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14 Dark Shadows Facts With Bite

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Nearly 50 years after its debut, there’s still never been a television series quite like Dark Shadows. The ABC daytime soap opera, which aired from 1966 to 1971, was a charmingly under-budgeted Gothic melodrama about a spooky seaside town in Maine that blended the supernatural (werewolves, witchcraft, and zombies) with parallel universes and time travel; angst-ridden vampire Barnabas Collins (Jonathan Frid) emerged as the show’s breakout star. General Hospital it wasn’t.

Usually airing in late afternoons, Dark Shadows acquired a large teenage fanbase, with some of its frilly-collared actors appearing in the pages of Tiger Beat, and an even larger cult following. If this all sounds peculiar, you don’t know the half of it. Take a look at the show’s humble special effects attempts, Frid’s forced dates, and how Joseph Gordon-Levitt figures into all of this.  

1. BARNABAS COLLINS WAS AN AFTERTHOUGHT.

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Creator Dan Curtis—who would later conceive of The X-Files predecessor Kolchak: The Night Stalker and the classic TV movie Trilogy of Terror—originally had in mind a dramatic series about the strange residents of Collinsport, Maine, as viewed from the perspective of newly-arrived governess Victoria Winters. Though mystical elements—like ghosts—were present, they were subtle and slow to materialize. When the show premiered June 27, 1966, viewers found its characters as impenetrable as Winters did; Variety called it a “yawn.”

Hoping to improve ratings with a classic horror movie trope—a vampire—Curtis introduced Collins, a brooding bloodsucker tortured by his condition. Originally intended to be a fleeting character who would be staked in the heart after a three-week run, he became so popular with viewers (ratings saw a 62 percent increase) that the show was saved from the guillotine.

2. THE SPECIAL EFFECTS CONSISTED OF SARAN WRAP AND VASELINE.

With a roughly $70,000 budget to shoot its five weekly episodes, Dark Shadows had to approach its special effects conservatively. Camera operator Stuart Goodman found that covering his lens with plastic wrap and then dabbing Vaseline at the edges to create a hazy, dreamlike visual was surprisingly effective. To emulate actors being trapped in a blaze, Goodman would simply put a bucket in front of himself and light it on fire.

3. THERE WAS NO TIME TO GO BACK AND FIX MISTAKES.

Despite its lofty ambitions, sprawling stories and camera tricks, Dark Shadows had to maintain a standard soap schedule that allowed episodes to air daily. Because of the compressed production, actor flubs, focus mistakes, and other gaffes that would normally be re-shot had to remain in the show. Viewers would occasionally see performers read the wrong lines or see a crew member wander into shots. Actress Kate Jackson was wearing a dress that caught fire by accident: She finished her scene before being put out. Most notably, Frid was caught picking his nose when he thought he was off-camera.

4. VIEWERS COULD WIN A DATE WITH JONATHAN FRID.

Despite his questionable manners, Frid quickly became the Robert Pattinson of his day. (In his early 40s and uncomfortable in front of cameras, Frid never expected to find himself the subject of viewer crushes. Too bad a tragic vampire is irresistible.) He was bombarded with requests for personal appearances. He was once invited to a Halloween party at the White House (in character) and judged a Miss American Vampire beauty contest, with the winner earning a small role in the show. Poor Frid was also subject to promotional stunts like magazines promising a date with him. “Yes, ladies,” read TV Radio Talk copy, “finally, your fondest nightmares can come true … you will indulge in a long, eerie candlelit dinner at one of the city’s finer haunts, escorted by none other than … that delicious vampire.”   

5. FRID KNEW THE WHOLE THING WAS A LITTLE DUBIOUS.

No one on Dark Shadows had any illusions that the show’s camp nature, on-the-nose dialogue, and suspect production values were elevating television. Frid was especially candid about its shortcomings. “It’s the worst acting I’ve ever done,” he told The Montreal Gazette in 1969. “I blink too much, I’m not sharp or fast enough, I don’t have enough time to learn my lines … I can’t get angry with people who find the whole thing ridiculous because the scripts are ridiculous, the dialogue is absurd.”

6. BARNABAS DIDN’T TALK MUCH WHILE FANGED.

Dampened vocally by the fangs he had to wear, Frid also told the Gazette of some production trickery: Collins was rarely filmed talking in them. “My words come out slushy when I wear them, so they have to cut away from me when I talk,” he said. Frid would spit out the fangs, deliver the dialogue, then stuff them back in when the camera returned to him.

7. IT WAS ABC’S FIRST COLOR SOAP.

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Though soaps had experimented with color before, Dark Shadows became the first daytime serial on ABC to switch to the format in 1967. (It had spent its first year in black and white.)

8. THERE’S A MISSING EPISODE.

With an unforgiving daily schedule, Dark Shadows produced 1225 episodes during its five-year run. Incredibly, 1224 of them survived. Episode 1219 was discovered to be “missing” when a home video release was being put together. To reconstruct it, an audio recording from a fan was used along with production stills.   

9. IT WAS REPLACED BY PASSWORD.

The daily percussion of intricate stories involving monsters and alternate universes eventually wore on both audiences and creators: Curtis wished to move on from the show and was unwilling to cede control to another producer, and ABC was less than satisfied with declining ratings. Dark Shadows ended on April 2, 1971, and was replaced with a new version of the game show Password.

10. IT’S THE ONLY SOAP TO SPAWN THREE FEATURE FILMS.

It’s a testament to Dark Shadows' rabid following that the series birthed two feature films with the original cast—virtually unheard of for a soap opera of any era. Curtis directed 1970’s House of Dark Shadows, which covered much of the same ground as the series but morphed Collins into more of an antagonist. While a feature budget meant actors actually had the privilege of doing more than one take, reviews were mixed.

After the series ended in 1971, Curtis wanted to continue the story with another film. Night of Dark Shadows was released that same year, but Frid declined to participate. Curtis opted for more of a haunted house theme instead, with the show’s cast popping up in different roles. It’s been alleged MGM cut 30 minutes from the finished film, obliterating some plot and character details. In its released form, reviewers found it “dull,” “monotonous,” and “a bore.” (Tim Burton's 2012 feature, starring Johnny Depp as Collins, didn't fare much better.)

11. JOSEPH GORDON-LEVITT APPEARED IN THE REVIVAL.

Having been largely dormant since going off the air, Dark Shadows was reintroduced to a contemporary audience in 1991. NBC ordered 13 episodes of the series that revived Barnabas (now portrayed by Ben Cross) and rebooted the spooky history of Collinwood Mansion. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, all of 10 years old, played David Collins. Ratings were modest, and the intensifying Gulf War only worsened viewership. The WB tried again in 2004, but the pilot never made it to air. It’s sometimes screened at fan conventions.

12. THERE WAS A COMIC STRIP.

Unlike most daytime soaps, the genre elements of Dark Shadows lent themselves to a variety of merchandising opportunities. Model kits, novels, and toys were in abundance. The series was also adapted into another serialized format: a comic strip ran from 1971 to 1972. Though it effectively picked up the property after the show had ended, it bore little relation. Of the characters, only Frid’s Barnabas was recognizable.   

13. BARNABAS MET KOLCHAK.

In a nod to Curtis’s two most popular fantasy series, Moonstone Publishing issued a Dark Shadows/Kolchak crossover comic book in 2009. Kolchak—a newspaper reporter with an affinity for supernatural cases—receives a letter from Barnabas inviting him to the opulent Collinwood Mansion. After Kolchak tries to murder him, the two have a friendly chat. Fans hoping for more of a confrontation were slightly disappointed.

14. FANS CAN OWN ALL 1225 EPISODES—ON VHS.

VCR enthusiasts of the 1980s will recall that Time-Life, Columbia House, and other videotape distributors would offer television series in their entirety, provided collectors had the money and shelf space to accommodate them. While this was a tricky enterprise even with a short-lived series like 1966’s Star Trek, it was almost unfathomable for Dark Shadows. Airing every weekday for five seasons, the series amassed 1225 half-hour episodes, which meant the entire library from video rights holder MPI needed a staggering 254 cassettes. In 2012, the company released it on DVD in a coffin-shaped collector’s case. It was a paltry 131 discs.

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Marvel Entertainment
10 Facts About Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian
Marvel Entertainment
Marvel Entertainment

Nearly every sword-wielding fantasy hero from the 20th century owes a tip of their horned helmet to Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian. Set in the fictional Hyborian Age, after the destruction of Atlantis but before our general recorded history, Conan's stories have depicted him as everything from a cunning thief to a noble king and all types of scoundrel in between. But beneath that blood-soaked sword and shield is a character that struck a nerve with generations of fantasy fans, spawning adaptations in comics, video games, movies, TV shows, and cartoons in the eight decades since he first appeared in the December 1932 issue of Weird Tales. So thank Crom, because here are 10 facts about Conan the Barbarian.

1. THE FIRST OFFICIAL CONAN STORY WAS A KULL REWRITE.

Conan wasn’t the only barbarian on Robert E. Howard’s resume. In 1929, the writer created Kull the Conqueror, a more “introspective” brand of savage that gained enough interest to eventually find his way onto the big screen in 1997. The two characters share more than just a common creator and a general disdain for shirts, though: the first Conan story to get published, “The Phoenix on the Sword,” was actually a rewrite of an earlier rejected Kull tale titled “By This Axe I Rule!” For this new take on the plot, Howard introduced supernatural elements and more action. The end result was more suited to what Weird Tales wanted, and it became the foundation for future Conan tales.

2. BUT A “PROTO-CONAN” STORY PRECEDED IT.

A few months before Conan made his debut in Weird Tales, Howard wrote a story called "People of the Dark" for Strange Tales of Mystery and Terror about a man named John O’Brien who seemed to relive his past life as a brutish, black-haired warrior named … Conan of the reavers. Reave is a word from Old English meaning to raid or plunder, which is obviously in the same ballpark as barbarian. And in the story, there is also a reference to Crom, the fictional god of the Hyborian age that later became a staple of the Conan mythology. This isn't the barbarian as we know him, and it's certainly not an official Conan tale, but the early ideas were there.

3. ROBERT E. HOWARD NEVER INTENDED TO WRITE THESE STORIES IN ORDER.

Howard was meticulous in his world-building for Conan, which was highlighted by his 8600-word history on the Hyborian Age the character lived in. But the one area the creator had no interest in was linearity. Conan’s first story depicted him already as a king; subsequent stories, though, would shift back and forth, chronicling his early days as both a thief and a youthful adventurer.

There’s good reason for that, as Howard himself once explained: “In writing these yarns I've always felt less as creating them than as if I were simply chronicling his adventures as he told them to me. That's why they skip about so much, without following a regular order. The average adventurer, telling tales of a wild life at random, seldom follows any ordered plan, but narrates episodes widely separated by space and years, as they occur to him.”

4. THERE ARE NUMEROUS CONNECTIONS TO THE H.P. LOVECRAFT MYTHOS.

For fans of the pulp magazines of the early 20th century, one of the only names bigger than Robert E. Howard was H.P. Lovecraft. The two weren’t competitors, though—rather, they were close friends and correspondents. They’d often mail each other drafts of their stories, discuss the themes of their work, and generally talk shop. And as Lovecraft’s own mythology was growing, it seems like their work began to bleed together.

In “The Phoenix on the Sword,” Howard made reference to “vast shadowy outlines of the Nameless Old Ones,” which could be seen as a reference to the ancient, godlike “Old Ones” from the Lovecraft mythos. In the book The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, editor Patrice Louinet even wrote that Howard’s earlier draft for the story name-dropped Lovecraft’s actual Old Ones, most notably Cthulhu.

In Lovecraft’s “The Shadow of Time,” he describes a character named Crom-Ya as a “Cimmerian chieftain,” which is a reference to Conan's homeland and god. These examples just scratch the surface of names, places, and concepts that the duo’s work share. Whether you want to read it all as a fun homage or an early attempt at a shared universe is up to you.

5. SEVERAL OF HOWARD’S STORIES WERE REWRITTEN AS CONAN STORIES POSTHUMOUSLY.

Howard was only 30 when he died, so there aren’t as many completed Conan stories out in the world as you’d imagine—and there are even less that were finished and officially printed. Despite that, the character’s popularity has only grown since the 1930s, and publishers looked for a way to print more of Howard’s Conan decades after his death. Over the years, writers and editors have gone back into Howard’s manuscripts for unfinished tales to doctor up and rewrite for publication, like "The Snout in the Dark," which was a fragment that was reworked by writers Lin Carter and L. Sprague de Camp. There were also times when Howard’s non-Conan drafts were repurposed as Conan stories by publishers, including all of the stories in 1955's Tales of Conan collection from Gnome Press.

6. FRANK FRAZETTA’S CONAN PAINTINGS REGULARLY SELL FOR SEVEN FIGURES.

Chances are, the image of Conan you have in your head right now owes a lot to artist Frank Frazetta: His version of the famous barbarian—complete with rippling muscles, pulsating veins, and copious amounts of sword swinging—would come to define the character for generations. But the look that people most associate with Conan didn’t come about until the character’s stories were reprinted decades after Robert E. Howard’s death.

“In 1966, Lancer Books published new paperbacks of Robert E. Howard's Conan series and hired my grandfather to do the cover art,” Sara Frazetta, Frazetta's granddaughter owner and operator of Frazetta Girls, tells Mental Floss. You could argue that Frazetta’s powerful covers were what drew most people to Conan during the '60s and '70s, and in recent years the collector’s market seems to validate that opinion. In 2012, the original painting for his Lancer version of Conan the Conqueror sold at auction for $1,000,000. Later, his Conan the Destroyer went for $1.5 million.

Still, despite all of Frazetta’s accomplishments, his granddaughter said there was one thing he always wanted: “His only regret was that he wished Robert E. Howard was alive so he could have seen what he did with his character.”

7. CONAN’S FIRST MARVEL COMIC WAS ALMOST CANCELED AFTER SEVEN ISSUES.

The cover to Marvel's Conan the Barbarian #21
Marvel Entertainment

Conan’s origins as a pulp magazine hero made him a natural fit for the medium’s logical evolution: the comic book. And in 1970, the character got his first high-profile comic launch when Marvel’s Conan The Barbarian hit shelves, courtesy of writer Roy Thomas and artist Barry Windsor-Smith.

Though now it’s hailed as one of the company’s highlights from the ‘70s, the book was nearly canceled after a mere seven issues. The problem is that while the debut issue sold well, each of the next six dropped in sales, leading Marvel’s then editor-in-chief, Stan Lee, to pull the book from production after the seventh issue hit stands.

Thomas pled his case, and Lee agreed to give Conan one last shot. But this time instead of the book coming out every month, it would be every two months. The plan worked, and soon sales were again on the rise and the book would stay in publication until 1993, again as a monthly. This success gave way to the Savage Sword of Conan, an oversized black-and-white spinoff magazine from Marvel that was aimed at adult audiences. It, too, was met with immense success, lasting from 1974 to 1995.

8. OLIVER STONE WROTE A FOUR-HOUR, POST-APOCALYPTIC CONAN MOVIE.

John Milius’s 1982 Conan movie is a classic of the sword and sorcery genre, but its original script from Oliver Stone didn’t resemble the final product at all. In fact, it barely resembled anything related to Conan. Stone’s Conan would have been set on a post-apocalyptic Earth, where the barbarian would do battle against a host of mutant pigs, insects, and hyenas. Not only that, but it would have also been just one part of a 12-film saga that would be modeled on the release schedule of the James Bond series.

The original producers were set to move ahead with Stone’s script with Stone co-directing alongside an up-and-coming special effects expert named Ridley Scott, but they were turned down by all of their prospects. With no co-director and a movie that would likely be too ambitious to ever actually get finished, they sold the rights to producer Dino De Laurentiis, who helped bring in Milius.

9. BARACK OBAMA IS A FAN (AND WAS TURNED INTO A BARBARIAN HIMSELF).

When President Barack Obama sent out a mass email in 2015 to the members of Organizing for Action, he was looking to get people to offer up stories about how they got involved within their community—their origin stories, if you will. In this mass email, the former Commander-in-Chief detailed his own origin, with a shout out to a certain barbarian:

“I grew up loving comic books. Back in the day, I was pretty into Conan the Barbarian and Spiderman.

Anyone who reads comics can tell you, every main character has an origin story—the fateful and usually unexpected sequence of events that made them who they are.”

This bit of trivia was first made public in 2008 in a Daily Telegraph article on 50 facts about the president. That led to Devil’s Due Publishing immortalizing the POTUS in the 2009 comic series Barack the Barbarian, which had him decked out in his signature loincloth doing battle against everyone from Sarah Palin to Dick Cheney.

10. J.R.R. TOLKIEN WAS ALSO A CONAN DEVOTEE.

The father of 20th century fantasy may always be J.R.R. Tolkien, but Howard is a close second in many fans' eyes. Though Tolkien’s work has found its way into more scholarly literary circles, Howard’s can sometimes get categorized as low-brow. Quality recognizes quality, however, and during a conversation with Tolkien, writer L. Sprague de Camp—who himself edited and touched-up numerous Conan stories—said The Lord of the Rings author admitted that he “rather liked” Howard’s Conan stories during a conversation with him. He didn’t expand upon it, nor was de Camp sure which Conan tale he actually read (though it was likely “Shadows in the Moonlight”), but the seal of approval from Tolkien himself goes a long way toward validation.

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Ben Leuner, AMC
You Can Cook (Food) With Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul in the Original Breaking Bad RV
Ben Leuner, AMC
Ben Leuner, AMC

A new contest is giving Breaking Bad fans the chance to cook a meal with Walter White and Jesse Pinkman. A new charity fundraising campaign is sending one lucky fan and a friend out to Los Angeles to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Breaking Bad’s premiere with the stars themselves—Bryan Cranston, Aaron Paul, and that beat-up RV.

“That’s right, the real Walter White and Jesse Pinkman will join you in The Krystal Ship to whip up some delicious food, take tons of pictures, and bond over the most addicting show ever made,” the contest’s page on the charity fundraising site Omaze trumpets.

All you have to do to throw your (porkpie) hat in the ring is break out your wallet and donate to a good cause. Every dollar you donate to the contest through Omaze is basically a raffle ticket. And the more you donate, the better your odds are of winning. Each dollar donated equals 10 entries, so if you donate $10, you have 100 chances, if you donate $25, 250 chances, etc. At higher donation levels, you’ll also get guaranteed swag, including T-shirts, signed set photos by Cranston and Paul, props and scripts from the show, and more.

Technically, you can enter without donating, but don’t be a jerk—it’s for the kids. The proceeds from the contest will go to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and the Kind Campaign, an anti-bullying charity.

The contest winner will be announced around September 12, and the big event will take place on September 15.

Donate to win here. The contest ends at 11:59 p.m. PT on August 30.

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