'Dark Shadows': The Birth Of The Modern TV Vampire When it comes to monsters on television, vampires have the market cornered. And so popular are TV vampires that opening this weekend is a movie based on the grand-sire of all vampire TV shows: Dark Shadows. Elizabeth Blair takes a look at the evolution of a TV character that will never die.

'Dark Shadows': The Birth Of The Modern TV Vampire

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When it comes to monsters on television, vampires seem to have the market cornered. I mean think about it: "True Blood," "Vampire Diaries," "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." TV vampires are so popular, this weekend comes a new movie inspired by one. "Dark Shadows" aired on ABC in the late 1960s and early '70s. Now it's gone to the big screen.

NPR's Elizabeth Blair takes a look at a TV genre that will never die.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: Mark Dawidziak says his fascination with vampires began watching TV when he was seven years old.


BLAIR: He was watching Bela Lugosi play Dracula in an old Abbott and Costello movie.


BELA LUGOSI: (as Count Dracula) What we need today is young blood and brains.

MARK DAWIDZIAK: It was almost like a hand grabbing me by the throat and it wouldn't let me go.

BLAIR: Vampires still have a hold on Dawidziak. He's written books about them and even teaches a class about vampires on film and television at Kent State University.

DAWIDZIAK: The great innovations, as far as vampire characters go, always have come from either the printed page or television. Television has contributed as much, if not more, than movies ever have.

BLAIR: So let's do a little TV vampire hunting through the decades. They've been in comedies like "The Munsters."


AL LEWIS: (as Grandpa) Herman, please. I asked you never to pound stakes when I'm around. You know it gives me heartburn.

BLAIR: On "Sesame Street."


JERRY NELSON: (As Count Von Count) ...four, five...

BLAIR: And in sexy, night-time dramas like "True Blood."


ANNA PAQUIN: (as Sookie Stackhouse) I'm not a total fool.

STEPHEN MOYER: (Bill Compton) Oh, but you have other very juicy arteries.

SETH GRAHAME-SMITH: It's a fascination with the idea of living forever.

BLAIR: Seth Grahame-Smith wrote the screenplay to the new "Dark Shadows" movie and to another movie opening this summer, based on his novel "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter."

GRAHAME-SMITH: We all know that someday our lives are going to end and we're going to miss what comes after that. Vampires, they don't have that problem. Depending on, you know, what interpretation of vampires you're talking about, they also can't go to the beach and enjoy a sunny day. But, you know, it seems a fair trade for eternal life.

BLAIR: And with eternal life comes almost unlimited powers - and ratings.


BLAIR: Crashing waves on a rocky coastline marked the beginning of another episode of "Dark Shadows." From 1966 to 1971, it aired live every weekday afternoon on ABC.


ALEXANDRA ISLES: (as Victoria Winters) My name is Victoria Winters...

BLAIR: Pretty, young Victoria winters is the governess for the wealthy Collins family in their creepy old mansion on the Maine coast. At first the supernatural elements on the show were mostly suggested, not seen.

DAN CURTIS: And the show was going down the tubes....

BLAIR: That's the late Dan Curtis who created the series. In a special edition DVD, Curtis said that ABC was ready to cancel "Dark Shadows." He says his kids told him, At least make it scary. So with special effects, he introduced a ghost you could see.

CURTIS: From that moment, the ratings started to climb.

BLAIR: So he added more ghosts.

CURTIS: And they got higher and higher, the crazier we got.

BLAIR: So Curtis said, Let's add a vampire.


JONATHAN FRID: (as Barnabas Collins) If his ghost is here with yours, tell him I've come home. I claim this house as mine.

BLAIR: Wearing a cape and stiff as a board, Barnabas Collins was played by the late Jonathan Frid, who was not really a pretty boy like today's TV vampires.

KATHRYN LEIGH SCOTT: But housewives, college girls, everybody fell in love with him.

BLAIR: Kathryn Leigh Scott played Maggie Evans in the original TV show.


SCOTT: (as Maggie Evans) Wish the dogs would stop howling. They're beginning to make me nervous.

FRID: (as Barnabas Collins) Well, I've kept you long enough, Miss...

SCOTT: (as Maggie Evans) Oh, Evans. Maggie Evans.

FRID: (as Barnabas Collins) Evans?

SCOTT: It was amazing, because you can't imagine the mail he got. Some of it, pretty erotic.

BLAIR: Jonathan Frid's Barnabas Collins was so popular they couldn't drive a stake through his heart at the end of his 90-day contract, as originally planned. Instead, he became the star of "Dark Shadows."

Mark Dawidziak.

DAWIDZIAK: The genius of the Barnabas Collins character was that Barnabas is the first vampire who questions his own nature. Barnabas said, do I have to be like this?


FRID: (as Barnabas Collins) What have I become. How can I do things I do? Shall eternity be like this?

BLAIR: By giving Barnabas Collins a conscience and relationships, "Dark Shadows" opened up all kinds of possibilities, says Dawidziak.

DAWIDZIAK: And this is where vampire is going to become increasingly humanized, sexualized, sensualized. They're going to become younger. They're going to become more vital.

BLAIR: More than four decades later, just about every vampire on TV still owes a debt to "Dark Shadows," right down to "The Vampire Diaries" on the CW.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Why do you always have to prove you're the alpha male?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I don't have to prove anything, love. I am the alpha male. Come on and dance. I won't bite.

BLAIR: "The Vampire Diaries" is a gothic soap opera similar to "Dark Shadows," but with two big differences: much better production values and the vampires are mostly teenagers. The show's co-creator Julie Plec says the coming-of-age idea is something they got from another TV show, "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," created by Joss Whedon.

JULIE PLEC: Joss Whedon sort of gets the super gold star for the high-school-is hell allegory, and that was the beauty of "Buffy The Vampire Slayer."


DAVID BOREANAZ: (as Angel) But this can't...

SARAH MICHELLE GELLAR: (as Buffy Summers) Ever be anything. I know. For one thing, you're like 224 years older than I am.

BOREANAZ: (as Angel) I just got to - got to walk away from this.

GELLAR: (as Buffy Summers) I know.

PLEC: This idea that the worst thing that happens is that you finally give up your virginity to your one true love, and the next day he turns into an evil, murderous-side of vampire.

BLAIR: Right, but all of these contemporary vampires would not exist without Jonathan Frid's Barnabas Collins, says actress Kathryn Leigh Scott.

SCOTT: I think they all emanate from him. He's the granddaddy of all of them.

BLAIR: Jonathan Frid died in April. But he and Kathryn Leigh Scott and other actors from the "Dark Shadows" TV show have cameos in the new movie. Johnny Depp - who was a fan of the original - plays Barnabas Collins. And like the original, his Barnabas apologizes before sucking people's blood.

Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.


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