In TV’s golden age, some of the grisliest images can be found on broadcast television — like when “Hannibal” invited a guest to feed their own face to the hounds. Or they’re on basic cable, like the bone-breaking suitcase stuffing in “The Americans,” or on streaming services, such as when Bob becomes demo-dog food in “Stranger Things 2.”
Premium channels remain as gruesome as ever — “Dexter” certainly drained the blood from our cheeks — but lately, their best horror shows don’t need gore to leave a mark. “Sharp Objects” had our teeth rattling even before the final dollhouse discovery, while “Twin Peaks: The Return” was haunting down to the final scream. Both shows, along with many more, illustrate how even as Standards and Practices let more unsettling scenes slide, TV can terrify without getting squeamish.
TV horror is the subject of this week’s Very Good TV Podcast, and IndieWire TV Editor Liz Shannon Miller and TV Critic Ben Travers dissect it (sorry) with the help of Vox’s Critic at Large, Todd VanDerWerff. The co-author of “Monsters of the Week: The Complete Critical Companion to ‘The X-Files,'” as well as a longtime horror aficionado, VanDerWerff provides invaluable commentary on the state of the genre and its future on TV. (Plus, there’s some time for a little “Hereditary” talk.)
Halloween marks the perfect time for a case study with AMC’s survival drama “The Terror.” The 10-part limited series delivered lasting chills while tracking two boatfuls of adventurers who found themselves stranded in a frozen wasteland and a mysterious force picking them off in packs. Though Tuunbaq turned out plenty of red dye for festive snowcones, the inescapable, unkillable cold proved even more frightening. Survival horror like this proves far more sustainable when dealing with a 10 hours of narrative, as opposed to two.
Comedy can also repeatedly punctuate scares without losing steam, as demonstrated in FX’s “American Horror Story: Apocalypse,” which arguably spurred more laughs than screams. Set in an underground bunker after humanity was all-but-wiped out by a nuclear holocaust, the most recent season utilized a talented team of comics — Leslie Grossman and Billy Eichner, especially — to add dark humor to the bleak new world. Shifting in tone between kitschy lines like, “The stew is Stu!” and watching naked men get scrubbed bloody emphasizes both reactions: When the jokes are funnier, the scares are scarier.
TV is also reinventing classic horror tropes. Netflix’s “The Haunting of Hill House” utilizes all the recurring effects of the genre to evoke anxiety. As the Crain family tries to figure out what’s going on in their home, floorboards creek with foreboding; doors shut without reason; people suddenly appear at the end of the hallway; ghosts hover above bodies and crawl under the bed. It’s spooky fun that can feel like a throwback to simpler times. Long stretches without curse words, let alone dismembered bodies, give the false impression “Hill House” could be family friendly. It’s not — unless shared nightmares are a family activity.
Modern series light on gore evoke a time when gross-outs were more carefully monitored. “The X-Files” aired with ominous warnings — “Viewer Discretion Advised” preceded airings and were even featured in advertisements — in order to amp up the tension surrounding whatever unexplained phenomenon Mulder and Scully investigated that week. However, even with its surfeit of conspiracy theories and an episode featuring a flukeman that crawled out of a toilet to eat people, “The X-Files” never made its name on carnage. Episodes like “Die Hand Die Verletzt” drew out psychological horror while one of the most critically hailed entries, “Home,” wasn’t very bloody at all.
Beyond the whims of Standards & Practices, TV doesn’t really lend itself to blood feasts. Longer runtimes, whether multiple episodes or multiple seasons, mean showrunners can’t waste time dousing stars with stage blood; they’ll wear out their audience. Similarly, audiences will balk if they kill off too many characters. (How “The Walking Dead” handles Andrew Lincoln’s departure, and if the fans stick around, will be a big test of this theory.)
And then there’s the catharsis problem. Most scary movies culminate in a tipping point, where the terror crescendos in a showdown between good and evil. TV can’t provide that every week; it needs to find more enduring means to deliver jolts and relief.
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