Originally conceived with a gothic twist on the usual afternoon soap, Dark Shadows plodded along during its first year garnering a small following who were weary of the everyday love libations offered by the plethora of other soaps of the time. Set in the small fishing village of Collinsport, Maine and revolving around the rich and powerful Collins empire, Dark Shadows developed several mysterious kernels during its initial offering. With the Vietnam War raging and racial discord commonplace on the early evening news, the show's viewers were ready to escape the reality of their own situations and involve themselves in the remote and foreboding problems of this troubled family whose own Pandora's box seemed far removed from the social revolution going on outside their front door.
As each of the mysteries began to come to light in Collinsport, the producers struggled to hold the interest of its steadily declining audience. The show needed something to give it the added dimension that would set it apart. According to Dan Curtis, Executive Producer of the series, ABC was ready to drop the show because of faltering ratings. Plagued by overall low ratings, ABC was always seeking a way to bolster its dismal ratings. Acting on a suggestion from his children, and desperate to save his brainchild, Curtis decided to give the series an extra dimension with the introduction of Josette Collins, a ghost from 1795 who had come back to trouble the present inhabitants of the Collinwood mansion. Immediately the show's ratings began to climb and Curtis figured he must have been on to something.
The series used, and sometimes abused, classic stories with wild abandon. Revisiting such literary masterpieces as Dracula, Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Turn of the Screw, the series expanded and contracted these stories into an unusual and sometimes fascinating venue of vampires, ghosts, werewolves, witches, warlocks, mad doctors, not so mad doctors, leviathans, a phoenix, disturbed children, very disturbed adults, the good, the bad and certainly the ugly. No author of the macabre was exempt from inclusion in the masterful melding of sub plots. Poe, Jackson, Wilde, Stoker, Shelley, Hawthorne, James and others were all explored, exploited and exposed in a history of the Collins family that would put any genealogist to shame.
Working within the restraints of the live on tape format, with everything done in one take, Dark Shadows exhibited extraordinary and sometimes truly masterful use of costuming and special effects. Plot expanding trips into the past or future via tape cut and splice became commonplace. These excursions created the opportunity for actors killed off in earlier sequences to return in the guise of characters from another era, resplendent in period clothing of exceptional detail. Seances held in the old mansion were often visited by ghostly apparitions of quivering ectoplasm. Dream sequences hypnotised the viewing audience with colorful psychedelic spectacles superimposed over ethereal, fog filled fantasies. Individuals of normal appearance were transformed into hideous creatures of the netherworld.
Keeping up with the demanding schedule of a daily half-hour show was sometimes evident in a minor verbal blooper or misplaced stagehand. Microphone boom shadows helped the program live up to its name. In retrospect however, the ability of the troupe of actors who participated in the development of this everchanging panorama of gothic visualizations was particularly commendable, especially considering a new script every day, a brief and demanding rehearsal schedule or the fact that many of the actors often appeared in nearly all of a day’s taping.
Notable actors among the cast included Joan Bennett, Louis Edmonds, Jonathan Frid, Thayer David, Grayson Hall, David Selby Kate Jackson and Lara Parker. During the past thirty years, Dark Shadows has developed a large and loyal fan following. This is due largely to the willingness of former cast members to participate in several gatherings each year, notably the Dark Shadows Festival held alternately in California and New York and a Halloween fright fest centering around the mansion used in taping the stock outdoor footage.
In 1991 a shortlived primetime remake was made by NBC, and ended with Victoria (played by Joanne Going) learning that Barnabas Collins (played by Ben Cross) was a 200-year old vampire ...something Victoria never knew in the original.