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  • Writer's pictureAugust Sorenson

Unveiling the Mystique: The Academy's Journey Through 'Dark Shadows'

Updated: Oct 31, 2023

As we approach Halloween, let’s take a look at Dark Shadows, a beloved gothic soap opera from the 1960s. When it comes to things that go bump in the night, there was no shortage of spookiness in the series. The first of its kind, Dark Shadows, sparked a media franchise and influenced media for decades to come. Throughout this, Academy alumni starred in various roles and sizes.

Below, find a brief chronicle of the series.

Launched in the 1960s, Dark Shadows was a soap opera unlike anything before or since. With gothic aesthetics, time travel, and nearly every horror trope in the book, the original series amassed a cult following. With this lasting fanbase, its cultural impacts of Dark Shadows are clear: soaps have since toyed with time-travel and fantastical elements, and sci-fi/fantasy projects have cited Dark Shadows as an inspiration. The original series ran for 1,225 episodes, spawning a media franchise to include a House of Dark Shadows, a feature film released in 1970, followed by Night of Dark Shadows the following year, a 1991 for-television remake, a 2004 pilot episode, Tim Burton’s 2012 film starring Johnny Depp and returning cast members, and enough spin-off novels and comics to fill Collinwood Mansion.

The show’s inception was appropriately supernatural: the initial spark came to show creator Dan Curtis in a dream where he imagined a young woman on a mysterious train. After a pitch to ABC and a quick greenlight, this would serve as the opening of the series. This part was essential to the series; Curtis got to work seeking an actress who could bring a certain innocence to the part. Despite minimal experience, Alexandra Moltke was selected for the role of Victoria Winters, the orphan who travels to Collinsport, providing the inciting incident for the series. Nearly half a dozen Past Students from The Academy would join the original run of the beloved series.

Kathryn Leigh Scott, Photo Credit: ABC Photo Archives via Getty

Even with a one-of-a-kind aesthetic and gripping storyline, the series limped along initially. “We were almost canceled,” recalls Kathryn Leigh Scott (‘64), who starred in four roles (including Maggie Evans) across more than 300 episodes of the series. In June of the 1966-1967 season, the series ranked 13 out of 18 soaps. The remainder of the year was more tumultuous for soaps; by December, only 13 remained on the air, with Dark Shadows still in the number 13 slot. When ABC threatened to pull the plug, Dan Curtis whipped up Barnabas Collins, a 175 year-old-vampire. Classical actor Jonathan Frid was cast in the part, bringing gravitas to the undead ghoul. Audiences were hooked instantly. Kathryn Leigh Scott would portray the character’s love interest, Josette du Pres, during 18th-century flashbacks, and in the present-day, Barnabas would become smitten with Scott’s role of Maggie Evans for her resemblance to Josette.

Scott & John Karlen, Photo Credit: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer via Getty

Alumnus John Karlen’s (‘58) character, Willie Loomis, was responsible for unleashing Barnabas on the modern world. While searching for the family’s riches, Willie stumbles upon the coffin encasing Barnabas. Driven by greed, he opens the tomb, inciting events that would forever alter the franchise. Karlen would star in 182 episodes of the series in numerous roles but was largely absent from the show’s final beats. In Night of Dark Shadows, released in 1971, Karlen would return to the franchise alongside original cast members.

The Barnabas plotline was just one of many the series became known for. Unsurprisingly, storylines were one of the series’ strong suits; it pulled extensively from classic literature. “We borrowed from the best literature…working as a governance for the eccentric family on the hill, that’s all Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, The Picture of Dorian Gray,” recounts Kathryn Leigh Scott. With no shortage of inspiration and a creative team willing to push boundaries, 21 storylines would emerge. New characters were required to fill the ranks and keep up with constant narrative expansion.

In its final season, Dark Shadows would add Daphne Harridge, a 19th-century governess whose spirit haunts present-day Collinwood Mansion. Alumna Kate Jackson (‘70) would land the role, starring in 71 episodes as the original series came to a close. Jackson’s work with the franchise wouldn’t end there; she would star as Tracy Collins in Night of Dark Shadows.

There were truly no small parts in Dark Shadows. The ensemble-driven show required the many parts to be fleshed out and magnetic from day one. Alumnus Conrad Bain (‘48) starred in the fourth and eleventh (and two later) episodes of the series as Mr. Wells, a hotel clerk and fountain of gossip in town–so long as he’s adequately compensated. Past Student Elizabeth Wilson (ST) would play the role of Mrs. Hopewell in the first and eighth episodes of the series.

Since its first airing nearly six decades ago, Dark Shadows has seen a far-reaching cultural impact. It revolutionized the possibilities of the soap opera genre, bringing classical elements and a sense of horror to five years of television. Throughout this time, a constant presence of Academy alumni and past students anchored the show. Kathryn Leigh Scott remembers it well, “the kind of training that we had made it possible…to do that kind of costume drama.” As we look at the franchise’s continued future, she reflects, “...perhaps this is the year for Dark Shadows.”

For further insight, read an exclusive interview with Kathryn Leigh Scott here.

On Thursday, October 12th, 2023, Dark Shadows cast member Lara Parker passed away in her home. She was 84.


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