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DARK SHADOWS: Still Vampy After All These Years

Like the undead vampire Barnabas Collins, the appeal of the show lives eternal.

By Denise Dumars     October 09, 2000

Almost 35 years after its debut, TV's Dark Shadows continues to hold an appeal for countless devotees. The strange soap opera, originally imagined as a gothic romance called Shadows on the Wall, evolved into a horror fan's delight as it ran through a host of supernatural creatures: vampires, witches, ghosts, werewolves, and many others. Dark Shadows (or DS, in fan shorthand) featured both up-and-coming actors and Hollywood veterans such as Joan Bennett, who played Elizabeth Collins Stoddard, the Collins family matriarch. But it's biggest attraction was the enormously popular reluctant vampire, Barnabas Collins, portrayed by the darkly handsome Canadian actor Jonathan Frid during the original run from 1966 to 1971, with Ben Cross taking over the roll during the brief-lived 1991 revival.

Susan Dolen, a theatre professor from the East Coast, was not an original DS fan. In fact, she only discovered the show two years ago on the Sci FI channel. 'I was attracted to its theatricality,' she says. 'The staging, the costumes, the whole thing is just so wonderful.' It just goes to show: even if you haven't seen DS before, it's not too late to start now! (The airs on the Sci-Fi channel Monday through Friday at 10:00AM Eastern time.)

Lara Parker, like the evil witch Angelique whom she portrayed on the original series, seems to transcend time. She is as beautiful now as she was in 1967. Her current project is the second DS tie-in novel she's written, which will begin in 1972, the year after DS went off the air. Her first novel, Angelique's Descent, was published by HarperCollins in 1998. In 1999 it was followed by Dreams of the Dark, a DS novel co-authored by Stephen Mark Rainey and Elizabeth Massie. Parker's latest novel would be the third such book, attesting to the continued popularity of the series.

During the recent Dark Shadows Festival, at the Airport Marriott Hotel in Los Angeles, Parker told fans that her new novel would have Barnabas cured of vampirism. 'It's about his descent again into vampirism, because the fans like him best that way. Now, what were people doing in 1972?' she asked, taking a hit off an imaginary joint. 'I think it would be interesting to see Barnabas tripping. I mean, what if you got high and thought you could fly, and you really could? The book will also take place in Salem in 1692. It'll be a lot about witches. If anyone has any ideas they'd like immortalized into print, let me know...' She was not kidding. Both Marcy Robin and Kathy Resch, publishers of fanzines ShadowGram and The World of Dark Shadows, respectively, submitted story ideas that were incorporated into her previous novel.

Of getting the role, she explained, 'My first audition scene was with Jonathan Frid. He was very encouraging; he said he hoped I'd get the part. Then he turned to me after the scene was over and said, 'Well, you know, this is the part of a witch.' So I looked at the camera, and gave it a zinger with my eyes and thought evil thoughts. I think that's what got me the part.' Parker's role was so famous that she was invited on the Tonight Show: 'I bit Johnny Carson on the neck once He was really surprised!'

DS worked on a shoestring budget. 'It was my first professional job,' the actress recalled. 'I was very young and very scared. It was very stressful. We made a lot of mistakes: flies landed on people's noses; the microphone appeared in the shot; gravestones fell over. And we had to go on. If you didn't move to the right place...oh well. We didn't do any editing or recutting. It was very expensive to edit in those days. We might as well have been live. But then, that's part of the charm of the show.

Kathryn Leigh Scott, who played Maggie Evans, the girl who resembled Barnabas Collins' lost love, Josette, is probably the third most popular actor on the show, after Frid and Parker. She has helped keep DS alive as well, through her own publishing company, Pomegranate Press, which has published numerous books on movies and television but is best known for such books as My Scrapbook Memories of Dark Shadows; Dark Shadows Almanac, 30th Anniversary Edition; the Dark Shadows Companion; and more. Her best-known publication, however, may well be The Bunny Years, a book of recollections by herself and others such as Susan Sullivan, Gloria Steinem, and Lauren Hutton, all of whom worked as Playboy Bunnies in the 1960s. The book was adapted into a documentary that aired on A&E.

'I was a Bunny when I was 19 years old and was attending the Academy of Dramatic Arts, and I kept my Bunny job for awhile after I was hired to play Maggie Evans,' she tells me. 'I mean, I didn't know that the job would last. So I worked on DS Monday through Friday, and was still working on weekends at the Playboy Club in New York City. I'd been on DS for about a month, and two women came into the club. I went to wait on them, and they said, 'What is Maggie Evans doing working at the Playboy Club?' That's when I quit my Bunny job,' she laughs.

She compares the DS phenomenon to that of another long-lived genre franchise, Star Trek. 'Gene Roddenberry is a genius like Dan Curtis,' she says, implying which one she favors. 'How about that?' She says that The Bunny Years has now been bought by Touchstone for development as a feature film. She'll also be issuing a new book for the 35th anniversary of DS in 2001, at which time the Festival, which switches coasts each year, will take place in New York.

The question I keep asking is, 'What gives Dark Shadows this enduring quality? How does its fan base manage to continue in the face of shows that are far more sophisticated in production values, among other things?'

'I really think it's because there's something magical about the casting to begin with. It's something about the way we all worked together,' says Kathryn Leigh Scott. 'More than that, I think that it's because Dan Curtis drew on classic literature for the inspiration for the storylinesrom Melville to Henry James to the Bible. I think the stories were endearing to children as well as adults.'

Marcy Robin, who publishes the fanzine ShadowGram, answers my standard question. 'I love the original series and the two movie spinoffs. The fan phenomenon is like every other one: something attracts people to that particular show, and they want to get together and share their enjoyment with other fans,' she says. 'People mention the time travel elements, the sets, the costumes, the lush feel of it. Not only was it a place you could escape to, but they also did all this very exciting supernatural stuff. It was like nothing else on TV, especially daytime TV.'

Regarding ShadowGram, she explains that 'it was begun in 1979 and has been published consistently since then and is the official Dark Shadows newsletter and news source. I get all my info directly from the cast and crew of DS, both series, Dan Curtis Productions and other media sources. ShadowGram informs fans about what the cast and crew are doing today. It expands DS far beyond just watching the show.'

Kathleen Resch, publisher of The World of Dark Shadows, says that she started work on the 'zine in 1975. 'What's always interested me are the imaginative people who are into DS and are moved to create fan fiction, fan art and explore the what-ifswhat happened after the series ended. Most fanzines are either all fiction or all non-fiction. I've always published a lot of both, including fan fiction and interviews with the DS actors. I publish trivia, news, speculations on the show's storylines, etc.,' she says.

As for the show's continuing appeal, she says: 'To me personally, it was the combination of the horror and the soap opera elements, which allowed for continuing characters and in-depth explorations of them. Combining the two elements was a brilliant move, and I think that's what's created this enduring fascination.' Resch was also struck by the idea of Barnabas Collins, a vampire with a consciencea new idea at the time, which has become almost de rigueur in subsequent vampire fiction and films.

For whatever reasons, Dark Shadows lives on, like the eternal undead at the heart of its story...

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