Dark Shadows: Blending Past and Present

Dark Shadows was a unique concept. It was billed as a soap opera. From June of 1966 until April of 1971, it aired daily on ABC. I remember hurrying home from school to catch up on the lives of the Collins family, past and present, in their beautiful, but creepy, mansion in Collinsport, Maine. The show morphed back and forth into different eras and many actors played roles in different time periods.

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Barnabas Collins and Dr. Julia Hoffman are probably the two characters most associated with the series. What is surprising is that they weren’t part of the original cast. The vampire came on close to the end of the first year.

I have read about a lot of different ways producers came up with ideas for shows, but this one is one of the most unusual. Dan Curtis had a dream in 1965 about a mysterious woman on a train. He pitched the idea to ABC who gave it a green light. Art Wallace was brought on board to turn the dream into a pilot. The show was originally called “Shadows on the Wall.”  Other titles considered were “The House on Widows’ Hill” and “Terror at Collinwood.” Curtis took over as creator and executive producer. Directors Lela Swift, John Sedwick, and Henry Kaplan were hired. Robert Cobert developed the musical score. Sy Tomashoff designed the eerie set.


The dream became the story of a governess Victoria Winters who arrives at Collinwood for a new job but is also looking for the answers to her mysterious past.

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The show was one of 18 soap operas on the air in the late sixties. The ratings were not great. In December the show came in 13th of 18. When a third of the shows were cancelled, Dark Shadows’ ratings looked even worse—13th of 13. The show was given an ultimatum—26 weeks to increase viewership or it was done. So, Barnabas Collins was added to the show. Bert Convy was considered for the role of Barnabas before Jonathan Frid got the part. During the second year, the show began to be filmed in color which also helped.

During an interview with Ron Sproat, he said that he and fellow writer Gordon Russell had just met with Curtis and they were told a vampire would be added to the show. Leaving on the elevator, they decided right there that Barnabas would be a reluctant vampire with a conscious.

Twenty-eight characters were in at least seventy shows. Most of the actors who played them were unknown at the time, but some of the well-known stars now include Jonathan Frid (Barnabas Collins), Grayson Hall (Dr. Julia Hoffman), Alexandra Isles (Victoria Winters), Joan Bennett (Elizabeth Collins Stoddard), David Selby (Quentin Collins), Kathryn Leigh Scott (Maggie Collins), Lara Parker (Angelique), Roger Davis (Jeff Clark), and Kate Jackson (Daphne Harridge).

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The music is very memorable for those of us who watched the show. The original soundtrack was in the top 20 US Billboard albums in 1969. The song, “Quentin’s Theme” earned Cobert an Emmy nomination and it peaked at 13 on the Billboard 100.

It definitely took a while for the show to hit its stride. Variety’s review of the first show was not favorable: “Writer Art Wallace took so much time getting into his story that the first episode of the Neo Gothic soaper added up to one big yawn.” It wasn’t until episode 52 that evidence of a real ghost appeared.

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A basic guide to the episodes is (1) Contemporary Era – Episodes 1-365, (2) The 1795 Era – Episodes 366-460, (3) Contemporary Era – Episodes 461-699. (4) The 1897 Era – Episodes 700-883, (5) The Contemporary Era – Episodes 884-1060, (6) The Future Era – Episodes 1061-1070, (7) The Ghosts of Gerard Stiles and Daphne Harridge Haunting Collinwood/The 1840 Era – Episodes 1071-1186, and (8) The Parallel Time of Contemporary and 1841 – Episodes 1187-1245. (These are not exact because there is some paralleling in different times; also even though 1225 episodes were produced, because of various numbering discrepancies, the final episode was listed as #1245.)

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As the stories were developed, we learn that the Collins were a wealthy family who had been in Maine for generations. Elizabeth Collins Stoddard and her daughter Carolyn live on the estate. Mr. Stoddard has been missing for twenty years. Elizabeth’s brother Roger Collins and his son David also live there. Roger’s wife had died in a fire. This is the family Victoria Winters works for. When Barnabas came on the show, he said he was a distant cousin of the family but is really a vampire who is not a cousin but was the original Barnabas who lived in the house in the 1700s.

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Parallel times revealed how Barnabas became a vampire, the relationship he had with a witch Angelique, and we meet Barnabas’ true love Josette Dupres. During the show, Roger brings home a new bride who turns out to be the real Angelique.

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Barnabas meets a young woman named Maggie who reminds him of Josette. Along the way he kidnaps her. Dr. Julia Hoffman wants to transform Barnabas from a vampire back to a man. They are close friends and she is the only one who knows who he truly is; it is obvious that she is in love with him.

Joan Bennett and Louis Edmonds were the only characters to appear in both the first and last episodes.

DARK SHADOWS – Show Coverage – June 12, 1966. (Photo by ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images)LOUIS EDMONDS;JOAN BENNETT

Although the show was set in Maine, the show’s exteriors were filmed in Essex, Connecticut. The Griswold Inn was used for the Collinsport Inn; the post office was the Collinsport Police Station, and The Carey Mansion in Newport, Rhode Island was the Collinswood mansion. All the interiors were filmed on sound stages in Manhattan.

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Portraits were inexpensive, but useful, props for the show. There is a portrait of Barnabas which was painted in the 1700s. However, Frid did not pose for it because he had not been hired yet, so Robert Costello, the line producer stepped in and the face was added later. Quentin Collins’ portrait aged and whenever an injury occurred to him, he was fine but the portrait showed the harm. Angelique also had a portrait of herself. This artwork had powers too; when anything happened to her, the portrait cracked and faded; it was not restored until her health was.

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The weekly budget for creating five episodes was only $70,000. There was little money for decorating and props. Barnabas’ black onyx ring came from Woolworth’s. The prop department painted a green gem black.

The special effects were pretty impressive for where technology was at the time of the show’s existence. Often shows featured ghostly apparitions or other supernatural occurrences. One camera operator realized he could use plastic wrap or Vaseline around the edges of the lens for dream sequences.

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It was shot with live-to-tape format which meant each scene was done in one take. Because of this the show is famous for its goofs: crew members visible in a scene, props didn’t work, equipment above actors’ heads, or people calling each other by the wrong names. During one shooting, Kate Jackson’s dress caught on fire because she was surrounded by candles. The camera crew had to keep filming while the fire was put out. At that time, the thought was that the show would only ever be seen once.

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By 1969 the show had peaked, and many kids were tuning in to watch a storyline set in 1897 with 7-9 million viewers watching daily. When the 1897 plot was over, the writers were trying to come up with another popular story. They decided on “The Leviathans” which proved to not be very popular.

When an economic recession hit in 1971, the networks were forced to cut costs. To make matters worse, cigarette advertising was banned from television which slashed networks’ profits even more. Since Dark Shadows was primarily watched by a younger demographic who were not necessarily purchasing household goods, the show was cancelled. Creator Curtis said he was actually relieved. He said “I was just hoping it was going to end. I couldn’t squeeze my brain any harder to come up with just one more story. I just wanted to move on and out.”

Some episodes have been in a syndication package since 1975. However, the Sci-Fi Channel was granted permission to run all 1225 episodes and they aired in reruns between 1992 and 2003.

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With all the reboots, this show had a different twist. In 2003, the original cast gathered together for a reunion play. It was recorded for MPI and in 2006 audio dramas for a company called Big Finish began, allowing new generations of fans to listen to the show.

With this large of a cast, you would expect to hear about some personality conflicts. However, no rumors of this have surfaced. One of the cast members said that the time the crew spent together daily rehearsing lines and filming made them a close-knit bunch.

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A lot of shows that were not in the top ten when they originally aired like The Brady Bunch or Gilligan’s Island have become fan favorites. Dark Shadows might not be known by as many viewers, but those who love it are extremely loyal. It has become a cult classic with an annual convention similar to The Andy Griffith Show. Held annually since 1983, the official Dark Shadows Convention is typically in New York or Los Angeles. Many cast and crew members are there, question-and-answer sessions are held, autographs can be obtained, dinner with the stars is on the menu, and plenty of merchandise is for sale.

There are fan clubs to join and even Dark Shadows cruises where you can meet and mingle with the original cast.

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If you are more of a homebody, you can buy the complete series. At a price of $599, Amazon features it for only $349. It’s a big, scary price but with 1225 episodes, that is a lot of binge watching. You’ll enjoy more than 612 hours of eerie fun. You could watch an hour and a half a day and it would take a little over a year to finish.

Personally, I am not willing to invest that much money or time into the show, but I have fond memories watching it. I read the books that were published and had a Barnabas Collins jigsaw puzzle. On rainy days the girls in our neighborhood gathered in a basement and often played Dark Shadows.

There was always a fight over who got to be Angelique or Daphne. My favorite episodes back then involved a dollhouse that came to life.

With so many wonderful memories associated with the show, I’m not sure I’m willing to risk watching the original episodes again, but I understand why so many people continue to revisit them.

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