Monday, June 27, 2016

The 50th Anniversary of Dark Shadows

When I was little I thought that daytime soap operas looked creepy. The lighting always seemed to be rather dark. The resolution of the picture was always low. And the sets, well, looked obviously like sets. What I didn't know at the time is that daytime soap operas were generally shot on videotape and with budgets that would make the average Roger Corman movie look like Gone with the Wind. Of course, while as a kid I thought that soap operas looked creepy, their story arcs generally weren't, even if they weren't the sort of thing that would interest a little boy. An exception to this rule was Dark Shadows. Dark Shadows was a soap opera that more than looked creepy; it was creepy. Quite simply, Dark Shadows was a Gothic horror soap opera that in the course of its run featured vampires, ghosts, werewolves, Frankensteinian creations, diabolists, and even time travel. And unlike other soap operas I was always eager to see it. I always turned on Dark Shadows when I got home from school. It was fifty years ago today that Dark Shadows debuted on ABC.

Of course, Dark Shadows did not start out as a Gothic horror soap opera. In the mid-Sixties Gothic romance paperback books were exceedingly popular in book stores and drug stores. It then occurred to producer Dan Curtis that a soap opera inspired by the then popular Gothic romances could be a winner in the ratings. Dan Curtis had previously produced Challenge Golf for ABC and The CBS Match Play Golf Classic for CBS. Dan Curtis turned to writer Art Wallace to further develop his Gothic romance soap opera. Mr. Wallace drew upon one of his teleplays which had aired on Goodyear Theatre in 1957, "The House," for some of the characters and storylines. "The House" centred on a New England fishing village in which a middle aged woman whose husband is at sea feels isolated from the rest of society.

Dark Shadows was then very much a Gothic romance when it debuted on June 27 1966. Its first story arc simply dealt with the arrival of new governess Victoria Winters at Collinwood (the mansion of the wealthy Collins family) in the small town of Collinsport, Maine. The first reference to anything supernatural on the show is to the ghosts of the widows (later named  Rachel Comstock, Abigail Tolliver, and Margaret Findley) rumoured to haunt Widows Hill (a cliff near Collinwood) in episode 5. While there would be occasional signs of what could be ghostly activity (a mysterious knock at the door, a door seeming to close by itself, et. al.), it would be some time before any ghosts would actually appear on Dark Shadows.

It would not be until December 12 1966 that Dark Shadows left the confines of Gothic romance and ventured into the realm of Gothic horror.  On that day began a story arc that 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.

Dark Shadows would venture even further into Gothic horror territory with a storyline that began on March 22 1967. It was that day that Barnabas Collins (played by Jonathan Frid), claiming to be the descendent of a Barnabas Collins who lived in the 18th Century, arrived at Collinwood. As it turned out, this Barnabas Collins was actually the original Barnabas Collins, cursed with vampirism (and, as a result, immortality). Barnabas Collins was originally meant to appear only for that storyline and, what is more, was originally played as a villain. As it turned out, however, the character of Barnabas Collins proved extremely popular. As a result he not only became a regular character on the show, but arguably the show's primary hero.

With Barnabas Collins easily being the most popular character on Dark Shadows, many of the show's storylines would centre upon him. It was soon revealed precisely how Barnabas became a vampire. Barnabas had planned to marry Josette du Pres (played by Kathryn Leigh Scott), but unfortunately Josette's maid Angelique (played by Parker) wanted him for herself (they had conducted an affair earlier). Angelique,who was skilled in witchcraft, then took measures to win Barnabas's love. Barnabas caught onto what Angelique was doing and shot her, only to have Angelique curse him with her dying words. Bitten by a vampire bat, Barnabas died and then rose from the grave as a vampire. Eventually Barnabas would befriend Dr. Julia Hoffman (played by Grayson Hall), who would seek a cure for his condition.

Of course, not every single storyline on Dark Shadows centred on Barnabas Collins, and eventually the show would touch upon nearly every single cliche in Gothic horror. Adam (played first by Duane Morris and later by Robert Roden) was a Frakensteinian creature made by Eric Lang (played by Addison Powell). Angelique would return with more schemes centred on Barnabas, this time aided by a warlock named Nicholas Blair (played by Humbert Allen Astredo). Chris Jennings (played by Don Briscoe) was afflicted with lycanthropy, becoming a werewolf at the full of the moon. In 1968 a character was introduced that nearly rivalled Barnabas in popularity. Quentin Collins (played by David Selby) was a ghost intent on destroying the present day Collins family. During its run Dark Shadows touched upon such tropes as time travel, Lovecraftian entities (the Leviathans), and even alternate realities.

Following the first appearance of Barnabas Collins, Dark Shadows soon became a cult phenomenon, particularly popular with young people. Given its popularity, Dark Shadows produced merchandise in a way that no other soap opera before it ever had. In December 1966 the first novel based on the show, simply titled Dark Shadows, was published. It was followed by 31 more during the show's run. Milton Bradley manufactured a Dark Shadows board game. In 1969 Gold Key began publishing a regularly scheduled Dark Shadows comic book. It actually ran well beyond the show's run, ending in 1976. From March 14 1971 to March 11 1972 the Newspaper Enterprise Association syndicated a daily Dark Shadows comic strip. There were also Viewmaster reels, colouring books, model kits, and much, much more.

In fact, Dark Shadows proved so popular that it produced two feature films during its run. The first, House of Dark Shadows, was released in 1970. The second, Night of Dark Shadows, was released in 1971. In both films cast from the soap opera reprised their roles on the show.

Despite its popularity, Dark Shadows did generate its share of controversy due to its supernatural themes. This was particularly true of a storyline in the autumn of 1968 involving Angelique and Nicholas Blair, who were pretty clearly devil worshippers. Not only did Angelique travel to Hell, but Nicholas Blair met with Diabolos, who was pretty clearly a thinly veiled version of the Devil.  It was around Halloween of that year that Fundamentalist Christians distributed a pamphlet attacking Dark Shadows, complete with a cartoon with the Devil watching the soap opera and the caption "Satan's Favourite Show".

Sadly, while Dark Shadows was incredibly popular from the years 1967 to 1969, its popularity eventually declined. A story arc began in November 1969 centred around the Leviathans did not prove particularly popular with viewers. Another factor in the decline of the popularity of Dark Shadows was that it was, quite simply, a fad.  In the book Fads, Follies, and Delusions of the American People by Paul Sann, it is noted that often the more intensely a fad is adopted, the shorter its duration will be. Dark Shadows was certainly a show that was intensely adopted by young people, so it was only a matter of time before it would see a decline in popularity.

It was on April 2 1971 that Dark Shadows ended its run. In part its cancellation was due to declining ratings. In the 1968-1969 season Dark Shadows peaked with an overall rating of 8.4. By the 1970-1971 season it had fallen to an overall rating of 5.3. This was complicated by the fact that much of the show's audience was under 18. Since children generally are not responsible for buying the goods advertised on daytime television at the time (primarily food and household products), Dark Shadows' audience was not particularly attractive to advertisers. Another factor in the cancellation of Dark Shadows may have been the controversy it had generated. Quite simply, the controversy Dark Shadows created may have made it a more likely candidate for cancellation than another low rated show on ABC.

While Dark Shadows ended its run in 1971, it continued to be popular well after its run. With nearly its entire run intact except for one episode (although some early episodes survived only as kinescopes), Dark Shadows became one of the few daytime soap operas to have its reruns syndicated.  That having been said, the entire series was not made available during its original run in syndication. The first 209 episodes and about the last year of the show were not made available. Eventually the Sci-Fi Channel would run all 1225 episodes. Every single surviving episode of Dark Shadows has been released on VHS and DVD, something that is nearly unknown for daytime soap operas (here it must be noted that many soap operas lost entire chucks of their runs to wiping, the practice of erasing or reusing old videotapes).

The continued popularity of Dark Shadows would also see attempted revivals of the show. In 1991  a short lived night time version of the soap opera aired on NBC. Sadly, it only lasted two months. In 2004 a pilot for a new Dark Shadows series was produced for the WB, but it wasn't picked up. In 2012 a film based on the show, directed by Tim Burton was released. Unfortunately, the film was played for comedy, leaving many fans of the original series disappointed (to say the least).  The 2012 Dark Shadows film also performed poorly at the box office. Perhaps the most successful revival of Dark Shadows are the audio dramas produced by Big Finish Productions since 2006. There have been three series: the first two consisting of four episodes each and the third being the 13 episode serial "Bloodlust".

Not only has Dark Shadows continued to be popular, but it has also had a lasting impact on American television. Dark Shadows was among the earliest horror TV series to have continuing characters. Earlier shows had primarily been anthology series. Dark Shadows is then in some ways the forerunner of Kolchak: The Night Stalker, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Supernatural, and other horror series. Over time it would even have an impact on other daytime soap operas. Starting in the Nineties Days of Our Lives featured plot lines which delved into the supernatural. The soap opera Passions went one step further. It was the first American daytime soap opera since Dark Shadows in which the supernatural played an integral role in the series, although it was largely played for camp. Guiding Light, Another World, and Port Charles were other daytime soap operas that delved a little into the supernatural.

After fifty years Dark Shadows remains as popular as ever. It currently airs on Decades and it can be streamed on Hulu. It would seem that even Tim Burton's 2012 feature film cannot kill Dark Shadows. I have to suspect that it will still be around for another fifty years.

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