Nearly 50 years after its debut, there’s still never been a television series quite like Dark Shadows. The ABC daytime soap opera, which aired from 1966 to 1971, was a charmingly under-budgeted Gothic melodrama about a spooky seaside town in Maine that blended the supernatural (werewolves, witchcraft, and zombies) with parallel universes and time travel; angst-ridden vampire Barnabas Collins (Jonathan Frid) emerged as the show’s breakout star. General Hospital it wasn’t.
Usually airing in late afternoons, Dark Shadows acquired a large teenage fanbase, with some of its frilly-collared actors appearing in the pages of Tiger Beat, and an even larger cult following. If this all sounds peculiar, you don’t know the half of it. Take a look at the show’s humble special effects attempts, Frid’s forced dates, and how Joseph Gordon-Levitt figures into all of this.
1. BARNABAS COLLINS WAS AN AFTERTHOUGHT.
Creator Dan Curtis—who would later conceive of The X-Files predecessor Kolchak: The Night Stalker and the classic TV movie Trilogy of Terror—originally had in mind a dramatic series about the strange residents of Collinsport, Maine, as viewed from the perspective of newly-arrived governess Victoria Winters. Though mystical elements—like ghosts—were present, they were subtle and slow to materialize. When the show premiered June 27, 1966, viewers found its characters as impenetrable as Winters did; Variety called it a “yawn.”
Hoping to improve ratings with a classic horror movie trope—a vampire—Curtis introduced Collins, a brooding bloodsucker tortured by his condition. Originally intended to be a fleeting character who would be staked in the heart after a three-week run, he became so popular with viewers (ratings saw a 62 percent increase) that the show was saved from the guillotine.
2. THE SPECIAL EFFECTS CONSISTED OF SARAN WRAP AND VASELINE.
With a roughly $70,000 budget to shoot its five weekly episodes, Dark Shadows had to approach its special effects conservatively. Camera operator Stuart Goodman found that covering his lens with plastic wrap and then dabbing Vaseline at the edges to create a hazy, dreamlike visual was surprisingly effective. To emulate actors being trapped in a blaze, Goodman would simply put a bucket in front of himself and light it on fire.
3. THERE WAS NO TIME TO GO BACK AND FIX MISTAKES.
Despite its lofty ambitions, sprawling stories and camera tricks, Dark Shadows had to maintain a standard soap schedule that allowed episodes to air daily. Because of the compressed production, actor flubs, focus mistakes, and other gaffes that would normally be re-shot had to remain in the show. Viewers would occasionally see performers read the wrong lines or see a crew member wander into shots. Actress Kate Jackson was wearing a dress that caught fire by accident: She finished her scene before being put out. Most notably, Frid was caught picking his nose when he thought he was off-camera.
4. VIEWERS COULD WIN A DATE WITH JONATHAN FRID.
Despite his questionable manners, Frid quickly became the Robert Pattinson of his day. (In his early 40s and uncomfortable in front of cameras, Frid never expected to find himself the subject of viewer crushes. Too bad a tragic vampire is irresistible.) He was bombarded with requests for personal appearances. He was once invited to a Halloween party at the White House (in character) and judged a Miss American Vampire beauty contest, with the winner earning a small role in the show. Poor Frid was also subject to promotional stunts like magazines promising a date with him. “Yes, ladies,” read TV Radio Talk copy, “finally, your fondest nightmares can come true … you will indulge in a long, eerie candlelit dinner at one of the city’s finer haunts, escorted by none other than … that delicious vampire.”
5. FRID KNEW THE WHOLE THING WAS A LITTLE DUBIOUS.
No one on Dark Shadows had any illusions that the show’s camp nature, on-the-nose dialogue, and suspect production values were elevating television. Frid was especially candid about its shortcomings. “It’s the worst acting I’ve ever done,” he told The Montreal Gazette in 1969. “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.”
6. BARNABAS DIDN’T TALK MUCH WHILE FANGED.
Dampened vocally by the fangs he had to wear, Frid also told the Gazette of some production trickery: Collins was rarely filmed talking in them. “My words come out slushy when I wear them, so they have to cut away from me when I talk,” he said. Frid would spit out the fangs, deliver the dialogue, then stuff them back in when the camera returned to him.
7. IT WAS ABC’S FIRST COLOR SOAP.
Though soaps had experimented with color before, Dark Shadows became the first daytime serial on ABC to switch to the format in 1967. (It had spent its first year in black and white.)
8. THERE’S A MISSING EPISODE.
With an unforgiving daily schedule, Dark Shadows produced 1225 episodes during its five-year run. Incredibly, 1224 of them survived. Episode 1219 was discovered to be “missing” when a home video release was being put together. To reconstruct it, an audio recording from a fan was used along with production stills.
9. IT WAS REPLACED BY PASSWORD.
The daily percussion of intricate stories involving monsters and alternate universes eventually wore on both audiences and creators: Curtis wished to move on from the show and was unwilling to cede control to another producer, and ABC was less than satisfied with declining ratings. Dark Shadows ended on April 2, 1971, and was replaced with a new version of the game show Password.
10. IT’S THE ONLY SOAP TO SPAWN THREE FEATURE FILMS.
It’s a testament to Dark Shadows' rabid following that the series birthed two feature films with the original cast—virtually unheard of for a soap opera of any era. Curtis directed 1970’s House of Dark Shadows, which covered much of the same ground as the series but morphed Collins into more of an antagonist. While a feature budget meant actors actually had the privilege of doing more than one take, reviews were mixed.
After the series ended in 1971, Curtis wanted to continue the story with another film. Night of Dark Shadows was released that same year, but Frid declined to participate. Curtis opted for more of a haunted house theme instead, with the show’s cast popping up in different roles. It’s been alleged MGM cut 30 minutes from the finished film, obliterating some plot and character details. In its released form, reviewers found it “dull,” “monotonous,” and “a bore.” (Tim Burton's 2012 feature, starring Johnny Depp as Collins, didn't fare much better.)
11. JOSEPH GORDON-LEVITT APPEARED IN THE REVIVAL.
Having been largely dormant since going off the air, Dark Shadows was reintroduced to a contemporary audience in 1991. NBC ordered 13 episodes of the series that revived Barnabas (now portrayed by Ben Cross) and rebooted the spooky history of Collinwood Mansion. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, all of 10 years old, played David Collins. Ratings were modest, and the intensifying Gulf War only worsened viewership. The WB tried again in 2004, but the pilot never made it to air. It’s sometimes screened at fan conventions.
12. THERE WAS A COMIC STRIP.
Unlike most daytime soaps, the genre elements of Dark Shadows lent themselves to a variety of merchandising opportunities. Model kits, novels, and toys were in abundance. The series was also adapted into another serialized format: a comic strip ran from 1971 to 1972. Though it effectively picked up the property after the show had ended, it bore little relation. Of the characters, only Frid’s Barnabas was recognizable.
13. BARNABAS MET KOLCHAK.
In a nod to Curtis’s two most popular fantasy series, Moonstone Publishing issued a Dark Shadows/Kolchak crossover comic book in 2009. Kolchak—a newspaper reporter with an affinity for supernatural cases—receives a letter from Barnabas inviting him to the opulent Collinwood Mansion. After Kolchak tries to murder him, the two have a friendly chat. Fans hoping for more of a confrontation were slightly disappointed.
14. FANS CAN OWN ALL 1225 EPISODES—ON VHS.
VCR enthusiasts of the 1980s will recall that Time-Life, Columbia House, and other videotape distributors would offer television series in their entirety, provided collectors had the money and shelf space to accommodate them. While this was a tricky enterprise even with a short-lived series like 1966’s Star Trek, it was almost unfathomable for Dark Shadows. Airing every weekday for five seasons, the series amassed 1225 half-hour episodes, which meant the entire library from video rights holder MPI needed a staggering 254 cassettes. In 2012, the company released it on DVD in a coffin-shaped collector’s case. It was a paltry 131 discs.