-lost cousin from England.

Quentin and Barnabas started as rivals. However, as the story developed, Quentin and his male descendants were cursed—because of this, they would become werewolves. In the face of this new reality, Barnabas and Quentin came to some understanding of each other. Each, in turn, was transported back to the present and the story continued.

While based on Dracula, from which it drew its understanding of the vampire and the vampire’s powers, Dark Shadows created the most elaborate and complex alternative to the Dracula story in modern mythology. It played to an ever-growing audience from the time Barnabas Collins was added to the storyline to the spring of 1967, and became the most popular soap opera on ABC, pushing the network past CBS and putting it in a position to challenge NBC for the daytime audience. It was estimated that twenty million people were regular viewers. Frid received several thousand letters every week and David Selby only slightly less. Additional thousands of letters were directed to the rest of the cast. The show lasted for two more years before its ratings began to sag and it was finally cancelled. The final show (the 1,245th segment) was aired on April 2, 1971. Many believe that it was not so much a dip in the ratings but the exhaustion of the story that led to its cancellation.

Additional Dark Shadows Vampires: While Barnabas Collins was the dominant vampire of the Dark Shadows series, other characters also had a brush with vampirism. The most prominent was Angélique. Following the return of the story to the 1960s from the 1790s, Angélique reappeared in the person of Cassandra Collins, the new wife of Roger Collins. Shortly thereafter, one Nicholas Blair, a warlock claiming to be Cassandra’s brother, arrived at Collinwood. When Cassandra got in his way, he used his strong magical powers to turn her into a vampire. Through the ministrations of Dr. Hoffman, Barnabas was temporarily cured of his vampirism. However, Angélique/Cassandra, wanting Barnabas to be with her in her new form, attacked him and turned him back into a vampire. Angélique’s plans were foiled, however, when she was set on fire by Barnabas. She died screaming as the flames enveloped her.

During Angélique’s career as a vampire, she attacked handyman Tom Jennings, who had discovered the location of her coffin. He survived as a vampire for only a few episodes before being staked. The continuing storyline took the cast back to the nineteenth century where a prevampirized Angélique reappeared. After being attacked by Barnabas, a servant, Dirk, was made a vampire. He was soon staked by Edward Collins.

Later, the storyline led Barnabas and the Collins family into an encounter with the Leviathans, old demonic forces in the tradition of H. P. Lovecraft. The Leviathans were responsible for turning him back into a vampire. Among the Leviathans was Audrey, a vampire who made a brief appearance in a single episode. The most notable fact of Audrey’s otherwise inconsequential appearance was that she was played by a young Marsha Mason, later to go on to stardom in the movies. Another female vampire at this time was Megan Todd (Marie Wallace), a victim of Barnabas. She eventually was staked by Willie Loomis.

Finally, toward the end of the show, Roxanne Drew appeared as a young woman involved in a bizarre experiment to transfer her life force to Angélique. At this point in the story, the major characters were moving between parallel times with the same people but different histories. In real time, Barnabas met Roxanne again as the girlfriend of an astrologer, Sebastian Shaw. She was a vampire and, before being discovered, bit Maggie Evans. Meanwhile, the story shifted to 1840. There Barnabas also met Roxanne and they fell in love.

However, the ever-present and vengeful Angélique killed her. Roxanne then rose as a vampire and was soon cornered in her coffin. She disintegrated in her crypt when a crucifix was placed on top of her.

Dark Shadows Books and Paraphernalia: The show had a far reaching effect on popular culture. Under the pseudonym of Marilyn Ross, from 1966 to 1972 Daniel Ross authored thirty-three paperback novels developed from the show. In spite of the Comics Code that banned vampires from comic books from 1954 to 1971, Gold Key produced the Dark Shadows comic books, the first vampire-oriented comics in almost two decades. In 1968–69, Dark Shadows paraphernalia began to appear, including the Dark Shadows Game, Viewmaster stereo pictures, model kits, jigsaw puzzles, and trading cards, to name just a few. A “Dark Shadows” Original Soundtrack Album (1969) was one of four record albums of Dark Shadows music. “Quentin’s Theme,” the most popular piece of Dark Shadows music, appeared on the first album and was also released as a single. Initially heard on the gramophone in the room where Quentin first appeared, the theme was recorded more than twenty times by various artists.

Dark Shadows in the 1990s: In 1990, NBC announced that it had asked Dan Curtis, the creator of Dark Shadows, to put together a new cast for a prime-time version of the old soap opera. Ben Cross was chosen to play the vampire Barnabas Collins. His role was strongly reminiscent of Jonathan Frid, the original Barnabas Collins. In spite of his moments of genuine anger and vicious attacks on individuals, Cross’s Barnabas was a sensitive, reluctant vampire who allowed hematologist Julia Hoffman to try to cure his vampiric condition. Even though Dark Shadows fans gave the new series strong support, it was cancelled after only twleve episodes (thirteen hours of programming) during the second half of the 1990–91 season.

More Dark Shadows: The most substantial spin-offs of the television series were two full-length feature movies, House of Dark Shadows (1970) and Night of Dark Shadows(1971). These were later made available on video. A short time after its cancellation, the show went into syndicated reruns on independent stations and PBS—the first time that had happened to a daytime soap opera. It was later picked up by the new SCI-FI cable channel. All 1,245 segments were released on VHS video and have now been transferred to DVD by MPI Home Video. Additionally, a variety of specialized videos have been developed from the series including: Dark Shadows: Behind the Scenes, Dark Shadows Bloopers, Dark Shadows 35th Anniversary Reunion, and Dark Shadows: Vampires and Ghosts.

Dark Shadows fandom has remained active through the first decade of the twenty-first century. Over a thousand people showed up for Jonathan Frid’s appearance at the 2008 annual convention. In response to the continued interest in the series, new books, CDs, and DVDs continue to appear and actors with even a small role on the original series are invited to make appearances at fan gatherings. The fans have also created a continuing market for Dark Shadows collectibles and several businesses have arisen to cater to the demand.

Sources:

Borzellieri, Frank. The Physics of Dark Shadows: Time Travel, ESP, and the Laboratory. New York: Cultural Studies Press, 2008. 90 pp.
Gross, Edward, and Marc Shapiro. The Vampire Interview Book: Conversations with the Undead. New York: Image Publishing, 1991. 134 pp.
Parker, Lara. Dark Shadows: The Salem Branch. New York: Tor Books, 2006. 288 pp.
Pierson, Jim. Dark Shadows Resurrected. Los Angeles: Pomegrante Press, 1992. 175 pp.
Scott, Kathryn Leigh, ed. The Dark Shadows Companion: 25th Anniversary Collection. Los Angeles: Pomegranate Press, 1990. 208 pp.
———. My Scrapbook Memories of Dark Shadows. Los Angeles: Pomegranate Press, 1986. 152 pp.
———, and Lara Parker. 35th Anniversary Dark Shadows Memories. Los Angeles: Pomegranate Press, 2001. 276 pp.
———, and Jim Pierson. Dark Shadows Almanac: Thirtieth Anniversary Tribute. Los Angeles: Pomegranate Press, 1995. 176 pp.
Thompson, Jeff. The Television Horrors of Dan Curtis: Dark Shadows, The Night Stalker, and Other Productions, 1966–2006. Jeffersonville, NC: McFarland & Company, 2009. 208 pp.