Dark Shadows Really Was Dark…Once

If you enjoy Being Human, The Vampire Diaries or any other supernatural dramas, then you owe a debt of gratitude to Dark Shadows. That’s because it was the first show to bring supernatural elements into a drama format. Of course, if all you know about the series are the previews from the new movie, then you might be shocked to hear that it’s a drama at all. Since the new movie doesn’t seem like a great place to learn about this groundbreaking series, let’s take a look at the show and how it finally got mashed into the Tim Burton film coming out tomorrow. For those interested in catching the series, don't worry, this is a spoiler free zone. Image via mediafury [Flickr]

It Didn’t Start Out So Dark

These days, the show is famous for its supernatural storylines, but nothing of that nature was present when the show was first pitched. It all started in 1965, when Dan Curtis had a dream about a mysterious young woman on a train. He pitched the idea to ABC, where it was quickly greenlit. Art Wallace was hired to create a story from Curtis’ dream and he came up with a tale about a young orphan, Victoria Winters, trying to discover her past in the strange town of Collinsport, Maine.

When the show premiered, it did fairly poorly both due to its use of mostly unknown actors and its long, drawn out storylines. Even as the show was struggling though, it was still innovative, being one of the first soaps to incorporate flashbacks and parallel time lines. Six months into the show, things started to become more interesting when ghosts were introduced into the story. While it’s not all that rare for shows to use the supernatural these days, at the time, it was unprecedented and the show quickly increased in notoriety.

Introducing A Legend

A year into the show, creators introduced vampire Barnabas Collins, who is now the best known character in the series and the main character in the upcoming film. If you happen to stream the show on Netflix (like Zeon and I have been doing), this is where the episodes start, so I recommend looking up some of the background storylines on your own so you’re caught up with the action.

Barnabas captured the attention of the younger generation who generally avoided soap operas. ABC ran the show at 4 PM Eastern time, right when teens got home from school and their mothers stopped watching the television to start preparing dinner. It was a smash with the demographic and one of the first ABC shows that managed to score higher ratings than its competitors.

To this day, a number of celebrities from that generation have said that they grew up as fans of the series, including Quentin Tarantino and Madonna. In fact, long before Johnny Depp starred in his first movie, he already fantasized about getting to play Barnabas Collins, a dream he is now realizing with the help of his friend and fellow Dark Shadows fan, Tim Burton. Of course, vampires and ghosts aren’t the only supernatural elements that appear in the show. As time wears on, werewolves, witches, warlocks, time travel, zombies and more all play a role in the story.

Image via partymonstrrrr [Flickr]

Not Even Vampires Live Forever

While the show was a success with the 18-35 crowd and teens, at the time, advertisers were far more interested in reaching heads of the household. So, despite the show’s relatively high ratings, it was still doomed because it didn’t have the right ratings. Additionally, soap operas were notoriously more expensive to produces than game shows and talk shows. As the show’s ratings started to decline in its last two seasons, along with the ratings for all other sci-fi and horror-themed shows at the time, ABC decided five seasons was enough and canned the show in 1971. While the show’s writers were able to work to answer most of the lingering questions, many plot lines were left completely unanswered, like the question of who Victoria Winters’ parents were –the first mystery presented on the show.

Image via kyakeverywhere [Flickr]

Fans were livid, flooding the station with letters and even threatening to disrupt the taping of the show that moved into Dark Shadows’ time slot, the game show Password. Despite the threats though, no actual disruptions took place and ABC went ahead with cancelling the program. Interestingly, despite only lasting five seasons, the show managed to amass a large number of episodes because, unlike most scifi/fantasy shows, it was played every day instead of once a week. In the end, there were 1,225 episodes of Dark Shadows made –more episodes than all of the Doctor Who and Star Trek franchises ever made.


While the new movie may be big news right now, it’s not the first time someone has made a Dark Shadows movie, nor was it the first time the story was picked up again after the series was cancelled. In fact, the Dan Curtis, creator of the show, directed a movie based on the story before the show even ended. The film, House of Dark Shadows, focuses on Barnabas Collins’ storyline from the TV program, but provides him with a modified ending.

While it seems silly to watch a movie that’s basically the same as what’s going on with your favorite show at the time, the movie version did offer one definite advantage –less censorship. As a result, it was much gorier, a change teens were more than happy with. Humorously, the movie that was inspired by the TV show then inspired a novel, which was essentially the same, except it included a few scenes that were left out of the movie.

The movie also inspired a sequel, Night of Dark Shadows. It was originally going to be called Curse of Dark Shadows and star Barnabas again, but before they started production, the show was cancelled and the actor that played Barnabas, Jonathan Frid, refused to reprise his role. So instead, the sequel focuses on a characters seen in the show’s parallel timeline, particularly the new heir to Collinwood, Quentin Collins. While the movie did fairly well, it wasn’t nearly as successful as the show or original movie, in part, because it didn’t feature Barnabas.

In 1991, the soap opera was brought back to television, again by creator Dan Curtis. It followed the same storyline as the first time only it moved a lot faster through the plot developments. While it had pretty decent ratings at the start, it kept being rescheduled in favor of news coverage of the Gulf War. As a result, the ratings dropped quickly and the show was cancelled after the first season. In 2004, The WB commissioned a pilot for a new version of the show, but the series was never picked up.

Back to the Big Screen

The new film will be quite different than the series in many ways. Aside from being a comedy, it’s also the one version that Dan Curtis had nothing to do with. Barnabas’ character will have a very similar story to the one in the show, but Johnny Depp’s version is much more out-of-touch and much sillier than the one in the original series. For fans of the original series though, there will still be special treats for you to enjoy. For example, four of the show’s original cast members are featured in the ball scene of the movie, including Jonathan Frid (Barnabas), Lara Parker (Angelique), David Selby (Quentin) and Kathryn Leigh Scott (Maggie). Jonathan Frid died in April of this year, making the cameo his final film appearance.

As a big fan of Johnny Depp/Tim Burton collaborations, I admit, I’m pretty excited about the movie as it looks really goofy. That being said, as a new fan of the original series, I imagine it’s going to be a pretty poor tribute. What do you guys think? Are you going to see it? And do you think it’s good or bad that they made such a serious show into something so silly?

Sources: Wikipedia #1, #2, #3, #4, #5

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I wasn't a teenager yet, but I watched it every day after school. So did my friends, and we'd discuss every episode the next day. I grew up and met people from other parts of the country that watched it after school just like my crowd. Now that you've reminded me, I can see that Dark Shadows was the Twilight of the 1960s.

The difference is that youngsters didn't have the buying power they do today, so there wasn't nearly as much publicity or merchandising as there could have been. And we didn't have the internet, where fans could connect and reach a critical mass. The powers-that-be pretty much ignored the fact that teens, tweens, and elementary school kids all over the country watched and discussed the same show every day.
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So, releasing July 10th, you can find on Amazon, there's a boxed set that has all 1,225 episodes of DARK SHADOWS. $420!

Which, really, for the gonzo DARK SHADOWS fan, would be a bargain.

Though, owning such a set would really entail a sort of mission, I think. Owning all 1225 episodes, you would really need to watch all 1225 episodes. Maybe watch 5 episodes a week for the next 5 years. I'd like to see somebody blog about that!

Because they'd see all kinds of hilarious bloopers and such.

Also, the two theatrical movies (HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS and NIGHT OF DARK SHADOWS) had VHS releases, but not DVD. I wonder if the new movie will cause them to get DVD releases?
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I hated the show (my sister watched it), but I had an idea of what it was about. Learning the movie is a comedy I might see it - or rent it later.

@Algomeysa: There's something eerily familiar about that price. You don't suppose somebody at Amazon was...Nah! Couldn't be.
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Another thing about the show, was that I believe he was the first vampire to have a conscience about being a vampire.
I had watched the 1991 series, and when that came out, I recall a local channel had started to air the original series in the afternoons. So I got hooked on the original series as well.
When I saw the trailers for this new movie though, made me wanna go burn down a village.
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