Contemporary television is often lauded for complicated storylines and numerous characters. We call good television with several chapters, which make up various arcs “dramas” but in many ways, popular television from Downton Abbey, to Mad Men, to Battlestar Galactica, to Fringe, to The Wire, to Doctor Who all have more in common with soap operas than many would care to admit.
The connotations of “soap opera” are almost always negative, which isn’t really fair, because in some ways, soap operas represent a naked honesty in TV storytelling; i.e. it’s just trying to get you to watch the next episode. The original Dark Shadows was a soap opera, and it was great at being a soap opera. But the show also subverted the notion of soaps, television, and vampires forever. It is also the first soap opera to feature straight-up time travel and a parallel universe!
Dark Shadows aired weekdays on ABC from 1966-1971. By weekdays, that means, Monday thru Friday; 5 episodes a week. So, like other soap operas there are A LOT of episodes of Dark Shadows, in fact, the number of episodes totals 1,225, which is more than Doctor Who, and the entirety of televised Star Trek. Who might hold the record for longest-running science fiction/fantasy TV series since it’s been around since 1963, but Dark Shadows has more stories.
Does that mean the quality of the stories is all that good? Well, by and large, it’s a crapshoot. If you were to pick an episode at random on Netflix of Dark Shadows, and you knew nothing about it, you might be disappointed. Prior to the introduction of Jonathan Frid’s Barnabas Collins, it might hard for a contemporary TV watcher to understand exactly what the hell is going on. Why do all these people live in this gothic house? Why are they bickering all the time? Just what is this all about?
Primarily, Dark Shadows concerns the machinations of the Collins family, of which Barnabas Collins, a vampire, is a distant ancestor. They all live at a gothic estate called Collinswood, which is located in the town of Collinsport, a fishing village located in Maine. (Collinsport is not a real place, though it may have been inspired by another town in Maine called Bucksport, which had a rumored history of witchcraft and other things that go bump in the night.) The first episode sees New York City gal Victoria Winters heading by train on a dark and stormy night to Collinsport, for a governess job at Collinwood. Right away, spooky things are going on, an entire wing of the estate is closed, and people are arguing constantly. BUT, no ghosts, ghouls or vampires for a while.
Pinpointing the actual, original intent of creator Dan Curtis seems, well, shadowy. The show’s initial story bible made no mention of supernatural elements, despite the fact the show become known almost exclusively for Frid’s vampire Barnabas. Initially not meant to be a reoccurring character, Barnabas Collins was introduced in episode 211. That’s right, 211 episodes into the show, the person we consider to be the main character finally arrived. The previous episode, 210, foreshadows what is about to happen by having Willie Loomis very interested in the portrait of the long-dead Barnabas, hanging up in Collinwood. Willie is a con artist hanging around Collinsport initially to attempt to blackmail Elizabeth Collins Stoddard, the matriarch of the family. Willie eventually digs up the coffin containing Barnabas at the end of episode 210, and starting with episode 211, the show would never be the same. (Incidentally, James Hall played Willie through episode 205, but then by John Karlen from episode 206 all the way through episode 1106. Weird, when one considers how pivotal the character was!)
After Barnabas Collins, a good deal of the storylines deal with him and his friendship with Victoria Winters, who in some ways is the other main character of Dark Shadows. When the show began being filmed in color, instead of black and white, a totally awesome plotline was introduced which depicted Victoria traveling back in time to 1795 as the result of séance. After this occurs, much of the continuity of Collins family history appears to be contradicted, though some fans speculate this is actually an alternate timeline. The paradox: why didn’t Barnabas recognize Victoria when he first showed up in episode 211? Maybe it’s an alternate universe, or maybe it’s just television. Either way, Victoria was eventually jailed for witchcraft despite 1795 Barnabas attempting to cover for her! There’s a lot of back and forth in these stories, though poor Victoria eventually is forced to jump to her death off the cliffs of Widow’s Hill while living in the past. By this time though, Victoria Winters had been played by three actresses: Alexandra Moltke, Besty Durkin, and Carolyn Groves.
There are various other time-travel stories, including one in which Barnabas Collins travels back in time to the period in which he is chained in his coffin. During the 19th century, in his original timeline, Banabus was locked up and buried in the ground. When he first emerges, he tells the Collins family he is a long-lost relative of the dead Barnabas Collins, making the secret of his vampirism a long-running plot point throughout the series. Though Dark Shadows was canceled before it could conclude all of it’s storylines, one of the writers, Sam Hall, revealed in a TV Guide interview that the finale would have included a storyline in which Barnabas permanently ceases to be a vampire.
The aesthetic of the original show is slow, bumpy, creaky, and over-the-top. Personally, and though this sounds like blasphemy, I find the color episodes much more entertaining than their black and white predecessors. The time-travel episodes involving Vicki and Barnabas are without a doubt the best, and though all the actors who play Vicki are fine, Alexandra Moltke is my favorite. But the other reason to watch the original Dark Shadows is Jonathan Frid.
He is charismatic, exciting, dangerous, dashing, and most importantly: weird. I find shades of Barnabas in characters like Buffy’s Angel, or Doctor Who/Torchwood’s Captain Jack, but both of those guys are way “hunkier” than Barnabas. Hell, even the Highlander mythos borrows from some of the panache of Barnabas. I watched this show as kid in reruns with my mom, and have very spotty memories of those viewings. At that time, I had no idea what was going on. When you re-watch the episodes now, you still probably won’t have a clear idea as to what is happening. But, the atmosphere and in-your-face cheese of the show is what makes it so classic. And again, the coolness of Frid.
There were two Dark Shadows movies prior to the new remake; House of Dark Shadows (1971), and Night of Dark Shadows (1971). Neither film is set directly in the continuity of the TV show, and only the former features Frid as Barnabas. Twenty years later, in 1991, a new version of Dark Shadows aired on primtime TV, but was canceled after only 12 episodes.
The new Tim Burton film includes several of the classic characters. Eva Green is playing Angelique Bouchard, who was a love interest/enemy of Barnabas in the classic series. Michelle Pfeiffer is playing Elizabeth Collins Stoddard; the head of the house and Bella Heathcote is playing Victoria Winters. Heathcote is also listed as playing “Josette” which makes sense, because in the old show Josette was used as Victoria’s medium in the séances, which resulted in those time travel shenanigans.
It remains to be seen which plot lines the film will use from the old TV show, but based on the previews, my guess is it will be a version of the plotline involving Angelique the Witch attempting to generally screw with Barnabas.
Though he recently passed way, Jonathan Frid is set to have a brief cameo in the film. I can’t wait. In the meantime, if you have 612 hours to kill, Dark Shadows is the most melodramatic fun you can possibly have. Though in all reality, you can probably just start with episode 210, meaning you’ve only got 507 hours to get though before the new film comes out this Friday.
Ryan Britt is the staff writer of Tor.com. After rewatching a bunch of Dark Shadows, he’s not sure if maybe he doesn’t actually reside in 1795 and his life here in Collinsport, Maine New York City is all a dream.