Imagine a TV show bringing on a random character for a few episodes, and then having that guest character become the star of the show.
Sure, it sort of happened with Urkel on Family Matters, but in the realm of classic sci-fi horror, the most interesting takeover of a TV series is the moment when a one-off vampire accidentally became the immortal focus of a gothic soap opera — one that you can watch online for free, right now.
You may have heard of Dark Shadows, and you might remember that trash Johnny Depp movie version from 2012. Please forget it! The original sci-fi/horror TV series Dark Shadows ran from 1966 to 1971, and because it was a soap opera, it was on every single weekday.
What exactly is Dark Shadows, though? The short answer is that it is not actually about a vampire, even though a very famous vampire — Barnabas Collins (Jonathan Frid) — eventually became the focus of the series.
Originally, Dark Shadows was designed to be a creepy soap opera about the spooky Collins family, as initially told from the perspective of Victoria Winters. At the start of the show, Winters travels to the fictional town of Collinsport, Maine to be a live-in nanny. Why she was hired is a mystery, but she soon learns that something about her family’s past is connected to this place.
For an entire season, Dark Shadows was nothing more than a series of slow-burn “hey is that a ghost?” style mysteries. The ratings of the show sagged until series producer Dan Curtis and writer Joseph Caldwell decided to cook up a guest character to increase the ratings: An ancient member of the Collins family, the 200-year-old vampire Barnabas Collins.
But once Barnabas was introduced, he was way too popular to be written out. Not exactly a surprise, of course. After all, once you invite a vampire into your soap opera, you can’t just write that vampire out.
How Dark Shadows changed the vampire genre forever
Back in 2013, I was lucky enough to chat with Joseph Caldwell, one of the Dark Shadows writers who helped bring Jonathan Frid’s Barnabas to life. Caldwell confirmed that the original plan for the character of Barnabas Collins was only supposed to last one summer season. If you watch the first season of Dark Shadows, you won’t find Barnabas Collins. He doesn’t appear until the 10th episode of Season 2, in 1967, and then, at the end of that episode, it’s only his hand.
“The teenagers went nuts when we brought Jonathan on,” Caldwell told me. “That’s when the show took off.” Caldwell and many others have attributed the popularity of Barnabas Collins to one specific character trait: He was a reluctant vampire, thus making him a sympathetic anti-hero, rather than a melodramatic part-time villain.
“Here we have a guy who is compelled by his nature to do what he has to do, to kill people, but he doesn’t like it,” Caldwell said. “He doesn’t want to do it. But he needs it.”
The idea of a good vampire who feels bad about his bloodsucking is commonplace today. From Twilight to aspects of the Buffy-verse to Only Lovers Left Alive to the fantastically funny What We Do in the Shadows, the sympathetic vampire is almost more commonplace than the villainous kind. This isn’t to say Dark Shadows invented this concept, but the massive popularity of Barnabas Collins on a daytime soap opera popularized the notion of morally complex vampires, resulting in a paradigm shift in pop culture that’s never really swung back the other way.
Dark Shadows turned the wicked bloodsucking bats into real people, and, for the culture at large, it was impossible to turn them back.
How Dark Shadows made time travel paradoxes mainstream
Dark Shadows also challenged its daytime soap opera crowd with some hardcore sci-fi tropes, too.
Just as casually as the non-vampire show introduced Barnabas, in 1968, Dark Shadows busted out time travel! In a storyline straight from Outlander, Victoria is sent back to 1795, in which she becomes the governess for the family at that time and meets the immortal Barnabas, but in his past. Back at the start of the show, Victoria feels some connection to a woman who killed herself in Collinsport, centuries before. Now, it turns out, she’s become that person, Quantum Leap style.
This retroactively made the inception of the series a pre-destination paradox in which Victoria was always supposed to go to Collinsport so she could go back in time and briefly become someone else. Because she’s from the future and has knowledge of future events, everybody in 1795 considers her to be a witch.
For 1968 daytime TV, this was pretty wild stuff. Instead of having someone just be magic because they’re a witch, Dark Shadows said, well, what if some of those persecuted witches were really just displaced time-travelers? How about that?
No need for time travel to check out the series. Right now, Dark Shadows is streaming for free on Pluto TV. The entire show is not on Pluto, but that’s okay because things only really get good when Barnabas shows up. “Season 1” on Pluto will actually start you with Episode 210, which is when the Barnabas storyline begins. You can find Dark Shadows on Pluto TV under the SciFi + Fantasy, which is way down when you scroll through the “On Demand” channels. It’s also streaming for free on Tubi.