With the huge ongoing success of “The Walking Dead,” “American Horror Story,” “Stranger Things 2” “It” and “Get Out,” I’m tempted to say that horror is having a cultural moment, except that horror is always having a cultural moment. There is hardly an era in which this supposedly disreputable genre hasn’t had a massive audience.
The popularity of movies that scare the bejeezus out of us goes back to the silent era, with “The Phantom of the Opera” and “Nosferatu.” “Dracula” and “Frankenstein” were among the first blockbusters of the talkie era. And every decade since then has had its own variation on horror movies.
As with any genre, there’s always a definitional issue with what is and isn’t horror, but classic horror seems to be about scaring viewers deeply enough to get their hearts pumping, using horrifying situations that involve a supernatural or non-rational event. A scary movie with a psycho killer is a thriller. A scary movie with a ghost is a horror movie.
TV is a relative latecomer to horror. Given that horror exploits viewers’ revulsions and terrors, the powers-that-be used to believe that it was not suitable for TV, where unsuspecting kids might be watching with their kindly grandparents and end up scarred for life. Those concerns seem hopelessly antiquated now, though, when any child with a smartphone can easily call up the most horrific videos of ISIS atrocities.
There were early TV shows that attempted to creep audiences out and scare them — within reason. “The Twilight Zone” and “The Outer Limits” were occasionally disturbing but always kept in line by network censors. It wasn’t really until 1990 that a truly frightening horror series made it onto the air: “Twin Peaks.” That David Lynch series is usually not included in the horror canon, although it contains all the genre elements including fright, eeriness, and supernatural explanations. Among its other impacts, that series did demonstrate that there was an appetite among many viewers for creepy dramas.
Horror as delivered by “Twin Peaks”
Before “Twin Peaks,” TV’s aversion to horror was that the genre concerns itself with a fearful topic that is rarely appropriate for a device that sits innocently in a living room – death. And not just the kind of death you see on a medical or crime show, where it’s sad when someone dies but at least they’re dead. No, horror reflects a profoundly unsettling death where the natural order is disrupted and everything we thought we knew about the subject is turned upside down.
The barely submerged fear that that there might not be a heavenly afterlife explains the enduring fascination with vampires or zombies — beings that were once dead but are now living – or inanimate creatures or animals that become animated with supernatural power. Consequently horror is populated with ghosts, monsters, possessed children, werewolves, demons, Satanism, gore, vicious animals, evil witches, sadistic clowns, and cannibals.
The rise of cable TV and its niche targeting, combined with the loosening restrictions on televised violence, have created the opening for TV horror. After decades without any truly terrifying TV shows, we’ve been deluged with them: “Penny Dreadful,” “Bates Motel,” “The Vampire Diaries,” “The Stain,” “Scream Queens,” “The Originals,” “Slasher,” etc, etc.
Personally, I think that horror is ill-suited for television, or at best a watered-down experience of watching horror at the movies. Going to the movies is a proactive choice – you get out of the house, drive to a destination, pay money for tickets and find yourself in a dark space with a massive screen. Usually this is an event that you plan with friends – maybe it’s even a group bonding experience like riding a roller coaster. In other words, movie-going is an immersive event where the experience can be over-powering. It gives you a shock that reminds you you’re still alive.
Watching TV is completely different. The room is well-lit, the screen is smaller and half the time you’re watching by yourself and distracted by your smartphone. It’s a solitary, not a social event and it doesn’t have the same impact as watching in the theater. Viewers will frequently scream out loud at a horror movie, but rarely scream at home.
At yet, horror is very popular on TV. There are people who watch murder, mutation and mutilation week after week. All the philosophical justifications for horror – that it provides a cathartic release from death-related anxiety – melt away when watching horror transforms from being an occasional thing to a weekly or even daily event. How much catharsis does a person need?
There’s a legitimate concern that too much horror makes people numb to it and in need of bigger and bigger doses, like any sensation junkie. And at a time when there are no cultural overlords to impose order, who knows where it will end. Let’s hope it’s somewhere short of live executions and murders. We’ve already got the Internet for that.