Can Television Horror Shows Ever Really Be Scary?

American Horror Story Twisty
Image source: menrule.net

“You can’t have a slasher movie as a TV series. Slasher movies burn bright and fast. TV needs to stretch things out.” – Noah Foster, Scream 2015.

Don’t all rush at once to call me a trendsetter, but I’ve just started watching The X-Files. No, not the movie, but the original, 1992, Mulder and Scully twinset. It must be the Halloween spirit setting in or something. It’s been a good ride so far – there’s something thrillingly nostalgic about discovering so many TV tropes at their source, and it’s great to watch Mulder mumbling his way through the FBI bureaucracy, a concerned and faintly embarrassed-looking Scully at his side. But one thing hit me, and not just how Gillian Anderson seems to be ageing backwards (seriously, look her up now versus then, I think she might be Benjamin Button). It’s just not frightening.

Sure, there are some creepy moments (after the episode about Scully’s dad, I had to phone my family to check they were ok), but in general, it’s going to take more than a blazing white light and some dry ice to give me insomnia.
It made me wonder – has The X-Files’ time passed, and have the scares it once delivered just diluted with age, or was it never frightening in the first place? Or is it part of a more widespread problem – that there is no such thing as a genuinely good horror TV show?

The horror genre, possibly more than any other, evolves with the times, tapping into subconscious fears and using economic and political climate as guides. Zombies, vampires and other monsters are tangible manifestations of our unspoken anxieties, and we lap them up because we need to personify our fears. It’s no surprise that zombies, with their mindless, destructive consumerism, do better during economic instability, whilst a vampire’s seductive charms speak to us in more affluent times. Maybe now, in a time of political unrest resulting in mass immigration, our fears are turned inwards towards our own species, and we don’t find TV shows such as The X-Files frightening because dealing with other-worldly beings is just a monster too far for now?

X Files Wallpaper

Alongside fear being a subjective entity, TV shows have to find a logistical way to create it. A TV show has to build an atmosphere of unease and spread it out, possibly over 10+ episodes, and that’s only in one season. It has to use both fast – and slow – burning tricks to keep us hooked and coming back for more. Jump scares, whilst effective up to a point in movies, are the scriptwriters’ version of a bag of Haribo – they’re cheap, don’t make you feel good about yourself and leave you wanting something more substantial about 5 minutes later. In order to give a proper sense of fear, a show has to harness all of your senses.

Take, for example. American Horror Story, especially season one, in my opinion one of the best of its genre on TV right now. I specify season one, because one of its USP’s is to change the premise completely each season, whilst keeping the same cast members. But more on that later. Right from the opening credits, with its non-linear theme music and disturbing imagery, it places its audience on a precipice, teetering on the edge of safety and utter terror. Every episode is a standalone masterpiece in tension and jangled nerves. They also deliberately create confusion with character identity (by midseason my partner and I were playing ‘guess the ghost’), to draw you into the story and have you feel as desperate and hopeless as the protagonists.

Compare this then to Asylum, another supernatural TV show that started around the same time. It had the same basic premise (a haunted house, where past residents and dead things gradually came out of the woodwork, sometimes literally). It had some creepy moments, but it tried to be too many things at once – a supernatural thriller, a crime show, a slasher. The scares came so thick and fast they didn’t have a chance to breathe, and what we ended up with was a disjointed soap opera with loud bangs and dead faces in mirrors. It was frustratingly painful to watch.

One of Asylum‘s other main downfalls was poor character development. The cast were linear, one-dimensional cardboard cutouts (admittedly very attractive cutouts), so when anything bad happened to them I just… didn’t really care. The cast of American Horror Story, on the other hand, were relatable, outstanding characters with their own voices. They reacted the way you would expect them to, so when something awful happened to them, the impact was devastating (I’m not ashamed to admit, a few tears were shed). What made it great was that they weren’t even likeable – the dad was a liar and a cheat, and the mother distant and sly. But we stuck with them until the end, because they were believable.

Talking of believable, we need to speak about the monsters for a minute. A good movie can get away with not showing them (Alien, Jaws and The Thing kept their titular villains under wraps almost completely, and the results were mindblowing), but with a TV show being a lot longer, it’s not that easy to do without the audience getting pissy. However, like a magician revealing his method, this almost never pays off. To emphasise my point, I’m going to talk about The Strain, a vampire show from 2014, and it almost hurts me to do so because the book was so good. The first half was riveting, and the tension got ramped up as we only saw the shrouded mystery character known as ‘The Master’. But then he took off his hood and I very nearly fell off the sofa in hysterics. The creature was AWFUL! It looked like a bloated Jim Henson puppet after bad plastic surgery. By the time he was pelting across the New York rooftops with his latex sausage fingers flopping about I had been dragged completely out of the show, and it was ruined for me.

So, looking at the evidence, it seems a horror TV show is pretty difficult to get right. The pitch required to create fear just doesn’t seem to lend itself to a quality series, and a lot of potentially good shows have gone down because of it. But there may be one saviour; Netflix, and the age of binge-watching.

Binge-watching wasn’t really a thing until Netflix came along, before then it was for those lucky enough to afford boxsets. This mind-set of watching episode after episode is helping TV shows overcome their biggest issue: time management. Whereas before, a show needed to trust the audience to come back once a week, at a scheduled time, and not lose interest. Now, the next episode is only a click away, so the tension can be carried on unbroken. I still think that a show works best as a sort of ‘mini-series’ of short movies, such as The X-Files‘ ‘monster of the week’ premise and American Horror Story’s ‘monster of the season’, but with Netflix and other streaming services able to help us watch more episodes, more often, it may just be about possible to get your frights in installments.

END NOTE: Whilst researching this article, I also started watching the new Scream TV series. I’ve only watched a few episodes so decided not to incorporate it, so before everybody starts yelling that I missed it out, I am aware that it’s a thing, and I may need to write an entirely new article next week entitled ‘Slasher TV shows can absolutely work and everything I just wrote is wrong’. Just a heads up.

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