Dark Shadows was neither fish nor fowl, though it might arguably have been bat. Neither a traditional soap opera nor a prime-time broadcast fantasy program, the show had a quirky freshness that captured the interest of America’s kids in the late 1960s.
That success seemed somewhat accidental. Beginning June 27, 1966, on ABC, Dark Shadows was at first just a gothic story of the type frequently consumed in paperback form by the housewives who presumably still made up most of the audience for daytime soaps.
The brainchild of producer Dan Curtis and a descendent of the Jane Eyre/Turn of the Screw school of literature, the show featured a mysterious Maine mansion and a vaguely imperiled governess named Victoria Winters. Curtis purportedly came up with the idea for the show in a dream about an enigmatic young woman on a train.
It wasn’t until 200 episodes into its run that kids began to race home from school to catch the show, which aired at 3 p.m. central time. That’s when vampire Barnabas Collins (Jonathan Frid) arrived to kick the show’s most outré elements into high gear.
The Universal monsters of the 1940s were popular with children through Late Show airings and the Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine, and the soap opera capitalized on that, offering not only a vampire but witches, werewolves, ghosts, zombies, time travel and parallel universes.
The show had various reincarnations in other media, including a contemporaneous Gold Key comic book series illustrated by long-time Martian Manhunter artist Joe Certa. Frankly, the soap, with its cheap production values and windy plots, was never quite as good as we wanted it to be. The comic book, freed from the show’s protracted story lines, was better, and in fact outlasted the TV show by five years, running through 1976.
The semi-sympathetic portrayal of Barnabas marked something of a milestone in popular culture, pointing the way toward all the subsequent stories that would present vampires not as mere monsters but primarily as tragic victims.
Barnabas’s nemesis, the witch Angelique (a/k/a Cassandra), was a favorite of mine. She was played by the beautiful Lara Parker, who also left a legacy in another milestone of fantasy television. Parker portrayed Laura Banner, the wife of Dr. David Banner, in the 1977 pilot for The Incredible Hulk TV series. Never heard and seen only in an opening dream sequence, her role nevertheless provided a touching and powerful dramatic impetus to the story. Because Dr. Banner (Bill Bixby) hadn’t had sufficient strength to save her during a car crash, he became obsessed with the research that would trigger his tragedy.