Gothic sixties soap opera Dark Shadows is more alive than ever, thanks to a new film adaptation by Tim Burton and Johnny Depp
- BY: WILL BLEAKLEY
When the late Dan Curtis initially dreamt up Dark Shadows, a soap opera that ran on ABC between 1966 and 1971 that’s being reimagined by Tim Burton for the big screen, he had just one image in mind: that of a young girl named Victoria Winters riding on a train to the coast of Maine. The show would proceed from there, he thought, in the vein of Jane Eyre, as a gothic tale of class, family, and romance where the quaint English countryside was replaced by the fictional seaside town of Collinsport, Maine.
Viewership lagged, however, and Dark Shadows faced possible cancellation in its first season. In an act of desperation Curtis began to mix ghostly apparitions with the cast of aristocratic Mainers at Collinwood manor. Seeing a boost in ratings he continued to pile on the supernatural, adding the now iconic vampire Barnabas Collins, followed by witches, gypsy curses, werewolves, inter-species romance, Leviathan creatures, parallel universes, fiery hellscapes, and dystopian visions of the year 1995. Four years and 1,225 episodes later, Dark Shadows was a pop culture phenomenon, reaching twenty million viewers everyday at 4 p.m.
Beth Hyde-Hood, a member of the Central Florida Dark Shadows Fan Club remembers watching as an eager nine year old. “I was one of those many kids that ran home from school, plopped in front of the TV set, said to my parents ‘Don’t bother me for thirty minutes,’ and was hanging on every word that was spoken,” she says. “I would buy 16 and Tiger Beat magazine and scour them for pictures of Jonathan Frid (who played the vampire Barnabas) and David Selby (who played werewolf Quentin Collins). These were our heartthrobs. They were the Justin Biebers of our childhood.”
The show largely appealed to teens and their stay-at-home-parents, albeit for very different reasons. Some related to the character of Barnabas Collins — the original reluctant vampire with a terrifying secret — while some took joy in classic plot twists that riffed off everything from The Turn of the Screw, to Rebecca, Wuthering Heights, and Frankenstein. Others delighted in the never-before-seen-on-TV gothic atmosphere of Collinsport, the fictional town fifty miles outside of Bangor that proved to be the perfect backdrop for the many layers of mystery, intrigue, and occult the show dealt in.
Curtis made a conscious decision to set the show in Maine. “Dan wanted that rugged coastline, the severe weather, and a strong sense of the elements,” says Kathryn Leigh Scott, the actress who played Maggie Evans in addition to three other characters on the original show. Collinsport was an unknown quantity, where anything could, and everything did, happen. “It was the town at the end of the line that few people ever made it to,” according to Stuart Manning, editor of the Dark Shadows Journal Online.
The show became one of the first in a tradition that includes Stephen King to utilize Maine’s combination of beauty, severity, and barrenness to enhance horror and provide a logical setting for the supernatural. “Maine is New England gothic,” says Michelle Souliere, the editor of the Strange Maine Gazette and avowed Dark Shadows fan. “There are the foreboding stone cliffs and moody ocean. It’s beautiful yet remote. And while it gives off this idyllic image in the summer, those who live here know it can be spooky.”
The show ended after a relatively brief run by soap opera standards, yet its popularity continued, and the lore of Collinsport, Maine, only grew over the next forty years. “The phenomenon of Dark Shadows never left. It continues to find new audiences,” says Stuart Manning, who produces audio dramas starring much of the original cast. Two films, House of Dark Shadows and Night of Dark Shadows, were produced by MGM, and two television reboots were attempted, one of which made it onto NBC for twelve episodes in the early nineties. In 1983 a Dark Shadows festival was launched. It has been going for nearly thirty years now and brings together thousands of fans so they can discuss the show, meet the original actors, and connect with like-minded Barnabas fanatics. “It’s a shared connection we have,” says Hyde-Hood, who has attended every festival since 2002. “A lot of my closest friends I’ve met through these festivals.”
To anyone outside this cult following, however, the show can seem laughably dated — especially in a modern television culture that expects such meticulously crafted shows asMad Men. Filmed live for videotape every single day, Dark Shadows’ most viewed scenes today (thanks to YouTube compilations) are of boom mikes swinging into shots, stage crews peeking from behind doors, forgotten lines, wobbly sets, and cameras exiting and entering the frame with the regularity of a main character. “It was campy, but done with the best intentions, and that appealed to people,” says Manning. “It being under-rehearsed and shot live gave it a strange intensity — an energy and shrill hysteria that worked for the show.”
Johnny Depp and Tim Burton count themselves as two fans captured by this strange intensity since childhood. Burton recently explained his affinity for the program to HorrorHoundmagazine, saying, “The reason I liked Dark Shadows was that it was a weird family story. It just happened to have supernatural qualities to it.” It was Depp, however, who served as the catalyst for the new motion-picture adaptation in theaters May 11.
“Johnny had been in touch with Dan, and put this into development starting in 2006 (prior to Curtis’ death),” says Jim Pierson, a consultant on the new film, and the marketing director of Dan Curtis Productions. In addition to Depp, the film stars Eva Green, Michelle Pfeiffer, Chloë Moretz, Bella Heathcote, and Helena Bonham Carter. The story focuses on Barnabas’ reintegration into the Collins family after a two hundred yearlong absence.
“This new movie blends together all the things that made Dark Shadows innovative,” Pierson says. “But there’s more humor in this, and it will be played with more of a quirky edge.” Some die-hard fans are naturally worried it will disrespect the legacy of the show they hold dear (“Has Tim Burton Destroyed Dark Shadows?” one article posited following the release of the two-minute trailer). Manning, one of the show’s biggest and most involved fans, however, is welcoming. “It’s time for a reimagining,” he says. “The original was such a lightening in a bottle. It’s good they bring their own perspective.”
The new film, whether successful or not, is one more chapter in the continuing story of Collinsport, Maine. After being depicted in five hundred hours of footage across two television shows and three films, the town is as real and alive to thousands of fans as any actual town in Maine. Collinsport may be fictional, look dated, and networks and movie studios may have ended its story several times now, but it’s somehow endured across generations. Which leaves one to assume that, like its inhabitants, the town itself is undead.
Collinsport: A Visitor’s Guide
Settled as a fictional coastal fishing village on Frenchman’s Bay fifty miles southeast of Bangor by Isaac Collins in 1690, Collinsport is buoyed economically by the local cannery owned by the Collins family and an influx of summer visitors both alive and dead. It’s a small town with a general store and a few businesses along Main Street. Residents of the isolated village are known to visit Bar Harbor, Rockport, and Bangor.
Where to Stay
Collinsport Inn: A three-story hotel located on Main Street. The hotel is known for its ten-cent cups of coffee and Mr. Wells, the hotel clerk/town gossip. Pay him five dollars and learn all the town secrets.
Collinwood Manor: A stunning forty-room mansion built by Joshua Collins in 1795. It comes with beautiful views of the Atlantic, the ghost of werewolf Quentin Collins, and a stairway that serves as a portal through time.
Where to Eat/Drink
The Blue Whale: The Blue Whale, located on the waterfront, is a popular pub, frequented by locals, with fifteen-cent beer. According to Burke Devlin, a Collinsport native and son of a lobsterman, it serves the best lobster in the world.
Where to Shop
The Todd’s Antique Shop: A dream come true, this charming antique store was opened by Phillip and Megan Todd in December 1969. Items sold include various artworks, knickknacks, and a Naga Box — a small wooden box that when opened spawns Jeb Hawkes, an antichrist and leader of the Leviathan people set on destroying earth, beginning with Collinsport.
Braithwaite & Sons: In business for more than one hundred years, these local jewelers and silversmiths made all the silver for the Collins family. Be sure to check out its featured item: a pendant that successfully fends off werewolves.
Where to Go
Widow’s Hill: Known for sobbing female apparitions and gusts of winds that speak answers to life’s questions, this hill, located atop a hundred-foot cliff, offers stunning views twenty miles out to sea on a clear day.
Windcliff Sanitarium: Should any encounters with vampires befall you, seek treatment at this medical facility run by psychiatrist/blood specialist Dr. Julia Hoffman.
Photograph Courtesy Warner Bros. Photo by Leah Gallo.