TV classic keeps from fading into the shadows

by Craig Hamrick

''My name is Victoria Winters. My journey is just beginning ...''

Her real name was Alexandra Moltke, and by speaking these simple words in 1966, the actress launched one of the most successful and unusual TV series ever to be broadcast: a soap opera called Dark Shadows. Although it only aired for 5 years, Dark Shadows has remained alive in one form or another for over 30 years. It spawned a series of popular books, two comic book series, a newspaper comicstrip, two feature films, and a revival TV series. And even today, fans meet at annual conventions called Dark Shadows Festivals--which draw thousands of attendees.

When the first episode of Dark Shadows aired June 27, 1966, nothing quite like it had come before. Set in the fictional seaside village of Collinsport, Maine, the moody, atmospheric series followed in the tradition of Gothic novels. Eventually it featured ghosts, witches and vampires as main characters, and it proved to be unlike any other soap opera.

The story of Dark Shadows was simple at first. It began with Victoria Winters, a woman with a mysterious past, traveling to Collinsport to work for the Collins family as the governess for 9-year-old David. David's father, Roger Collins, also lived at Collinwood, the family mansion, as did Roger's sister, Elizabeth Collins Stoddard and her daughter, Carolyn.

Movie actress Joan Bennett headed the cast as Elizabeth, and Louis Edmonds portrayed Roger. Nancy Barrett was Carolyn, and David Henesy was David. (Joan and Louis are pictured here on a bubble gum card.)

Early episodes revolved around a murderous secret from Roger's past and Victoria's investigation of her origins. These plots inspired dismal ratings. More viewers tuned in when ghosts began to haunt Collinwood, and later when David's wandering mother, Laura, returned for her son. Laura (portrayed by Diana Millay) just happened to be a supernatural creature of fire called a phoenix, and her plan to lure David to his death resulted in improved ratings. But, even with the new spark of interest, the show was nearing cancellation by the spring of 1967.

Because ghosts and a phoenix had nudged up ratings, Dan Curtis -- Dark Shadows' creator, director and executive producer -- gambled that a vampire might do even more. The Collins' undead ancestor, Barnabas Collins, escaped from his coffin and arrived at the front door of Collinwood on April 17, 1967. This more than improved the ratings. Barnabas, who was later joined by an array of monsters, catapulted the series to cult status. Played by Shakespearean actor Jonathan Frid, the vampire was originally slated to appear in only a few episodes before being staked, but after fan mail began pouring in, Frid became a permanent member of the cast. (Click here to read an interview with Jonathan Frid.)

In the years that followed, Barnabas and his loyal sidekick, Dr. Julia Hoffman, faced werewolves, ghosts and mad scientists. They traveled backward and forward in time and even entered another dimension, called Parallel Time. Julia was played by Oscar-nominated actress Grayson Hall.

The supernatural element of the Dark Shadows story line attracted an audience of almost 20 million avid fans, many of whom were teenagers or younger. Due to the age and buying habits of these viewers, the show spawned dozens of commercial products, including paperback novels, comic books, trading cards, board games and models. Loyal fans still collect the memorabilia, while some continue to create and purchase new items commemorating the show. (Click here to visit the Dark Shadows Collector's Site and see photos of the DS collectibles.)

The storyline's first shift in time occurred a few months after Frid's arrival, to explain how Barnabas had become a vampire. Actors who had parts in the present-time episodes played their characters' ancestors in the past, and several new actors joined the cast, including Lara Parker as Angelique, the witch who cursed Barnabas with vampirism when he spurned her love.

That first flashback, to 1795, was a tale of obsession and unrequitied love. Kathryn Leigh Scott, who played waitress Maggie Evans in present time, played the part of Josette DuPres, Barnabas' fiance. In the storyline, Angelique used black magic to steal Barnabas from Josette. Because of Angelique's sorcery, Barnabas found his thirst for blood, and Josette committed suicide.

Later, a werewolf played by David Selby joined the cast of villains.

As the plot wound through the centuries, colorful sets and costumes entranced viewers. And at a time when other soap operas dealt with simple domestic issues, Dark Shadows' characters faced curses and time travel rather than mortgage payments and unwed pregnancies.

To keep production costs low, the show was taped virtually non-stop, with the camera unblinking as actors struggled with their lines or accidentally destroyed the props. Stagehands occasionally wandered into view and tombstones had a habit of falling over, which added a humorous element to the otherwise frightening and serious show.

In a 1991 interview, actress Lara Parker reflected on some of the things that made Dark Shadows a ratings sensation and a cult phenomenon. (Click here to read that interview.)

''It was just a time in the history of show business when it worked,'' Parker said. ''In the 1960s there were a lot of people experimenting on various hallucinogens and mind-altering substances, and they were tripping out on Dark Shadows. And then there were kids who raced home from school to see it, and it was their show.''

Viewers included a broad cross section of housewives, college professors, school children and celebrities. Even former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis was said to be a fan.

''It was so silly and so scary and so unpredictable, and at the same time, you could not watch a show that you didn't see somebody make a mistake, so it was a howl,'' Parker said. ''And everybody that watched it either got scared, or they could be sensually or sexually aroused or they could giggle. It broke all the rules.''

The plots, while ground-breaking for daytime television, proved to be the show's undoing. After five years, fans became confused by the constant shifts in time and space, and ratings began to decline. The last episode of Dark Shadows aired Friday, April 2, 1971.

But, like many of the creatures featured on the program, Dark Shadows would not remain dead.

Dan Curtis directed "House of Dark Shadows" and "Night of Dark Shadows," two feature films based on the series. Both took place in an "alternate universe," slightly different from the TV show, featuring members of the TV cast but telling a different story

Night of Dark Shadows was released after the series had gone off the air. Similarly, both the Dark Shadows comic book series and paperback series continued after the show's demise.

In 1975, Barnabas Collins bared his fangs again, when Dark Shadows joined the ranks of shows like I Love Lucy and Star Trek in syndication, attracting an ever-growing legion of fans.

Then, in the 1990s, Dark Shadows truly lived again. Video tapes of the series were released, and an updated version with an all-new cast joined NBC's primetime schedule in 1991.

The cast, which included none of the actors from the original show, was again headed by a movie star: Jean Simmons as Elizabeth. Barnabas was portrayed by Ben Cross, best-known for his performance in the Oscar-winning movie Chariots of Fire. Other cast members included Joanna Going as Victroia Winters, Roy Thinnes as Roger Collins, Barbara Steele as Julia Hoffman, and Lysette Anthony as the evil Angelique.

Early reviews for the updated Dark Shadows were good, however ratings were relatively lowand in May, NBC announced that Dark Shadows would not be renewed. But once again, cancellation did not kill Dark Shadows. Months after the show left the air, several new collectibles were issued, including two wristwatches and an all-new comic book series. Click here for photos and information about the 1991 version of Dark Shadows.

 

Also throughout the 1990s, episodes of the original Dark Shadows were aired on the Sci-Fi Channel, although the plug was once again pulled in late 1997.

In the more than 25 years since Dark Shadows was cancelled, it has remained very much alive through the dedication of loyal fans. Over the years, they have produced even more collectible items than were officially licensed, and hundreds of fans meet at conventions each year. And as the World Wide Web has grown, dozens of fans have shown their devotion by creating websites about the show (including the one you're visiting now). Even the immensly popluar online service America Online (AOL) features a Dark Shadows section (Keyword: DARK SHADOWS).

Fan-produced mini-magazines, called fanzines, contain a mixture of fiction, reviews and interviews. One of the oldest is ShadowGram, the official Dark Shadows newsletter, edited by Marcy Robin, a Temple City, California, schoolteacher. Published three to six times each year, ShadowGram contains information obtained directly from the cast and crew of the series. Magazine and newspaper articles about Dark Shadows and its stars are also often reprinted. For more information about ShadowGram, email Marcy Robin at WorldofDS@aol.com or send a self-addressed, stamped envelope to her at: P.O. Box 1766, Temple City, CA 91780.

In addition to planning the annual conventions, the Dark Shadows Festival organization has written and produced Dark Shadows publications, including "The History of Dark Shadows 1966-1967," which features rare photographs, floor plans, production notes and the storyline of the first 209 episodes of Dark Shadows. "The Introduction of Barnabas" details the episodes that were first aired from March to November 1967, from Barnabas' first appearance to the beginning of the 1795 flashback.Other Festival publications include "The Dark Shadows Celebrity Cook Book" and "The Dark Shadows Actor Directory." Since 1989, the Festival has produced calendars with Dark Shadows photographs and trivia facts. (For more information about the Dark Shadows Festivals, you can send a self-addressed, stamped envelope to: Dark Shadows Festival, P.O. Box 92, Maplewood, NJ 07040 or CLICK HERE.)

Dark Shadows is copyrighted by Dan Curtis Productions.

This website is copyrighted by Craig Hamrick.


 

Craig Hamrick's new book, The Dark Shadows Collectibles Book, is now available. Click here for more information.

 

CLICK HERE TO VISIT CollinWeb -- links to the official websites of Diana Millay, Louis Edmonds, Nancy Barrett -- and much more! 1