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  • Writer's pictureMichael W Rickard II

Dark Shadows: Looking Back at the Ground-Breaking Gothic Soap Opera. Part One.

In today’s world of endless streaming services and obscure cable channels catering to every demographic, it may surprise you that people still watch Dark Shadows. ABC’s classic gothic soap opera debuted in 1966 and while it only lasted a handful of seasons, it became a cult hit, inspiring two theatrical releases, a nighttime revival in 1991, a 2005 TV pilot that wasn’t picked up, and a recent theatrical film starring Johnny Depp. It’s hard to believe, but this cult soap inspired many of the shows we enjoy today.

Once upon a time, soap operas (and game shows) dominated daytime television. When Dark Shadows debuted in 1966, there were sixteen other soap operas with it. The top-ranked soap for the 1965-66 season was As the World Turns while the last place was Confidential for Women (Rating 3.4). Naturally, ratings have gone down due to the fragmenting of TV from three networks into several networks and hundreds of cable channels. Keep in mind that today’s top soap The Young and the Restless does a 3.6 rating, barely above what last-place Confidential for Women’ did in 1966. Sadly, there are only four daytime soap operas remaining on network TV and those are on the endangered species list as networks look for cheaper programming to pull in similar or better ratings.

When Dan Curtis decided to launch his soap, he went for something a little different, a soap that had a gothic background. Like many conventions, it’s hard to pinpoint a definition of gothic. There can be gothic romance, gothic horror, or combinations. of the the two. Gothic fiction traditionally is set at a remote location (sometimes a castle or haunted house) and has a heroine who is a damsel in distress. Oftentimes, there are mysterious goings-on that question the heroine’s sanity. For example, things and people disappear (were they there to begin with?) and hidden rooms abound with strangers lurking about. There may be ghosts, or what the reader thinks is a ghost is easily explained as something normal by the end of the story. While the soap featured your traditional soap opera fare such as jilted lovers, search for parents, revenge, and murder mysteries, it did so in a gothic tone. Eventually it began adding supernatural elements such as a story featuring a ghost and a supernatural creature known as a phoenix. This was the first American television soap opera to deal with supernatural themes. Unfortunately, even this wasn’t enough to make the show stand out and with hefty competition, things looked bleak for Dark Shadows.

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