Daytime Goes Dark
Embracing the Love Affair Between Horror and Soap Operas
Reading time 44 Minutes
Recently someone asked
Recently someone asked if I remembered a scene in a soap opera involving a beautiful young woman terrorized by a giant Raggedy Ann Doll. My friend accidentally stumbled on this disturbing image as a child while his mother was watching one of her “stories.” After an initial cruise around the internet it became apparent that this one moment has haunted many a young viewer, and they too found themselves sharing their dusty memories in the hopes that the name of the soap would eventually reveal itself. Turns out it was from an episode of Another World, which aired at some point in 1982, and that wild doll get up was worked into the storyline to serve as a catalyst to drive a woman crazy… before – in true soap fashion – she could inherit an immense fortune.
This doll, while certainly jarring even to my adult eyes, is pretty much par for the course for daytime serials. To the uninitiated, soap operas may best be known for their slogan “Love in the Afternoon,” but these shows have embraced the dark side for a long, long time. Everything from assaults to blackmail to serial killers to supernatural tropes such as ghosts, near death experiences, and even vampires and demonic possession have occurred on most, if not all, of the shows that aired from their small screen inception until today. OK, so maybe that demonic possession thing isn’t that common, but it did happen!
Soap operas are an immensely creative venue for surveying the darker side of humanity. Using the devices of melodrama and the gothic, these explorations can be persuasive in eliciting emotion, and stories are also often more self-referential than one may expect. Topics may be socially driven, or they might reflect the personal, drawing upon fantastic and gothic imagery to investigate matters of the heart. They also nod towards their theatrical counterparts too, sometimes mimicking what was happening in the world of horror on the big screen, referencing films or following a similar pattern in their storytelling. Their popularity also bled over into nighttime where the made-for-television movie used soap actors to not just promote genre content but to also comment on soap opera fandom, as well as working in the tireless and sometimes hard-knock world of daytime television.
If you are not a watcher of serials, the idea of murderous mayhem and ghosts may seem counterintuitive. Soaps are supposed to respond to social issues and the more realistic perils of domesticity. Indeed, many of these shows revolve around families in crisis. The Secret Storm (1954-1974) began its run with the death of a beloved mother, and for the first decade, it largely focused its stories on the fallout of that loss. The Brighter Day (1954-1962) interrogated the daily trials and tribulations of a reverend and his family (although even this serial has some horror pedigree, as it’s referenced in 1972’s Last House on the Left), and the long running show Another World (1964-1999) explored the struggles of families divided by class systems.
Because of those domestic roots, soaps are considered a “women’s genre” and have always struggled to find respect from critics who considered it simple fodder for housewives – as if these shows didn’t offer a melodramatic, but substantial reflection of real life struggles for women who had little realistic representation in any other form. As the decades wore on, soaps defied the snobby critics and remained a popular form of television (at one point there were 18 serials airing on daytime TV). In the 1970s, the average soap fan juggled three different programs. And, by the 1980s, soaps were in full swing. While they are obviously informed by their large female fanbase (roughly 80% of the audience is comprised of women), these daytime series eventually filtered into college dormitories and male students soon found themselves arranging their class schedule so they too could catch their favorite story.
Melodrama, which at its most basic definition is simply a sensational or exaggerated form of drama, is propped up as the defining factor of daytime serial storytelling. That alignment between soap and melodrama constructs the thematic device as something gendered, or female-centric. However, in The Study of Soap Opera, Christine Geraghty claims “since much of genre television could be associated with the broad terms of melodrama it allowed for soaps, potentially at least, [it can be] seen as a fundamental form of television rather than a separate women’s space.”
In Watching the Detectives: Television Melodramas and its Genres, Jon Stratton further states that melodrama can be fluid in terms of gendered spectatorship, and contends that both the serial and the detective genre rely on melodrama as a tool to drive the story. Stratton writes:
“[It] could be argued that the serial format is necessary to the definition of the true soap opera, however we are now in a position to recognize that ‘female’ melodrama can be produced in other formats such as the series, just as ‘male’ melodrama can be produced in the serial format.”
Both Geraghty and Stratton are arguing that melodrama itself is not gendered and the device of melodrama can be appealing to both male and female viewers. While females constitute the majority of people watching daytime serials, if it’s the melodrama they are drawn to, then it is more about the application of that device rather than housing it in very specific types of storytelling. It can still function inside the home while also expanding the limits of drama, perhaps even inviting darker elements which female audiences will still be attracted to. And it is the way that soap operas remain rooted in issues aligned with the domestic while openly allowing melodrama to drive genre stories that daytime TV has seen wide and varied approaches to integrating thriller, horror and supernatural elements into their tales.
That prime era of the early eighties soap opera lines up rather neatly with the slasher film’s golden period (1978-1982). On the surface these two genres probably appear to be wildly divergent, but peek inside and you’ll see soaps and horror movies have a lot in common. For one, both are considered “low art” products, maligned by critics, but held in high regard by dedicated, sometimes devout, audiences. Each actually courts a female fanbase as well. With regard to the soaps, that seems rather obvious, but if you read Richard Nowell’s excellent Blood Money: A History of the First Teen Slasher Film Cycle (2010), you’ll find fascinating and surprising statistics revealing that over 50% of the ticket buyers to slashers in the early eighties were women. According to Nowell, advertising campaigns highlighted non-violent content that might appeal to females, and featured images of friendship and romance (just like the soaps!). Lobby cards from Prom Night (1980) showcase the dancing and suggested romance. Likewise, there are images of the female protagonist preparing for her upcoming wedding nuptials in the promotional material for He Knows You’re Alone (1980). A lobby card from the Funhouse highlights a double date. Moreover, both the soap and the slasher have their own version of the “Final Girl” as well. In slashers, of course, it is the sole female who survives a night of terror. In soaps it is often the matriarchal figure who overcomes everything from miscarriages, to murder plots, split personalities, kidnappings… you name it. In short, both genres are about female resilience and survival.
Real Fears, Redemption and Recovery: Social Issues Take Time
Soaps hit a major, and fervid growth in popularity in 1981 thanks to an extraordinary love affair on General Hospital (1963- ) between Luke Spencer (Anthony Geary) and Laura Webber (Genie Francis). Their wedding attracted 30 million viewers, and it remains the highest rated episode of a daytime serial. Luke and Laura might be the first duo to hold the honor of “Super Couple.” And if they aren’t, they are still the most recognized as such (even though they are now divorced).
The courtship of Luke and Laura provides a good entry point into looking at the soap world’s dance with the dark side. While few like to recall it now, Laura’s highly anticipated marriage was to her rapist, which is something that would become a point of contention both with the viewers and the actors. Ellen Seiter wrote in a 1983 issue of the Journal of Film and Television that the courtship was “appallingly exploitative” and that “social issues rarely take on a broader social significance except when the characters pay lip service to the idea that such a problem is widespread.”
However, despite criticisms regarding Luke and Laura’s questionable beginnings, Luke as a rapist-turned-leading-man remains a prime example of how soaps offer an opportunity to provide true redemption to even the most hardened characters. Because daytime serials run every weekday out of the year, without reruns, it is the only programming that most simulates our day to day living. Therefore, the character driven stories are able to make allowances for growth, and can develop villains like Luke in ways other shows can’t. Their transformation is never easy, and their past is never forgotten. In fact, although General Hospital originally attempted to sweep the assault under the carpet, it was brought to the surface in the 2000s, and addressed. And, despite the unpleasantness of redeeming someone such as a rapist, murderer, etc., soaps also explore the recovery process for the survivor with some depth.
Such is the case with the character Marty Saybrooke (Susan Haskell) from One Life to Live (1968-2012). In 1993 Marty is gang-raped at her college’s Spring Fling party. The character was drunk and the scene is shockingly shot through her blurred point of view. In this state, and from this POV, the faces of her attackers merge into one another, which leads her to misidentify one. When she realizes she’s mistaken she steps forward, only to have to further endure the wrath of some of the lesser evolved citizens of the serial’s fictional town of Llanview. Because soaps have larger casts than other types of programming, the multiple characters in a story provide numerous perspectives to a very prominent issue in society. The show gave space to the issues revolving around victim blaming, and Marty is eventually allowed to see justice. And, yes, the leader of the gang who attacks Marty, Todd Manning (Roger Howarth) is eventually turned into a romantic lead. But, One Life to Live spent many years dealing with the fallout, and Marty is given years to recover from her attack. The series allows the assault to mirror real life; it is an event that changes both Marty and her rapists. It cast a long and heavy shadow across the show, influencing several storylines, right up until One Life to Live was cancelled in 2012, almost 20 years after the original assault.
Crime and Melodrama: Edge of Night
Social issues, such as sexual assault, have always been a point of interest with daytime audiences. And their general attention to crime stories did not begin with Luke and Laura. Edge of Night, which premiered on CBS in 1956 (moving to ABC in 1975, running until 1984) was originally envisioned as a Perry Mason for daytime. In fact, the creators had tried to license Mason from the radio rights holders. But when that fell through they reimagined the show, hiring the writer of Mason’s radio show, Irving Vendig, and created a crime melodrama revolving around a cop who later becomes a district attorney (originally played by the voice of Perry Mason on radio, John Larkin). Stories mostly revolved around murder and other mysteries. Despite their serious approach to storytelling, Edge of Night sometimes offered more fantastical crime adventures that were as compelling as their more realistic ones.
One of the best-remembered (and most infamous) stories is known as The Clown Puppet Murders. In 1980 the locals of the series were terrorized by a killer wearing a knife-wielding puppet who claimed at least two victims. The puppet was shown at one point covered in blood (!) before the killer was revealed to be a disturbed but unassuming maid named Molly Sherwood (Laurinda Barrett). Molly’s killing spree began when she wanted to see two characters fall in love, and felt duty-bound to off the competition (as you do). Like the Raggedy Ann doll from Another World, the visage of the creepy puppet far outlasted its operator, but the storyline has gone on to live in cult infamy in the world of “Do you remember that time when...” in soapland.
While The Clown Puppet Murders provides an example of the more whimsical avenues Edge of Night would take, it also upholds that intriguing contradiction that the soap opera is stereotypically a women’s genre. If crime films and violent thrillers are seen as attracting a largely male audience, what purpose would these stories fulfill in the more feminine landscape of the daytime serials?
Referring back to Watching the Detectives, Stratton uses prime time shows like Magnum P.I. and The A-Team as examples of how these male-centric shows, both about soldiers seeking justice through the use of melodrama, indicates that “crime is not a social-based problem, but an individual problem,” and therefore mirrors its daytime serial counterparts. Consequently, these stereotypically gendered genres are actually attractive to both male and female viewers because of that use of melodrama. The creators of Edge of Night obviously recognize this, and had enough faith that their police procedural and crime stories, normally deemed more appropriate for a male audience, would be intriguing to their largely female viewership through its melodramatic beats.
One Life to Live: Confronting Real Tragedy through the Fantastical
One Life to Live began playing with darker, more esoteric themes – both realistic and bizarre – rather early into its decades-long run. What the show did that was so fascinating was that while it ran wild with some wacky storytelling, the core of the stories remains ingrained in real emotional devastation.
In the 1970s, the character Victoria ‘Viki’ Lord (Erika Slezak) was given a split personality named Niki Smith, who wreaked havoc throughout Llanview. Thirty years after Niki first emerged it was revealed that she took Viki’s very young daughter Jessica to a bar where she was raped by a drunk, thus causing the daughter to have a split personality as well. According to the International Society for the Study of Trauma and Dissociation, Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID, previously known as Multiple Personality Disorder), is the cause of severe neglect, abuse and trauma. As the series progressed, it followed this definition of DID rather faithfully. Audiences had previously learned that Viki had also been the survivor of intense sexual abuse at the hands of her powerful father, Victor Lord. In the beginning Niki was a menace, but a fun, even audacious one. However, as the series began to explore the symptoms of DID and incorporate them into their plots, the writers took time letting the characters wrangle with the long term effects of trauma, and, as was the case with Jessica, there were no easy solutions. Her other personality neglected to take care of her pregnancy and the baby was stillborn. The DID story continued until the end of the series, and Jessica never completely recovered from her assault, or the loss of her child, reminding viewers that there are often no safe or easy answers for survivors of abuse.
Other stories embraced a more fanciful tone, such as when Viki “died” and went to heaven, where she was reunited with her father Victor Lord (before we knew how deeply he had abused her). Other stories included a notorious cult leader attempting to steal the heart of one of Viki’s daughters to give to Victor, who had been assumed dead for over a decade. Viki’s adventures never ceased to raise eyebrows and push the boundaries of the believable. One of the most incredible Viki-centric stories involved the discovery of an underground city named Eterna located just beneath her palatial estate. But as the matriarch of the series, her long, painful history with her father gave the stories credence and even a sense of believability while also using the father/daughter relationship as a metaphor for the impossibility of completely escaping your past. Viki had to learn to accept it, and move forward.
Along those same lines, there was a supernatural storyline with Viki’s arch nemesis that resonates on a far deeper emotional level than one might expect. After Dorian Lord (Robin Strasser) lost her husband in a plane crash, she enlists the help of a psychic named Madame Delphina (Lea DeLaria). Through the body of Delphina, a character more often used for comedic effect (DeLaria is a stand-up comic), Dorian and her deceased husband share one last romantic kiss. It was one of the most touching moments on the series. Haunting in the way Dorian’s grief led her to pursue any means with which she could hold on to her beloved spouse, and unforgettable in the tenderness of the moment. It was also surprising in its progressiveness, allowing two women to kiss on daytime TV, even if the intent was to view Delphina as a man in that exchange. Audiences bought into the transgression, because it served as a cathartic moment for anyone who’d lost and longed for a loved one.
Slashing Our Way Through One Life to Live and Days of Our Lives
In the later years of One Life to Live, the series became more informed by the self-aware horror films of the mid-late nineties, such as Wes Craven’s Scream (1996) while also referencing older genre films. In 2005 the series paid serious homage to horror, going the extra meta-mile with their “Killing Club” storyline. When Marcie Walsh (Kathy Brier) publishes a novel called The Killing Club she unintentionally triggers a wave of serial killings in Llanview. The inspiration for her book was derived from her geeky high school years when she, along with her fellow outcast friends, would imagine gruesome deaths for the popular kids. In real life, One Life to Live’s head writer Michael Malone wrote a tie-in novel that was also called The Killing Club, and which featured Marcie as the co-author on the slipcover. Malone’s novel references horror movies like Halloween (1978), while the killings triggered by the book in the soapworld referenced similar horror images, including a death that looks very much like one seen in Mario Bava’s classic Blood and Black Lace (1964). Essentially working with Stratton’s concept of the melodrama as a tool for both soap operas and crime stories, The Killing Club is such a perfect melding of horror and soap opera, constantly nodding to the theatrical genre world while also indulging in a soapy love triangle that is linked to the crime spree.
But even before One Life to Live dove into the realm of slashers, Days of Our Lives (1965- ) had courted several stories that featured violent killing sprees, with at least four serial killers loose in the fictional town of Salem at various times. It all began with the infamous Salem Strangler Murders in 1981. This storyline follows the beats of the slasher fairly closely with its crank phone calls, red herrings and brutal murders. Just a couple of years later, The Salem Slasher began slashing his way through the town in 1983. No one was safe, as several cast members were offed before a man accused of the murders faked his death so he could solve the crime!
Murders and mayhem occurred throughout Salem as the years went by, including The Riverfront Knifer in 1987, revealed to be wealthy Senator Harper Devereaux (Joseph Campanella) who was driven mad by his wife’s betrayal. In 2015 another serial killer emerged – he was nicknamed The Necktie Killer and his killing spree lasted for about a year, ending when the killer was tied to a bed and set on fire. He survived his attack and was eventually released from prison because he appeared to be remorseful for his crimes. A strangely happy ending for a brutal spree, but one that falls in line with offering redemption to the most hard-edged characters.
Dark Shadows, The Gothic, and Vampires Reborn on Port Charles
If we recognize melodrama as a major component of telling stories in daytime, we can also explore the use of the gothic in serialized storytelling. A fluid literary and filmic device, the gothic already walks hand in hand with the melodramatic in terms of its romantic and highly emotional content, as well as its domestic settings, all tried and true tropes for the soap opera genre. But, it veers away from those signatures of melodrama with heavy doses of atmosphere, fear, and the supernatural, resulting in a unique aesthetic.
Although the gothic is more often aligned with the horror genre than with the soap opera, many serials engage in the gothic in different ways, looking towards moodiness and the supernatural to thrust their tales forward. The soap most cited for applying the eerie and atmospheric underpinnings so often associated with the gothic, is, of course, Dark Shadows (1966-1971), which features a vampire named Barnabas Collins (Jonathan Frid).
Once Barnabas’ crypt is uncovered and opened, a terrifying creature of the night is unleashed upon the residents of Collinsport, Maine. However, like so many daytime wrongdoers, he’s been giving the luxury of time for character development. We learn about his cursed past, the tragedy of his lost love, and audiences soon became invested in his transformation into a leading man and love interest.
Barnabas was brought onto Dark Shadows in April 1967 as a last ditch effort to save the show from its ratings black hole. But the series had, in the time preceding his arrival, already embraced a deliciously gothic and moody ambiance, with that gorgeous mansion of unending rooms, the keeper of the town’s dark secrets. And its consistency with combining the gothic with melodrama allowed the series to experience all kinds of firsts for daytime serial telling. There was a time travel story, the show riffed on Frankenstein and his mate, and another character was cursed to live his days as a werewolf!
While it only ran for approximately 5 years (which is far less than most of the best remembered soaps that aired for decades), it left its vampire bite marks all over daytime TV, establishing new avenues to take serial storytelling, informing future savvy soap writers who often incorporated their own versions of otherworldliness and the gothic into their never ending universes.
Although vampires wouldn’t become a norm across the daytime landscape, Dark Shadows did inspire other soaps to try their hand at telling supernatural tales. The daytime serial that came the closest to mimicking Dark Shadows was a spinoff of General Hospital called Port Charles (1997-2003). Port Charles is the name of the fictional city General Hospital takes place in, and this series brought over popular characters from the original show, placing them amongst a mostly younger cast who played interns working in a different part of the hospital. Port Charles struggled to claim viewers and producers took drastic measures to save it. First, they created “novella” story arcs, which are popular in Spanish speaking countries, but the idea of a soap that had a beginning, middle and end approximately every thirteen weeks was very new to American daytime TV. Their first arc, titled Fate, was strictly soap, but the second entry Time in a Bottle, was a time travel love story, and the third, and most famous of the arcs, Tainted Love, took a page right out of Dark Shadows playbook, introducing viewers to Caleb Morley (Michael Easton), a passionate and lovelorn vampire who longed for a woman named Livvie (Kelly Monaco) and grieved the loss of his bride. He was eventually defeated but rose once more under the pseudonym of Stephen Clay.
In 2013 Easton was cast on General Hospital as Stephen’s older estranged brother, Silas Clay and he revamped (no pun intended) Caleb/Stephen one more time in 2013 as a tribute to the long gone, but fondly remembered series.
Days of Our Lives Meets The Devil and Passions
Perhaps the most famous shift from Love in the Afternoon to supernatural mayhem happened in the mid-nineties when Dr. Marlena Evans (Diedre Hall) became the instrument of devil possession on Days of Our Lives. That’s right, the prominent and respected psychiatrist found herself weakened by drugs slipped to her by Stefano DiMera (Joseph Mascolo), Salem’s arch villain who began his troublemaking in 1982, carrying it off and on through the years until the actor’s passing in 2016. In this state, the devil attempts to overtake her body, allowing her to levitate, cause a drought, and influencing her to set a church on fire. Eventually, an exorcism frees Marlena, and she returns to her practice, and all was forgiven. The storyline was meant to conjure up images of The Exorcist but probably looked most like the episodes of the parody sitcom Soap when Corinne's (Diana Canova) baby had to fight the very same possession issues.
However, despite a rather campy delivery of the story (intentional or otherwise), at its core is a one-sided love (or obsession) that leads to a more literal version of bargaining with the devil. DiMera, tortured by what he did to Marlena confesses: “I only wanted to help her… To make things better. But instead, I hurt her. Made things worse… First time in my life I acted selflessly. Everything I did, I did because I love Marlena. I just wanted to be with her. And, God forgive me. She is now… possessed by the devil himself.” Those lines, delivered with a combination of gusto and sadness that can only be witnessed on a soap opera, is what ultimately makes the infamous story work. Using melodrama to emphasize core emotions, the possession is rooted in unrequited love, and eventually regret. It allows viewers to connect the wild story with a sense of humanity. Love conquers, but it can also destroy. Who can’t empathize with that?
The mixture of pitch perfect melodrama, gothic imagery and camp was a ratings winner at a time when soaps were on the decline in the mid-1990s. Days of Our Lives soon found itself one of the top-rated afternoon dramas, thanks to some simple contact lenses, holy water and a wonderful cast of actors who threw themselves gleefully into the chaos.
The demonic possession story on Days of Our Lives was concocted by James E. Reilly, who would go on to create Passions (1999-2007), a show which took the old school supernatural charm of Dark Shadows and mixed it up with a strong self-aware attitude and a wonderful sense of humor. Unlike Dark Shadows, or any soap with interwoven supernatural elements, Passions made magical manifestations early plot points. It had witches and warlocks, and Timmy (Josh Ryan Evans), a doll brought to life. In the case of Timmy, the actor died while he was in the midst of a storyline about his character’s death on the show, lending an eerie and bittersweet moment to the series.
In other unconventional twists, characters broke the fourth wall, and the show’s clever producers even attempted to nominate a recurring character named Precious for an Emmy award. Oh, did I mention that Precious’ real name was BamBam and BamBam was an orangutan?
It was Passions’ sheer audacity to change the face of daytime in such a way that may have kept it at the bottom of the ratings list, but a winner among a key demographic (12-17 year-olds). It was cancelled in 2007, but picked up for one more shot by DIRECTV. It was a short-lived victory, but the show lives on in infamy.
Primetime Melodrama: The TV Movie Combines Soap and Horror
This mixture of daytime melodrama and horror moved into primetime, and well beyond the soap opera’s nighttime counterparts, such as Dallas and Dynasty. The made-for-television movie became a place where well known daytime players could expand their repertoire, spreading their dramatic wings past typecasting and stereotyping. In this way, the actors in soaps were like the actors in the then-current crop of eighties horror movies.
In “I’m Not a Doctor But I Play One on TV”: Characters, Actors and Acting in Television Soap Opera, Jeremy G. Butler argues that daytime players don’t fall into the same type of “star system” that viewers may encounter in other types of television programming. He contends that the soap’s “ensemble cast are more or less equally prominent/obscure in the multitudinous narrative lines.” Furthermore, he asserts that stories are promoted over actors/characters, which are the ultimate drawing point for the audience. Likewise, the bulk of horror films released in the 1980s into the 1990s tend to feature catchy taglines and proactive advertising images over promoting the actor within the film.
However, unlike horror’s more anonymous landscape daytime actors found a venue that allowed them to capitalize on their familiarity to audiences, which would become selling points of certain genre telefilms.
It all began with General Hospital’s immense success with Luke and Laura. The series attracted the attention of Elizabeth Taylor, who was an ardent fan of the show. She approached Gloria Monty, the producer of the series, and asked to have a part written for her. For a stint in November 1981, Taylor played the scandalous, vengeful Helena Cassadine, and even attended Luke and Laura’s wedding. It was here, thanks to good ol’ Liz that network executives started to seriously consider the crossover appeal of soap opera actors in other settings. If movie stars brought viewers to daytime, why couldn’t they reverse it and use soap actors to lure viewers to nighttime?
While many soap actors would go on to do straight TV movie dramas (Anthony Geary (General Hospital) and Judith Light (One Life to Live) in Intimate Agony, 1983), Leslie Charleson (General Hospital), Colleen Zenk (As the World Turns), Diedre Hall (Days of Our Lives), et al. in Woman on the Ledge, 1993, etc.), genre telefilms made horror/soap connections in really interesting ways and three made-for-TV thrillers from the 1980s successfully blurred the lines between daytime and nighttime.
The first of these telefilms aired in 1982, and it is probably the most accomplished in terms of combining slasher elements with soap opera. Fantasies starred Suzanne Pleshette as the producer of a popular nightly soap. She is stalked by an obsessed fan who begins killing off her cast one by one. ABC revolved Fantasies marketing campaign around their parade of real life soap actors who were cast as members of Pleshette’s melodrama. It merged the soap and slasher world almost seamlessly with its strong female lead, gorgeous victims, incredible one-liners, and surprisingly brutal murder set pieces. Stuart Damon, best known as Alan Quartermaine on General Hospital, got the best of the roles, but you’ll spot plenty of other daytime players such as Robin Matson (also General Hospital), Robert S. Woods (One Life to Live) and Peter Bergman (All My Children). The casting was inspired and it certainly brought in strong ratings. Fantasies ranked in the top ten TV movies for the 1981-1982 season.
The following year, CBS adapted Mary Higgins Clark’s novel The Cradle Will Fall, which is about a woman who sees something strange from her hospital window. Only she was under sedation and doesn’t realize she’s witnessed a murder. The killer, thinking he’s been revealed, comes looking for her. While the three leads in the film weren’t daytime players (Lauren Hutton, Ben Murphy and James Farentino), the telefilm takes place in Springfield, Illinois, which is the same town Guiding Light (1952-2009) is set in. The film also uses actors from that serial in supporting parts, playing the same roles as they do on daytime. As a way to further cross promote the TV movie, Murphy made an appearance on Guiding Light. This double team plan worked, and the telefilm ranked at #15 for the week.
Then, in 1984, Yvette Mimieux played a fanatical soap viewer in Obsessive Love. Believing her story is real, she comes to Hollywood to snare the show’s leading man (Simon MacCorkindale) and almost destroys both of their lives in the process. In the film, General Hospital star Kin Shriner plays one of the other leading men on the fictional soap. He has an adversarial relationship with MacCorkindale behind the scenes, and the telefilm goes to great lengths to detail the hard road of press tours and junkets for daytime actors. It also explores the unrelenting and terrifying devotion of certain fans. (According to David Levinson, the screenwriter of Fantasies, his telefilm was loosely inspired by John Lennon’s assassination; perhaps Obsessive Love was too.)
Other soap actors worked in supernatural TV movies. Prime examples include Susan Lucci making her TV movie debut in 1985 as Satan (!) in Wes Craven’s Invitation to Hell, and Search for Tomorrow’s Kevin Conroy’s starring role in a strange riff on Dallas-meets-The-Exorcist titled Covenant (also 1985).
The reverse happened as well and many people who were known for their work in horror movies moved into the world of daytime drama. The star of 1974’s zombie mindbender Deathdream, Richard Backus is an Emmy-nominated actor for his work in Ryan’s Hope, and he’s also written for One Life to Live and As the World Turns; Richard Guza Jr., who conceived the story for Prom Night (1980) and wrote Curtains (1983) moved on to write for General Hospital, Santa Barbara and Sunset Beach; and Eileen Davidson, the bad girl with the most in The House on Sorority Row (1983) went on to create dynamic legacies on The Young and the Restless and Days of Our Lives. And a favorite leading lady of eighties horror, Barbara Crampton (Reanimator, Chopping Mall, From Beyond) would grace daytime TV in the serials Days of Our Lives, Guiding Light, Bold and The Beautiful and The Young and the Restless.
The Legacy of Darkness in Daytime
Currently, there are only four soaps airing on network television. The last two to leave the canvas were One Life to Live and All My Children, which were both ABC shows, and both were cancelled on the same day. With all this talk about darkness in daytime, it may not be a surprise that one actor proclaimed that everything the then-President of ABC Daytime “Brian Frons touches, dies. Does that make him a serial killer?” But there was nothing anyone could do. Even though both shows were revived on the internet, their run was short lived and daytime truly went dark.
The fantastical still ran through the end of both shows, as One Life to Live went back in time (a sort of homage to an earlier time travel story from the 1980s), and in the final years of All My Children’s run, Dr. Hayward (Vincent Irizarry) worked feverishly on something called Project Orpheus. This was a science experiment that allowed numerous “dead” characters to come back to life. Several fan favorites returned to the show, allowing audiences a moment to reconnect with favorite faces before grieving for them once again when the show went dark in 2011. Again, the crazy science fiction-based tale used melodrama to root viewers into the real. It was fixed inside our struggle to let go, and to be able to move on. It is a unique, if not always successful, approach that is meant to help us walk with the loss of characters and fictional worlds we’d come to love.
It is strange to think that our worlds without end may finally be ending, but the soap opera’s dark legacy lives on in modern supernatural nighttime fare such as Dante’s Cove (2005-2007) and even True Blood (2008-2014) and The Walking Dead (2010- ). Oh just admit that True Blood and The Walking Dead are soaps! It just proves that there is still so much to mine from the fabulous and dark history of daytime, and without being too cheeky, perhaps we could still take a bite out of, or a stab at, respecting what these shows did.
Original Photography: Tavarna Caris
Amanda Reyes is an archivist, academic, author, and film and television historian. She edited and co-wrote Are You in the House Alone? A TV Movie Compendium: 1964-1999 which celebrates the made for television film, and was featured on Barnes and Noble’s Best of Horror list for 2017. She's been a guest speaker and lecturer at international film festivals and academic conferences in the UK and Australia, and has given lectures as part of the Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies in London, New York City and Los Angeles. Amanda provided commentary tracks for the Blu Ray releases of the The Spell (Shout Factory, 2017), and Last House on the Left (Arrow, 2018), as well as Someone's Watching Me and Scream For Help (both Shout Factory, 2018). Her writing has appeared in several publications, and she is also the curator and co-presenter of Alamo Drafthouse’s Made for Television Mystery Movie series, which runs quarterly as part of Terror Tuesday in Austin, Texas, where she resides. She also blogs and podcasts about TV movies.
Tavarna Caris is an independent filmmaker and photographer from the UK. She wrote and directed the short film The Other Side of the Witching Hour (2016) and is currently working on her next short, Dolls of the Void. She also runs the Soapstills Instagram page.