Television genres seem to ebb and flow with time. At some points, the most innovative and exciting programs are sitcoms, at other times the hour-long drama. The last decade saw a renaissance of the single-camera comedy. But one consistent trend is that television has always been an inhospitable place for the horror genre.
Horror has always belonged elsewhere. When we see a horror film in a dark, cavernous theater, we become intensely aware of the darkness that surrounds us. Even if that film gets transposed to a television set at home, we still watch it differently. It’s not broken up with commercials that rescue us from the horrors we’ve been exposed to, and there aren’t breaks between episodes where we can compose ourselves and dilute the impact of what we’ve just seen.
The biggest problem with horror on television is that it simply isn’t scary, the cardinal sin of any kind of horror. That might be because networks aren’t really interested in creating something terrifying, just something with the signifiers of a horror show. True Blood is a particularly disappointing example. The show first appeared in 2008, and for a very brief time it seemed as if there might be some genuinely shocking moments. But 2008 was also the year that the Twilight films arrived, and True Blood would turn out to be nothing more than a campier version of those films. By the third season the series had dropped any pretense of trying to frighten its audience, instead focusing on the sex- and love-lives of its characters, as well as some borderline offensive allegories about racism and homophobia. What initially seemed like a horror show was actually just Alan Ball’s attempt at chasing a popular franchise.
Other ostensibly horror-based shows would pop up that only focused on the trappings of the genre. The Vampire Diaries didn’t even keep up the illusion of being a critique of intolerance or prejudice very long before it switched its focused completely toward romance and sexy vampires. Vampires just aren’t that scary, especially when shows only focus on their potential erotic aspects. Penny Dreadful also features classic monsters like werewolves, witches, demons, and Frankenstein’s monster, plus the standard vampires. But the show also relies on the erotic elements more than any horror that could be derived from these creatures. The monsters are boxes to be checked off rather than elements of true menace.
Besides the fact that shows like True Blood lost interest in frightening their audiences, the shows illustrate another issue that plagues horror on television—the shows are too bright. Television shows usually can’t afford the highest quality cameras that a feature film might employ, and they have neither the time nor funds available to spend enough time lighting the set to get the kind of look that Ridley Scott achieves in the shadowy corridors of Alien or Stanley Kubrick gets in the sterile halls of The Shining. The lighting of most televised horror is too bright, removing the possibility of a hidden menace. It also draws attention to the artificiality of the show, which takes the audience out of the experience and lessens any kind of scare. It may also be due to network tampering. Early episodes of True Blood were brightened before broadcast by HBO because the network feared that subscribers with older televisions or poorly calibrated sets would have difficulty seeing what was happening.
Part of what makes it so difficult to make an effective horror show on television may also be due to the serialized nature of the medium. A horror film is a self-contained work (even if it ends up being sequel-ized to death), and there’s usually little need to keep the characters around for future installments. Death and violence are a necessary part of the terror, and the most effective horror films make it seem as if no one is safe from death. Psycho becomes a truly terrifying film once we realize that even the main character can’t escape a brutal and senseless death. But imagine if we knew that Janet Leigh was going to appear in ten more episodes of a Psycho television series? All that fear would be erased.
The X-Files dealt with similar issues. It was assumed that everything would be all right (eventually) with Scully and Mulder. The show could be quite suspenseful, and was often well-crafted, but the monster of the week episodes lacked a sense of urgency because we knew that the two detectives would escape unscathed. That said, the show still succeeded as a detective show and a science fiction show, just not as a horror show.
Shows like The Walking Dead and American Horror Story regularly kill characters, but rarely the most important people whom the audience has come to identify with. When The Walking Dead does dispatch an important character, it’s usually not meant to be shocking, but instead to be a noble and heroic (if gory) death. And the zombies who mete out this punishment have become so omnipresent in the show that they yield little surprise or fear.
One possible way that horror can succeed on television is through the anthology series. These shows wouldn’t be able to make up for the lower production values of television, but they would get past the problem of serialization. Audiences wouldn’t grow accustomed to the safety of a given character because they wouldn’t be part of next week’s show. The Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents were never exactly horror shows; they trafficked in suspense more than outright terror. But both shows feature a number of episodes made chilling by the fact that the audience has no idea what could possibly happen. Their contemporary offspring, Black Mirror, is also more focused on creating suspense and dread, but its structure allows it to have some very dark episodes. It may be necessary to use a similar structure in order to create a truly effective horror show.
Despite all the failures of horror television, there are still reasons for optimism. Thanks to advances in digital photography, a show like Black Mirror can still look relatively cinematic, even if it doesn’t have access to the kind of budget that a film would have. That look is important in creating something truly spooky. And although it remains a rarity, the rave reviews that Black Mirror has received suggest that audiences are at least willing to give that format a try. Science fiction also seemed like a genre not well suited to television, but then Battlestar Galactica showed that it could be well done (the current West World is also an effective entry in that genre). So perhaps horror just needs more time to develop in this medium. But it’s not there yet.