Long before Dark Shadows was a middling Tim Burton movie, it was an ill-fated 1990s primetime series. But before that it was a successful 1960s daytime soap opera. It wasn’t comedic, it wasn’t light-hearted, and it didn’t have a hint of irony. It was just a dark, brooding, dramatic soap that happened to center on the supernatural. The show ran the gamut of supernatural plot hooks: vampires, ghosts, witches, werewolves, different vampires, and the same vampires but in different time periods.
And there was the inevitable problem with Dark Shadows. The show depended on classic horror creatures, but there are only a handful to choose from, and keep in mind, even though the show was only on for 5 years, because it was a daily show, it had over 1,200 episodes! It's a simple law of horror story writing; there are only so many ways to tell stories about vampires before they start sparkling. So what’s a beleaguered writing staff to do when they start running out of plot ideas? They start pulling from less mainstream horror, and that means H.P. Lovecraft.
At first this might seem like the most awesome idea in the world: a Lovecraft-themed soap opera. In reality, it had some pretty serious flaws. For one thing, Lovecraft's writing has extremely little dialogue, soap operas (particularly soap operas with limited budgets) are almost nothing but dialogue. For another, Lovecraft’s storytelling was almost always wrapped up in a short format, while soap operas, by their very nature, drag out storylines for as long as conceivably possible. Finally, almost all of Lovecraft's best work focuses on vast, cosmic, inhuman forces and entities beyond the capability of human conception. Dark Shadows, on the other hand, focused primarily on people in makeup in front of Gothic sets. It was a mashup that was doomed from the very beginning.
Here's how it went: the Leviathans were a race of inhuman creatures who occupied the earth long before humankind. They had gone into hiding, some taking on human shape while others retained their original forms and merely slumbered within the earth. Obviously, the Leviathans wanted to reclaim control of the world and they aimed to do this in the most soap opera-y of ways—by taking over the minds of established characters and trying to marry the female lead. Doesn't make sense? That's correct! Here's a little taste to help you get the flavor.
At the end, Dark Shadows had bigger problems than H.P. Lovecraft (and to be fair, it survived for almost another year after the storyline). The actors were tired of playing their characters. The writers were tired of writing the same plots. A series of missteps by the studio along with the changing tastes of the times came together in 1971 to put the final nail in Dark Shadows’ coffin (so to speak).
There’s no way to talk about this subject in 2012 without mentioning that last year the CW show Supernatural went to the H.P. Lovecraft well for the first time, but they went in an entirely different direction. In Supernatural the new monsters are called “Leviathans” a race of inhuman creatures who existed long before humankind, take on human shape, and want to take over the world. Well, I guess that’s not “entirely different” so much as it’s “essentially the same.”
Oh well, looks like we’ve got about one more season of Supernatural before H.P. Lovecraft buries another series.
What other series do you think could benefit from a touch of H.P. Lovecraft?