Saturday, October 28, 2006

Dark Shadows

"Seasons don't fear the reaper
Nor do the wind, the sun or the rain...
We can be like they are..."
("Don't Fear the Reaper," Buck Dharma, performed by Blue Oyster Cult)

Since Halloween is only a few days away, I thought I would do a suitably themed post. When I was in kindergarten and first grade, there was one show all of us kids would rush home to see. It was called Dark Shadows. And, hard as it was to believe, it was a soap opera. But it was a soap opera as never has been seen before or since.

You see, Dark Shadows was actually a Gothic horror series done in a soap opera format. Like many soap operas it was set in a small New England town (namely, Collinsport) and centred on a wealthy family (the Collins family) who lived on an old and lavish estate (Collinswood). Unlike other soap operas, its characters had more to worry about than extramarital affairs and unwanted pregnancies. Throughout the run of Dark Shadows, the town of Collinsport faced ghosts, a warlock named Nicholas Blair, a werewolf, a Frankensteinian creation and the Lovecraftian threat of the Leviathan. Its protagonist for much of its run was a vampire, Barnabas Collins (played by Jonathan Frid), who posed as a long lost cousin from England (even though he had been born in America in Colonial days). Although initially played as a villain, Barnabas would become the tragic, romantic hero of the series. Not to mention the most famous soap opera character of all time and perhaps one of the most famous vampires in any medium.

Dark Shadows was the creation of the late Dan Curtis, who would go onto create The Night Stalker. In the mid-Sixties one of the big fads in paperback books was towards Gothic romances (those of you my age and older may remember them--it seemed as if their covers always had a girl running from a castle on them). It occurred to producer Dan Curtis that Gothic romance might make a good basis for a soap opera. Curtis looked to writer Art Wallace to further develop the series. Wallace drew upon one of his teleplays which had aired on Goodyear Theatre in 1957, "The House," for some of the characters and storylines. When Dark Shadows debuted on June 27, 1966, it was very much in the Gothic mould, although it was not yet a Gothic horror series. In fact, its initial story line simply dealt with the arrival of new governess Victoria Winters at Collinswood. Its first venture into the supernatural was the appearance of a couple of ghosts. And while the ghosts did not play a major role on the show, they foreshadowed (no pun intended) the new direction the series would soon take.

Indeed, on December 12, 1966, a new storyline began that was firmly rooted in the supernatural. It concerned the return of the estranged wife of Roger Collins, Laura. Laura, as it turns out, was an entity referred to as a phoenix. Every 100 years she would be reborn in fire. And, unfortunately for the Collins family, she was not at all benign. It was with a storyline that began on March 22, 1967, however, that the series really took off, not only as a Gothic horror soap opera, but also as a hit show. On that the day Barnabas Collins made his first appearance. Within months of the vampire's first appearance, Dark Shadows was the top rated soap opera and an outright fad. Merchandise featuring Barnabas and the other inhabitants of Collinsport appeared everywhere. There were games, books, and much more. Initially, Barnabas was played as a villain and was meant to appear only for one storyline, but the character caught on with younger viewers. Soon Collins was not simply a vampire obsessed with waitress Maggie Evans (whom he believed to be the reincarnation of his long lost love Josette), but the show's primary hero. Eventually the circumstances behind Barnabas' becoming a vampire was revealed. It seems that he was cursed by Josette's maid Angelique, who had wanted Barnabas for herself. Sadly, Josette killed herself when she realised Barnabas was a vampire. Quite simply, he became one of the most tragic protagonists in the history of television.

Over the years Dark Shadows dealt with nearly every cliche in Gothic horror. Dr. Eric Lang created an artificial man called Adam. The witch Angelique showed up in the present day with more plots surrounding Barnabas, this time aided by warlock Nicholas Blair. The show created another cult figure besides Barnabas in the form of Quentin Collins, a ghost intent on destroying the present day Collins family. More than one werewolf (one of whom was Quentin before he died) made his appearance on the show. The characters even travelled through time and to alternate realities!

As a Gothic horror serial, Dark Shadows was not without its controversy.Much of the controversy arose with regards to the storylines involving Angelique and Nicholas Blair, who were described as a witch and a warlock and were pretty clearly Satanists. The controversy grew even greater after an episode in which Nicholas Blair met with the Devil himself (albeit under another name). Indeed, at the time many Christian fundamentalists groups dubbed Dark Shadows "Satan's Favourite TV show."

Sadly, the success of Dark Shadows did not last. At least part of the reason that Dark Shadows declined in popularity may have been due to a story arc started in November of 1969. The storyline centred around the Lovecraftian threat of the Leviathans and did not prove particularly popular. Another reason for the decline in the success of Dark Shadows may have been the fact that it was a fad show. Fads usually last only one year at the maximum. And their lifespan is often determined by the intensity of people's interest in the fad. Since Dark Shadows was extremely popular at its height, it went the course of many fads and people's interest in the series burned out quickly. It must also be pointed out that while ABC enjoyed the success of Dark Shadows, they also resented the controversy it provoked. When Dark Shadows ceased to be a hit, they were more prone to cancel it than another, similarly low rated soap opera. It aired one last time on April 2, 1971.

Despite the fact that Dark Shadows only aired for a few years (at least when compared to the decades long lifespans of some soap operas), the show would have a lasting impact. It could well have been the first soap opera to have two feature length films based upon it--House of Dark Shadows in 1970 and Night of Dark Shadows in 1971. It was the first soap opera to have comic books spun off from it and, for a brief time, there was even a newspaper comic strip. There were also Viewmaster reels, board games, puzzles, and books. Even after its cancellation Dark Shadows has maintained a cult following, with many fanzines published over the years and, with the advent of the Internet, several web sites. It was revived in 1991 as a prime time series on NBC. Sadly, this new version only lasted two months. In 2004 a pilot for another revival was shot for the WB, but it was not picked up. Dark Shadows is also the only soap opera to have every single one of its episodes released on video (both on VHS and DVD) and perhaps the only soap opera to see success in syndication. For many years it was reran on the Sci-Fi Channel.

Of course, perhaps its most lasting impact could be on soap operas themselves. Although it would take literally years for them to do so, eventually other soaps would follow the lead of Dark Shadows with story arcs dealing with the supernatural. Starting in the Nineties Days of Our Lives featured several plot lines which delved into the supernatural, although sadly the show has always been more soap opera than supernatural. The soap opera Passions went one step further. It was the first soap opera since Dark Shadows in which the supernatural plays an integral role in the series. Unfortunately, Passions generally played its supernatural elements for camp. Worse yet, its focus has shifted over the years to more traditional soap opera fare. Although other soap operas have since included supernatural elements, Dark Shadows still stands as the only one that was actually good.

Dark Shadows turned forty this year, and it is still a cult phenomenon with a large following to this day. I very seriously doubt that this will change any time soon. For many years to come, I rather suspect that new generations will discover the series on DVD or in syndication and yet more people will come under the spell of Collinsport, Maine. Like Barnabas Collins himself, the show will never truly die.

1 comment:

Chelsea said...

Thanks for this Dark Shadows post - though I have heard of it before, I never really knew much about it. I feel like I would love to buy the dvds and check it out!