Today’s pop-culture landscape is rotten with stories about melodramatic, brooding vampires and their supernatural love affairs. But back in the 1960s and ’70s, those narratives belonged almost exclusively to the soap opera Dark Shadows. Near the end of its run, the series had become such an institution that it spawned a pair of Dark Shadows feature films (not to be confused with the 2012 Johnny Depp reboot), and to promote them, the producers staged what might have been the first ever nationwide spooky beauty pageants.
“The common perception is that it’s a campy soap opera from the ’60s with a vampire, but if you stick with it long enough, the show is an everything bagel,” says Wallace McBride, editor of the Collinsport Historical Society, an in-depth fan blog devoted to all things Dark Shadows. “It’s got science fiction, it’s got horror, it’s got romance, time travel, parallel universes, werewolves, zombies, witches. Anything genre, you can find in 1,200 episodes of Dark Shadows.”
The first feature film spin-off, House of Dark Shadows, was released in September 1970, the year before the show finally went off the air after 1,225 episodes. The film focused on the series lead, vampire Barnabas Collins, and his search for a cure to his vampirism—so that he could marry a mortal, naturally. Though the property appeared to be expanding to the big screen, the TV show was actually on its last legs. “The show was just getting over the hill in terms of ratings,” says McBride.
To promote the film, the production company decided to try something a bit different. MGM and the film’s director and overall Dark Shadows mastermind, Dan Curtis, thought they would get the fans involved by putting on a nationwide beauty contest. They called it the Miss American Vampire Contest, and the winner would win a week’s guest spot on the Dark Shadows TV series, and a trip to New York, where the show was filmed.
Ads were placed in newspapers across the country, targeting girls, 18 to 25, who thought they had the right “vampire looks.” One newspaper story about the promotion, dredged up by the blog Dark Shadows in the Press, said that contestants would be judged by their interpretation of the vampire aesthetic, as well as “charm, poise, stage presence, and videogenic qualities for television.” One TV ad for the competition read, “It’s a contest you can sink your teeth into.”
Leading up to the release of House of Dark Shadows, regional beauty contests were held in a number of cities, from Dallas to Philadelphia to Miami. These prelims produced a handful of finalists, who traveled to Los Angeles to compete for the title on September 10, 1970. One of the judges for the New Jersey regional competition recalls her experience in the book The Dark Shadows Companion: 25th Anniversary Collection, saying, “It was fun for the first five minutes. After that it got terribly depressing. Some of the girls came in bikinis. Some of them came dressed as witches or vampires or dead bodies. One girl stood in front of me and just stared.”
The final competition winner was actress and activist Sacheen Littlefeather, who gained greater fame a few years later when she represented Marlon Brando at the 1973 Academy Awards to decline his Oscar for The Godfather in an act of protest over the treatment and portrayal of Native Americans. Similarly, Littlefeather did not reap the benefits of her award. According to McBride, it’s unclear whether she declined the trip to New York to appear on the show, or whether the producers decided not to hold up their end of the deal. Either way, Littlefeather remained in Los Angeles. The prize passed to Christine Domaniecki, the winner of the New Jersey regional, where she had been crowned by none other than Barnabas Collins himself, actor Jonathan Frid.
Despite the confusion over the winner, the Miss American Vampire Contest, while bizarre for its time, must have been seen as a success, because it wasn’t the last supernatural beauty contest that the Dark Shadows franchise got up to. Following the release of House of Dark Shadows and the final episode of the show’s original run, in April 1971, there would be one last hurrah for the residents of the show’s fictional Collinsport. A second film, Night of Dark Shadows, came out in August that year, and focused on another member of the Collins clan, the franchise antagonist Angelique, a vengeful witch. This time, the producers wanted to crown Miss Ghost America.
The rules were much the same as before, with “ghost” in place of “vampire,” through regional competitions leading to a final pageant event. However, since Dark Shadows was off the air, the prize was an opportunity to appear on The Dating Game (more on that later). Enthusiasm for the pageant declined accordingly. “The wind had kind of gone out of the sails at that point,” says McBride.
The pageant finals went ahead, and were shown on a local Los Angeles horror program called Fright Night, on September 25. The winner was 18-year-old Kate Sarchet, who, in addition to appearing on The Dating Game, also received a $250 savings bond. McBride was eventually able to unearth an account of Sarchet’s appearance on the game show, posted to Facebook by the winning date, comedian Will Durst. In his dispiriting post, he wrote, “Miss Ghost America totally ignored me on the date and hooked up with the golf pro at the hotel we got a free round of golf at. Which left the chaperone and me to drink in the hotel bar. Drank so much. Missed the ride back to LA the following morning. And had to get back on my own.” In modern parlance, she ghosted on him.
Today, Dark Shadows is still beloved by a healthy fanbase of devoted Collins family aficionados, and while the odd beauty pageants have not enjoyed the same level of immortality, they may have contributed to the show’s enduring appeal. According to McBride, they may have helped the show, which was more beloved in its native New York than anywhere else, achieve such a widespread following. “What the pageants did is, they offered the cast a chance to sort of branch out and make it a national phenomenon.”