The Horror Show: Conan Tobias on a quarter-century quest to watch every episode of the vampire soap opera Dark Shadows

The cast of Dark Shadows

Conan Tobias is the founder, publisher, and editor-in-chief of the literary magazine Taddle Creek. He is also the executive director of the Doug Wright Awards honouring Canadian graphic novels and comics. He is a former managing editor at Canadian Business and former senior editor at Quill & Quire. His writing has appeared in The Globe and Mail and elsewhere. In today’s guest post, Tobias writes about his quest to track down one of the most iconic vampire-themed soap operas in American television history.

In 1991, I became obsessed with Dark Shadows, the gothic soap opera that had originally run on daytime TV from 1966 to 1971. By the ’90s, plenty of soap operas had fooled around with supernatural elements, but soap operas of the 1960s were still firmly grounded in (a type of) reality, set in hospitals and boarding houses, and usually focused on family drama.

Initially, Dark Shadows was gothic lite. Occasionally a ghost would pop up, but the show, like most others, mainly centred around a family of rich assholes, who lived in a mansion on the Maine coast (think Arrested Development with fewer call backs), just a couple of hours from where I grew up.

The show was not successful, and within its first year was threatened with cancellation, forcing the producers to go for broke and take the bold step of introducing a vampire character, Barnabas Collins, played by Canadian stage actor Jonathan Frid, in Episode 210. It turned out this was exactly what the housewives and kids getting home from school of the ’60s wanted. Like the Fonz, and Urkle after him, Barnabas entered his show as a minor character and soon dominated it. The show suddenly skyrocketed in the ratings and became a phenomenon like no daily soap before or since.

The Dark Shadows I became obsessed with in January 1991, was not the original, but an NBC reboot, in the form of a weekly prime-time drama. Wisely (or not – I, personally, like the early, non-vampire era of the original), NBC introduced Barnabas in its first episode. I was a high school senior at the time, and the for some reason, the show instantly became must-see weekly viewing for me and my then girlfriend. In hindsight, having recently watched the reboot again, I’m not sure it was even good ’90s TV, but we loved it. Apparently the show was a ratings success, but pre-emptions for Gulf War coverage killed its momentum, and the show ended after twelve episodes.

For some reason, Dark Shadows stayed with me. Having spent my preschool years at home with my mother while my father worked, I knew a thing or two about soap operas, and finding out there had been a daily afternoon soap about vampires in the 1960s was not something I could get my head around. Like most daily programs produced before the 1970s, early soap opera episodes were not archived. Go to YouTube and search for early episodes of General Hospital or Days of Our Lives. You won’t find much. But 1,224 of 1,225 Dark Shadows episodes somehow survived (with the missing episode recreated later via a newly discovered audio track), so obviously more than one person thought this show was special or weird enough to preserve. Finding a way to watch the show became my holy grail quest for the next quarter century.

Jonathan Frid (with Grayson Hall in background) played Barnabas Collins in Dark Shadows

Not long after the NBC reboot, I discovered that the original show had been released on videotape. Videotapes could still be quite expensive in the early ’90s, and held only two hours’ worth of content. Each Dark Shadows cassette featured only three episodes. That’s over four hundred volumes. Even at $5 each, that simply wasn’t happening. In 2012, a $500 DVD box set was released. This was doable, but did I really want to gamble that much money on something that could I could end up thinking was awful?

Finally, around the time of the show’s 50th anniversary – a full quarter century into an obsession that had made me fairly knowledgeable about a show I’d never even seen – Amazon Prime and YouTube both started streaming the show’s entire run. Victory at last.

After a bit of bingeing, I settled into a real-time viewing schedule exactly fifty years to the day of Dark Shadows original debut.

For a show known for being about vampires, there is precious little vampire action. The word “vampire” isn’t even mentioned for several months after Barnabas’s introduction. There’s not a lot of biting, and there are long stretches where Barnabas is even “cured.” Over the course of its run, the show featured storylines inspired by other classic monsters, such as the Wolfman and Frankenstein, as well as such gothic literature as Jane Eyre, “The Turn of the Screw,” and The Picture of Dorian Gray. The stunt the show is most remembered for is its time travel storylines, which took Barnabas to past eras of his own life (and even, briefly, into the far off future of 1995), as well as into alternate dimensions (pre-dating the current multiverse craze by a half century).

The show’s storylines were hit and miss. When they were good, they were quite good. When they were – more often than not – bad, they were near unwatchable. That’s doesn’t sound like a show that should still have life fifty years later. There are two mains reasons it does.

One, the show is, unintentionally, hilarious a good portion of the time. To save money, Dark Shadows was shot live to videotape. Edits were expensive, so when you watch Dark Shadows, you’re essentially watching theatre. There are no do-overs for forgotten lines, flubbed lines, collapsing scenery, or slips and falls. Unlike theatre, however, the script was new every day, which led to moments like my favourite scene, a cut to Frid and co-star David Ford, two of the more memory-challenged cast members, reading their script on air. Dark Shadows does not need a blooper reel. It’s all in the show. (Ford’s character was eventually struck blind so the actor could wear sunglasses and less conspicuously read his lines off cue cards, before being let go.)

Cast members Jonathan Frid (right) and David Ford consult a script, on air, in an episode of Dark Shadows

The other reason is the cast, few of whom, unfortunately, went on to bigger and better things (aside from Kate Jackson, appearing here in her first role). The show’s big get was Joan Bennett, a Hollywood star dating back to the silent era, but many of the unknow/lesser known actors who filled out the cast were a delight to watch, and those who weren’t, well, see point one above. Many of the cast members, including Frid and the incredible Louis Edmonds, were gay, which also unintentionally made it, by far, the gayest show on ’60s daytime TV, something never really mentioned in the press, likely because it went over the heads of the show’s straight audience (see also: Liberace, Charles Nelson Riley).

Dark Shadows hit a pop cultural high that included Frid appearing everywhere from parades to Bozo the Clown’s show, and merchandise that included board games, comics, View-Master reels, and Magic Slates. The decision to film a Dark Shadows movie while the show was still in production put such a strain on the cast and writers that quality of the show slipped and never regained its momentum. Plus, the writers had run out of gothic stories to be “inspired” by. Rating fell, and the show was cancelled in 1971. A spectacular rise and fall.

Along with the NBC reboot, the WB produced a remake of its own in 2005 that never got past an unaired pilot, and the CW continuation of the original show announced in 2019 got lost somewhere in the pandemic. Tim Burton’s Johnny Depp–led tribute movie in 2012 wasn’t especially successful, but it’s a fun spoof if you’re a fan of the show. The original Dark Shadows continues today in various quasi-official forms, including novels, audio plays, and comics.

My quest to watch Dark Shadows came to an end this past April 2 (fifty years to the day since the final episode aired). It was a bittersweet victory. I’m glad I stuck with it, because, even if I didn’t enjoy every episode, I enjoyed a lot of them, and I really enjoyed the experience. It was fun having a half-hour soap to watch every afternoon for a few years. I’d almost miss it – if I wasn’t now obsessed with tracking down the original novels, comics, and other ephemera. Like the life of a vampire, my quest is seemingly eternal.

The Horror Show: Conan Tobias on a quarter-century quest to watch every episode of the vampire soap opera Dark Shadows
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