A Very Short History of Television Horror

 I love a good horror movie as much as the next fan, but truthfully many films I see today I watch when they reach DVD. Some might argue that these frights are better experienced in a dark theater than in the safety of one’s own home. Perhaps…but I spent my childhood in the 70’s and that was time when television shows didn’t bore us to tears with “reality” or what I like to call “tales of unrealistic teenage dramas.” (As my son Devin astutely noted, “I like to watch Pretty Little Liars…with the sound off.”)

In the 70’s you could get your fill of horror with a little weekend television…and that was before cable. Some of the best “horror” stories I have experienced have been while sitting on the sofa. True, these might not hold up today and you certainly couldn’t be as “graphic” on the small screen as you can the large, but take a look at the history of television horror and I believe you’ll find some gems. One might start with a TV series called Science Fiction Theater (1955-1957) but few of us have probably seen any of the episodes. What was important about this series is that it was the predecessor to the father of Scary Television – The Twilight Zone.

Twilight Zone: I doubt I have to say a word about this series. If I choose a word however, that word would be EPIC. It is an Icon and seldom does a July 4th weekend marathon occur that I don’t spend hours re-watching these episodes. Even if it’s not necessarily frightening, this 1959 to 1964 series is not only just good fun, but it launched many careers and my own interest in writing horror.

The Outer Limits ran on ABC from 1963 to 1965  and was inspired in part by TZ. It took less of a fantasy approach to the topic and focused more on science fiction. Originally titled, “Please Stand by,” many of the episodes were shot by cinematographer Conrad Hall. Mr. Hall went on to work on the films Butch Cassidy, American Beauty, Road to Perdition and a bunch others. I didn’t liked the Outer Limits as much as Twilight Zone, but interestingly TZ fans often misremember Outer Limits episodes as a TZ. A fun little fact is that several of the creatures and props from Outer Limits wound up in episodes of the Star Trek series.

The Night Gallery was another masterpiece of horror and suspense by Rod Serling. Unfortunately Mr. Serling did not have the same control on NG as he did on TZ and the series  suffered for it. It ran from 1970 to 1973 and I liked the “art gallery” opening where these little moments of horror could be captured in a painting.  The Night Gallery  updated the look and feel of the Twilight Zone, It was darker and more horror related than the science fiction themes found in its predecessor. Unfortunately the show did not enjoy syndication to the degree that Twilight Zone did.

Ghost Story/Circle of Fear: I was six when this show hit the airwaves in 1972 (Really mom? You let me watch this?). The second episode of Ghost Story (The Dead We Leave Behind) tells the tale of a man who kills his wife and her lover and buries them in the shed. They of course come back from the grave and the final film shots are of the husband cowered under a table as their shadows fall across the floor. Well I was left with a number of sleepless nights and a love for things that come back from the grave. Later the show was retitled Circle of Fear and in my opinion had the better episodes. I have the entire thing on a very bad reprint disk set (you actually catch some of the commercials) and hope someone at Screen Gems will bring this back to life. Twilight Zone inspired my love for the genre, but it was this show that comes through in my writing style and the content of my short stories.

The Night Stalker: ABC produced two “made for television movies” called The Night Stalker and The Night Strangler – the popularity of which led to the series, The Night Stalker. We follow a reporter who investigates various murders that always turn out to be of a supernatural source (vampires, werewolves, monsters). As a kid that’s what I wanted to do when I grew up…be a reporter that hunts supernatural things…hmmm I guess that dream is still alive.

Creature Feature/ Chiller: There was another way to get our fill of horror. It was Chiller which ran on WPIX out of New York and Creature Feature which I have no idea who ran it. These two hour shows featured films from the 50’s and 60’s and is where I first saw Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Every so often a local station revives the idea, although the approach is a campy and comedic back drop which sort of annoys me as I feel it makes light of a noble genre….okay even if some of the films are bad.

Throughout the 1980’s and 1990’s most of the horror genre moved to cable stations where the shows could get a little more graphic and producers could capture the less than mainstream viewer. There have been revivals of the Twilight Zone and Outer Limits – some good episodes and some not so good. The Night Stalker enjoyed a short revival but I think poor acting or poor scripting killed that. There have also been really great series like the X-Files and pay stations have dabbled with HBO’s “Tales From the Crypt” and Showtimes “Masters of Horror.” In 1991 with the launch of the SyFy channel many of the aforementioned series were kept alive and today we are treated to an entire compliment of “made for television” movies.

Lucky for us, television scares are far from over.  Cable Stations like SyFy and Fearnet and Netflix provide horror fans with all kinds of options. In the world of television, we can always be certain that if something catches on, everyone wants to cash in and that has turned out to be very good news for horror series lovers. Today we can get our fill of hunting monsters with the Winchester Boy’s on Supernatural (CW) which features a great story line and outstanding research on all things supernatural…plus an excellent soundtrack. Sci-Fi fans can tune into Fringe (FOX) which is definitely reminiscent of the Night Stalker. And it hardly ends there.

American Horror Story on FX has turned out to be great and popular. The ghost’s are crazy, the killings gruesome and of course they didn’t leave out the sex. Something that we all expect when we are dealing with horror and FX.

The Walking Dead: If you even remotely like zombies and have not checked in on this AMC series, you are missing greatness. The writers and producers have done an excellent job at bringing the zombie apocalypse to the small screen. I record almost all of the television programs I want to watch, but this is one I watch when it airs. I still record it, but only so that I can see it a second time.

Less scary and more drama driven are the Vampire Diaries, The Secret Circle, Grim, and The Lost Girl just to name a few. Clearly horror television is experiencing a big comeback. ABC will soon release its own series, The River (found footage, my favorite) and if they do it right others will follow. People love this stuff, people love to be scared, people are really tired of “reality” shows (well I am). I’m no analyst (well not of movies anyway) but the horror trend on television seems to mirror that in theaters (There were 28 horror movie releases in 2011 compared to just 13 in 2001). It’s a genre that has always experienced and ebb and tide of popularity, but I am grateful that we seem to be in “game on” mode. Now if these producers are willing to focus on serious and well written scripts then I think there will some great things for the future of horror…at least I hope.

 

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