‘Dark Shadows’: What Made This Daytime Soap a Cult TV Classic?

DARK SHADOWS, Jonathan Frid, Grayson Hall, 1966-71
DARK SHADOWS, Jonathan Frid, Grayson Hall, 1966-71

“My name is Victoria Winters …” and so the story began at the Collinwood mansion.

TV’s first gothic daytime drama Dark Shadows, the brainchild of writer/producer Dan Curtis (The Night Stalker, The Winds of War) became a cult classic and launched a frighteningly popular franchise of feature films, TV reboots and related merchandise. With its haunting opening theme music (by Robert Colbert) and lilting visuals, the series was anything but typical airing weekday afternoons on ABC from June 27, 1966 to April 2, 1971. During that same time it arrived the big-screen sequels House of Dark Shadows and Night of Dark Shadows, as well.

Based on a real-life dream Dan Curtis had in 1965, a multi-level story arc of mayhem and the macabre began with actress Alexandra Moltke Isle’s graceful portrayal of Victoria ‘Vicki’ Winters, who takes a train to begin work as a young governess hired by the elusive Collins family of the fictionally-cryptic Collinsport, Maine.

DARK SHADOWS, Joan Bennett, 1966-71

Actress Joan Bennett. Credit: Everett Collection

Cinematic legend Joan Bennett played matriarch Elizabeth Collins Stoddard who ran the Collinwood Mansion; Shakespearean-trained actor Louis Edmonds was in top form as her arrogant brother Roger Collins. David Henesy was cast as Roger’s bright precocious young son David Collins, whom Vicki was assigned to tutor. Nancy Barrett was Elizabeth’s late-teen rebel daughter Carolyn Stoddard, whose best friend Maggie Evans (played by Kathryn Leigh Scott) was the chatty waitress at the Collinsport Inn in their misty seaside hometown. Together, they were one big mysterious family and group of friends who lived at creepy Collinwood’s sprawling estate.

Even with its unique premise, the show initially didn’t catch viewer interest until it went full-throttle supernatural and introduced the real toil and troublemaker — Barnabas Collins, the 200-year vampire brought to life, and eerily and endearingly portrayed by Jonathan Frid. It was Frid’s multi-layered performance as Barnabas that allowed countless viewers (many of whom were housewives and teenagers) to see the man with a heart behind the macabre mask; a tortured and torn soul littered with self-hatred and pining for blood and affection.

Jonathan Frid playing Barnabus. Credit: Everett Collection

Though it wasn’t his fault he was undead. Viewers would later learn that Barnabas was merely a victim of Angelique (played by Lara Parker), a hypnotic sorceress scorned; an ageless beauty of a witch who centuries before was rejected in favor of Josette du Pres (also played by Scott).

“Angelique was a witch but she had had her heart broken as well,” Parker shares. “All of her machinations and spells were weaved to win back Barnabas’ love. That was a very strong motivation that came from love rather than hatred,” as the seemingly most evil characters were “also very understandable and comprehensible.”

It was the Angelique-Barnabas-Josette triangle that first whisked the show into several past and parallel-time storylines; a flexible aesthetic platform that allowed its cast to play multiple roles in what became a theatrical trick-and-treat for them and their loyal home audience.

House of Dark Shadows, Jonathan Frid, Kathryn Leigh Scott, 1970

House of Dark Shadows (1970) Jonathan Frid and Kathryn Leigh Scott. Credit: Everett Collection

Who Was the First Cast Member on Dark Shadows to Play Multiple Roles?

The show eventually went supernatural when Kathryn Leigh Scott became the first cast member to play multiple roles on the series, which was a development she described as “a lucky fluke.”

As Scott recalls, she volunteered “to stand in for the clothes dummy that was being used to represent the ghost of Josette du Pres, the tragic fiancé of Barnabas Collins, who leaped to her death from Widow’s Hill. Once Dan Curtis saw me made up and costumed as Josette (he said I was a definite improvement on the clothes dummy!), he cast me in the role — over the objections of director Lela Swift and the network, who all thought the audience would be confused that Maggie, the waitress, could also be Josette in the 1790s. Dan saw the chemistry between Jonathan Frid, as Barnabas, and me as Maggie, and we were soon transported back in time to play out their story of unrequited love. Jonathan and I had genuine affection for each other, and loved working together, which was apparent to all in all our scenes together.”

DARK SHADOWS, Jonathan Frid, 1966-71

Everett Collection

Before They Were Stars: Abe Vigoda, Kate Jackson, Harvey Keitel All Starred on Dark Shadows

The soap featured a host of film and TV actors before they were stars including Broadway-bound Marsha Mason (later the big-screen lead in The Goodbye Girl), Harvey Keitel (later cast by director Martin Scorsese in several moves), Conrad Bain (Maude, Diff’rent Strokes), Abe Vigoda (Barney Miller, Fish), and Kate Jackson (Charlie’s Angels, Scarecrow and Mrs. King), among others.

Other case members included Mitchell Ryan and Anthony George sharing the role of Burke Devlin, Vicki then Carolyn’s suiter; Dennis Patrick as the conniving Jason McGuire (and later, Carolyn’s estranged father Paul Stoddard); John Karlen (later of TV’s Cagney & Lacy) as Barnabas’s frazzled but dedicated servant Willie Loomis; the Oscar-nominated Grayson Hall as Dr. Julia Hoffman who, in desperate attempts to cure his vampirism, falls in love with Barnabas; the marbled-mouthed but meticulous and distinguished Thayer David as Professor Stokes, Julia’s all-cult-knowing colleague; Jerry Lacey as various incarnations of the self-righteous Reverand Trask; Joel Crothers as Joe Haskell, Maggie’s loyal boyfriend; Roger Davis as Vicki’s twin true loves Peter Bradford and Jeff Clark; Clarice Blackburn as feisty housekeeper Mrs. Johnson (and later the crabby Abigail Collins); Frankenstein-inspired monsters Adam and Eve played by Robert Rodan (who died in 2021) and Marie Wallace; Don Briscoe as the werewolf-worn Chris Jennings.

Night of Dark Shadows, NIGHT OF DARK SHADOWS, Grayson Hall, David Selby, Kate Jackson, 1971

Grayson Hall, David Selby and Kate Jackson. Courtesy Everett Collection

The elevated fantasy element began with a ghost, followed by the rise of the phoenix, Laura Collins. She was Roger Collin’s former wife and David’s mother; a flame-bursting female played with fire, brimstone, and panache by Diana Millay.

Stellar additions like the charismatic Christopher Pennock as Jeb Hawkes and James Storm as the snarling Gerard Stiles join the series in its later years.

That eclectic group also includes directors Lela Swift and John Sedwick, set designer Sy Thomasoff, and writer Art Wallace, who created a bible for the show (initially titled, Shadows on the Wall, based on Dan Curtis’ dream).

Whatever Happened to Roger Davis on Dark Shadows?

ALIAS SMITH AND JONES, Roger Davis, 1971-73.

Everett Collection

Christopher Pennock replaced Roger Davis as the show’s blond heartthrob, after the latter left the series in 1970 to pursue other interests (including Alias Smith & Jones). Davis garnered much attention playing multiple characters including Peter Bradford, Jeff Clark, Ned Stuart, Dirk Wilkins and Charles Delaware Tate.

Though none of that transpired before Davis’ Dirk in the 1897 storyline, had been bit by Barnabas and transformed into a vampire, just like Wallace’s Megan Todd in the 1970 storyline. Both actors sunk their teeth into playing vacant-eyed beasts with charismatic pizazz. Davis was so dastardly-fanged as a vampire that, as he recalls, “Dan Curtis felt we really missed the boat in not expanding my vampire storyline.”

Whatever viewers may have missed with potential new biting scenes with Davis, they were more than compensated with his less intense (if no less traumatic-inducing) performances as Peter Bradford (in 1795) and Jeff Clark (in 1968), the doomed twin-true-loves of Vicki. Cautious not to dispel even in a particle measure of mystery, Davis says his on-screen double personas “were really the same person.”

DARK SHADOWS, Alexandra Moltke modeling rabbit fur coat, (1967), 1966-1971.

Alexandra Moltke Monty Sherman/TV Guide/courtesy Everett Collection

As to the identity of Vicki (who after Moltke left the series to have a baby, was portrayed by Betsy Durkin and Carolyn Groves), Davis says, “It’s now common knowledge that Vicki is the daughter of Elizabeth Stoddard Collins,” a not-so-heir-a-parent, of sorts, to the Collins family fortune.

“And that’s how I see it, too,’” says Davis, who, today, has forged a success of his own with a prominent career in high-stakes real estate. He’s designed and built hotels, high-rises, and six of the most state-of-the-art contemporary homes in the history of the Hollywood Hills.

However, Davis will forever cherish his time at Collinwood on Dark Shadows and the show’s dedicated following. “The show means a great deal to a great number of people. And I respect that, because the show means a great deal to me, as well.”

Whatever Happened to James Storm on Dark Shadows?

Kate Jackson, James Storm, Night of Dark Shadows, 1971

Night of Dark Shadows (1971) Kate Jackson and James Storm. Credit: Everett Collection

“It was a terrific show to do, and a lot of fun,” says James Storm, who joined the series after Davis left playing Gerard Stiles. Storm enjoyed his time with Jonathan Frid, Grayson Hall (who died in 1985), Lara Parker, Christopher Pennock, David Selby, John Karlen (who died in 2021), and Alabama-born Kate Jackson. “I was there for Kate’s audition, which included three other women,” Storm recalls. “I looked at her and said to myself, ‘That’s the one they’re going to choose.’ She was so wonderful, and naïve and sweet as could be and so beautiful and talented.”

“Kate, along with Jonathan, Lara, Grayson, Chris, John, and David…they were all great,” he says. “I had a wonderful time with every one of them. It was an honor to work with them.”

Storm has the further distinction of playing the only character on the series that said the show’s title on the air. In an 1840 scene with Jerry Lacy as Lamar Trask, Storm’s Stiles says, “I would think it best if I just remain the dark shadows.”

Whatever Happened to David Selby Who Played Quentin Collins?

DARK SHADOWS, from left: David Selby, Lara Parker, Jonathan Frid, 1966-71.

Dark Shadows, David Selby, Lara Parker and Jonathan Frid. Credit: Everett Collection

Joining in the on-screen fun at various intervals in time and place was David Selby as the silent ghost/werewolf/zombie-turned regular guy Quentin Collins.

Echoing the sentiment of many associated with the series, Selby will “forever cherish the instant feedback” that he and fellow cast members experienced in and outside the Shadows’ small New York studios on West 53rd Street every day while taping the show. “I feel very fortunate, blessed, and privileged to be a part of a show as marvelous as Dark Shadows. I’ve always felt that way, and continue to feel that way today. Every aspect of the series was first-rate, from the writing, directing, the wardrobe, and the make-up to my wonderful colleagues on-screen and behind the scenes.”

According to Selby, a remaining key component of the show’s eternal appeal rests “within its own little world and how whatever occurred in that world made sense in that world.” It was the kind of intimacy that works best in television, particularly on a daytime serial with interconnecting stories. For soap fans in general, dedicated fans and general viewers come to know and identify the characters they watch daily.

FALCON CREST, David Selby, 1981-1990.

Lorimar Television/Courtesy: Everett Collection.

In effect, a family-type relationship was established between the home audience and the characters, with Dan Curtis as the patriarch.

“Dan was the heart and soul of Dark Shadows,” says Selby, whose career includes countless film, stage, and television appearances including his role as Richard Channing on the long-running prime-time soap Falcon Crest (CBS, 1982–1990. “There would have been no Dark Shadows without Dan Curtis. He was the mastermind of it all. I owe my career to Dan, casting director Marion Doughtery, and all the actors, producers, and production team that I had the pleasure and privilege to work with.”

“And the fans,” Selby emphasizes, “…the show would be nothing without the dear fans.”

When Is the Dark Shadows Remembrance Weekend?

Dark Shadows Weekend


Dark Shadows devotees indeed continue to keep the series alive with various festivals, conventions, and live events (including the upcoming Dark Shadows Remembrance Weekend scheduled for July 5 and 6, 2024 in Burbank, CA.) Special guests at the event include David Selby, Kathryn Leigh Scott, Nancy Barrett, Jerry Lacy, James Storm, Lisa Richards and Roger Davis.

Like Selby, Storm, and all those associated with the show, Kathryn Leigh Scott never tires of hearing fans tell her how they “ran home from school to watch Dark Shadows. I always hear those words as if for the first time because the “kid” in each fan is expressing an awesome, very personal childhood memory. What an amazing experience our show gave to youngsters that they carry the memories of it into adulthood.”

“What’s better than a good story well told?” the actress/author concludes. “That’s the secret to the enduring popularity of Dark Shadows. Audiences responded to the age-old stories from great literature that we played out with truth and integrity — never camping it up, which quickly grows stale and dates a show. Dark Shadows was well cast, with actors who had stage training and could portray characters in different time periods — and could handle ‘live’ television!”

Where to Watch Dark Shadows Today:

All 1,224 episodes of the original series stream on Pluto TV and other platforms (like Tubi), amid the continued popularity of the coffindesigned DVD box set’s release. Joining the fray are several Shadows-related books, videos, audiobooks, YouTube recordings and shows, and live presentations connected with the stars. David Selby and Kathryn Leigh Scott have published acclaimed memoirs, while Lara Parker, who died in 2023, authored a host of riveting Dark Shadows novels. Plus there was a comic book!


About the Author:

Herbie J Pilato

Dan Holm Photography

Herbie J Pilato is an award-winning author of several nonfiction pop-culture tie-in books including Retro Active Television: An In-Depth Perspective of Classic TV’s Social Circuitry), and One Tough Dame: The Life and Career of Diana Rigg, and Christmas TV Memories: Nostalgic Holiday Favorites of the Small Screen (the latter two of which will be published in the fall of 2024.]

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