Horror and television has had a somewhat patchy relationship over the years, and while there have been some great successes, many horror shows have died a death. And a recurring problem down the years has been that the horror genre’s prime objective of terrifying and/or disturbing its audience often conflicts with the contemporary ethos of what is acceptable to broadcast. Hence when the winds of the zeitgeist are blowing in the direction of safe, sanitised, family-friendly viewing at all times, horror telly has its fangs and claws blunted.
And it’s very telling that the titans of terrifying TV are largely one-off affairs: either TV movies such as Ghostwatch, The Stone Tape, The Night Stalker and Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, or particular episodes of anthology shows such as The Twilight Zone or Tales of the Unexpected. Partly this is due to the twitchy nature of TV execs who want viewers to tune in week after week for a predictably popular recipe of more of the same, rather than scaring them out of their wits and risk not only them not tuning in again but floods of angry complaints. However it’s also tied up with the fact that in the horror genre familiarity tends to rob the material of its fear factor.
So then bearing the above trends in mind, my first thought would be to head into anthology territory. But perhaps not a weekly show running in traditional seasons, as this carries the risk of the audience becoming at first too comfortable with the format and secondly bored with it. After all, history shows that as captivating as shows like The Twilight Zone, Tales of the Unexpected, The Outer Limits or Tales From the Darkside were, after a while audiences get wise to the tropes and twist-in-the-tale endings, and what was once startling and fresh becomes run of the mill and they stop tuning in.
Instead I’d take my cue from the 1970s BBC: when the subject of most frightening TV arises there’s nearly always several stories from their Ghost Stories For Christmas. Now this was a series that ran throughout that decade, regularly delivered top notch chills and yet comprised of but a single episode per year, screened late upon a Yuletide night. So then I’d institute a similar approach – like this highly respected series we’d adapt classic tales of terror for the screen, and to the same high standards with visionary direction, quality cinematography and respected thespians. But as well as bringing the stories of vintage favourites like MR James to the screen, I’d also delve into the work of more recent masters such as Ramsey Campbell. But rather than doing just one production a year I’d extend the format so you’d have a delicious dose of dread several times a year. Obviously Christmas would be one slot, but I’d add productions for Halloween, Midsummer and Walpurgis Night (May Day Eve) so there’d be some ghoulish goings-on for every season. And perhaps we could call it “Strange Quarters” or perhaps “Hung, Drawn and Quartered”!
Of course some of you may consider that proposal something of a cop out as it’s effectively a string one-off rather than a proper ongoing TV series…
Now a more traditional show has many more pitfalls to dodge. Recent entries into televisual terror such as Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Supernatural and True Blood have delivered monsters and blood aplenty, and are a whole lot of fun, they are not exactly terrifying are they? Even harder edged fare such as Dexter and The Walking Dead, while they are gripping television they aren’t particularly a source of sleepless nights either.
The trouble is with the basic set-up of many horror shows has heroes dealing with assorted ghouls and maniacs every week. And so, the audience soon stops fearing the monsters as it’s pretty much a given that our lead characters are going to save the day every week. The classic example of this is Carl Kolchak, the grandfather of all our current TV heroes investigating the weird. His frist two appearances were in the TV movie The Night Stalker and its sequel The Night Strangler, two highlights in the canon of TV terror. However when he got his own series, (entitled Kolchak, The Night Stalker naturally), the suspension of disbelief necessary for chills to flourish became increasingly strained. The first two movies traded heavily on the fact that this downtrodden journalist had uncovered the existence of strange beings which no one else seriously believed in, and so it was difficult to sustain this dramatic device week in week out and fans were soon calling the show ‘Kolchak’s Monster of the Week’.
And this is a continuing problem for horror shows. Both Buffy and Supernatural fail in the fear stakes because with every subsequent series our protagonists move further away from being isolated heroes dealing with unknown threats. Instead they inhabit a fictional universe that is heavily populated by supernatural forces, and not only are the monsters commonplace but for every weekly menace there’s a handy expert or occult tome that has all the answers. And additionally over time our heroes are frequently are developing super powers.
Now a key factor to generating fear, in my opinion at least, is that your source of terror should be mysterious – the audience, if not the heroes themselves, should be thinking “what the hell is that!” rather than “oh, vampire again eh”. And equally there shouldn’t be well known stock solutions i.e. “Werewolves? Pass the silver bullets”. And while I enjoy exercises in alternative world building, often horror shows go too far; for example Buffy and Angel made their monsters so familiar, not only are they no big shakes on the shiver scales, but they were being represented as paranormal minority groups rather than avatars of the Other. It’s very telling that by far and away the scariest episode of Buffy featured a wholly original and enigmatic enemy, the superbly creepy Gentlemen.
Hence a format that encourages an overly familiar monster of the week is right out. And another common curse of TV shows is having no defined end points. Now while on paper this doesn’t seem a problem for a show with an open ended format but unlike Dexter and True Blood where each season is a serial telling one story, these nearly all episodic series often have a loose story arc to ensure there is some sort of season finale. And here’s where the problem lies – every season needs a bigger and better threat to round off with, and so if the show lasts more than three years you end up with characters joking about how many times they’ve saved the world and what number apocalypse this is.
Therefore it’s vital I think to have a game plan to stop this kind of dramatic escalation draining the life out of a series, whether it’s a built-in reset switch like regeneration in Doctor Who or a carefully choreographed story line spread over several seasons like Fringe is doing. And the most egregious error of all of course is claiming that there is such a plan when really there ain’t (“pulling a Lucas” as we call it round here) and then finding you’ve written yourself into a corner - yes Lost and Battlestar Galactica I AM looking at you. As the old adage goes a failure to plan is a plan to fail…
So then bearing all the above in mind, what’s my pitch for an on-going horror show? The setting contemporary Britain – though globe trotting could be in order in later series. The characters - a motley bunch of ordinary folk drawn together by unravelling the initial weird happenings who end up forming a group of investigators. Note there’d be no shadowy secret organisations, no magic computers/technology, and no special powers. The supernatural strangeness they encounter must be dealt with the same resources you and I would have: there’d be no font of occult knowledge instead they’d just have the same books as you’d find in the local library or bookstore.
Rather than a different menace every week, I’d divide seasons up into a mix of two and three parters; a series of cases that lead into each other. For example the series would begin with a character moving into a house that appears to be haunted, additional characters are introduced as they investigate and the case would close with the realisation that there appears to be similar outbreaks of high weirdness occurring in the same area. And through investigating these subsequent cases, gradually the full cast would be assembled over the first season – I’d definitely follow the pattern set by Blakes’ 7 which takes its time building up both its team of heroes and their milieu rather go the Firefly route that drops you in the deep end with a large crew and an unfamiliar universe (which Fox dickery aside, I heavily suspect was partly why it didn’t pick up enough viewers). And all of this would lead to a finale tackling the root source of the strangeness. Season Two who see our merry band discovering that the events in their area are not an isolated incident…
But although the case would build upon one another, we would be avoiding leading up to apocalypse scenarios. Instead the real climaxes would be discovering new information or evidence that redefines the nature of the weirdness they are facing. And instead of exploring the familiar pop culture mythos of vampires, werewolves and zombies, instead we be delving into the strange stories you find in Forteana and authentic folklore. There is a wealth of untapped material here – for example the British mythical beast, the woodwose (a medieval being of the forests that is kind of part way between Sasquatch and the Green Man), the winged serpents and wyrms that terrorised the Middle Ages, or the hosts of Faerie who are a far cry from fey humanised elves of Tolkein or the cute butterfly winged nymphs of children’s books.
But like William Hope Hodgson’s Carnacki stories or HP Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos, these old legends would prove to have new and bizarre origins that leave our heroes and hopefully the audience too questioning the nature of reality. A good reference point here is perhaps the finest of the weird detective shows Sapphire & Steel where what begins are a conventional ghost story leads to strange and unusual reveals such as The Shape, a being that haunts every photograph that has ever been taken… And just to maximise the unexpected, we should borrow an additional leaf from Carnacki’s book, and ensure that every case doesn’t turn out to have a supernatural cause; ordinary human skulduggery should be uncovered, just to keep the audience guessing.
Now aside from a lack of the usual tropes to aid our investigators, I’d be careful to ensure that the cast cannot easily be divided into heroes and sidekicks. Being a bunch of ordinary folk with no experts or authorities, dramatic tension could be built up by having them tussle for who’s in charge or debating how to deal with a particular problem. Additional such a group of characters that are given equal importance in the story would make it easy to bring in new cast members when the show needs some new blood, and you couldn't assume any one character won’t suffer a terrible fate because they get the more screen time…
Right then, all we need now is a title… how about ‘Shadowplay’?