Is this the golden age of TV horror?

Feature Ron Hogan 7 Jul 2014 - 06:46

With Hemlock Grove, Penny Dreadful, Hannibal, The Walking Dead & more, Ron suggests this is a golden age in the history of US TV horror…

On April 30th 1954, a Finnish-American actress, showgirl and pin-up named Maila Nurmi sashayed down a dark corridor fogged with dry ice, stopped on cue and unleashed a bloodcurdling scream. She was sporting her best faux-Morticia Addams dress, vampy fingernails, long black hair and an imperious expression. After the introductory trance and shriek that began every episode of KABC TV’s The Vampira Show, the host would recline on a skull-decorated Victorian couch and mockingly introduce one of any number of low-budget and no-budget horror films for her late-night television audience. Vampira was the first horror host in American television, appearing on the air only five short years after the station first signed on in Los Angeles.

“Screaming relaxes me so”

Though Vampira’s reign as the first queen of late night would last less than a year, she was groundbreaking in more ways than one. She appeared on all the popular shows of the day, including Ed Sullivan’s Toast Of The Town and The Red Skelton Show, and her photo shoots graced the pages of Newsweek, Life, and TV Guide. Though a dispute with ABC over the rights to the character would scuttle her nascent empire, the incredible ratings her show achieved would kick-start a wave across the United States, as every city began popping up with a horror host of their own. John Zacherle’s Roland haunted the airwaves of Philadelphia in 1957. Ray Sparenberg’s Selwin kicked off in 1958 in Indianapolis, Indiana. Sid Noel’s Morgus the Magnificent began practicing his mad science in 1959 in New Orleans, Louisiana.

With horror-thirsty audiences and air time to fill, local stations have long had to get creative with their content, and one of the biggest boons to the local television station was Shock! or Shock Theater, a block of 52 horror and science fiction movies from the 30s through the 50s made available cheaply by Screen Gems in 1957 that was quickly supplemented by Son Of Shock!, another 20-picture block of syndicated programming that proved to be wildly successful at both filling time and at employing goofy local horror hosts. Campy or not, networks took notice that home audiences seemed to have a hunger for horror and continued to stock their schedules with scares, such as television adaptations of long-running radio programs like Suspense, Lights Out, and Appointment With Fear.

“You are about to enter another dimension”

It seems as long as there has been a public entertainment medium, from the Grand Guignol theater of Paris to Orson Welles’ bowel-loosening War Of The Worlds, people have wanted to be petrified by the gristly, the gory, the suspenseful, and the macabre. No medium took to that quite like television, and no television show took to that quite like The Twilight Zone.

A critical and ratings success, the show survived many of the earlier bumps of television - the swap from film to video, changing from 25 to 51 minutes, and so on - and spawned a glut of great imitators in what was perhaps the first golden age of TV horror thanks to competitor programme The Outer Limits being a genre classic in its own right. Following up The Twilight Zone would be Gothic soap opera Dark Shadows, Serling’s horror anthology series The Night Gallery, and television series Kolchak: The Night Stalker (and its preceding television movies, The Night Stalker and The Night Strangler). The returning Twilight Zone in 1985 found a place alongside George A. Romero’s Twilight Zone-inspired Tales From The Darkside. However, aside from Dark Shadows and Kolchak, most of the horror shows to make their mark on television have been anthology series (like the awesome Tales From The Crypt) or excuses to show old movies of varying quality (Cassandra Peterson’s Elvira was a direct descendant of Vampira with an 80s personality slant; Mystery Science Theater 3000 took the horror host concept to its logical conclusion of making fun of the same old B movies during the films with delightfully cheesy sci-fi trappings).

For the staggering run of quality scares that filled the airwaves, both locally and nationally - the horror hosts didn’t begin to wane until well into the 1980s - there were rarely more than one or two good genre programmes on at the same time, and most of what made the airwaves was in an anthology format. More successful creepy projects from the 90s, such as Twin Peaks, couldn’t sustain the energy and ratings needed to survive, while the genre-bending mythological sci-fi alien horror show The X-Files carried the Twilight Zone torch while still having an overarching mythology to drive the car powered by the ‘monster of the week’ format engine. However, by and large, horror series made it a few years at best, then limped off into the sunset.

Not so these days.

“The monster is within”

Television has entered what may be the true golden age of small-screen horror. With the massive proliferation of broadcast channels (5 networks up from 3 in 1984), cable channels (in the hundreds), and internet TV networks like Netflix and Amazon Prime, this is a glorious time to be a horror fan. Hemlock Grove is a great source of intriguing weirdness in the vein of Twin Peaks, with more sex and monsters. If you like psychological horror mixed with small town politics and drug cartel wars, there’s AMC’s Bates Motel. If you prefer your psychological horror mixed with some of the best practical make-up effects on television, NBC’s Hannibal is a great option. From the high camp of American Horror Story to the bloody, supernatural sleaze of From Dusk Til Dawn: The Series, to the comic book action of The Walking Dead, every channel has its horror offering of note, and that seems to be by design. Much as The Twilight Zone and The X-Files spawned imitators and spin-offs, so too is the current success of television horror reproducing across the spectrum.

AMC's shambling zombie phenomenon The Walking Dead proves the appeal of horror to modern television networks, and is the progenitor of a new golden age of television scares. Upon its debut in 2010, The Walking Dead was the most-watched premiere in AMC history. Its premiere in the fourth season was the most-watched cable programme in history with 16.11 million people tuning in, besting even the Breaking Bad finale. Indeed, The Walking Dead is the most-watched non-sports cable drama in history and the fourth-season premiere was the highest-rated programme of the week, across broadcast and cable networks in the lucrative 18-49 demographic. Following suit, Hemlock Grove garnered more new Netflix subscribers in its first couple of days than its Emmy-winning political drama House Of Cards, without the name draws of Kevin Spacey and David Fincher (though Hemlock Grove does have gore-meister Eli Roth pulling the strings and squirting the corn syrup). Robert Rodriguez’s From Dusk Til Dawn: The Series, a Netflix original outside of the US and Latin America, performed similiarly well for the online TV network. Showtime's Penny Dreadful outdrew the debuts of both Homeland and Masters Of Sex, and was the youngest-skewing drama for Showtime since Dexter chopped up ne'er-do-wells in Florida. Supernatural and The Vampire Diaries currently prop up the CW, with Supernatural outlasting its original corporate parent, The WB Network.

“Feed your fear”

The wide variety of horror options - with something for every taste and scare level - is the reason horror programming has taken off in the fractured television landscape. With audiences increasingly turning to non-traditional delivery systems like Netflix and DVRs for their television consumption, the key to a profitable programme is attracting a devoted group in a particular demographic. Roth’s Hemlock Grove, one of Netflix’s first original series, was an apt match of context and content, helping it form part of today’s TV horror vanguard. The very thing that is killing the traditional sitcom and drama format is proving to be a boon to the discerning niche consumer.

Horror fans are far from a specific demographic, but there is a broad spectrum of people on whom shows can focus to find an audience. If you want to cater to heart-throb seeking teens and still have decent scares, that's easy to pull off if your leads are Sam and Dean Winchester. If you're looking to pull in a slightly older audience looking for a gorgeously violent folie a deux, then you turn to Hugh Dancy, Mads Mikkelsen, and Bryan Fuller. Vera Farmiga and Freddie Highmore power the audience-pleasing black comedy of a particular motel with a very famous name. If you want a little supernatural romance, a little high-school drama, and a little bit of surprisingly stylish violence, Russell Mulcahy and Jeff Davis's Teen Wolf is a great choice - and surprisingly capable of bringing scares to MTV.

"Everyone is entitled to one good scare"

 

In this case, the various horror programmes all reach different audiences and have different groups in mind. The days of drawing 30 or 40 million eyeballs is a thing of the past; the goal is drawing the right 4 or 5 million eyeballs that will tune in or to add a couple of million more subscribing customers. Horror has proven to be exceedingly good at this, and if viewers want to avoid spoilers, they have to tune into the broadcast or devour the show in big gulps of binge-watching. The growing after-show industry is proof that horror television is still capable of filling programming blocks and keeping viewers sticking around after the episode is over to hear show staff, genre experts, and celebrity fans discuss the televised madness.

In the new world of television, obsession counts almost as much as ratings. If Twitter buzzes with comments, shippers take to Tumblr in droves, and gifs of the bloodiest, funniest moments pop up within hours of air, that's a sign that a show is going to be a success. Horror is a naturally cult phenomenon, but once viewers drink the Kool-Aid and get sucked in, they typically don't leave until a show leaves them. In the new entertainment landscape, that's more valuable than ever.

 

Hemlock Grove’s ten-episode second season comes to Netflix on Friday the 11th of July

Images and trailer from Netflix, AMC, NBC, Vampira And Me.

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An article about horror TV and no mention of M.R. James, Tales Of The Unexpected, Hammer House Of Horror, Armchair Thriller or the legendary Nigel Kneale?

Those would all be ripe for a look at UK TV horror, agreed! This article appears to focus on US stuff. Good read.

Good call on Kneale, esp as the John Mills Quatermass was more horror than SF. Also a hand up for Ultraviolet. And how a look at modern TV horror could forget the last episode of Inside No 9 is......MISCHIEF!

I am loving that there are so many great horror shows to choose from. I really want to start watching Bates Motel and Hannibal. I couldn't really get into Hemlock Grove, I'm not sure that Eli Roth understands that sex and violence is not the same as plot. Penny Dreadful was rather hit and miss for me. The pilot and the finale were awesome but I felt it didn't have much direction in between. Dracula and Salem are both pretty poor unfortunately. I don't get it either - Dracula should make for an awesome TV series on source material alone. My girlfriend is massively into American Horror Story, though I can't say it's something I'm too eager to watch.

As for The Walking Dead, it's my favourite show second only to Game of Thrones. I've got plenty of issues with it (particularly Seasons 1 and 3) but Season 4 was incredible. I'm glad that they're moving away from the comic stories now.

I've been enjoying Salem, although I've noticed that the plot is pretty much going nowhere at the moment.
I've been saying this for a while now, but horror TV is becoming big again and I for one am very happy with that. Now, if we could just get a Lovecraft adaptation that'd be great.

Penny Dreadful was a real surprise...the surprise being that it's actually good. I'll be sad when it's over! And even sadder when Hannibal ends (I'm watching in the UK so avoiding your reviews for the moment) - this season has been brilliant.

I definitely enjoyed the first few episodes of Salem, but I felt it went downhill really quickly to the point that I didn't care to watch any more. The cinematography and visual design of it is great, but I don't think the writing and most of all, the acting was up to scratch. Especially John Alden and Mary Sibley - far too hammy for the gritty and serious tone the makers seemed to be going for.

But Lovecraft? Oh yes, give me that any day. Call of Cthulhu would make a great three-part pilot season and Shadow Over Innsmouth/Dunwich Horror would make excellent extended series. Not to mention all the others.

Sadly I'm reading this shortly after being introduced to cancelled TV series The Fades, which would've been awesome if it had been allowed a second series. At least BBC3 have been able to keep In The Flesh going beyond a first series. And I'm looking forward to the return of, erm, The Returned later this year. It's nice to see horror that's both scary and well written, stuff that's a bit more cerebral.

I quite enjoyed The Fades too, but i have heard a lot of people saying they didn't like it. I must admit, the idea that Ghost, Zombies and Vampires are all the same thing in different stages of their life cycle was a rather cooky idea.

There's only been Inside No.9 and In The Flesh for UK horror lately. The current situation is abysmal. Mind you, the entirety of British television except Doctor Who, Sherlock, Utopia, Black Mirror, In The Flesh and Inside No.9 is abysmal anyway.

Shadow over Innsmouth was on Radio 4 extra a couple of months ago, as was The Willows by Blackwood and I am Legend, Fear on Four etc. hmmmm radio horror, is there an article on that I wonder?

HANNIBAL is the best show on network (non-cable) TV, in my view. And I'm very glad the show will get a third season.

^This. I'm absolutely stoked that it's getting a third season, unlike Bryan Fuller's other shows (which were all deserving of it, but never got it).

Or Mockingbird Lane, which only got a pilot that was run as a Halloween "special".

Good point there M. I'm surprised no one has picked up and run with a Lovecraft adaptation for TV yet. Given the current fascination with his work I would have though it would be a home run.

Hemlock Grove was a steaming mess of bull manure, but each to their own I guess. Bates Motel was a decent curiosity just felt like it wasn't quite holding together or that the writers were quite sure where the were going with it. Haven't seen Hannibal or Penny Dreadful so cant comment on those other than i have been hearing good things.
Golden age maybe not but darn close id say. If someone could revive tales of the unexpected with some well written scripts and the original title sequence its Golden all the way.

Ha ha ha----loved the comments about the required amount of millions of eyeballs to watch TV shows for ratings--that was funny! I love horror,whether it's on movies or TV--will always love horror movies,though.

I was about to post something similar. Radio works so well as a medium for horror, because (and this is always the bench mark for good horror movies) you don't see the monster, and your imagination works so much better as a way of inducing fear than what your eyes can see (on tv anyway). One of the scariest things I remember as a kid was the Ladybird audio cassette and book of hound of the Baskervilles; firstly because the cover was scary and secondly the atmosphere of dread the audio track provided. More Radio horror BBC

Oh yeah i remember that, it's a shame that it wasn't picked up, his sense of humour and style would have worked brilliantly for The Munsters

Definitely check out Hannibal, i haven't seen Bates Motel but that is meant to be good too.

No mention of American Horror Story, love that show. Really enjoyed Penny Dreadful, Walking Dead Season 4 was great and True Blood I can now take or leave. Think I will give Hannibal a go next.

And American Horror Story....

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