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.
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.
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.
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.
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.