Getting Spooky With Style: Horror in Television
By Leigh M. Lane
The past few years have been good to horror fans looking for something innovative and creepy to grace their television sets. The late ‘50s and early ‘60s had The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits, the ‘80s and ‘90s offered some decent contributions with Tales from the Darkside, Tales from the Crypt and, to a lesser degree, Friday the 13th: the Series. For the most part, however, good, serious horror remained on either the written page or in film.
In these recent years, there has been a shift in attitude toward horror’s value as a genre, particularly in cable television. Producers, writers, and directors have begun to realize they can raise the bar to cinematic and literary levels. Most notably have been FX’s American Horror Story and AMC’s The Walking Dead. What makes these series so exceptional is the approach those involved in their production have taken in making them. Not surprisingly, what makes them unique now is similar to what made The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits so innovative for their time.
Much of what has made the past few decades of horror in television so weak has been its adherence to past conventions. Producers seemed to think “tried and true” was the recipe for success, when in reality it created a notable stagnation. Even with the success shared by Tales from the Darkside and Tales from the Crypt, clear reinventions of The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits, the shows were hit or miss. Moreover, they did nothing special to ensure any type of legacy because they lacked the backbone and subtext their predecessors so boldly exhibited.
The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits were not great simply because they found new ways to thrill and surprise their audiences; they were great because their episodes were the collective venue for statements few others in their time dared to make. They were social and political commentaries given under the guise of alien attacks, inhuman creatures threatening all who cross their paths, and supernatural threats fueled by supreme evils targeting the greater good. Fears of Martian attacks were representations of fears fueled by the Cold War. Evil forces were in actuality the evils within the capability of humankind. Unnatural disasters were the potential destruction that existed within the scope of human error.
A Modern Approach
What makes FX’s American Horror Story and AMC’s The Walking Dead so successful is a repetition of the past that unquestionably demonstrates that which we ought not to repeat.
American Horror Story is as much a commentary on perception, bigotry, and social issues within our youth as it is a terrifying narrative about supernatural evils. Its use of recurring cast members playing wildly different roles between seasons, obscure camera angles, and surprising twists in characterizations tells us not to trust our first instincts or generalizations about any individual or group. What you see is not what you get, the truth about a person or situation often lying well below the visible surface. What the show has to offer is an honest look at social conventions through the lens of an outsider’s point of view. He whom we might deem the misfit is actually the victim, what at first glance seems the saint is the greatest threat, she whom we might judge as the least intellectual is actually the seer. The horror comes with the juxtaposition of illusory mysticism and gritty realism in a way that forces us not only to delve beneath the characters’ facades but within ourselves.
The Walking Dead offers a similar transposition of the fantastic and the grossly real, creating a parallel between the undead monsters stalking the living and the human monsters that pose just as much of a danger to the ever-tearing social fabric. Racial and cultural lines dissolve into a greater demographic that is determined by circumstance alone: us v. not us. What makes this series so edgy and unique, though, is its willingness to keep no character safe. Today’s leading protagonist could very easily be tomorrow’s new threat. Trust, both in definition and expression, is a fuzzy term that evolves as quickly as the shrinking slice of civilization in which it takes place.
The Future of Horror
The foundation these series are currently laying, like similar innovators of the past, are helping to bring horror back into the forefront of their posts. They are proving that the genre is capable of offering so much more than cheap thrills. Hopefully, this will lead to more advances in quality speculative fiction on all fronts. Efforts like those being made by Coffin Hop, using horror for humanitarian causes, helps even further to legitimize the genre as the smart, progressive vehicle it is by taking what efforts of the past have contributed and giving them tangible purpose.
What is your take on this? What do you feel defines good horror? Leave a comment for a chance to win a signed copy of Leigh M. Lane’s Gothic horror novel, Finding Poe.
About the Author
Leigh M. Lane has been writing for over twenty years. She has ten published novels and twelve published short stories divided among different genre-specific pseudonyms. She is married to editor Thomas B. Lane, Jr. and currently resides in the beautiful mountains of western Montana.
Her traditional Gothic horror novel, Finding Poe, was a 2013 EPIC Awards finalist in horror. Her other novels include the supernatural thriller, The Hidden Valley Horror, inspired by Barker, Bradbury, and King; World-Mart, a tribute to Orwell, Serling, and Vonnegut; and the dark allegorical tale, Myths of Gods. For more about Leigh M. Lane and her work, visit her website at http://www.cerebralwriter.com.