Over the past month, my wife and I have been spending our evenings watching the original “Dark Shadows,” the old television series featuring ghosts, witches, and the vampire, Barnabas Collins. The show’s credits always ended with a deep voice saying, “Dark Shadows is a Dan Curtis Production.” Remember?
My younger sister Rose had bought the complete “Dark Shadows” DVD series on eBay and lent it to me. It came packaged in a miniature black coffin packed with 131 discs including all 1,245 of the 20-minute episodes. The series originally aired on the ABC network from June 1966 to April 1971. The first show begins with a comely young woman, Victoria Winters, traveling by train from New York City to Collinsport, a small fishing village on the Maine coast. She’s taken a position as governess for the Collins household, a wealthy family and namesake of the town.
Besides Miss Winters, the other characters include: Elizabeth Stoddard, mistress of “Collinwood,” the Collins family mansion and her petite 20-year-old daughter Carolyn. There’s also the pompous Roger Collins, Elizabeth’s younger brother and his spoiled son David who Vicki was hired to tutor. Some of the other regulars are Burke Devlin, Willie Loomis, Maggie Evens, Angilique the witch, Dr. Julia Hoffman and a host of others who come and go as the plot lines change. The stories take place mostly at Collinwood, which overlooks the ocean and in the creepy “Old House,” the original Collins home long abandoned and now haunted by Josette Collins who leaped to her death from Widow’s Hill in 1796. Got all that?
The characters frequently gather in the drawing room at Collinwood where the fire in the fireplace never goes out and Roger is always helping himself to a brandy. Occasionally, the scene shifts to the Collinsport Inn where Maggie Evans works as a waitress in the coffee shop, or to The Blue Whale, the local watering hole where everyone gathers to drink and dance around a jukebox. When they’re not there, they can be found tramping in the woods, or wandering around a spooky graveyard at midnight when there’s always a looming thunderstorm.
Everybody I knew who grew up in the 1960s watched Dark Shadows. Although the show was geared to appeal to adults, its fan base was mostly made up of young people. I remember rushing home after school with my sisters to watch it. The early episodes were filmed in black and white, but that didn’t matter because everyone back then had a black and white television set. We had a 13-inch Zenith in the corner of our kitchen. There wasn’t any cable, or dish network, so if you wanted to watch a TV show you had to see it when it was aired.
I’d never seen the first year of “Dark Shadows” which is focused almost entirely on Vicki Winters. There are ghosts, hidden rooms, a murder and a mysterious woman, Laura Collins, Roger’s estranged wife who has supernatural powers over fire. Barnabas doesn’t make his appearance until episode 211 which aired in April 1967. That’s when Willie Loomis accidently discovers a chained coffin hidden in a secret room in the Collins family mausoleum. Willie thinks he’s discovered a long lost fortune in Collins family jewels but what he’s found instead is, well… you probably know the rest.
Barnabas Collins, played by Jonathan Frid, is supposed to be a long-lost cousin from England. Frid was in fact Canadian, not British. Joan Bennett who plays Mrs. Stoddard had a long career in show business appearing on the stage and motion pictures before transitioning to television. Another familiar face is Kate Jackson remembered for her role on the original “Charlie’s Angels” TV show. She joined the “Dark Shadows” cast in its final season. After he was fired from the series, Mitchell Ryan who played Burke Devlin, went on to appear in a number of television shows including “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” He auditioned for the part of Captain Jean-Luc Picard. Ryan also appeared with Clint Eastwood in the movies “Magnum Force” and “High Plains Drifter.”
Obliviously, there isn’t a Collinsport anywhere in Maine, although the show’s characters frequently talk about shopping in the city of Bangor, which they pronounce, “Banger.” None of the Dark Shadows episodes were ever filmed in Maine. The live location shots showing the Collinsport Inn and downtown were taken of Essex, Connecticut. The still shots of Collinwood manor are of the Carey Mansion in Newport, Rhode Island. The ones of The Blue Whale and the waterfront were also taken in Newport. The shows were prerecorded in an ABC studio in Manhattan, New York and usually filmed in one take, often without any editing.
Watching “Dark Shadows” again has been a lot of fun; a trip down memory lane. Unlike bygone days when we had to settle for one afternoon episode a day, we can now watch as many as we want, and without commercials. The acting is pretty good, although cast members often stumble through their lines. The plots are well… pretty far-out but fun to watch. Fifty years ago, when these shows were first aired there was nothing else like it on daytime television and the series continues to draw a large following.
After the show was cancelled, two “Dark Shadows” movies were made with most of the original cast. A third movie released in 2012 featured actor Johnny Depp playing Barnabas Collins. There was also a 2016 “Dark Shadows” Apple Podcast. I’m content to watch the original series at least until Halloween.
Phil Di Vece earned a B.A. in journalism studies from Colorado State University and an M.A. in journalism at the University of South Florida. He is the author of three Wiscasset books and is a frequent news contributor to the Wiscasset Newspaper and Boothbay Register. He resides in Wiscasset. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org