Dark Shadows: Facts About The Soap Opera That Dared To Be Spooky
Jonathan Frid and Grayson Hall of 'Dark Shadows,' November 27, 1968. (Photo by Walt Disney Television via Getty Images Photo Archives/Walt Disney Television via Getty Images)JONATHAN FRID;GRAYSON HALL
In 1966 vampires, werewolves, and ghosts crept onto televisions across the country on the daytime soap opera Dark Shadows. To dismiss this moody series simply because of its daily time slot is a mistake, not only did Dark Shadows subvert the tropes of soap operas at the time, but it changed genre storytelling forever. With Barnabas Collins at the helm, the series was a hit with young viewers who were looking for something a little spooky in their life.
Aside from being the first daytime soap opera to openly embrace horror, this series had a lot of firsts. It took on parallel time lines, time travel, and it was the first day time soap opera to be shot in color. And it was probably the first TV show to be conceived of in a dream.
‘Dark Shadows’ was summer programming
The series may have been gothic and filmed in a gloomy black and white, but it first aired in June 1966 on ABC, every day from Monday through Friday. If you’re doing the math you know that means there are a lot of episodes to get through. Even with its relatively short run in terms of soap operas, Dark Shadows still has 1,225 episodes, offering hundreds of hours of spine tingling day time television.
The series follows the Collins family, an aristocratic family living in Collinsport, Maine, with a surprising past and a present full of intrigue. The family lives in their massive gothic estate and deals with all manner of things that go bump in the night while uncovering family secrets.
Dan Curtis dreamt the initial concept of the series
According to Dan Curtis, the concept behind Dark Shadows was born from a dream he had in 1965 of a woman on a train. The next day he pitched the dream to ABC execs (how easy was it to pitch a show in the ‘60s?) and they greenlit it pretty much immediately. Initially conceived as “Shadows on the Wall,” many of the earliest episodes of the show are about the young Victoria Winters taking a job at the Collinswood. The first supernatural storylines didn’t get underway until episode 70 wen the ghost of Josette appeared.
Initially the series was a bit of a sleeper. It was gloomy and atmospheric, which isn’t exactly what viewers are looking for in the middle of the afternoon, but once the supernatural made its way into the series the ratings spiked and Dark Shadows never looked back.
Barnabas wasn’t supposed to be a main character
Even if you aren’t a dedicated Dark Shadows fan you know who Barnabas Collins is, the rakish vampire who dates back to the earliest days of the family. However, he wasn’t meant to be a long term character. Barnabas was meant to be staked through the heart three weeks after his initial appearance, but he was such a fan favorite that he was kept on as they show’s lead. Barnabas finally appeared on episode 211 of the series, and according to series creator Dan Curtis, the vampire was only meant as an experiment:
Barnabas was brought in because I wanted to see exactly how much I could get away with. [I] never intending that he would be anything more than a vampire that I kill. I wanted to see how far I could go on the show into the supernatural, and I figured there was nothing more bizarre than a vampire. If it didn’t work, I figured we could always drive a stake into his heart
Played by Canadian actor Jonathan Frid, Barnabas had a quality that jumped off screen. Even when he was in black and white it was as if this character was operating on a full spectrum of color, it’s obvious that he’s the star of the show. Frid explained how he approached the character:
He was not just a vampire, not just a romancer. He was sometimes evil, too, but everybody’s got evil in them. He had evil. He had everything… He had a medical problem. He needed blood in his system all the time. And he had to get it quick. There are no such things as heroes and villains, you know. And Barnabas was neither hero nor villain.
Quentin Collins came on board to give Barnabas a break
Filming five episodes a week non-stop for a few years is sure to make anyone feel overwhelmed, which is why Jonathan Frid suggested the addition of a character who could fill up time on the show and play opposite of Barnabas. Frid explained:
In 1968, I went to Dan Curtis and said, ‘You’re overworking me. I think you should create another character and give me a run for my money.’ Curtis] said, ‘You don’t want that,’ and I said, ‘I’d rather have anything than work these hours. Give me some competition.’ They tried two or three things until Selby came along. The ratings were going down at that point, and we were delighted that Selby boosted them. If it hadn’t been for him, the show would have gone off the air in four months. He gave it a much-needed shot in the arm.
When David Selby appeared as Quentin Collins he didn’t just create a ratings boost, but he offered the writers a chance to do multiple things with a single character. Collins was most famously a werewolf, but he was also at different periods a zombie and an ageless creep. Selby says he loved his time on the series, even if he wasn’t sure he’d be accepted:
It was about three months before the character ever spoke. I was worried that once I opened my mouth, they won’t want me. But it all worked out for the better.
Jonathan Frid thought the whole thing was ridiculous
As much as the cast loved working on Dark Shadows, they realized that they were making something that was high camp even though they were all incredibly dedicated to the work. Many of the actors on the show came from the theater, including Jonathan Frid, and they regarded the series as a novelty compared the great playwrights. Frid told The Montreal Gazette in 1969:
It’s the worst acting I’ve ever done. I blink too much, I’m not sharp or fast enough, I don’t have enough time to learn my lines… I can’t get angry with people who find the whole thing ridiculous because the scripts are ridiculous, the dialogue is absurd.
Each scene was only shot once
The world of daytime soap operas have always been fast paced, but Dark Shadows was on a breakneck filming schedule. The cast and crew had to film five episodes a week, every week for about six years. In order to make sure they stayed on schedule every scene was only shot once so if someone made a mistake it stayed in the picture.
If you watch episodes of the show you’ll notice at least one flub per episode. Sometimes an actor reaches for a line of dialogue they can’t quite remember, other times a piece of the set fall in the background, or sometimes a character’s costume will set on fire. Every actor on the series committed themselves to their work and powered through no matter the mistakes that occurred, and as David Selby says they had to keep telling themselves that the episodes would only be seen once:
You talk about learning on your feet. You taped an episode once through, and if you made a mistake, you just kept going. We shot live on tape and almost never stopped. Dan would say, 'Don't worry about it. No one will ever see it again.'
There’s a missing episode
Dark Shadows is one of the few daytime soap operas from the ‘60s that’s still available for viewing, with literally hundreds of episodes available. The series is streaming, or if you have the space in your home you can pick up the 254 VHS collection, but there’s one episode you won’t see - number 1,219. Somehow, this is one of the episodes that was completely lost to time. The version of the episode that does exists was pieces together with fan-recorded audio track and still images for the home video release.
‘Dark Shadows’ was the first soap opera shot in color
One of the coolest things about Dark Shadows is the way that it uses visuals to accentuate the moody atmosphere of the series, something that no other soap opera was doing at the time. The original black and white episodes are extremely gloomy, and when the series switched to color in August 1967 the creators made this change necessary to the plot.
Once the series went color they took on a plot line that saw Victoria Winters traveling back in time to 1795 via séance, allowing the series to explore the Collins family of the 16th century. There was no wasted effort in this series that allowed viewers to explore their dark sides without getting too spooky.
Tags: A Brief History Of... | Dark Shadows | Horror | Jonthan Frid | Soap Operas | TV In The 1960s
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