Dark Shadows: Looking Back at the Groundbreaking Gothic Soap Opera. Part Two.
When we last left Dark Shadows, the gothic soap opera was facing an imminent demise. With nothing to lose, Dan Curtis decided to really go different with his show. In 1967, he introduced the character Barnabas Collins, a vampire. Due to network standards and practices, Barnabas’ vampiric nature was danced around. People had their blood mysteriously drained but it would take a year before the word vampire was used to describe Barnabas. Another interesting situation was that Barnabas’ first victim, Willie Loomis, was bit on the arm, apparently because there was concern of a homosexual subtext if Loomis was bit on the neck by a male vampire.
Barnabas became so popular that he went from being a temporary character to the star of the show. Actor Jonathon Frid became a celebrity and ratings started to rise. Fans got to see Barnabas transform from an evil character into an antihero, and eventually a hero in his own right.
Dark Shadows took its supernatural themes and went full bore with them. There were your traditional soap opera romances but they were always in a supernatural light. There could be a romance with one of the lovers hiding a dark secret, only in this case it might be lycanthropy. When a character in Dark Shadows had skeletons in their closet, it could be literal or figurative.
If you look back at Dark Shadows, you see that they did a lot of storylines that were ahead of their time for daytime soap operas. The show’s writers borrowed liberally from horror and science fiction stories such as Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Turning of the Screw (to name a few) but they put their own spin on things. Time travel and parallel universes were incorporated into the show, broadening storytelling possibilities.
Dark Shadows had a talented cast that interacted with the show’s star, Jonathon Frid. Joan Bennett played Collins family matriarch Elizabeth Stoddard. Bennett was a rising star in Hollywood (appearing in two of film noir’s seminal pictures Scarlet Street and The Woman in the Window) until a scandal derailed her career. Academy Award nominee Grayson Hall played Dr. Julia Hoffman (among several roles), a scientist who carried a series-long torch for Barnabas. Stars David Selby, John Karlen, Lara Parker, and Kate Jackson would make the transition from daytime television to night-time television and even occasional film roles.
One of the show’s charms was its use of the same actors in different roles. Characters died but the actors often remained, taking on new identities. This made sense since the show was constantly shifting time and dimension. A present-day character who died could play his ancestor or parallel counterpart. The cast’s versatility was on display throughout the show’s ever-changing storylines and locations.
Like any soap opera of the time, the stories moved at a glacial pace and melodrama was the order of the day. Each episode was thirty minutes (standard for soap operas of the time) and stories took weeks, often months to tell. Writers had to hook viewers into tuning in every day to see what happened to their favorite characters.
And turn it around they did. While Barnabas’ appearance didn’t turn things around overnight, it was enough to save the show and it only grew from there. In order to lessen the load of Jonathon Frid, a new protagonist was introduced- Quentin Collins. This enigmatic character became the focus of the show’s “1897” storyline, an epic that saw Barnabas travel back to Collinwood 1897 to prevent the deaths of young David and Amy in the present. The storyline introduced Quentin Collins and his curse of lycanthropy as well as Count Petrofi, a powerful sorcerer intent on traveling to the future. Ratings skyrocketed and Quentin became a new daytime heartthrob.
Dark Shadows became so popular that ABC commissioned Dan Curtis to make Dead of Night, a pilot for a night-time supernatural soap opera. The pilot aired in 1969 but was not picked up. Strange Paradise, a syndicated supernatural soap aired from 1969-1970. At the time, no one could copy Dark Shadows’ success.