The streets of Salem, USA -- the friendly Midwestern city at the heart of the NBC soap opera ''Days of Our Lives'' -- began running with blood on Sept. 29, 2003. That's when a figure in a black hood fatally shot mild-mannered police commander Abraham Carver (James Reynolds) on his front doorstep. Over the next seven months, Salemites lived under a cloud of fear as nine more residents -- many of them played not by dispensable newcomers but by beloved veteran actors whose combined airtime totaled an astonishing 158 years -- dropped like clay pigeons. Viewers recoiled in disbelief.
Aside from seeming like a cheap demographic ploy (i.e., knocking off old folks to make room for a slew of models-turned-actors), the so-called Salem Stalker story line grew more graphic (and ironic) each day. Recovering alcoholic Maggie Horton (Suzanne Rogers) was bludgeoned by a liquor bottle. The bloody corpse of troubled teen Cassie DiMera (Alexis Thorpe) tumbled out of a turkey-shaped piñata on Thanksgiving Day. And the town's patron saint, Alice Horton (played since the first episode in 1965 by 89-year-old Frances Reid)? Poor thing choked on a doughnut -- her culinary specialty -- that was forced down her throat. Even a nonfan would agree: That's just cold!
Only one man in daytime has the gumption to off a little old lady with lethal pastry: prolific soap opera writer James E. Reilly, who churns out 10 hours of supremely bizarre story each week for ''Days'' and NBC's other sudser, ''Passions.'' Reilly used controversial tactics once before to resurrect ''Days'' -- in the mid-'90s he imbued blue-collar Salem with kitschy gothic touches straight out of ''Dark Shadows,'' from a buried-alive saga to a demonic-possession drama. His stories elicited two distinct reactions from fans: I love this nonsense! or What the #@!* happened to my show?! Still, new viewers flocked in droves. Once Reilly left in 1997 to create ''Passions,'' an outrageous soap riff filled with witches, demon dogs, and shirtless hunks, ''Days'' lost viewers and creative steam -- so last June NBC lured Reilly back. ''I don't think it's overstating it to say the show's long-term survival was at stake,'' admits NBC Daytime chief Sheraton Kalouria. ''We needed the fix, and we had the fix right here.''
For many, though, Reilly's solution was just too drastic. Loyal fans were outraged, some vowing never to watch again. (Even ''Days'' devotee Julia Roberts says, ''They've gotten a little wacko.'') Soap critics derided the show's quick decline into death, gore, camp, and supernaturalism. ''This whole story reeks of cynicism about the genre, the characters, and the audience,'' says Soap Opera Weekly columnist Mimi Torchin. ''If we want to watch cartoons, we'll turn to Disney.'' Reilly, a former medical student who stumbled into soaps when he appeared as an extra on ''The Young and the Restless'' in 1980, understands fans' wrath but isn't fazed by it. ''I was never trying to destroy the fabric of this show. But I did have to shake it up because it was really in trouble,'' he says. ''Be angry at me! Hate me! It shows that you are involved. But watch the show to see what happens. Stay tuned.''