October is one of my favourite months of the year. In the build up to Halloween, it seems that the world around me is finally catching up with my enthusiasm for all things gothic, gruesome and macabre. Black and orange become the colour of the day; shops fill up with bat-shaped party decorations, ghoulish candy, and vampire or witches costumes; and the cinema becomes home to what Robin Wood described as ‘the most disreputable of Hollywood genres’: horror (1986 77). This often takes the form of the latest instalment of major horror franchises, alongside retrospectives of classic horror films. This year our screens are dominated not simply by such big screen horror films as Sinister (Scott Derrickson 2012) and Paranormal Activity 4 (Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman 2012), and the re-release of The Shining (Stanley Kubrick 1980), but also a run of gothic animated films, including ParaNorman (Chris Butler and Sam Fell 2012), Hotel Transylvania (Genndy Tartokovsky 2012) and Frankenweenie (Tim Burton 2012). It is a fun time to be a horror fan of any age.
But what is noticeable this year is the extent to which television has become the central locus for Halloween related horror. While planning and writing this blog, I have been watching True Blood (season 5) and eagerly anticipating the UK broadcast of Vampire Diaries (season 4), The Walking Dead (season 3), Fringe (season 5), American Horror Story (season 2), and Supernatural (season 8). I also look forward to the upcoming BBC special The Secret of Crickley Hall to be broadcast in three parts over Halloween.
This major drama is based on a book by James Herbert, not an especially well known writer now perhaps but in the 1970s and early 1980s he was the enfant terrible of British horror and a rival to Stephen King, with books like his legendary novel The Fog focussing upon extreme images of gore, while The Spear climaxed with Himmler coming back as a zombie. Like King before him, television is increasingly becoming home to horror masters.
That October is so replete with horror series is, of course, partly because the autumn remains a key point in the year where new series and seasons of television are launched. There is simply a lot of new, exciting and promising television filling our screens in general. But the prevalence of horror-related series within mainstream TV is hard to miss. Our screens are filled with all things Halloweeny. Despite claims that horror and television are incompatible, the presence of the genre on TV is, of course, nothing new. There has been an indelible link between TV and horror since its very early days. Classic television serials and anthology series like The Quatermass Experiment (BBC 1953), The Twilight Zone (CBS 1959-1964), Boris Karloff’s Thriller (NBC 1960-1962), Rod Serling’s Night Gallery (NBC 1969-1973), Kolchak: The Night Stalker (ABC 1974-1975) and Nigel Kneale’s Beasts (ATV 1976) all, to varying degrees, wallowed in the pleasures and excesses of horror.
In recent years we’ve had Twin Peaks (ABC 1990-1991), The X-Files (FOX 1993-2002) and Buffy the Vampire Slayer (WB/UPN 1997-2003) to remind us not only that TV and horror can work well together but that these can be successful, either from critical or ratings perspectives—sometimes both.
But as the 2012-13 television season continues to roll out, I am struck by the number of horror shows on the air or in production. To the list above, I would add series like Teen Wolf (MTV 2011-), Grimm (NBC 2011-), Being Human (BBC 2008-/Syfy 2011-), as well as the following that are currently in development: Happy Endings a horror/comedy series penned by Pyschoville’s and League of Gentlemen’s Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton; a ten part series based upon Bram Stoker’s Dracula starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers; and Guillermo Del Toro’s planned pilot for a series based upon his apocalyptic vampire novels The Strain. Something has clearly changed. The scales have tipped in favour of TV horror and long may it continue.
Obvious explanations for the growing popularity of TV horror include the proliferation of channels across a changing broadcast landscape, making this ‘disreputable’ genre a solid investment as it possesses its own loyal fanbase. The often transgressive and morally ambiguous subject matter that is intrinsic to the genre, gains attention for cable channels looking to stand out among the crowd (see Showtime and Dexter (2006-); AMC and The Walking Dead (2010-); and FX and American Horror Story (2011-)). To this I would add the fact that censorship regulations are increasingly relaxed across network and cable channels allowing greater freedom for horror creators to explore the genre in provocative ways. This does not exclusively mean being more graphic, although shows like True Blood (HBO 2008-) and The Walking Dead, easily rival the cinema in their display of blood and gore. But what distinguishes these series is the inter-relationship between spectacle and narrative that drives the shows forward. We may expect a certain amount of zombie carnage in The Walking Dead but it is the very human story of survival and despair that draws us back on a weekly basis. The horror lies within survival as much as in the threat of death or dismemberment.
More significantly, shows like American Horror Story are able to explore taboo subjects such as sexual violence, parental abuse, and high school shootings and not simply present them in black and white terms but highlight the moral complexity of violence within modern society. Many (True Blood, Carnivale [HBO 2003-2005], American Horror Story) also adopt innovative and disquieting stylistic conventions that dare to be abrasive, unsettling audiences through their surreal atmospheres and disjunctive visual and aural aesthetics.
Where TV used to be a space considered too safe and secure for horror, television now seems better able to push the boundaries of the genre in exciting ways – not content with simply delivering the repetition of the same formula as evidenced by many cinematic horror franchises.
Don’t get me wrong, I still love horror cinema but two experiences in 2012 make me question my loyalty to the cinema experience. The first was a screening of Cabin in the Woods (Drew Goddard 2012) which was repeatedly disrupted by an audience member who refused to stop checking her text messages when asked, seeming to think that she possessed an inalienable right to use her phone. The second was a screening of Sinister which was diminished by the refusal of the staff at Kingston Odeon to turn the cinema lights all the way down, claiming it was for health and safety reasons. One can imagine the impact of this on a film that almost entirely takes place after dark. If cinemas are no longer places where we can immerse ourselves in the film, lost in the dark and the gripped silence of the audience, then maybe it is now cinema that is incompatible with horror. If TV horror continues to blossom in such exciting ways, then perhaps it is time for horror fans to stay at home, turn off your phone and lights, curl up on your sofa (or behind it) and embrace the horror. That is where you will find me. Tis the season to be gruesome after all.
Stacey Abbott is a Reader in Film and Television Studies at the University of Roehampton. She is the author of Celluloid Vampires (2007) and Angel: TV Milestone (2009), and co-author, with Lorna Jowett, of TV Horror: Investigating the Dark Side of the Small Screen (forthcoming 2012). She is also the editor of The Cult TV Book (2010) and General Editor of the Investigating Cult TV series at I.B. Tauris.