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Dan Curtis had a dream.
The burly young television producer had made his name at CBS with golf; he produced CBS Golf Classics, had won an Emmy, and was making six figures a year; but he wasn't quite his own man, and Curtis wanted to do the projects he wanted to do, not translate others' ideas. One night in 1965 he went to bed as usual, and some time later awoke from a strange and powerful dream: he had seen a girl on a train, traveling in the night to some strange, small town. She went to a darkened house, where she knocked on the door; the door opened... and Curtis woke up. The next morning he told his wife Norma about the dream, who was enthusiastic about its possibilities for a TV show: it was perfectly moody and gothic, mysterious and evocative. His kids approved as well, so Curtis pitched the idea to executives at ABC. They gave him the go-ahead and Dark Shadows was born.
Dark Shadows was, to say the least, a unique program. It was a soap opera - a medium Curtis chose because the format was highly profitable - but it was a Gothic serial, featuring a haunted young heroine who comes to a grand old house and is employed by a brooding family who have secrets to keep. Mysteries, hints of the supernatural, and several more prosaic plot twists unfurl and intertwine as the series progresses, keeping the viewer reeling from episode to episode, with nary a moment to pause and take a breath in between.
Victoria Winters is the dark-tressed young heroine, hired to be governess for a young boy living in the house. Vickie arrives at the great estate, Collinwood, full of trepidation, but also full of hope: for Vickie is an orphan, and she has reason to believe that she may be an illegitimate member of the Collins family, who preside like a melancholy lord over the sleepy New England fishing town of Collinsport. As with any good Gothic heroine, she is warned away from her new duties - she is told that the Collins family is no good, and that she'd best keep away; further, upon her arrival at the Collinsport train station she meets a handsome stranger, who has his own secret agenda involving the Collins family.
The family consists of matriarch Elizabeth Stoddard, a Collins by birth, whose husband disappeared under mysterious circumstances years ago, and who hasn't left the great house in all that time; her brother Roger, a bit of a ne'er-do-well dandy who works at the family's fish packing plant at a make-work desk job, to keep him out of trouble; Carolyn, Elizabeth's daughter, a lovely blonde nineteen-year-old who desperately wishes to escape her melancholy surroundings; and Roger's son David, a brat who hates his father and is determined to make Vickie's life as miserable as possible - as he's done for several governesses before her.
The local townspeople consist of such characters as Burke Devlin, the afore-mentioned stranger who has arrived in Collinsport for his own secret purposes, of which he occasionally drops sinister hints; Sam Evans, a local painter who drinks too much and for some reason fears Devlin; Maggie Evans, Sam's daughter, a sharp-tongued waitress at the local diner; and Joe Haskell, a clean-cut, all-American young man who works at the cannery and whose ambition is to marry Carolyn.
The first year or so of the show saw Vickie getting involved in the family's affairs and secrets, her background objective always being trying to find out whether in fact she was a long-lost Collins relative. Although there were ghostly footsteps and occasional hints, however, the show remained firmly in the territory of reality for quite some time; it only veered into the supernatural when David's mother, herself a phoenix-like magical creature, comes back from the dead to claim him in some fiery ritual. But all of the incredible events always seemed to be resolved to normality - everything from David's mother to the ghost of the Collins ancestor Josette would be explained away by the characters as either hallucinations, or unexplained mysteries. This seems a bit of a cop-out now, but at the time it served its purpose by allowing the viewership - who consisted of housewives at the time, if truth be known - a psychological way out of all the 'spook stuff.'
The thing was, though, it wasn't quite working. The show seemed to promise horrors and supernatural goings-on without quite showing the audiences any real monsters; perhaps that was the reason it wasn't doing terribly well in the ratings. In fact, Curtis was pretty much told in early 1967 (the show had debuted the previous June) that if he didn't increase the viewership within six months, cancellation was imminent. Curtis knew that their previous attempts at fantasy had always meant a brief, if noticeable, spike in ratings; so he decided to go much further in that direction. He was going to give the viewers their monster.
In the 210th episode, a money-hungry young punk named Willie Loomis goes searching for jewels buried with the corpses in the family's mausoleum. He finds, behind a secret doorway, a coffin wrapped in chains. When he manages to open the coffin, he finds to his horror that there is a man inside - a man that reaches up and graps Willie's throat.
This brief introductory scene is indelibly printed in the minds of Dark Shadows fans, for the man in the coffin is none other than the vampire, Barnabas Collins. Barnabas is, naturally, a character tinged with horror - after all, he subsists on blood, and is certainly not above killing people - even family members! - to get what he wants, or to keep his origin a secret. Over time he ingratiates himself into the Collins family, telling them he is a long-lost cousin reared in England; they are quick to believe it, mainly because the man's portrait hangs in their foyer (though Barnabas assures them it is of his ancestor, whom he resembles very closely). Eventually his fantastic secret is learned by a woman, Dr. Julia Hoffman; but instead of trying to destroy him, Julia finds herself trying to help him - because, although it is never explicitly stated, she is in love with him.
Barnabas himself proved a treat for Dark Shadows audiences, if for no other reason than that monsters are a lot of fun. But when Barnabas and Julia teamed up, especially during the sequence where Maggie Evans was kidnapped, the show really started to take off in popularity. Audiences loved the love-hate relationship between the characters - would Barnabas end up with Julia, or would Maggie succumb to his spell? Further, much to everyone's surprise, Barnabas himself was becoming that rare fictional creature, the sympathetic monster: even though he did (or plotted to do) horrible things every week, it was clear that he was a man torn by his desires, a prisoner in his own hellish situation. As we learned more about Barnabas, we learned that although he was an inhuman killer, he did not want to be - he had once been a young man, who through no fault of his own was cursed to become this haunted being of the night. Audiences ate it up.
In November of 1967 this most unconventional of soap operas broke more new ground: for several weeks its storyline was thrust back in time to the year 1795. Vickie Winters, through hypnosis, became the audience's surrogate when she was transported to that long-ago period and recognized so many familiar faces among the Collins family of that time. Naturally, the show could not hire all new actors for this fanciful outing; therefore the cast took on new roles. Barnabas himself - though Vickie never learned it - was actually shown as he was as a young man, before the curse of vampirism was thrust upon him. And we got to meet the source of that curse: the beautiful witch Angelique, whose unrequited love for Barnabas caused so much misery to echo down through the ages for the Collins family and all those they touched.
This would be the first of the show's outings to other historical eras; and the show's viewership loved it. It was a breath of fresh air, after all, not only for the audience, but for the actors, the scriptwriters, and practically everyone else involved as well. Further, it helped establish the continuity of the Dark Shadows universe, because during this period we got to see how Barnabas became who he is in our present time. This was important, because Barnabas had quickly become the most admired character on the show. In fact, Barnabas was becoming more than a fictional character - he was turning into a phenomenon.
By mid-1968, Dark Shadows had become must-see-TV for a hell of a lot of people around the country - especially when its airtime was moved from 3:30 to 4:00 on weekday afternoons, effectively allowing kids to watch episodes when they got home from school. Housewives who had been following the program for months were joined by the more youthful viewers to create a ratings juggernaut that pretty much crushed every other program in its time slot.
Barnabas showed up on the covers of magazines - not just Famous Monsters but also things like the gosh-wow teen mags Flip and Tiger Beat - which were usually the province of young heartthrobs like Bobby Sherman or David Cassidy. Dark Shadows bubblegum cards were released, along with a kids' board game, a comic book (which outlived the TV series), a series of 32 paperback novels, monster models - even a replica of a music box owned by the tragic character of Josette.
Also that year the youthful passion factor was kicked up a notch with the introduction of Quentin Collins, at first a ghost but soon active in the person of a tall, handsome, mutton-chopped man. Many of the show's young female audience left Barnabas and glommed onto Quentin - but the show's fan base stayed loyal and true. At least for a while.
Over time the show's plots became more and more outrageous, as the writers wracked their brains to come up with new stories and situations, often turning to classic horror literature for inspiration. A Frankenstein's monster appeared, in the form of Adam, a patchwork man who hated Barnabas for his own creation; a werewolf showed up eventually, as well. There were more trips through time, various characters brought in to provide fresh blood (pun intended). In mid-1970, Dan Curtis even had the show's characters appear larger than life - on the big screen.
In March the cast of Dark Shadows trooped up to Tarrytown, New York (the regular series was filmed in Manhattan) to make a feature film: House of Dark Shadows. The plot of the movie followed fairly closely much of the show's initial Barnabas-and- Maggie-centered storyline, though of course compressed and with all of the extraneous stuff removed. One character was noticeably absent: Vickie Winters. Alexandra Moltke, who had played Vickie since the beginning, had left the show to start a family. Nevertheless, the film did surprisingly well, prompting Curtis to immediately begin planning a sequel. Night of Dark Shadows took a somewhat different tack: Barnabas didn't show up at all. Quentin and Angelique were the main characters, along with movie- Quentin's wife, played by future Charlie's Angel Kate Jackson (who also had a regular role on the TV show). This second film did poorly - in part because of a weak script, but also due to the fact that by the time it was released, its original inspiration had been taken off the air.
Dark Shadows was becoming increasingly difficult to follow - as most soap operas do; only, this particular show had the distinction of having many of its storylines taking place in different historical times, even at one point an 'alternate' (i.e., 'it never really happened') time. New viewers found it difficult to jump in, and older fans often found themselves alienated - gone were the days of the original series, with young Vickie Winters chasing secrets through a spooky black-and-white (to the viewer) house. Also, many of the show's plots just seemed downright silly; the audience turned its collective nose up at a storyline involving a group of Cthulhu-like creatures disguised as humans, for example. Magic and monsters and mystery floated together in a heady miasma that, unfortunately, seemed more like a fever dream than a coherent fictional universe.
Dark Shadows hung around for 1,245 episodes - five years, much longer than anyone predicted it would ever last, and in fact, longer than a lot of successful television shows lasted. The final episode was filmed on March 24, 1971, and aired on April 2nd. It took place during one of the series's time-traveling sequences, as the character of Melanie (played by Nancy Barrett, Carolyn Collins in the regular continuity) seemed to have been bitten by some creature on the neck. The immediate family gathers around, and wonders aloud if the bite could be the result of a... ? The camera pans to the famous portrait of Barnabas, which had presaged his appearance on the show four years earlier, before fading to black. The voice of actor Thayer David comes on and assures the audience, "There was no vampire loose on the great estate. ...the dark shadows of Collinwood were but a memory of the distant past."