This past weekend (Halloween) my husband and I had a lot of fun watching a marathon of “Dark Shadows” on one of the “Memories” TV channels. (not a cable channel).
For those that don’t remember, Dark Shadows was a soap opera that started in the late 1960s. The setting was an old mansion on the coast of a tiny Maine fishing village. The rich Collins family that lived in the mansion had all kinds of “secrets”–a lot of “Gothic” romance and mysteries–but nothing supernatural, at least not at first.
The show limped along with a tiny audience, and the producer decided, may as well have a little fun. So they added a “ghost”–back then, special effects for daytime tv just didn’t exist, and there was no budget. So the tech crew had to cudgel their brains and come up with a way to make the “ghost” of Josette Collins step out of her portrait to talk to her “friend,” young David Collins (a school-aged boy).
Well, the ratings went up, but the network still told the producer, Dan Curtis, that the show was canceled, and they only had 12 weeks left.
So Dan decided to go a little crazy, and added a vampire, Barnabas Collins–a “reluctant” vampire, who was very British, very refined, and very very mean when he was hungry!
Within a few weeks, the ratings started climbing and climbing, and one day, Dan gave the actor who played Barnabas (Jonathan Frid) a bag of paper and said, “Here you go.” Jonathan said, “What is this?”
They were fan letters, hundreds of them. And within a few months, the actor was receiving over 5000 fan letters a week And the other actors started getting fan letters, even the older lady who played the “matron”!
Anyway, the show became a phenom back then. My brother and I discovered it after a particularly hard school year for me (bullies), and we were hooked. My mother liked it too. She was from the South, and was always into haunts, ghosts, monsters, etc. I still remember a book that she bought me when I was in 3rd grade–it was a trio of children’s adapations of Dracula, Frankenstein, and Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde. I wish I could find a copy of that book in the antique stores that my husband and I visit often.
I recently watched a documentary about Dan Curtis–and in case you’re wondering why that name sounds familiar, he was the producer of Winds of War, and War and Remembrance, which was huge back in the 1980s. I learned that he was the first producer to be allowed to film on location in Auschwitz.
This documentary analyzed why Dark Shadows was so popular among teenagers–among those who grew up with it and credit it with their creative bent are Stephen King, Johnny Depp, Tim Burton, and Whoopi Goldberg. The main theory is that the show happened during the height of the Viet Nam War and all the protests and unrest in the U.S. Many of the young teenagers who loved the show had brothers (or sisters) fighting (and dying) in Viet Nam, and the show was a chance for them to escape from their grief and fear.
I think that the show was just lots of fun and full of imaginative storylines and special effects–primitive by today’s standards, but thrilling back then.