Happy to announce the upcoming publication of a star-studded ANTHOLOGY ON SOAP OPERAS co-edited by blog-mistress Elizabeth and stellar author Suzanne Strempek Shea— the book will be out in MARCH of 2017 from McFarland Books. Among the acclaimed authors who will hold forth on Soaps is the fabulous Nancy Holder, with her own distinctive take on DARK SHADOWS…the book will also feature dark and shadowy thoughts from Susan Lilley (see her own DS essay)…
Nancy Holder is a New York Times bestselling author and recipient of five Bram Stoker awards for her horror fiction. She has also received a Scribe award for Saving Grace: Tough Love based on the TV show of the same name, and a Young Adult Pioneer Award from RT Booklovers. In addition to her original horror and dark fantasy, she writes licensed “tie-in” novels, short fiction, and episode guides for TV shows and movies including Crimson Peak, the new Ghostbusters, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Beauty and the Beast, Teen Wolf, Hellboy, The Rocketeer, and many others. A dedicated Sherlockian, she is creating a Holmes world for a new gaming system. She also edits and writes comic books and teaches on the popular fiction faculty of the Stonecoast MFA in Creative Writing program offered through the University of Southern Maine. Forthcoming in June is the teen thriller, The Rules. Socialize @nancyholder.
DARK SHADOWS: Look Homeward, Vampire
by Nancy Holder
The Internet Movie Database describes Dark Shadows like this: “The rich Collins family of Collinsport, Maine is tormented by strange occurrences.” To which I reply, “No kidding.” The Collinses were hung as witches, chained in coffins, dragged backward in time, committed to asylums, left on the doorsteps of foundling homes, and bedeviled by curses.
This Gothic soap opera came on the air in 1966 and lasted for 1,225 episodes in its original five-year run. Dark Shadows games, novels, comics, a comic strip, audio plays, fan conventions, and two motion pictures fed the enormous fan base, which at one time numbered over twenty million viewers. It had a rocky start, credited to a slow pace and the presence of an unknown, relatively untested, ingénue named Victoria Winters as its protagonist. The series was saved by the introduction in episode 211 of Barnabas Collins, a vampire and the ancestor of the Collinses who reside in (and bicker in) the ancestral home in Maine. Victoria Winters’s last episode was 665.
A prime-time reboot occurred in 1991, which lasted only one season, and another reboot was attempted in 2004 but was not picked up. Most recently, Johnny Depp starred in a 2012 remake. Big Finish, a UK company, continues to produce DS audio plays; Lara Parker, who played Angelique, writes Dark Shadows novels for Tor Books, and mystery and chick-lit writer Kathryn Leigh Scott, who played Josette DuPrés, Barnabas’s ill-fated fiancée, keeps the flame alive with DS memoirs and behind-the-scenes “making of” books.
What makes Dark Shadows so eminently watchable, and so beloved? Why does it continue to come back from the grave of cancelled shows and rejected pilots? To answer this question, I decided to do something I’d never done before—watch the first two years of episodes, and many others I had missed. And I found my answer.
When DS came on the air, I was living with my family on a US Navy base in Yokosuka, Japan. We had no TV in English, and our newspaper and radio station were produced by the military. The Viet Nam War was raging, and our base was one of the places where sailors came to get patched up so they could go back to hell. We got news about the States from the new kids, but they forgot to tell us about all kinds of things. Anti-war protestors. Hippies. And Star Trek. And Laugh-In. And Dark Shadows.
When we came back to the States, I had intense culture shock. I was in high school—and there were so many things I didn’t know about. I thought there was a singer named Ikentina Turner. I knew Walt Disney had died but I didn’t know about all the new attractions—the Haunted Mansion, the Pirates of the Caribbean. Oh, brave new world.
But what probably shocked me most was Dark Shadows. It was a soap opera about vampires and spooky houses and curses and witches. It was so uber-Gothic—a cursed family; an old, dark mansion; ghosts and historical subplots. There were references to Edgar Allan Poe, Henry James, and even H.P. Lovecraft. (A quick perusal of the wiki page on DS reveals dozens of influences including Dickens, Dumas, Shelley, Shirley Jackson, Shakespeare and many others). Plus it came on right after school, Monday through Friday, every single week. In English!
I had already missed the first two years, and to make matters more frustrating, I was an aspiring ballet dancer and I usually had class after school. Back then, there were no VCRs, DVDs, not even reruns—so Dark Shadows became an elusive, forbidden pleasure. In the manner of soaps, a lot of material was repeated, so even though I missed a lot of episodes, I could keep track of what was going on. And yet those large blank spots reminded me of those years in Japan when I pretty much missed out on everything that was going on in the States.
Fast-forward to the first reboot, 1991. It was an extremely exciting TV season, as Twin Peaks was also on. Debbie, my best friend, and I would load up on donuts to watch both our shows. The reboot didn’t catch fire, and I returned to remembering the original DS with the same nostalgic tenderness I had for the boy who took me to prom.
Then I began my long run of writing novels and episode guides for the Joss Whedon TV shows Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its spinoff, Angel. Buffy was originally intended to be a “monster of the week” anthology show, but the producers quickly realized that what was drawing in viewers was “the soap opera,” as Joss termed it—the development of complex, ongoing relationships among the characters. Buffy had a seven-year run. For a time Angel floundered, and then, just as it turned around in the ratings, another reboot of Dark Shadows went into development. One of the former makeup people on Buffy and Angel saw me at a bookstore signing and told me he was working on it. Ultimately, Angel was cancelled in part to make way for the new Dark Shadows series … and then DS 3.0 was not picked up.
Thoughts of Dark Shadows drifted away then … until it came time for the Johnny Depp reboot. And it was then that I realized that I still had never gotten to see the first two years, and had missed tons of episodes. By then, of course, we had YouTube and DVDs and I started my own rewatch … and my initial, overriding thought was, “Oh, my god, this is so cheesy!” But no, it wasn’t. I was reacting to the production values and the staginess, and once I became accustomed to them, I listened to the words and watched the stories. And I thought, Whoever wrote this knows their Gothic fiction. And not only knew it, but respected it. There was a real earnestness, a willingness to go slowly and plumb the tropes of the Gothic—the wind-swept cliffs, the slowly opening doors, the overheard whispers. Portraits that seemed to stare at you. Mysteries. And secrets.
The curtain had finally been pulled back – but Dark Shadows was not some hokey joke from my childhood; I recognized it as a benchmark in the history of horror and dark fantasy. No wonder it had influenced so many creative people, who still regard it so fondly—including Johnny Depp. Ah, but what of his remake? Were he and Tim Burton worried that today’s audiences wouldn’t “get” Dark Shadows? Despite his professed love for DS, was he also initially put off upon revisiting the material as I had been, and so cloaked his interpretation with a bit of silliness?
To my mind, the closest and most faithful contemporary interpretation of the Gothic sensibility is Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak, which he was careful to point out, is a Gothic romance. There’s an ongoing website called the Collinsport Historical Society (Collinsport being the town where Dark Shadows occurred, and Collinwood, the family mansion). It is located at http://www.Collinsporthistoricalsociety.com. The entry for October 16, 2015 (the release date of Crimson Peak) states, “In a perfect world, Guillermo del Toro would have helmed a Dark Shadows movie.” And I agree. He has the same reverence for his material as had Dan Curtis, the creator of Dark Shadows, lo these fifty years ago.
The opportunity to see Dark Shadows for the first time—again—has filled me with a reverence for what it was, and what it remains—a paen to the Gothic tale, told well, and with a depth of heart that is difficult to find in these more cynical times. And that is why, after fifty years, Dark Shadows continues to enthrall and enchant new viewers and old. It is as immortal as Barnabas himself, and will, I’m sure rise again in a new form once the stars align and the sun goes down just so.
(images: Author Photo by John Urbancik; other images from pinterest, amazon.com)