Comfort Viewing: 3 Reasons I Love ‘Dark Shadows’

This story starts when “Dark Shadows” ends.

It was 1971, and my mother was set to have me by C-section. Her doctor originally scheduled the procedure for April 1, but my mother balked at having an April Fool’s baby. Instead, I greeted the world on April 2, a chilly Friday in Cleveland.

It was also, much to my mother’s alarm, the day her beloved soap opera — the supernatural drama “Dark Shadows” — aired its final episode on ABC. As she tells it, she demanded I be delivered in the morning because she sure as Hades wasn’t going to miss “Dark Shadows” that afternoon. She got her wish.

I think about devotion these pandemic nights as I stay up late to watch the original “Dark Shadows” on the streaming service Tubi. When the series debuted on June 27, 1966, it was unlike anything before or, I would say, since. ABC described it as “daytime television’s first continuing suspense drama,” which is like saying Freddy Krueger is a grumpy guy in a cute sweater. Created by Dan Curtis, “Dark Shadows” was a macabre and bonkers upside-down of “Peyton Place,” a more conventional soap opera popular of its time. (Both were equally white.)

The story arcs on “Dark Shadows” traversed the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, and centered on the old-money Collins family at the Collinwood estate in small-town Collinsport, Maine. Wallace McBride, the curator of the Collinsport Historical Society, a “Dark Shadows” fan site, called the series “‘Star Trek’ for introverts.”

“If ‘Star Trek’ was about going new places and meeting new people, ‘Dark Shadows’ is about staying inside,” McBride said in an interview last month. “Characters travel to other dimensions without leaving the family house. It’s very personal and inward focused.”

“Dark Shadows” was horror to the bone. Poor Collinsport was terrorized by witchcraft, killer ghosts, lycanthropy and I don’t know how many other evil doings. (Full disclosure: I’m not yet halfway through its 1,225 episodes.) In Episode 211, the show introduced the vampire Barnabas Collins, played by the Shakespearean actor Jonathan Frid. Barnabas became a global phenomenon and unlikely sex symbol who helped make the series one of the most popular soap operas of the era.

With so many episodes, watching “Dark Shadows” is a herculean binge. Already the series’s weird coolness has drawn me in like the undead to the living. Why do I and so many horror fans have a connection with a Gothic melodrama that’s so old it was pre-empted by the moon landing?

I called Kathryn Leigh Scott, who played the kindly waitress Maggie Evans, to get her take. (Like many of the cast members, she also played many other roles in this time-hopping series — it’s complicated.)

“The reason young kids used to run home from school to watch the show was that it was pure escapism,” Scott explained. “No matter how much kids picked on you in class, at least you weren’t bitten by a vampire. It took you to another realm. Almost everything was about an outsider.”

Ah. As a kid, I was what you’d call a triple-threat outsider. I grew up in the ’80s as a gay teenager who didn’t know what gay was. I was a geek. I was chubby. On summer afternoons as other kids played something called sports, I was alone, devouring “All My Children,” “One Life to Live,” “General Hospital” and sometimes “The Edge of Night” if the TV in my room picked up the Akron station.

It’s now decades later, and I’m still kind of an outsider. I can’t possibly be gayer. I’ve become a horror geek, and I’m still a little chubby. And I still love watching old soap operas, especially “Dark Shadows.” Here’s why.

My love of horror has one source: my grandmother Blanca, my mother’s mother, who kick-started my affection with classic Universal monster movies like “Dracula” and “Frankenstein.” The influence of these canonical films pervades “Dark Shadows.” It’s in the contour of a mysterious figure backlit by frenzied lighting strikes. It’s in the ghostly theme song, composed by Bob Cobert (and released on a best-selling “Dark Shadows” soundtrack). It’s in the show’s chilly mausoleums and creaky coffins.

As I watch, it’s as if the pioneering horror directors James Whale and Tod Browning were off-camera, beaming. Best of all, it’s as if my grandmother were, too.

“Dark Shadows” is a soap opera. Everybody has secrets. But a sexual vampire in Stonewall-era America is a queer secret. Barnabas was a cursed man with forbidden attractions, which sounds a lot like what queer people at the time were told their sad lives were about. Yet for many people, especially young fans in the closet, Barnabas was as familiar as he was frightening. (Like many actors on the show, Frid was known to be gay, but he never publicly came out.)

There are many queer delights in “Dark Shadows,” but two performances stand out. The actor Louis Edmonds, who came out later in life, gave a delicious performance as the irritable priss Roger Collins, who wears cravats and turtlenecks and uses words like “preposterous.” (You know the type.) And I swear the old New York City gay club Splash used to play clips of Grayson Hall’s camptastic performance as Dr. Julia Hoffman.

“Dark Shadows” was taped live. As with theater, anything could and did go wrong. That means the series is occasionally a Schadenfreude parade of microphone shadows, flubbed lines and my favorite: exposed stagehands. (The invaluable “Dark Shadows” wiki keeps track of bloopers and continuity errors.) It’s fascinating to see how the TV sausage was made when there was no stopping and no C.G.I. to clean up a mess.

Many cast members came from theater, so they were used to recovering after flubbing their lines. But my God, there’s nothing more thrilling than seeing the great Joan Bennett, a treasure from Hollywood’s Golden Age, look at another actor with eyes that whisper: I have no idea what to say next.

Sometimes “Dark Shadows” is messy and unpolished. That’s human, and that’s a comfort.

Watch it on Tubi or Amazon Prime Video. If you want only the Barnabas part of the series, which is most of it, look for “Dark Shadows”; pre-Barnabas episodes are found online as “Dark Shadows: The Beginning.”


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