Evolution of Vampires Onscreen: Barnabas Collins from 'Dark Shadows' was the blueprint for modern-day vampires

Barnabas Collins serves as the blueprint for most your favorite TV vampires today, including the Salvatore brothers and the sexy vampires from 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer'


                            Evolution of Vampires Onscreen: Barnabas Collins from 'Dark Shadows' was the blueprint for modern-day vampires
Jonathan Frid (ABC) and Johnny Depp (Warner Bros)

When it comes to the sexiest vampires on television and movies, we often think of the Salvatore brothers -- Damon (Ian Somerhalder) and Stefan (Paul Wesley) -- from 'The Vampire Diaries', Angel (David Boreanaz) and Spike (James Marsters) from 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer', and Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson) from the 'Twilight' franchise.

Of course, what makes these vampires so alluring are their relationship with their respective love interests and even the ability to question their own nature. All this comes from who is usually dubbed the "first modern TV vampire." Barnabas Collins from the 60s ABC show, 'Dark Shadows', where he was played by Canadian actor, Jonathan Frid. The version of Barnabas Collins you might be more familiar with is the one played by Johnny Depp in the 2012 film of the same name.

The funny thing is, if you watch the first 200 episodes of the show, you won't see any vampires. 'Dark Shadows', a gothic soap opera, was set at Collinwood, a creepy old mansion on the coast of Maine where the wealthy Collins family lived. While the show had supernatural elements from the start, they were mostly suggested, not seen.

In 1997, Barnabas was introduced to resurrect the show's drastically falling ratings and was originally to have only a brief 13-week run. However, Barnabas proved to be an immense hit with viewers, and Frid who was initially brought on for a 90-day contract became the lead actor on the show.

"The show was going down the tubes," according to Dan Curtis, the late creator of the ABC series. In a commentary on a special-edition DVD, Curtis says that ABC was ready to cancel the series and that his kids told him, "At least make it scary."

Johnny Depp and Eva Green as Barnabas Collins and Angelique Bouchard in 'Dark Shadows' (Warner Bros.)

When Curtis and the special effects department created a "ghost you could see," things turned for the better. "From that moment, the ratings started to climb," Curtis said. "And they got higher and higher the crazier we got."

As in the 2012 movie, Barnabas Collins from the ABC show was stiff as a board and wasn't the kind of vampire you would see on TV today, "But housewives, college girls, everybody just fell in love with him," says Kathryn Leigh Scott to NPR. Scott played Maggie Evans and Josette du Pres on the show. "You can't imagine the mail he got — some of it pretty erotic."

Mark Dawidziak, who's written books about vampires and teaches a class at Kent State University on their appearances in film and TV, also spoke to NPR about the significance of the character. He said, "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?'"

When Barnabus was first introduced, viewers learned of his history, of how he fell in love with Josette du Pres (Kathryn Leigh Scott), only to have an affair with Angelique Bouchard (Lara Parker), Josette's maidservant when he thought his affections weren't returned, and the subsequent spurning of Angelique's affections when he was set to marry Josette.

As a vampire, Barnabas committed many atrocities -- often blaming Angelique for turning him into a vampire for all the dark deeds he committed. But what made him stand out was that he was shown to be capable of feeling guilt for the wrongs committed, as well as love for other people. 

By giving Barnabas a conscience -- and relationships -- 'Dark Shadows' opened up all kinds of possibilities for vampires, says Dawidziak. "And this," Dawidziak says, "is where the vampire is going to become increasingly humanized, sexualized, sensualized. They're going to become younger. They're going to become more vital."

As such, Barnabas Collins is timeless in a genre that is being increasingly filled with more memorable characters. He set the tone for how vampires are created in fiction today -- be it onscreen or in literature -- and this could explain why we keep going back to him. Last year it was announced that The CW was working on a 'Dark Shadows' sequel.

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