There are many great families from the golden age of television that have impacted and influenced audiences for years. The big main one is obviously The Brady Bunch but there are also the spooky two, The Addams Family or The Munsters.
While those were, and still are, considered to be the two biggest horror, gothic, comedic families on television, there is one other family that requires attention and acknowledgment as well. This other family deserves praise for being both innovative to TV storytelling and original in its varied content. This other mysterious family in question is the wealthy Collins family from the hugely popular gothic soap opera, Dark Shadows.
Set in the fictional town of Collinsport, Maine the show also differed from its more comedic TV counterparts because it was not a spooky/comedy hybrid show. Dark Shadows, although it had its moments of comedy, was at its core a very serious drama. The drama of the show was enhanced by the eerie nuances of the many monstrous characters and the mysterious atmosphere they occupied.
Also unlike its more comical cousins in TV land, Dark Shadows was not an immediate hit. In fact, by most critics’ opinions, the show lacked intrigue for many of its early episodes. A lot of the early episodes consisted of lackluster character introductions and subpar plots. To put it bluntly, critics found the show to be a rather boring endeavor for the small screen. The show possessed slow character development, and there was ZERO supernatural elements in most of its first episodes. Due to budget restraints and pressure from studio executives, the show was forced to ask its actors and actresses to play multiple characters to stay under budget and keep the show afloat. By all counts, the show was doomed to have a slow and painful death. This went on for ten months, until a mysterious vampire made his dramatic Dark Shadows debut.
Enter Barnabas Collins, a nearly 200-year-old vampire and long-lost member of the Collins family. Audience reception to Barnabas’ entrance to the show was immediately positive. It could certainly be said that the sinister, yet lovable, vampire (played by Jonathan Frid) was the true hero of the series. The interesting feature of the Barnabas character is that when he was introduced, he was a rather frightening creature, as many onscreen vampires tend to be. Over time, however, the character slowly began to find his humanity throughout each episode. This was mostly noticeable when Barnabas routinely and repeatedly risked his life to protect his Collins family from countless perils and catastrophes. In a sense, the character of Barnabas was also very ahead of his time. For television audiences to cheer for an anti-hero like Barnabas in the 1960s, when other stations had true heroes like Adam West’s Batman and William Shatner’s Captain Kirk, it was quite a unique feat that made Dark Shadows stand out even more.
To say that the show went on to garner a loyal fan following would be a gross understatement. The daytime gothic soap opera became a main staple to many families and its legacy of rich characters and stories still endures today.
In it’s six-year run, Dark Shadows became a commercially successful hit.
The success of the show and its loyal and long-lasting legacy of diehard fans is greatly indebted to the villainous, and yet heroic, Barnabas. The show’s usage of supernatural occurrences intermixed with believable family dynamics and tribulations also made the otherworldly setting somehow feel more grounded and intriguing. The writing of many of the episodes made for fantastic melodrama. Lastly, the music of Dark Shadows, composed by Robert Cobert, is as memorable and enduring as the orchestrated music of Gene Rodenberry’s Star Trek.
It would not be too far out there to say that Dark Shadows is one of the most mimicked television shows. Whether you are talking about other shows, movies, books and comic books, or even video games. The influence that the monstrous soap opera has had is undeniable. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Dark Shadows, though, is that the series creator, Dan Curtis, came up with the idea of the show from a dream he had.
The dream, which Dan Curtis had in 1965, was a simple concept. A mysterious girl on a train. Curtis told his wife about the dream and then pitched the seemingly plotless idea to ABC as a possible television show. Executives found the pitch to be intriguing enough that they greenlit the idea. Curtis then hired Art Wallace to turn his dream idea into a full-fledged story. The mysterious girl evolved into the orphan, Victoria Winters (played by then unknown Alexandra Isles) and she arrived via train to the fictional town of Collinsport, Maine. Victoria’s purpose in Collinsport was to unearth her foggy past.
Dark Shadows reached its peak of popularity in 1969 with its now infamous “1897 storyline” and it amassed a truly impressive feat of 7 to 9 million viewers PER DAY! For nine months, Dark Shadows maintained its highest number of viewers. By giving fans a strong, intricate storyline with many plot twists and fascinating ideas, the writers of the “1897 storyline” unfortunately started to feel an intense amount of pressure. Imagine how stressful it would be to come up with such a superb storyline that unravels daily, and you needed to maintain a captivated audience every step of the way! It’s enough to drive anyone to madness!
In November of 1969, the tension of pressure reached its breaking point. Thus ending of the “1897 storyline.” The writers of the now hugely popular show, wanting to maintain high viewer numbers, introduced the “Leviathans storyline.” This, unfortunately, was too much of a departure from the tried and true monsters of myths like vampires, witches and werewolves that had made the show so popular and it began the slow decline of Dark Shadows. The “Leviathans storyline” also turned fan favourite Barnabas into more of a pawn to a greater evil. This decision was one that fans were not okay with.
At the height of its popularity, Dark Shadows was a gothic show with a dramatic supernatural flare before it was socially acceptable to air supernatural stories on television. What’s more is that Dark Shadows aired on television in the 4PM timeslot, like a true soap opera, and this was primarily decided to hook young fans as they arrived at home from school. These young fans, all grown up now, have kept the legacy of the Collins family alive and as a result, there have been multiple books written, two films in the 1970s, a short-lived revised television show and finally the Tim Burton film, starring Johnny Depp.
In many ways, Dark Shadows is immortal like Barnabas Collins and it will likely rise again and again, because the fascination with vampires, witches and werewolves will never die.