‘Dark Shadows’ Seized Viewers Like a Bat Out of Hell

May 19, 2003  •  Post A Comment

As teenagers in the late ’70s, baby boomers raced home from high school or dashed to student union halls to watch ABC’s General Hospital. They were in practice. Ten years earlier they had run home from school to watch Dark Shadows, also on ABC. Life wasn’t easy before the advent of the VCR.
Dark Shadows ran on ABC from 1966-71. To this day it retains a loyal fan base second only to that of the original Star Trek. Like Trekkers, Shadows enthusiasts continue to flock to annual conventions, where they meet and greet original cast members and seek out memorabilia.
Most people don’t realize that Dark Shadows was largely dead on arrival. Originally conceived by series creator Dan Curtis as a gothic love story about a lovelorn woman, it had no supernatural aspects whatsoever during its first months on the air. It didn’t have ratings, either. Rumors of its early termination were escalating when Mr. Curtis’ children suggested that he add scary elements to the show. Mr. Curtis responded by featuring a ghost-a first for a soap opera-and the ratings bumped.
Encouraged, Mr. Curtis introduced the long-absent character Laura Collins-wife of Roger, mother of David and a phoenix who sometimes burst into flames. The ratings perked once again. That’s when Mr. Curtis decided to truly push the envelope by having Collinwood caretaker Willie Loomis open a coffin and inadvertently set free the vampire Barnabas Collins. A pop culture phenomenon was born. Two feature films, two record albums, trading cards, comic books, a syndicated newspaper strip, a board game and a best-selling paperback book series followed. Many years later Dark Shadows would become the first soap opera to be released on videocassette and repeated on cable. (Reruns now play every morning on the Sci-Fi Channel.) Mr. Curtis produced a new prime-time version of Dark Shadows that ran on NBC in 1991.
Although it is often mocked today for its rickety sets, rampant technical gaffs and wooden acting, Dark Shadows was wildly ambitious for its time. No other soap was using special effects, cheesy or otherwise. Further, Dark Shadows often had its core actors playing numerous roles in stories set in alternate dimensions and parallel timelines. Its storytelling was somewhat complex, but Dark Shadows nevertheless moved faster than the typical soap opera of its day.

Barnabas was originally created as a character of pure evil. Mr. Curtis planned to quickly kill him off, until a torrent of fan mail convinced him to keep Barnabas among the living dead. Barnabas became the first reluctant vampire, paving the way for the Lestat character in the novels of Anne Rice and, eventually, the creation of the similarly conflicted Angel on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its spinoff, Angel.