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FeaturesOctober 31, 2014

How Horror Impaled The Small Screen

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Horror had a fairly minor place on television until the last decade, when it rose from the grave. Andrew Todd looks at what has driven its revival.//

Horror on television, like in the movies, has always seen peaks and troughs in popularity. Back in the day, most TV horror came in the form of anthology shows, where each episode would bring a new cast, new setting, and new story. They include your Twilight Zone; your Hammer House of Horror; your Are You Afraid of the Dark.

Otherwise, horror tended to be blended with other genres. Comedy, in the case of The Addams Family and The Munsters; soap opera, in the case of Dark Shadows; science fiction, in the case of The X-Files. The only subgenre that has persisted to this day is documentary (or more recently, reality) horror: ghost hunting and paranormal investigation shows are perennial favourites.

But straight-up horror has thus far been rare. It just wasn’t profitable enough on the small screen – people might go to the movies to get scared, but for nuclear American families curled up in front of the tube with a dog and hot cocoa, horror wasn’t exactly a hot ticket.

That all changed around ten years ago.

At the turn of the millennium, horror was in a decent place, popularity-wise. It wasn’t an all-time high, but a slew of Japanese horror hits (and their Western remakes), plus a resurgence in the popularity of zombies (thanks to 28 Days Later, Resident Evil, and the Dawn of the Dead remake), were helping keep the genre alive. But in 2005, a book came out that changed everything in the entertainment world. That book was Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight, and its dominance of both the literary and, with its film adaptations, cinematic landscapes would leave every publisher, studio and network scrambling to get a piece of the pie.

Twilight, of course, is softened-down horror. It is technically a vampire story, but its appeal lies more in its soap-opera romance and – in the films’ case – the dreamy visages of its stars. That said, there’s a delicious irony to the way Twilight hooked non-horror audiences and producers, acting as a gateway drug to more “serious” horror.

Now, horror is a bona fide television genre. Though the lines still blur at the intersections between horror and, say, crime shows (Hannibal), or romance (True Blood; The Vampire Diaries), many shows now have at least one foot on the horror grave, so to speak.

Virtually every major trope has been represented by at least one show:

  • Vampires! (True Blood’s sexy vampires; The Vampire Diaries; Penny Dreadful’s monster vampires)
  • Zombies! (The Walking Dead’s Romero zombies; Dead Set’s more energetic reality-TV zombies; American Horror Story: Coven’s voodoo zombies)
  • Serial killers! (Hannibal’s Hannibal and friends; Dexter’s Dexter and his prey – serial killers apparently come in groups)
  • Victorian horror! (Penny Dreadful’s Londonbound classic monster teamup jamboree; the barbaric surgical gore in The Knick)
  • Ghosts! (American Horror Story: Murder House’s bizarro spectre family)
  • Werewolves! (Teen Wolf’s sexy teen werewolf; True Blood’s sexy biker werewolves; Penny Dreadful’s sexy Josh Hartnett werewolf)

…and whatever’s left over probably got mopped up by one prominent director or other in the anthology series Masters of Horror. The batshit insane American Horror Story goes one better, mashing up disparate tropes with stylish, bold filmmaking, creating a nightmarish fever dream of horror.

What’s more, many of these shows dig deep into the psychological side of horror, exploring the minds and souls of the darkest and most twisted members of society. The poster child for this aspect of horror is NBC’s Hannibal. Its gruesome death scenes get all the headlines, but the show’s secret weapon is the psychological warfare between its two psychiatrist lead characters Hannibal Lecter and Will Graham.

Everyone in the audience knows about Hannibal and his culinary inclinations already, but Will Graham is the MVP – an investigator all but broken by years of putting himself into the headspace of the sickest killers around. Hugh Dancy’s twitchy, sardonic, existentially petrified performance evokes a deeper horror than a hundred gory crime scenes.

Audiences even seem to be lapping up horror content irrespective of quality. The genre’s biggest success by far, The Walking Dead, holds the record for most-watched drama telecast in history, yet its quality has been punishingly up-and-down. Though it started strong, and its fifth season has seen a strong uptick in quality, the seasons in between ranged from just passable to straight-up boring.

This was, at its low point, a show with few watchable characters (let alone compelling ones), barely any eventful drama, and laughable writing, yet it consistently rated through the roof. When a show delivering such mixed returns tops the rating charts, there’s clearly an obsession going on that knows no taste. It’s the undead that kept people going in the dark years. People are hungry for zombies the way zombies are hungry for people.

So why is horror back in such a comprehensive way? Why, after so much time with sitcoms and dramas at the top of the charts, have we suddenly decided we like being scared by our televisions? The answers lie equally with our tastes as they do with networks playing it safe.

As might expect, much of the TV-horror stable is either inspired by or directly based on young adult fiction. Sadly, there’s all too many shows that clumsily drop horror tropes on top of soap operas starring pretty people in an attempt to cash in on the rampant success of Twilight. There’s nothing wrong with young adult fiction – at its best, it’s fantastic – but it has to be motivated by storytelling, rather than focus groups, which is how TV networks seem to do it. It’s telling that the most creatively interesting horror shows on the air are adult-oriented and take large narrative risks.

The irony of networks programming more horror – and a surprising side benefit for those networks – is that much of that programming is rather extreme in its horrific content, which previously was seen as a massive no-no. Reviews of these shows constantly marvel at how far networks are willing to go with their newfound genre of choice. So the networks get to look bold, as they concoct gruesome tableaus like Hannibal’s flesh angel or The Walking Dead’s intestinal explosions, all the while actually playing it as safe as they can.

And it’s not just knowing that horror is “in” that makes it a safe bet. When there’s a demand for horror content, a supply must be generated. Luckily the genre has a litany of pre-existing iconic characters, both public-domain and privately owned, that can be exploited for television.

That’s not inherently a bad thing! It’s all about execution. Hannibal, a show from a franchise with four novels and five movies to its name already, is both a ratings hit and an critically well-received show. The likes of Bates Motel, Teen Wolf and From Dusk Till Dawn, all with well-established onscreen histories, have carved out critical and commercial audiences.

Penny Dreadful, featuring exclusively public-domain monsters like Victor Frankenstein and Dracula, didn’t have to pay a licensing fee for its characters, so it gets huge audience buy-in for free, even if it’s kind of dull. Eva Green’s jawdropping performance as a lady possessed, however, is worth singling out; there’s no one clip online that quite encapsulates it, but this behind-the-scenes fluff piece contains some of her greatest hits.

Though for variety’s sake it’s definitely a good thing for horror material to play on TV screens, it can’t last. We’re approaching Peak Horror; there’s such a glut of gore that it’s hard to keep up with or even differentiate between many of them. I’m a bigger horror fan than most, and I haven’t seen a number of the horror shows out there. At this rate it’s only a matter of time until Hunger Games style dystopian sci-fi invades the small screen – the bubble can only hold surface tension for so long.

There’s also a potential pitfall in the meeting of horror stories with the kind of long-form serialised storytelling that characterises modern telly. TV shows nowadays – at least the prestigious, trail-blazing ones – are continuous narratives, each episode only a tiny piece of a much larger puzzle. This approach works great for dramas or thrillers, where lengthy stories can twist and turn, and ideas and character can be developed. And it’s perfect for the binge-watching, DVR-heavy way audiences watch TV now. But – and this is in no way a slight to serialisation – horror isn’t about that. Horror is about getting in, punching you in the face with terror, and getting out again.

Even more crucially, horror is about endings. The ending of a horror movie tends to be a final statement as to the hopelessness of its characters’ situation, or to the nature of evil. A good horror ending leaves the viewer shocked or terrified. In a more philosophical sense, horror is also about endings of lives – there’s a finality and inevitability to death that horror movies make explicit in their endings.

But a long-form television story, by its nature, doesn’t have a fixed ending. It has to keep its regular characters alive, which means aside from obvious opportunities like season premieres or finales, there’s little true danger for those characters (and virtually zero for the leads, who are often the shows’ selling points). That drains the horror out just a little bit. Thus, the more narratively tight horror stories on TV tend to be anthologies, like Master of Horror, which merely compile a season’s worth of hourlong one-offs, or contained miniseries, like Charlie Brooker’s Dead Set (zombies in the Big Brother house!) or the Canadian slasher-whodunit Harper’s Island.

The only show that has managed to have its cake and eat it in this regard is American Horror Story, whose every season is a new storyline, with new characters and a new setting and even a new subgenre. This approach means the show can breathe in that long-form DVR-friendly television way, its cast can have fun with new roles each year, but the stories can have a fixed end point (even if the show hasn’t always stuck its landings). The results of this unique strategy have been one of the most varied and creatively invigorating shows on television.

American Horror Story’s first season, retrospectively entitled Murder House, follows a modern American family as they move into a huge old house that just happens to be populated with numerous ghosts, all out for their respective vengeances. But the pulpy chills of that season were completely eclipsed in the psychotically bizarre Asylum, which brought together psychopathic nuns, serial killers, mutants, aliens, Santa Claus, Nazi war criminals, the Angel of Death, and musical numbers in what must be television’s strangest season of a show.

The third season, Coven, lost its way as it went on, but still managed to squeeze in voodoo, zombies, witches, Frankenstein monsters, and Gabourey Sidibe having sex with a minotaur; the fourth, Freakshow, has had a very promising start.

The show has a stellar repertory cast, cycling in and out of regular or recurring roles and playing an enormous range of characters. It’s also a strongly female-driven show, offering top actresses like Jessica Lange, Kathy Bates, Frances Conroy and Angela Bassett meaty, strange, fun screen characters that aren’t often around for women.

But though those characters are odd – and boy, are they odd – they’re also fascinating psychologically. Jessica Lange in particular has done some of her finest work in her American Horror Story roles: she can be fearless, vulnerable, cruel, sexy and uproarious seemingly all at once. Lange alone makes the show a must-see; but even she’s just one of many joys to be found in TV’s best horror show.

Watch American Horror Story: Murder House on Lightbox by clicking here to start your 30 day trial

Read Alex Casey’s breakdown of the AHS: Freak Show opening credits here

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