'Dark Shadows': The Birth Of The Modern TV Vampire

May 10, 2012
Originally published on May 10, 2012 9:20 am

When it comes to monsters on television, vampires have the market more or less cornered. Think about it: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, True Blood, The Vampire Diaries ...

Vampires' enduring popularity on TV may not be eternal, but they have been appearing on the small screen for decades. Mark Dawidziak, who's written books about vampires and teaches a class at Kent State University on their appearances in film and TV, says that part of the way vampires have remained a force in popular culture is through their evolution on TV.

"The great innovations, as far as vampire characters go," Dawidziak says, "always have come from either the printed page or television. Television has contributed as much if not more than movies ever have."

Let's do a little TV vampire-hunting through the decades. They've been in comedies like The Munsters, on Sesame Street, and of course sexy nighttime dramas like True Blood. One of the earliest TV vampires was featured on Dark Shadows.

Eerie theremin music, the dulcet tones of Victoria Winters, along with crashing waves on a rocky coastline, marked the beginning of Dark Shadows, the gothic soap opera that ran every weekday afternoon on ABC from 1966 to 1971, for a grand total of 1,225 episodes. But if you watch any of the first 200 installments, you won't see vampires.

The show was set at Collinwood, a creepy old mansion on the Maine coast that was home to the wealthy Collins family. While the show had supernatural elements from the start, they were mostly suggested, not seen.

"And the show was going down the tubes," according to Dan Curtis, the late creator of the series. In a commentary on a special-edition DVD, Curtis says that ABC was ready to cancel the series. Curtis' kids told him, "At least make it scary."

So he — and the special-effects shop — introduced a ghost you could see.

"From that moment, the ratings started to climb," Curtis said. "And they got higher and higher the crazier we got."

So Curtis added more ghosts — and then a vampire.

Wearing a cape, and stiff as a board, Barnabas Collins arrived on the scene to claim his former ancestral home as his own. He was played by the late Jonathan Frid, who wasn't really a pretty boy like today's TV vampires.

"But housewives, college girls, everybody just fell in love with him," says Kathryn Leigh Scott, who played Maggie Evans on the show. "You can't imagine the mail he got — some of it pretty erotic."

Jonathan Frid's Barnabas was so popular, in fact, that the show's producers couldn't drive a stake through his heart at the end of his 90-day contract as originally planned. Instead, he became the star of Dark Shadows.

"The genius of the Barnabas Collins character," Dawidziak says, "was that Barnabas is the first vampire who questions his own nature. Barnabas said, 'Do I have to be like this?' "

By giving Barnabas a conscience — and relationships — Dark Shadows opened up all kinds of possibilities for vampies, says Dawidziak.

"And this," Dawidziak says, "is where the vampire is going to become increasingly humanized, sexualized, sensualized. They're going to become younger. They're going to become more vital."

More than four decades later, just about every vampire on TV still owes a debt to Dark Shadows, right down to The Vampire Diaries on The CW. The show is also a Gothic soap opera — but with two big differences: significantly better production values; and its vampires are mostly teenagers.

The show's co-creator Julie Plec says the coming-of-age idea is something they got from another TV show, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, created by Joss Whedon.

"Joss Whedon sort of gets the super gold star for the high-school-is-hell allegory," Plec says. "And that was the beauty of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. ... This idea that the worst thing that happens is you finally give up your virginity to your one true love, and the next day he turns into an evil, murderous vampire."

But all of these contemporary vampires wouldn't exist without Frid's Barnabas Collins, says Kathryn Leigh Scott.

"I think they all emanate from him. He's the granddaddy of all of them," she says.

Frid died in April, but he and Scott and other actors from the Dark Shadows TV show have cameos in the new movie. Johnny Depp — who was a fan of the original — plays Barnabas Collins. And like the original, his Barnabas apologizes before sucking people's blood.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

When it comes to monsters on television, vampires seem to have the market cornered. I mean think about it: "True Blood," "Vampire Diaries," "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." TV vampires are so popular, this weekend comes a new movie inspired by one. "Dark Shadows" aired on ABC in the late 1960s and early '70s. Now it's gone to the big screen.

NPR's Elizabeth Blair takes a look at a TV genre that will never die.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: Mark Dawidziak says his fascination with vampires began watching TV when he was seven years old.

(SOUNDBITE MUSIC)

BLAIR: He was watching Bela Lugosi play Dracula in an old Abbott and Costello movie.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "BUD ABBOTT AND LOU COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN")

BELA LUGOSI: (as Count Dracula) What we need today is young blood and brains.

MARK DAWIDZIAK: It was almost like a hand grabbing me by the throat and it wouldn't let me go.

BLAIR: Vampires still have a hold on Dawidziak. He's written books about them and even teaches a class about vampires on film and television at Kent State University.

DAWIDZIAK: The great innovations, as far as vampire characters go, always have come from either the printed page or television. Television has contributed as much, if not more, than movies ever have.

BLAIR: So let's do a little TV vampire hunting through the decades. They've been in comedies like "The Munsters."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SERIES, "THE MUNSTERS")

AL LEWIS: (as Grandpa) Herman, please. I asked you never to pound stakes when I'm around. You know it gives me heartburn.

BLAIR: On "Sesame Street."

(SOUNDBITE OF "SESAME STREET")

JERRY NELSON: (As Count Von Count) ...four, five...

BLAIR: And in sexy, night-time dramas like "True Blood."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SERIES, "TRUE BLOOD")

ANNA PAQUIN: (as Sookie Stackhouse) I'm not a total fool.

STEPHEN MOYER: (Bill Compton) Oh, but you have other very juicy arteries.

SETH GRAHAME-SMITH: It's a fascination with the idea of living forever.

BLAIR: Seth Grahame-Smith wrote the screenplay to the new "Dark Shadows" movie and to another movie opening this summer, based on his novel "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter."

GRAHAME-SMITH: We all know that someday our lives are going to end and we're going to miss what comes after that. Vampires, they don't have that problem. Depending on, you know, what interpretation of vampires you're talking about, they also can't go to the beach and enjoy a sunny day. But, you know, it seems a fair trade for eternal life.

BLAIR: And with eternal life comes almost unlimited powers - and ratings.

(SOUNDBITE OF "DARK SHADOWS" THEME MUSIC)

BLAIR: Crashing waves on a rocky coastline marked the beginning of another episode of "Dark Shadows." From 1966 to 1971, it aired live every weekday afternoon on ABC.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SERIES, "DARK SHADOWS")

ALEXANDRA ISLES: (as Victoria Winters) My name is Victoria Winters...

BLAIR: Pretty, young Victoria winters is the governess for the wealthy Collins family in their creepy old mansion on the Maine coast. At first the supernatural elements on the show were mostly suggested, not seen.

DAN CURTIS: And the show was going down the tubes....

BLAIR: That's the late Dan Curtis who created the series. In a special edition DVD, Curtis said that ABC was ready to cancel "Dark Shadows." He says his kids told him, At least make it scary. So with special effects, he introduced a ghost you could see.

CURTIS: From that moment, the ratings started to climb.

BLAIR: So he added more ghosts.

CURTIS: And they got higher and higher, the crazier we got.

BLAIR: So Curtis said, Let's add a vampire.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SERIES, "DARK SHADOWS")

JONATHAN FRID: (as Barnabas Collins) If his ghost is here with yours, tell him I've come home. I claim this house as mine.

BLAIR: Wearing a cape and stiff as a board, Barnabas Collins was played by the late Jonathan Frid, who was not really a pretty boy like today's TV vampires.

KATHRYN LEIGH SCOTT: But housewives, college girls, everybody fell in love with him.

BLAIR: Kathryn Leigh Scott played Maggie Evans in the original TV show.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SERIES, "DARK SHADOWS")

SCOTT: (as Maggie Evans) Wish the dogs would stop howling. They're beginning to make me nervous.

FRID: (as Barnabas Collins) Well, I've kept you long enough, Miss...

SCOTT: (as Maggie Evans) Oh, Evans. Maggie Evans.

FRID: (as Barnabas Collins) Evans?

SCOTT: It was amazing, because you can't imagine the mail he got. Some of it, pretty erotic.

BLAIR: Jonathan Frid's Barnabas Collins was so popular they couldn't drive a stake through his heart at the end of his 90-day contract, as originally planned. Instead, he became the star of "Dark Shadows."

Mark Dawidziak.

DAWIDZIAK: The genius of the Barnabas Collins character was that Barnabas is the first vampire who questions his own nature. Barnabas said, do I have to be like this?

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SERIES, "DARK SHADOWS")

FRID: (as Barnabas Collins) What have I become. How can I do things I do? Shall eternity be like this?

BLAIR: By giving Barnabas Collins a conscience and relationships, "Dark Shadows" opened up all kinds of possibilities, says Dawidziak.

DAWIDZIAK: And this is where vampire is going to become increasingly humanized, sexualized, sensualized. They're going to become younger. They're going to become more vital.

BLAIR: More than four decades later, just about every vampire on TV still owes a debt to "Dark Shadows," right down to "The Vampire Diaries" on the CW.

(SOUNDBITE OF SERIES, "THE VAMPIRE DIARIES")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Why do you always have to prove you're the alpha male?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I don't have to prove anything, love. I am the alpha male. Come on and dance. I won't bite.

BLAIR: "The Vampire Diaries" is a gothic soap opera similar to "Dark Shadows," but with two big differences: much better production values and the vampires are mostly teenagers. The show's co-creator Julie Plec says the coming-of-age idea is something they got from another TV show, "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," created by Joss Whedon.

JULIE PLEC: Joss Whedon sort of gets the super gold star for the high-school-is hell allegory, and that was the beauty of "Buffy The Vampire Slayer."

(SOUNDBITE OF "BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER")

DAVID BOREANAZ: (as Angel) But this can't...

SARAH MICHELLE GELLAR: (as Buffy Summers) Ever be anything. I know. For one thing, you're like 224 years older than I am.

BOREANAZ: (as Angel) I just got to - got to walk away from this.

GELLAR: (as Buffy Summers) I know.

PLEC: This idea that the worst thing that happens is that you finally give up your virginity to your one true love, and the next day he turns into an evil, murderous-side of vampire.

BLAIR: Right, but all of these contemporary vampires would not exist without Jonathan Frid's Barnabas Collins, says actress Kathryn Leigh Scott.

SCOTT: I think they all emanate from him. He's the granddaddy of all of them.

BLAIR: Jonathan Frid died in April. But he and Kathryn Leigh Scott and other actors from the "Dark Shadows" TV show have cameos in the new movie. Johnny Depp - who was a fan of the original - plays Barnabas Collins. And like the original, his Barnabas apologizes before sucking people's blood.

Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF "DARK SHADOWS" THEME MUSIC)

GREENE: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.