The "Immortal" Popularity of TV's Classic Gothic Soap Opera "Dark Shadows"

Herbie J Pilato

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Jonathan Frid played "Barnabas Collins," the vampire with heart.[The Classic TV Preservation Society]

[Author's Note: All quotes and commentary that appear in this article were culled from interviews the author conducted with those individuals mentioned.]

The haunting theme music plays as the lilting gothic graphic title floats across the crashing waves, and it all becomes poetic, romantic, and terrific, with an emphasis on “terror” – and yet not.

Such is the opening credit sequence for Dark Shadows – a television show ahead of and before its time, present, past, or parallel time.

Initially screened on ABC-TV from 1966 to 1971, Shadows was a spooky weekday soap opera that took the world of afternoon viewers by storm - literally, thanks to its coastal New England setting. 

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"Dark Shadows" creator Dan Curtis[The Classic TV Preservation Society]

The brainchild of prolific producer/director Dan Curtis (The Night Stalker, The Winds of War), the series gained a massive following (peaking at 20 million viewers) that originally consisted of the era’s then-significant population of stay-at-home moms. 

Joining these early home engineers were countless new-color-TV-buying members of America’s work and education force, including droves of elementary, high-school, and college students who hurried home at day’s end to gaze into the Shadows

Loyal fans of the show (dubbed “DS” in certain Shadows circles), young or older, made certain not to miss one bit of the melodramatic bite provided by its expansive cast, which served as a repertory group playing multiple roles over a compelling five-year-run.

What began as a Gothic suspense serial, embellished by murders and mysteries, morphed into strikingly unusual territory, especially for daytime TV: the periodically horrific but somehow always inviting lives, demises, and curses of various vampires, witches, Frankenstein-like monsters, werewolves, and assorted other supernatural beings. 

Such unique ghouls and goings-on were set within the isolated confines of their own little world: Collinsport - a fictitious seaside community in Maine named for the wealthy, eccentric and eerie Collins family whose ominous cliffside estate - Collinwood - consisted of a large mansion and a smaller, creepier, abode referred to as the “Old House.”

The elaborately engrossing plots switched centuries from then-contemporary 1960s/1970s existence to life in 1795 to 1897 and back again, with the added wrinkle of alternate-time frames in later episodes.

The mainstay of the brooding Collins family included the 200-year-old vampire Barnabas Collins, rivetingly performed by the late Jonathan Frid, who joined the series in 1967, and whose presence sky-rocketed the previously-light Dark Shadows ratings from cancellation to salvation. 

Viewers soon became captivated with Barnabas, who they eventually learned was stricken with his undead lot in life beginning in 1795 by the jealous witch Angelique, a resourceful French sorceress of a servant girl played by the moon-eyed beauty Lara Parker.

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Lara Parker played witch "Angelique"[The Classic TV Preservation Society]

Barnabas had spurned her heart due to an obsession of his own…Angelique’s ruling superior - the raven-haired and oh-so-innocent Josette DuPrés, portrayed with affectionate aplomb by Kathryn Leigh Scott, who also played Maggie Evans, the Collins family governess (and 20th Century twin to Josette); Rachel Drummond, the gentle school teacher, and Lady Kitty Hampshire, the recently-widowed, and slightly money-hungry American-British import (the latter two of which were Josette’s twin 19th Century incarnations).

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Kathryn Leigh Scott played Maggie Evans, and Josette Collins, among others on "Dark Shadows"[The Classic TV Preservation Society]

Into this double toil of trouble eventually arrived Quentin Collins, as dashingly delivered by the swashbuckling David Selby, adorned with lengthy debonair sideburns and a full-length frock coat, both of which became trademarks adored by fans. Quentin first materialized in late 1968 as a silent apparition who communicated with the young David Collins (David Henesy) by a mystic phone connection. 

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David Selby played Quentin Collins[The Classic TV Preservation Society]

In the 1897 storyline he, like Barnabas, became forever linked with Angelique. All three were immortal and remained essentially the same characters throughout the show’s middle-to-late episodes.

While Scott’s quadruple threat of characters churned the passion of Frid’s ravenous Barnabas, Selby’s daring Quentin became enamored with his own share of strong-willed women, including Angelique. Said Parker: “David is an amazingly charismatic actor…who brought to Quentin a wonderful brooding countenance…and the twinge of Kentucky [in actuality, West Virginia] in his accent. He always takes his work very seriously.”

Selby, who later became a series regular on two of the era's most popular prime-time soaps (Flamingo Road, 1980-1982; and Falcon Crest, 1981-1990), was indeed serious about playing Quentin, so much so he at first feared mainstream TV watchers might not embrace his slight Southern drawl once the character began to speak in 1897. 

“Oh, no,” he thought, “The audience will hear my voice, and that will be the end of it.” But such was not the case. The viewers’ ensuing romance with Selby soon rivaled that of Angelique’s interest in Quentin, as well as the increasing respect from his peers.      

“I just love David,” said Scott who, while on Shadows, had performed a scene with Selby from August Strindberg’s play, Miss Julie, while both attended the Actor’s Studio in New York, circa 1968. “We loved working together and we still do,” Scott declared.

The actress made reference to various reunions with Selby, Parker, and Frid including their cameos in Tim Burton’s big-screen Shadows re-do in 2012, in which Johnny Depp resurrected Barnabas Collins, as well as periodic Dark Shadows Festivals.

the location for the 1970 film House of Dark Shadows, and its 1971 sequel, Night of Dark Shadows.

Scott has penned several popular nonfiction books about Shadows, as well as three non-DS novels, and, as she assesses, Frid brought “a certain vulnerability” to his portrayal of Barnabas on the original TV series, which was remade as a prime-time weekly series by NBC-TV in January 1991 with Ben Cross in the lead. 

He played a seemingly unsavory fellow whose relationship with the other characters became “very specific because of Jonathan’s ability to add different layers to Barnabas.”

Due to Frid’s increasing popularity, the actor’s presence was sometimes requested four to five days a week, a hectic workload then unheard of for daytime soaps. Subsequently, he was at times overwhelmed, and would periodically - and understandably - forget his lines.

Parker, like Scott, was a loyal friend to Frid and explains how not knowing certain scary words worked in his favor. “Jonathan’s slight anxiety of sometimes missing a cue translated so perfectly into the character of Barnabas, who was racked with guilt and anguish because he was compelled to take blood and often kill his victims.”

Consequently, Parker said Frid (who died at 87 in 2012, only months before the Burton-Depp DS debut) accomplished what actors of the 1960s-burgeoning “method” form of acting strived to achieve. 

“He brought a personal emotion into the moment he was playing. He was a Shakespearean actor with a marvelous voice and a great presence, and he gained an amazing kind of dour seriousness in his performance due to his extensive experience in live theatre.”

Meanwhile, Dark Shadows, which spawned two feature films, House of Dark Shadows, (1970), and Night of Dark Shadows (1971), remains forever alive...in the hearts and minds of fans the world over.

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Herbie J Pilato is the author of several books about pop culture including THE 12 BEST SECRETS OF CHRISTMAS: A TREASURE HOUSE OF DECEMBER MEMORIES REVEALED, MARY: THE MARY TYLER MOORE STORY, TWITCH UPON A STAR, GLAMOUR, GIDGETS AND THE GIRL NEXT DOOR, DASHING, DARING AND DEBONAIR, and NBC & ME: MY LIFE AS A PAGE IN A BOOK, among others. He's also a TV writer/producer, writes for the Television Academy and Emmys.com, and is the host of THEN AGAIN WITH HERBIE J PILATO, the hit classic TV talk show (which premiered on Amazon Prime in 2019).

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