Birth of Dark Shadows

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50 years ago today, on June 27, 1966, those tuning in to ABC TV’s afternoon lineup to watch the latest episode of Never Too Young, starring Tony Dow from Leave it to Beaver, may have been disappointed to learn that it had been replaced by a new soap opera called Dark Shadows. While Never Too Young was the first serial targeted to a teen audience, it’s interesting that its successor would later become a ratings sensation due largely to the same young television viewers.

The dreary setting of Collinsport, Maine, in Dark Shadows was the polar opposite of Malibu, California, in Never Too Young. So was the tone of the show. Never Too Young told stories about the lives of a group of teenagers and their parents from the point of view of the owner of a local beach hangout called, “The High Dive.” Dark Shadows told stories about the mysterious Collins family and their ancestors from the point of view of the governess hired to wrangle 10-year old David Collins.

At the end of its 1245-episode run in 1971, Dark Shadows would be known for its creative mix of gothic elements, borrowing liberally from classic literature like Jane Eyre, The Turn of the Screw, Dracula, Frankenstein, The Picture of Dorian Gray and featuring fantastical science fiction twists like time travel and parallel time. However, it is probably best remembered today for a character that didn’t even appear until almost a year after its debut: sympathetic vampire, Barnabas Collins (Jonathan Frid).

If you are at all familiar with Dark Shadows, you probably know the story of Barnabas Collins. It has been retold may times, from the 1970 feature film, House of Dark Shadows, to the 1991 primetime television revival starring Ben Cross, to Tim Burton’s 2012 interpretation starring Johnny Depp. What would you have seen, though, if you watched the premiere episode on the afternoon of June 27, 1966, when vampires, man-made monsters and wolf men were not yet even twinkles in the eyes of creator and Executive Producer, Dan Curtis?

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Episode 1

Alternating between grainy filmed exteriors and crisp videotaped interiors, in glorious black and white, a lovely young brunette with shoulder-length hair (Alexandra Moltke) sits on a train, lost in her own thoughts. Her sweet, naïve voice narrates:

My name is Victoria Winters. My journey is beginning, a journey that I hope will open the doors of life to me and link my past with my future, a journey that will bring me to a strange and dark place, to the edge of the sea, high atop Widows’ Hill, a house called Collinwood, a world I’ve never known, with people I’ve never met, people who tonight are still only shadows in my mind, but who will soon fill the days and nights of my tomorrows.”

Cut to a woman who looks like she could be an older version of Victoria, “standing at the window, looking out into the night”. A similarly aged man pours himself a drink and approaches the woman. At first, you think they’re married, but it’s soon revealed that this is Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (Joan Bennett) and her brother, Roger Collins (Louis Edmonds). The two bicker about what a fool the other one is. “Don’t you think you ought to look in on your son?” she asks him.

“The little monster’s asleep and I’m delighted,” he replies. After pausing to take a swig of his drink, he continues, “I choose my words with infinite precision.” Already, we’ve learned that the siblings don’t seem to like each other very much and that Roger doesn’t seem to be very fond of his son.

This leads into a discussion about Victoria Winters, who Roger believes “should never have been asked to come here in the first place.” When Elizabeth tells him she’s sure she’ll work out very well, he asks, “Doing what? Holding my little son’s hand? Comforting you when the shutters creak? Elizabeth, with all our ghosts, we don’t need any strangers in the house and you know it.” Further, “Why bring somebody all the way up from New York to do something we’re perfectly capable of handling ourselves?”

“Because I choose to do so,” she snaps. “I’ve asked Miss Winters to live here and she’ll stay.” Apparently she’s the one with the last word. Roger merely raises his glass to her, but when she leaves the drawing room, he angrily breaks it in his hand. The foundation for Dark Shadows has been laid in two scenes before the violent waves crash against the rocks  in the show’s opening title sequence for the first time.

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Back on the train, Victoria learns about the town of Collinsport from chatty passenger, Mrs. Mitchell (Jane Rose):

  • It’s cold and damp.
  • The train hasn’t made a stop there in five years. (“That’s the kind of place it is.”)
  • She’s lived in this part of the country all her life, but has been to Collinsport only once. (Which was more than enough for her.)

As she drones on, we transition to a flashback of the morning Victoria received a strange letter. Talking with Mrs. Hopewell (Elizabeth Wilson), whose name carries meaning, Victoria doesn’t know how Mrs. Stoddard has heard of her. “I’ve looked at a map. Collinsport is only 50 miles from Bangor.” “Well surely you don’t think there’s any connection?” Mrs. Hopewell asks.

“I’m not sure what to think,” she replies. All I do know is I’ve spent most of my life here in the foundling home living, working now, and suddenly I get a letter from a woman I’ve never seen, living in a place I’ve never heard of.  Wouldn’t you say that’s a little bit strange?” Mrs. Hopeful answers, ““What I would say is you’ve been offered the job of a companion and a governess at a very fair rate of pay and the only question you have to ask is if you want to take the position.”

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On the platform at Collinsport, Victoria meets the only other passenger to exit the train, a “strange” man who has not spoken until she asks, “Do you know if they have any taxis here?”

“I wouldn’t know what they have here. Not anymore.” (“Anymore” is the key word.)

“Well how do they expect anyone to get to town?” Victoria asks.

“By broomsticks and unicorn,” he answers. “…and chauffeured cars. Can I give you a lift?”

This is Burke Devlin (Mitchell Ryan), a man with ties to Collinsport, about which we will not learn completely in this episode. After introductions, he tells her, “Welcome to the beginning and the end of the world, Miss Winters.”

“I’m not going that far. Only to a house named Collinwood. Do you know it?”

“Yes, I do. Very well…”

After checking into the Collinsport Inn, Burke gives Victoria some advice, “Get the next bus to Bangor. You’ll get a train there for New York and be home by morning.” He then leaves hastily to meet Wilbur Strake (Joseph Julian) at The Blue Whale, a joint that “starts jumping in about half an hour when the kids get here.” Devlin has apparently paid Wilbur to find out all he can about “the Collins family, everyone who lives in that house on the hill, and anyone who has anything to do with them.”

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Meanwhile, Victoria gets an earful from sassy waitress Maggie Evans (Kathryn Leigh Scott). “Listen honey, the Collins family is the biggest thing in this town. They own the biggest cannery, the biggest fishing fleet and the biggest, darkest, gloomiest old house. And they’re kooks, every one of them.” Victoria doesn’t believe her, so Maggie sighs, “OK. Move in there. But take a good look in that mirror right now, because in two months that pretty hair of yours is going to be one glorious shade of gray.”

“You make it sound like some old English novel with rattling chains, ghosts in the corridors.” (Please note how I said Dark Shadows would be remembered)

“You think that’s wrong? I could tell you things about that house that would rock you all the way from here back to the railroad station.”

“I’d rather not hear them.”

“OK. There’s one born every minute.”

In another flashback at the foundling home, Victoria’s friend, Sandy (Katherine Bruce) asks, “What are you trying to do, bury yourself? With your looks and brains, you could get a job right here in New York.”

“It’s not the job, Sandy; it’s the place,” Victoria tells her.

“You’ve got a yen for fishing villages? So go out to Long Island, have a ball. But a nowhere place like Collinsport, Maine?”

“I don’t really want to go, but I have to,” Victoria further explains. “This could be the most important step I’ve taken in my whole life… to me… to finding me… to see who I really am.”

The flashback ends with Maggie overhearing Victoria talk to herself. “You haven’t even been up on the hill yet. Maybe you belong in that house.” Victoria quietly responds, “Maybe I do.”

Down the street, Wilbur tells Burke, “You know the big problem is the old lady. Elizabeth Stoddard. Not much I could dig up on her.”

“Does she still run the business?” Burke asks.

“Well, she makes all the important decisions, if that’s what you mean. The manager of the fishing fleet comes up to the house to see her about once a week.”

“Does she ever go into town?”

“No.”

“So, that hasn’t changed.”

“Best I could learn, Mr. Devlin, is that Elizabeth Collins Stoddard hasn’t left that hill in 18 years. There are a number of stories going around, but none of them really make much sense. Personally, I think she needs a keeper.”

“Perhaps she’s getting one.”

“Like who, you?” asks Wilbur.

“No. A girl… who doesn’t know what she’s getting into.”

Back at the Collinsport Inn, Maggie recommends Victoria stay in the hotel overnight, go up to the house in the morning, look around, then make up her mind. “Tell me the truth.” Victoria says. “You were just trying to make me nervous, weren’t you?”

Maggie responds reluctantly, “Sure. Sure I was, honey. It’ll be a ball.” Vicky seems uncertain about this response and leaves, after which Maggie shakes her head.

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In the final moments of the first episode of Dark Shadows, the taxi delivers Victoria to Collinswood. After using the knocker on the massive front door, Elizabeth answers and tells her to come in. With the camera shooting from a knee-height angle and the only sound being the ominous music of composer Bob Cobert, a different camera pulls out from the foyer through the drawing room and out the window where Elizabeth stood earlier, staring into the night.

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Since the opening titles, we’ve learned about Victoria’s motivation for accepting Elizabeth’s job offer and moving into Collinwood. However, we haven’t learned much about Burke’s motivations for returning to what we assume at this point is his home. We’ve learned about the reputation of Collinsport and the Collins family from those on the outside, but we haven’t learned why Elizabeth hasn’t left her home in 18 years.

And we haven’t learned the nature of the relationship between Elizabeth and Victoria.  (That will be a long wait; Dark Shadows will never answer that question definitively.)  Was the set-up for the show and its mysteries intriguing enough for audiences to return for a second episode? If I had watched that first day 50 years ago, I’d have said, “Yes.” However, it  remained to be seen for how long audiences would stick with it.

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Afterword

Researching Never Too Young, which debuted on September 27, 1965, and ran for less than a year, I learned two things it had in common with Dark Shadows.

First, the Executive Producer was Larry Cohen, the B-movie auteur of horror and science fiction films during the 1970s and 1980s like It’s Alive, God Told Me To, Q and The Stuff. Dan Curtis, the creator and Executive Producer of Dark Shadows, used horror and science fiction elements in his show. However, he may also be considered a horror auteur for his other projects in the 1970s and 1980s like The Night Stalker, Dracula, Trilogy of Terror and Burnt Offerings.

Second, one of the writers of Never Too Young was Ron Sproat. Sproat became a writer on Dark Shadows in October, 1966, and is credited for creating the character of vampire Barnabas Collins a few months later.. He later worked on a Canadian soap opera with a familiar vibe, Strange Paradise, which aired in syndication in the United States in 1969 and 1970.

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