The Original Series
My name is Jeffrey Owens. My memories of Collinwood are both frightening and wonderful. An afternoon soap opera that began in the mid-1960s, and aired for only five years, has never been forgotten in the hearts of its fans. 46 years later, its secrets are about to be awakened by a director familiar with its origins.
And by an actor, one who is to unleash a movie that will affect the entertainment budgets of audiences everywhere.
My first memory of watching Dark Shadows is arriving home from school (kindergarten or 1st grade) one afternoon when my family lived at 3205 West Main in Enid, Oklahoma. We had a babysitter that day and I begged her to let me watch it. In that day’s episode, a werewolf appeared from the woods… I immediately ran from the room, scared out of my impressionable young mind.
I do not recall what many fans say about “running home after school to watch Dark Shadows”. But I obviously have very clear memories about BEING home after school and watching it. When we later moved to 2001 Seneca, I remember an episode with an upstairs nursery where a mysterious carousel would sometimes appear. There were two children in peril. I could not wait to see what happened next…
Whatever memories of Dark Shadows you may have, whether from its original run on ABC or from its many reruns on PBS or the Sci-Fi Channel (and now, Netflix), it’s important to acknowledge its origins as a daytime soap opera… in 1966. At that time, daytime dramas were made to, well, sell soap. It was not unusual for one company to sponsor an entire episode, if not series, in order to hawk its products.
Therefore, early episodes of Dark Shadows, although Gothic, were more suds than scares. In fact, as a last-ditch effort to inject some life into the ratings, producer Dan Curtis introduced vampire Barnabas Collins into the story. This character became synonymous with Dark Shadows. Intended for only a 13-week arc, his popularity, and the show’s, shot into the stratosphere. Barnabas was first mentioned in the voiceover for episode 202 and his first actual appearance was in episode 211 on April 18, 1967. He remained with the show until it ended with episode 1245 (!) on April 2, 1971.
Not only was there a Dark Shadows that existed for over 200 episodes without Barnabas Collins, there were also many, many storylines besides the one best-remembered, the initial Barnabas arc. Released from a chained coffin by con artist turned treasure-hunter, Willie Loomis, Barnabas introduces himself to the dysfunctional Collins family as a distant relative from England. Moving into the “Old House” on the Collinwood estate, Barnabas recalls his lost love, Josette DuPres, who now may be reincarnated as Collinsport waitress, Maggie Evans.
This initial arc, with a daytime drama’s regular twists, turns and cliffhangers lasted through episode 365 on November 17, 1967. At 154 episodes, this arc represents only a fraction of Dark Shadows stories, an even smaller fraction when you consider that not every character appeared in every episode and that there were other plots unraveling simultaneously throughout the Barnabas storyline.
We interrupt this episode for breaking news…
In the midst of writing this essay, I learned of the death of actor Jonathan Frid, who portrayed Barnabas Collins. He died of natural causes in a hospital in Canada, almost 45 years to the day that he first appeared on Dark Shadows. He was 87-years old.
I met Jonathan Frid in the late 1980s at the Video Software Dealers Association annual convention in Las Vegas. A supporter of Dark Shadows and its fans until the day he died, his great sense of humor about the show and his character is evident in the picture below.
Jonathan Frid (1924-2012). May your coffi n forever remain unchained, should you one day return.
We now return you to your episode, already in progress…
What is it about Dark Shadows that has sustained its cult status for so many years? Why did it appeal to both housewives and adolescents? Why did it spawn board games, trading cards and comic books? Why has it been resurrected (twice) as a new series? Why have two of Hollywood’s biggest talents (Tim Burton and Johnny Depp) turned it into a major motion picture?
Some appreciate the clumsy charm of the original series. Shot live on tape, its actors never expected their episodes to be seen more than once. Their performances were often hammy and their lines often forgotten. Dark Shadows is famous for its bloopers… people accidentally entering a scene and knocking into the flimsy sets. I find these flaws the least interesting thing about Dark Shadows.
For me, there are three things I most appreciate about the original Dark Shadows: the characters, the stories and the atmosphere.
First and foremost, the characters of Dark Shadows are iconic. Although they do develop over the course of the series, their fundamental “types” remain consistent and strong. There is a classic love triangle between Barnabas, Josette/Maggie and Angelique Bouchard, the witch who gave Barnabas the vampire curse and returns in various incarnations to wreak havoc at Collinswood. Then, there is a wrench thrown into the triangle with Dr. Julia Hoffman, sometimes a foe to Barnabas, but who is ultimately a friend because she has fallen in love with him. Regardless of the genre, these characters make for great storytelling.
The stories were a grab bag of classic horror plots and themes. Before Barnabas appeared, there were ghosts and a phoenix. After Barnabas, there were werewolves, man-made monsters, warlocks, zombies, mad doctors and disembodied heads and hands. No gothic plot was safe from being “borrowed” for storylines: The Turn of the Screw, Frankenstein, Rebecca and The Lottery, to name a few. My fondness for both characters and stories often collided as the actors, like a reparatory troupe, would portray variations of their characters in different times and places. 1795 Flashback! 1840 Flashback! Parallel Time! (I truly wonder if a TV show like Lost could have existed if not for the ground that Dark Shadows laid.)
The atmosphere of Dark Shadows remains truly creepy even today. I prefer the black and white episodes, the first 300 or so, before it began taping in color. Perhaps they’ve better passed the test of time, but today they seem more clear and crisp than the color ones. Whether black and white or color, the music is brilliant in every episode. Mostly musical cues and “stingers” before commercials, the themes by Robert Cobert remain firmly engrained. In particular, “Josette’s Music Box” is a lovely and haunting melody. For me, the picture below clearly exemplifies the scary and unique “feel” of Dark Shadows.
I’ve barely scratched the surface of everything that is Dark Shadows. Can any essay be complete with nary a mention of Quentin Collins, a character whose popularity would nearly rival that of his superstar cousin, Barnabas? What I’ve hoped to do is share my appreciation for its very existence. There are many resources to learn more and I’d especially recommend TV Milestone Series: Dark Shadows by Harry Benshoff, a scholarly examination of its history and legacy.
If you’ve seen Dark Shadows, you probably understand what I’m writing about. I bet you have some level of fondness for it as well. But if you’ve never seen Dark Shadows and want a taste of it before the new movie is released on May 11, I recommend the followingDVDs from MPI Home Video:
• Dark Shadows: The Vampire’s Curse – a compilation of scenes depicting the origin of Barnabas Collins from the 1795 Flashback episodes.
• Dark Shadows: The Best of Barnabas – 9 complete episodes featuring Barnabas Collins.
• Dark Shadows: Fan Favorites – 9 complete episodes selected from its 5-year run.
Finally, I must restate that everything I’m writing about first appeared on daytime TV… in the mid-1960’s. Why wouldn’t a Famous Monsters of Filmland kid like me want to watch it every day, even if it caused him to run screaming from the room? And why wouldn’t he continue loving it to this day?
Please join me for our next episode, coming soon: “Beyond Daytime TV”.