Introduction: Satan’s Favorite TV Show

Halloween, 1969: Barnabas Collins, the reluctant vampire from the ABC-TV soap opera Dark Shadows, appears at the White House to attend Tricia Nixon’s Halloween party for underprivileged children. Which just goes to show that the past is stranger than you might expect.

361 dark shadows collinwood

Dark Shadows‘ original run only lasted for five years, from 1966 to 1971. I’ve loved it for 30 years, which means that I’ve had enough time to watch every episode six times. (Note: I have not actually watched every episode six times.)

Now, I’ve heard some people say that Dark Shadows is not actually the greatest television show ever made. Those people are boring and not worth listening to.

Dark Shadows was an extraordinary use of the television medium, in the sense that if someone gave you 1,225 half-hours of network television, it would never occur to you to make anything even remotely like Dark Shadows. Even the people making it didn’t understand what kind of show they were making, until it suddenly became a huge success and it was too late to do something more sensible.

Dark Shadows used the daily soap opera format to create an insane, interwoven mash-up of gothic novels, monster movies, fairy tales and science-fiction. Characters inspired by Frankenstein, The Turn of the Screw, The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Call of Cthulhu would meet, fall in love, betray each other, and then travel through time to save their werewolf cousin.

And this nonsense was broadcast on network television, at 4:00 in the afternoon, to an audience composed largely of housewives and teenagers.

673 dark shadows barnabas werewolf cane

Dark Shadows was romantic and funny and occasionally baffling and even more occasionally hauntingly beautiful. These are stories that could only have been told in this medium at this particular moment, because nobody who had any sense of responsibility or taste was paying attention to what housewives and teenagers were watching on television.

After it was all over, the show went into reruns on public television, which was just another item on the list of things that soap operas don’t do. Then it was on the Sci-Fi Channel for a while, and after that people basically forgot that Dark Shadows existed. These days, people mostly know it as the Tim Burton movie that they didn’t see.

intro vampire van

But at its height in the late ’60s, it was a national sensation — watched by 18 million people, mostly on purpose. Jonathan Frid, who played Barnabas, received thousands of fan letters a week, many from women offering him their throats.

There were Dark Shadows trading cards, comic books, board games, joke books, jigsaw puzzles and glow-in-the-dark model kits. One of the songs from the soundtrack hit #13 on the Billboard Hot 100 Singles chart, holding its own against Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones and the Plastic Ono Band. A Christian comic-book tract claimed that Dark Shadows was Satan’s favorite TV show.

And so, in 1969, Richard Nixon’s daughter invited a moody, 45-year-old Shakespearean stage actor from Canada to come to the White House, wearing fangs and a cape, so he could frighten underprivileged children. This is the story of how that could ever possibly have happened.

Monday: Opening the Box.

Danny Horn


How to Watch Dark Shadows

Sometimes people ask what’s the best way to start watching Dark Shadows, because they know that the early episodes are boring, and they don’t want to give up on it before it gets good.

Here’s my advice: Start with episode 250. It’s the first really exciting episode — Barnabas has kidnapped Maggie, and he’s planning to kill her so that she can become his vampire bride. 250 is the episode where she decides to fight back; it’s fantastic.

After that, skip ahead and just watch the Fridays. They save up the interesting twists for Friday, in order to get people to come back next week. Friday episodes always end with a five or a zero, so next up is episode 255 and episode 260, big turning points in the Barnabas/Maggie storyline.

Episode 265 is Julia’s first episode, and it’s a must-see. Episode 270 is the exciting climax of the boring blackmail wedding story that you’ve skipped over. Episode 275 is the official last normal day at Collinwood.

Episode 280 is a big family costume party at the Old House, and they hold a big family seance. You should start watching every episode from here. Julia arrives at Collinwood in 284, and things really start to get crazy. I hope you enjoy it.

28 thoughts on “Introduction: Satan’s Favorite TV Show

    1. During all that Dark Shadows merchandising of the 60’s and 70’s, where were the Alladin, or Thermos metal lunchboxes and coloring books?

    1. I love the first-year episodes! There were lots of fantastic outdoor shots and the characters hadn’t become fully developed – many diverged from where they started out. And Joan Bennett, one of my favorites,
      has a great blackmail storyline.

  1. I love Dark Shadows, watched it in the 1980s and 1990s. I had no chance of getting to see it when it was first aired (unless in another life) my mother was only 8 in 1966 so I had no chance of even being thought of yet. 🙂 Anyways, I am a writer and have the whole series in a coffin shaped box, I use Dark Shadows as a kind of motivation and inspiration for stories I create. I love the older movies and shows they feel somewhat more creative then what is being produced today. Just wanted to post my feelings that’s all. Thank you.

    1. I love how someone who is too young for the original airing still likes it. I don’t know how much of my interest for the series is from strong childhood nostalgia.

      1. I enjoyed “True Blood,” so I decided to loop back and give “Buffy” a try on Netflix last year, having never watched it. Maybe I gave up too early, but I only made it through a few episodes (I know sometimes shows get off to a rough start before really settling in). But it seemed too jokey and self-aware to me.

        1. Buffy didn’t actually get good until the middle of season 2. I didn’t start watching it till it was on FX in 2001 and I was typing and deleting until that point. then I had to go back and rerecord them. in the end we just got the DVDs. They were the first DVDs I bought, other than one Scott Bakula movie. I was 7 in 1966 and I didn’t start watching the show until 1969 and I didn’t watch it for a long time. but when I finally wanted to seeit again I wanted to see it from the beginning. & I like Vicky.
          and I have finally made it to episode 210.so now I can read along, I hope

  2. Mr. Horn,

    I’m now on Episode No. 92. I sure do hope you loop back around and provide your insight and wit into the pre-Barnbas episodes as well. I’m delightfully surprised how much I am enjoying them. I really like seeing Elizabeth, Roger, Carolyn, David and Victoria at the forefront. I also like the mood they create and the interesting camera angles. The black and white just adds to the mood.

    And I’m one of those rare DS creatures who liked the ghost stories best (though I am a fan of Barnabas and the vampire saga too). So this slow emergence of ghosts is fun to watch.

    I’ll be interested in seeing when they “corrected” their history of things. They clearly did not have time travel and 1795 in mind at the time, with their repeated statements that “Jeremiah Collins” founded the dynasty and Collinwood. They don’t seem to set him back all the way to the 1700s.

    They did give their first little hint of ghostly Sarah Collins, when David told Vickie that he talks to Josette and a little girl.

  3. Danny, Yippee! Whoo-hoo! Hulu just added more DS eps! As of at least today (10/26/15), Hulu added what appears to be another 40 eps of DS, episodes 493-532!!!! (It looks like 532 combines 532/533 somehow?) Anyway, I can now go back to my DS binge and your blog, just in time for Halloween! (You may want to update your site accordingly with what Hulu now has available!) Thank you for your great blog! Tim

  4. I just started Season 1 and it’s really not going anywhere. I don’t dislike it but it certainly doesn’t live up to the hype. What’s the best place to start?

    1. Yeah, the early Barnabas episodes are slow, and the vampire story is mixed in with a blackmail story that drags on. Things pick up when Barnabas kidnaps Maggie (ep 236). In general during this period, the big events happen on Fridays, so episodes that end in 0 and 5 are the most exciting — 240, 245, 250 and so on.

    2. Craven — Here’s my recommendation for someone who would like to give DS a good try and just isn’t feeling the slow pace of the pre-Barnabas episodes but would still like the background before going full vampire. I love the pre-Barnabas shows myself (I’ve never seen them until the past six months), but I can see why someone would find them very plodding.

      Anyway, you can kind of CliffNotes your way through with this — or go episode by episode if any of these start to intrigue you:

      Watch Episodes 1 and 2, just to get the relationships and the early mood/feel. If you’re not feeling it, read the synopsis of what happened to this point and …

      Skip to Episode No. 50, which kicks off the murder mystery. The story will still evolve quite slowly at first. If you’re still not feeling it, …

      Skip to Episode No. 70, which gives us our first bona fide supernatural event. I recommend everyone watch this episode, even in isolation. It’s a great moment in DS history. Now if you’re still not feeling it …

      Skip to Episodes Nos. 84-86, where the show once again ups the spooky/supernatural factor. These three episodes are not as momentous as No. 70, but it’s just fun viewing and this is where Collinwood itself starts to evolve as a “character.” If this is still moving too slowly for you …

      Skip to Episode No. 108. This is where the show starts to pick up the pace again and ups the ghost factor again. You’re now in the final stretch of the murder mystery. Plus you get a great performance by Thayer David as Matthew Morgan. If you watch a few of these and still aren’t convinced that the wrap-up of the murder mystery will be worth it …

      Skip to Episode No. 128: This is the beginning of the The Phoenix storyline. I can’t tell you how much I like it. Diana Millay gives a great performance. And you only have roughly 80 episodes to get your vampire fix. However, if a few episodes of this story arc and Laura Collins don’t do it for you …

      Skip anywhere from No. 202 to 208 and get ready …

      I realize that’s a lot of watch/skipping, but those are all the early key points where the show takes it up another notch each time. For someone impatient to get to vampire action, it’s only 10 episodes or so of your time and can give you a lot of good background.

      1. Nope. Start with Barnabas. You don’t need to watch boring episodes just to get used to the feel of the show. It’s a soap opera, it’s designed for continuous onboarding. You don’t need background; start anywhere you like.

      2. That’s a great primer. I’m watching the early episodes for the first time, and it’s a bit of a slog. I’m glad to know there’s something pre-Barnabas to look forward to.

  5. This is more of a generic post to explain how I got into Dark Shadows, which was fairly recently (I started watching it last year on home video).

    Basically, I started to watch a lot of classic horror movies around 12 years ago — I bought a lot of public domain DVD sets of the genre. From there, I found that I really loved Gothic horror movies, especially the ones that starred Barbara Steele (Nightmare Castle, Castle of Blood). I proceeded to read the entire works of Edgar Allan Poe, Mary Shelley’s iconic Frankenstein, horror comics (mostly DC’s House of Mystery series). I simply cannot get enough of those tropes of dark corridors, paintings of beautiful women and creepy atmosphere.

    I made it a point to binge watch Vincent Price, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee movies (along with the works of Mario Bava, and much of Hammer Films’ repertoire) until there was nothing to watch that were made by them anymore. Being someone who grew up in the 1980s when the slasher genre dominated the horror movie market, gothic horror movies from 1957 to 1974 (that I call the AIP/Hammer era) seemed like a breath of fresh air to me.

    So reading horror movie magazines (like Rue Morgue and Horror Hound), I came across a lot of references to Dark Shadows. I did track down a few episodes around the time that the Johnny Depp movie about DS came out, and I liked what I saw (of the series, the movie, not so much).

    So, to get my gothic horror fix (which shows no signs of abating, but sometimes I’ll take a breather), I have been watching the show fairly regularly now. As much as people like to make fun of the show, I find it better than a lot of bad horror movies that came out around the same era that it was made in.

  6. “Those doubts I have no longer.” Barnabas sometimes delivers a line perfectly, other times he stumbles. This line was perfectly delivered.

  7. Danny, I discovered your blog nearly a year ago and gradually became addicted, thanks to your extremely humorous posts and all the fascinating trivia you include!

    My very first memories of Dark Shadows are vague; I was in first grade, and my after school babysitter (stay-at-home mom) tuned into DS every day. All I can recall is that there was a vampire and a witch on “that” show.

    Years later in 7th grade, my best friend and I discovered DS in syndication, which was broadcast at 3 pm Monday through Friday. We would run home as fast as we could when school let out at 2:45 to see Barnabas, Julie, Willie and gang. And then it all ended abruptly one day when the station cancelled.

    Almost 40 years later, DS crossed my mind. I thought to myself, “I bet that’s on Youtube or Netflix.” Sure enough, I was able to watch the first 210 episodes free of charge on Youtube. Then I picked it up on Hulu, and just finished episode 735 two weeks ago. As of this writing, Hulu has still not added additional episodes.

    In the meantime, I’ve been rewatching episodes 211 and up. After reading your blog for nearly a year, I have a whole new perspective when I now view these earlier episodes.
    Thanks again!

  8. Thank you for this great blog! I just discovered it at the same time I have been watching the series again and you start right where I am with the introduction of Barnabas.

    I have started the series a couple of times, first when the DVDs came out, then started over when the Beginnings came out, then started both over when my girlfriend got hooked. Have not ever got to the end, but I am enjoying it again and I am so glad to have your posts and trivia to follow along.

    Are you planning on ever going back and writing from the beginning episodes? There is so much great stuff in the early days, even if it did lag at times I always found something to admire in those early episodes.

    After all these years I am still amazed a show like this ever made it to the mainstream. I appreciate all the superb acting and sets- really everything about it more and more each time I see it.

    Thanks again, excellent work here!

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