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. Who was this beautiful orphaned Victoria Winters and where were her parents? What had happened to Paul Stoddard, husband of the Collins matriarch, Elizabeth Stoddard? What horrible secret was Roger Collins hiding? Why had Burke Devlin returned to Collinsport after five years in jail? Was he seeking some personal revenge against the Collins clan? What dark secret was Jason McGuire lording over Elizabeth Collins? Why was young David Collins so afraid of his mother? Set all of this in a gigantic mansion on top of Widow's Hill, blend in a quirky mix of satellite characters with secrets of their own, play some haunting music, leave your audience in suspense at the end of each day and you have everything needed to whisk your audience away from the horrible realities of 1966 America. With the Vietnam War raging and racial discord commonplace on the early evening news, most 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 it 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. So any program that showed signs of failing was offered up to the chopping block to make way for the next. 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 be on to something.
One thing was certain, no other afternoon soap had even scratched the surface of this theme. Along with Josette Collins came the questions of who she was, where she came from and why she had come back to haunt Collinwood. These questions and many more would eventually be answered in the subsequent weeks and months that followed. Curtis decided to introduce another sinister element to the story. A vampire, Barnabas Collins, would be unceremoniously unearthed. Claiming to be a long-lost cousin from England, he would hang around for several episodes munching on lovely necks and then disappear in a puff of dust, victim of the bane of all vampires, the wooden stake. But then something phenomenal happened. The ratings skyrocketed. The reluctant and misunderstood monster was on his way to superstardom. Women and children all across America, the typical afternoon viewing audience of the time, were turning on and tuning in faithfully to see who Barnabas would claim as his next victim. Faced with the difficult situation of killing off the monster and disappointing the audience or further developing the vampire theme, Curtis opted for the latter. And with extraordinary results. Dark Shadows would eventually blossom into a most fruitful venture, spawning hundreds of spin-off products and building a tremendous fan following.
Acting on the obvious, Curtis developed the shy and reclusive vampire plot to include a possible cure for his vampirism, a 200 year old love story, attempts at recreating his long lost love via kidnapping, and traveling in time to rescue Victoria Winters from the clutches of the Massachusetts witch hunts. Later story arcs included several elements from the horror genre. Adam and Eve were both monsters created from corpses, expanding on the Frankenstein story. The Quentin Collins character, a ghost from 1897 who haunted David Collins and Amy Jennings, is reminiscent of The Turn of the Screw. The werewolf character of Chris Jennings is borrowed for the Wolfman themes of earlier Hollywood classics.
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[?], Thayer David[?], Grayson Hall[?], David Selby[?] and Kate Jackson[?]. 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.