It is unknown what exactly the reasons were as to why the original series of Dark Shadows was cancelled in April 1971. The show’s demise is highly likely to be attributed to an unfortunate combination of several factors. This page looks at some of the reasons that may have led to its cancellation:
The program experienced a precipitous drop in its ratings during its last two years on the air. A book about the various works of Dan Curtis written by Jeff Thompson titled ‘The Televison Horrors of Dan Curtis’ gives the following information as to the show’s viewing figures:
- “After the record-high ratings of 1897 saga, the ratings began dropping significantly. The viewership fell from 18 million during the 1897 saga [February to November 1969] to 16 million during the Leviathan storyline and the 1970 Parallel Time period [November 1969 to July 1970] and finally to 12 million during the 1840 and 1841 Parallel Time plotlines [July 1970 to April 1971].”
Although 12 million viewers was still a respectable figure for daytime programming in 1971, this steady decline may have been seen as sign that the show was well past it peak in popularity.
The show was very popular with a young audience. Practically no other daytime show audience skewed so much under the 18–35 demographic threshold as Dark Shadows did. This young demographic wasn’t seen as important as it is today seemingly lacking the purchasing power that advertisers were after. This audience generally did not make decisions about the purchasing of household goods and food products for the family, which were the two chief industries that bought airtime on daytime television in that era.
By early 1971, ABC was trying to cut costs in the face of harsh new economic realities including a national economic recession, a sharp dip in advertising revenue following the U.S. government's recent ban on cigarette commercials, and a record-high number of competing soap operas, which were more expensive to produce than game or talk shows, on the networks' daytime schedules. Thus the network began weeding out supposedly unproductive programming. Despite its relatively high station clearances for its timeslot and low production costs the show may have fallen foul to cost cutting measures. The fact that Dark Shadows was replaced in its timeslot by the game show Password certainly gives credence to this theory.
Compared to many of it contemporaries of the time the show was densely plotted and relatively quick moving. This made it harder for casual viewers, who may only watch a couple of episode a week, to follow what was going on. Writer Joe Caldwell, who did two separate writing stints on the show, commented in an interview, included in the Dark Shadows DVD Collection, that towards the end of the show’s run that there was a tendency to speed through storylines too quickly aliening casual viewers:
- “ I came back when the show was doing Parallel Time [April 1970] and I thought that we lost something, that human element that people could identify with and that we chewed up plot too fast and we didn’t go deeper into the characters. Something was lost toward the end of the last year that proved to be fatal.”
Writing for the website DVD Talk, Bill Gibron expands upon this theory:
- “What Dark Shadows did best originally was the full realization of storylines. Quentin's werewolf escapades lasted for weeks, and when Collinwood was haunted by his vengeful spirit, there were literally dozens of episodes involving ghosts and ethereal dealings. By 1970, the desire to deliver and move on had apparently gotten so bad that something potentially evil and enduring – Stiles sends zombies after Barnabas and Julia as part of his plan to destroy the Collins' estate – lasts only a single show. Dark Shadows newfound short attention span condemned it to an early grave. A soap is only as good as its continuing storylines.”
Absence of Barnabas
The introduction of guilt-ridden vampire Barnabas Collins a year into the shows run had made it hugely popular and a ratings success. The character was to many of the audience the central appeal of the show. During the shows the final year on air Jonathan Frid was getting fed up with playing Barnabas and made it known to the production team that if he was to remain with the show he would need to be given another character that had different motivations to play. Not waiting to lose Frid from the cast the production team allowed him to instead play Barnabas’ son Bramwell Collins as part of an alternate universe storyline. This final storyline known commonly as ‘1841 in Parallel Time’ returned the show to its brooding gothic romantic roots focusing more on traditional soap opera devices that had used at the beginning of it run. With the absence of Barnabas the show lacked the very thing that had given it its mass appeal in the first place. As such many viewers may have lost interest, arguably hastening its cancellation some three months later.
Lack of new ideas
The shows dependence on storylines from classic gothic novels was perhaps it’s greatest strength as well as its biggest weakness as there are only so many traditionally popular gothic texts to plunder. By the end of the shows run it had gone through every major gothic trope, ghosts, vampires, witches, werewolves, Frankenstein-like creatures and apart from repeating these elements there was seemingly few other directions to take the show in. A biography on actress Grayson Hall written by R. J. Jamison titled 'A Hard Act to Follow’ gives credence to the idea that the writers were running out of new places to take the show in:
- “When Dark Shadows was waning in popularity and ratings, [writer] Sam Hall and [producer] Bob Costello suggested to [creator, Dan] Curtis that they could continue the vampiric conflict [which had made the show so popular]… by simply killing off the one person who knew everything, Dr. Julia Hoffman. Then they could begin again with the “discovery” of the vampire and his secrets. Curtis adamantly refused.”
The character of Julia Hoffman was highly popular with viewers and Dan Curtis felt it would have been a mistake to replace her. During the shows final year on air another sign that the writers were starting to overly repeat themselves was most notably apparent with a second ‘adaption’ of Henry James gothic novel ‘The Turn of the Screw ’. This storyline played out much the same way as it had done the first time the text was used for inspiration except this time with the character of Gerard Stiles in place of Quentin Collins. This also had the same effect as before of leading the shows narrative into another storyline set during the 19th Century. There were also plans for Diana Millay to return for a third stint as the Phoenix, a supernatural character that had helped the show gain popularity in it early days, had the show continued past April 1971. One of the show’s most prolific writers Sam Hall admitted in an interview, included in the Dark Shadows DVD Collection, that:
- “We stole things right and left from the horror classics and I only wish [prolific horror and suspense writer] Stephen King had been operating then because he could have kept the show going for a 100 years.”
- See Also: List of works used in Dark Shadows
The ‘Leviathan’ storyline
A storyline based on H. P Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos known commonly as ‘The Leviathans’ is often cited as one of the reasons for the show’s decline in popularity. Writing for the website DVD Verdict, Brett Cullum explains:
- “The problem was that Lovecraft's work is often about mood and psychological terror, and Dark Shadows had to reach and stretch to even get close to what [the writers] were envisioning. They had to find new ways to approach the show, and began experimenting with absurd dream sequences and dark character arcs that made mincemeat out of beloved cast members. Once the ratings began to slip, the writers and producers took an "everything and the kitchen sink" approach that fractured the story into strange directions.”
Jeff Thompson writing in his book ‘The Television Horrors of Dan Curtis’ adds:
- “The ‘Leviathan’ storyline proved to be a thematic misstep for the show and one from which it never recovered… fans tended to dislike the portrayal of Barnabas as the pawn of some greater power. They proved to be more interested in the archetypes of classic horror, the vampire, the witch, the werewolf than in off-camera suggestion.
House of Dark Shadows
During the show’s final year on air the film House of Dark Shadows was released in cinemas. Based on the first Barnabas Collins storyline, the film is far more graphically violent than its television counterpart, with dripping vampire bites and bloody deaths. This may have sent out the wrong message as to the tone of the show, causing parents who accompanied their children to see the film version to stop their offspring from watching the comparatively tame television version out of fear that it would be just as violent. As Dark Shadows was very popular with young people, this misapprehension caused by the film may have contributed to the significant drop in ratings that occurred around this time.
Decline in popularity of genre shows
Several primetime shows and movies with horror and/or science fiction themes that had also been highly popular during the late sixties such Star Trek and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. had been on the decline for some time, and Dark Shadows appealed heavily to fanciers of those genres, people who usually turned their noses up at the often sentimental domestic or romantic themes that traditional soaps had relied on since their inception on radio in the 1930’s.
Series creator Dan Curtis is often cited as being the major driving force upon the direction the various storylines would take. In an interview included in the Dark Shadows DVD Collection, writer Sam Hall spoke about the importance of Curtis’s role in the success of the show:
- “Dark Shadows would have ended after the first week without Dan’s story input, one learned much more from him than any of the books he brought us to read. He was an inspiring man to work for.”
Curtis himself has spoke in an interview, also included in the Dark Shadows DVD Collection, about the show’s demise:
- “I didn’t know what else I was going to do, I couldn’t think of another idea and I was becoming very disenchanted right along with the audience. People didn’t see a lot of me during that last six months of the show. I was just hoping it was going to end. I couldn’t squeeze my brain any harder to come up with just one more story. I just wanted to move on and out.”
Without Dan Curtis at the helm the show ended up somewhat directionless and this may have been a strong contributing factor towards its cancellation.
- ‘The Television Horrors of Dan Curtis: Dark Shadows, The Night Stalker and Other Productions, 1966-2006’, Jeff Thompson, March 13, 2009, McFarland.
- ‘Grayson Hall: A Hard Act to Follow’, R. J. Jamison, August 7, 2006, iUniverse, Inc.
- ‘TV Milestones: Dark Shadows’, Harry M. Benshoff, March 15, 2011, Wayne State University Press.
- Dark Shadows DVD Collection: Volumes 4, 16, 20, 22; 2003-2006, MPI Home Video
- DVD Talk, ‘Dark Shadows DVD Collection 23 Review’, Bill Gibron, March 28, 2006. URL: http://www.dvdtalk.com/reviews/21170/dark-shadows-dvd-collection-23/
- DVD Verdict, ‘Dark Shadows DVD Collection 18 Review’, Brett Cullum, May 4, 2005. URL: http://www.dvdverdict.com/reviews/darkshadows18.php