Shadows in the Afternoon by Miles Fowler

The day before Halloween 1967, I came home from school, turned on the television, and discovered the supernatural soap opera Dark Shadows. All I saw was the episode’s final minute:

A beautiful blonde descends a staircase and stops in front of a portrait. She loosens her scarf to reveal two puncture wounds on the side of her neck. It seems that the glowering man in the picture is probably the vampire that bit her. Cut to commercials, followed by the closing credits, which are accompanied by the haunting theme, composed by Robert Cobert and performed by him on an eerie-sounding electronic instrument called a theremin.

Shadow over cobblestones
Shadow Urspringlich by Kai C. Schwarzer. CC license.

I was sixteen and, though not a soap opera fan before, drawn to Dark Shadows by its supernatural premise (I loved reading about the paranormal), its angst-ridden vampire (every teen needs a role-model), and the beautiful ingénues (I was a horny teen), who included Nancy Barrett—a Southern belle miscast as a New England debutante, and Alexandra Moltke—a patrician miscast as an orphan from New York.

I had such a crush on Moltke that I was depressed when she suddenly left Dark Shadows. I wrote to the show asking what happened, and all I got was a form letter thanking me for watching. What I know now—that Moltke married, became pregnant, and turned down an offer to return to the show—was none of my business, but I could not appreciate that then. I was a fan, and the fandom for Dark Shadows was nothing if not fanatical. Jonathan Frid, who played the vampire Barnabas Collins, was mobbed everywhere he went. Moltke was attacked by a fan who pulled out some of her long, flowing hair. There were fan magazines and knickknacks, including a Barnabas bobble head and Josette’s music box. Robert Cobert wrote a number of melodies for the show, many of which were just background music, but several, including Josette’s theme, were genuinely popular.

At first, my younger sister, Carol, watched it because I watched it, but then because she liked it, too. My neighbor, Paul, came over when I was watching Dark Shadows, and said, “You’re watching a soap opera?!” But it wasn’t long before he was hooked, too. I was like a drug dealer leading family and friends astray.

Originally broadcast on ABC from 1966 to 1971, Dark Shadows has been through syndication, cable, home video, and, now, streaming video. (It is currently available at Amazon Prime.) Most soap operas of its era routinely recorded over their video tapes, but almost all 1225 episodes of Dark Shadows are intact with a few exceptions: Some color episodes are available only as black-and-white copies, and one episode exists only in audio format.

Producer Dan Curtis created Dark Shadows as homage to gothic novels Jane Eyre and The Turn of the Screw. It began as the story of Victoria Winters (Moltke), the governess of a nine-year-old boy in a mansion on the Maine coast. Collins family matriarch Elizabeth (Joan Bennett) was evasive about why she had entrusted the care of her nephew to a twenty-year-old stranger. Hints that Victoria might be related to the Collins family were never resolved.

In its five years on the air, Dark Shadows reinvented itself frequently, reinvigorating its ratings. When the ratings dipped the first time, Curtis threw Bram Stoker into the mix. Barnabas (Frid) was introduced with an expiration date of thirteen weeks at which time he was to be staked through the heart, but when the ratings skyrocketed, his character was spared, and the narrative shifted from Victoria to him.

Shortly after I began watching, Barnabas and his nemesis, Dr. Julia Hoffman (Grayson Hall), reached a stalemate. Unwilling to kill off either of them, the writers had the Collinses hold a séance (the fourth of the series), as a result of which (do not ask how), Victoria traveled to 1795 to witness Barnabas’s origin story. (Never mind whether the historical details were authentic; at the time, they seemed authentic enough to me.)

Portrait of Barnabas Collins
Jonathan Frid as Barnabas Collins Dark Shadows Portrait photo by Dan Lacey

The production, writing, directing, and acting were sometimes inspired, just not usually at the same time. The crew “borrowed” equipment for the special effects, and these failed often enough that it seemed miraculous when they occasionally worked. Boom microphones and their shadows appeared so often on screen that the show was nicknamed “Mic Shadows.” When the video tape was edited to eliminate mistakes, it looked so choppy that most mistakes were just broadcast as is. My favorites are 1) two actors caught studying the script between scenes and 2) an actor saying “my incestors” instead of “my ancestors.”

As blogger Danny Horn says, makers of soap opera are like someone “helplessly falling downstairs every weekday, and praying that they find something interesting at the bottom.” Even if I do not get the same frisson from it today that I did as a teen, as I re-watch Dark Shadows, I can understand the paranormal-angst-sex combination that attracted me originally, but also see the show from a different angle. Dark Shadows’s creators never envisioned viewers binge-watching or rewinding the tape. I am now intrigued by the constructed melodrama and mash up of literary references. I have an appreciation for the inspired lunacy of it. As Horn says, “Good soap opera runs almost exclusively on lunatic plot contrivances.”

Those are to be found in all their glory in Dark Shadows.

Miles Fowler
Miles Fowler, a frequent blogger in this space, lives and writes in Charlottesville, Va. He is currently writing a time-travel novel. No vampires have appeared yet.

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5 thoughts on “Shadows in the Afternoon by Miles Fowler”

  1. More or less sparkly “Dark Shadows” dialogue:

    Naomi: Joshua, you must treat Angelique tactfully.

    Joshua: Tactfully? That’s a word I consider unimportant when addressing a servant.

    Naomi: I’m aware of that. That’s why I mentioned it.

    Less than sparkly dialogue:

    Caretaker: Strange things have happened here. Violent things.

    Julia: What do you mean? What’s happened here?

    Caretaker: I don’t know.

  2. I said that “Dark Shadows” creator Dan Curtis made it as a conscious homage to “Jane Eyre” and “The Turn of the Screw.” (After all, Curtis directed a film adaptation of the latter novel in 1974.) But I may have been wrong according to Leonard Goldberg, an ABC executive who gives the following account of Curtis’s pitch for “Dark Shadows”:

    Curtis: There’s this girl, and she gets on a train, and she’s very nice and very pretty, but very fragile, and she’s going up into New England somewhere. And she’s going to be the governess for a man, who’s a very scary kind of guy, who lives on this big, lonely…
    Goldberg: Dan, Dan, Dan. Let me stop you for a second. You’re telling me the story of “Jane Eyre.”
    Curtis: What’s “Jane Eyre”?
    Goldberg: Well, it’s a very famous story.
    Curtis: Is anybody doing it for daytime television?
    Goldberg: No.
    Curtis: So, let me finish.

  3. Four months after watching the last episode, the “Dark Shadows”-shaped hole in my routine seems just about to have healed.

  4. “When the ratings dipped the first time, Curtis threw Bram Stoker into the mix.”
    Just to clarify something, this isn’t actually true. Some sources, including the documentary “Master of Dark Shadows” provides further context. The show didn’t last long on the air before Dan was called in with news of the show’s impending doom. This was during the beginning stages of the Bill Malloy storyline. Dan negotiated for 13 more weeks to turn the show around, and it was at this moment he said, “Screw it. No more teasing. We’re going to have ghosts!” The first ghost sighting in the show was episode 70. Thirteen weeks from that point is still quite a long way away from Barnabas. The presence of ghosts boosted the ratings, and the further introduction of the mythological creature Phoenix and her magic powers continued to help generate some interest. No, the show still didn’t reach mainstream attention (that credit still remains with Barnabas), but the show was technically saved from cancellation long before his appearance.

    Barnabas tends to receive all the credit for the show, whether it be saving the show from cancellation or sometimes (mainly those who truly really ignore the early episode) people think he brought about the age of supernatural monsters and magic. As great a character as he is, he’s really only responsible for turning the show into a mainstream success. Bill Malloy and Laura Murdoch deserve their due credit.

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