Crash Analysis: Do Horror and Television Really Work Together?

The much anticipated “Bates Motel” on A&E garnered an audience of three million – the  highest ever for the channel. Thanks to the legendary success of Hitchcock’s PSYCHO (1960), the epic favorite still looms large in the American psyche, so why not tune in? Personally, I didn’t care until I heard that the phenomenal Vera Farmiga would take the lead as the “beloved” mother, and Nestor Carbonell as the sheriff.

In all honesty, I wasn’t expecting much due to one major factor: Norman Bates’ world is too small. Thumbing his nose at American suburbia, Hitchcock showed the impossibility and despair of “finding one’s own island” in the milieu of our fabricated neighborhoods. Marion (Janet Leigh) would never find her elusive freedom, especially on Norman’s bubble of an island of his own psychotic making.

To develop a television show around a world in microcosm would prove difficult. The characters would be few, and there couldn’t be a murder each week due to small town slim pickin’s. From the get go in “Bates Motel”, Norman (played well by Freddie Highmore) discovers his dead father, with the clear indication that mommy dearest had bludgeoned the man and went off to shower. It’s not surprising the shower element made itself so prominent in the beginning, and one can only surmise that Norman will discover at some point the truth of his father’s demise.

Granted, Norma Bates (Farmiga) is a complex character with self-righteous notions, and a passive-aggressive nature that will keep her son Norman confused and ultimately at the breaking point. For Norman, he’s a good kid lost in a sea of mental chaos, with an internal rage that will only become darker and erupt in a tsunami of murderous proportions. The good news is that the complexity of character adds depth to the overall story, but how can we watch two people self-destruct for years on end? Maybe this is why the show’s creators will introduce another Bates, a brother, in the upcoming episode. (I’m curious as to their approach to this conundrum: Norman hates blood, as if a phobia, yet somehow manages to engage in taxidermy.)

The worst part about the production was the trite and cliché ridden bathroom scene, which was completely devoid of suspense. How many times have we seen a dead body stuffed in a tub while someone hit the toilet or washed up in the sink? Please.

But this small world leads to the same problem that plagues “The Walking Dead” – it’s a soap opera first, and a horror second.

In the opening of “The Walking Dead”, many were thrilled to see Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) shoot a young zombie girl between the eyes and take her out. I instantly fell in love, and thought the series would be gritty as well as relentless. After all, the previews, comprised of phenomenal special effects proved to be too riveting to ignore. In short order, however, this little band of human survivors turned out to be a whiny crew from a bad daytime soap. They indulged in lengthy tear-stained monologues while a zombie shambled along in the background on occasion. Sigh. If only bigoted yet gutsy zombie killer Daryl Dixon (Norman Reedus) would leave the cry baby group and its bickering, and head out on his own with crossbow at the ready, we’d definitely have something worth watching.

Reedus’s character is the only complex one in the bunch. But that’s not the worst of “The Walking Dead”: the writing’s awful. Regardless of the beloved comic books from Robert Kirkman, and artists Tony Moore, and Charlie Adlard, the show has major issues. I had trudged through the first season, and laughed at the big finale: Letting a grenade blow in a closed in building would leave one deaf. And to be just yards away from the CDC when it explodes in grand fashion would have shattered the vehicles’ windows. Even so, I wanted to love the show, to finally embrace a horror television series with grade A special makeup effects, and watched the first episode of season two. To have Christ on his cross, a Roman Catholic image, in a Baptist church is ludicrous – and to have two separate characters have some special time with the Christ figure to unload their woes is extremely weak.

I bailed on the soap, and all its human tears.

And although I will give “Bates Motel” another shot or two, I know the soapiness of it all will leave me no choice but to change the channel. One wonders if the forthcoming “Hannibal” series will be any better.

As for horror and television, Zacherle, Vampira, Elvira and other ghostly hosts led the way to campy frights over the decades, and even a claymation six-fingered hand on WPIX forewarned us of the willies to come with “Chiller” (See the intro here: We’ve had horror mixed with over-the-top comedy in “The Munsters”, “The Addams Family”, and even “Scooby Doo”. Rod Serling delivered some horrific nuggets with “Night Gallery” and “The Twilight Zone”. And the stand alone episodes of series seemed to work extremely well, from Canada’s “Tales from the Dark Side”, to cable’s tongue-in-cheek “Tales from the Crypt”, “The Hitchhiker”, and maybe the best, though sometimes disappointing showcase, “Masters of Horror”. Holy Hell, we even had a bona fide soap opera with the long-lived “Dark Shadows” from the UK. Though maybe even more diehard fans indulge in “Supernatural”, “Veronica Mars”, “American Horror Story”, Boris Karloff’s “Thriller”, and “True Blood” – to name but a few. As for mini-series, Stephen King’s stories led the charge, though most were long-winded and ultimately disappointing, such as “It”, “The Stand”, and “The Langoliers”, though back in the day, “Salem’s Lot” left me clinging to the walls and still has quite a following.

From all my years of watching far too much television, here’s the best horror related shows the boob tube ever offered:

“Buffy the Vampire Slayer” (1997-2003)

Comedic – sure. Dramatic – on a grand scale. Each episode of Whedon’s fantastic “Buffy” had more suspense and crises than any fullblown episode of “ER”, “Chicago Hope” or what have you. Thanks to the ever-changing stories and idiosyncratic characters, viewers were caught in a whirlwind of post teen angst and mayhem that kept them riveted for years.

“Angel” (1999-2004)

The most successful television spinoff of all time? This series incorporated more of a serious, brooding tone than “Buffy”, but once again, Whedon worked his magic in delivering strong characters and a host of storylines to keep viewers tuning in.

“Friday the 13th: The Series” (1987-1990)

Yes, everyone hated the name of this one from Canada, but the premise amazed: a curio shop of cursed items that our little group of heroes had to collect from very misinformed buyers. Some episodes lacked luster, but many viewers fell in love with Robey as the female lead, and kept watching. The show was cool, violent, and was dark enough to satisfy true horror fans.

“She-Wolf of London” (1990-1991)

Only twenty fun episodes exist, but the character interactions between werewolf (Kate Hodge) and doctor (Neil Dickson) made it all worthwhile. The problem had to do with the UK producers. When they dropped out, filming moved to Los Angeles, and the entire project disintegrated.

“Twin Peaks” (1990-1991)

David Lynch served up small town quirkiness on a Salvador Dali inspired platter. The bizarro show and its sideshow characters, rocked viewers’ minds with the refrain: Who killed Laura Palmer? As for horror, there are some scares in the show that rival even the best films in the genre – especially when Frank Silva came on screen.

My favorite “could have been a contender” series, was the very short-lived “Brimstone” (1998-1999). Only lucky number thirteen episodes, the series’ creators presented a wonderful project that wasn’t ready enough for the small screen. Peter Horton played Ezekiel Stone, a detective banished to Hell after joyfully murdering the guy who had killed his wife. But 113 souls had escaped from that dark realm, and the Devil (John Glover) gave Stone the job to bring them all back. Once his mission’s over, he could rejoin his wife in Heaven. Regardless of the clunky start and under-developed stories, the interchange between Horton and Glover is not to be missed. In fact, Glover plays one of the greatest Devils of all times, and his performance alone proves fascinating.

So where does that leave us?

We’ve had some spooky fun over the years, but once the comedy element is extracted, we’re left with either a usually hokey gorefest, or something that tries to be edgy – or dramatic soap operas that try way too hard. It’s as if series developers want audiences to see that horror is much more than typical “genre” fair. That’s perfectly fine, and I’m all for it, but “Bates Motel” and “The Walking Dead” need to stop with the sappy, melodramatic soapiness. Today’s producers should look at David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks” (and Angelo Badalamenti’s stellar score), Whedon’s masterful “Buffy” and “Angel” series, and the story depth associated with the best of “The Twilight Zone”. Otherwise, we’ll be left with shows that look good, incorporate wonderful actors, but offer nothing of substance beyond pools of blood mixed with tears.

2 Replies to “Crash Analysis: Do Horror and Television Really Work Together?”

  1. Good article in general, although I do not share your take on The Walking Dead. However, you are the only writer I’ve run across that noticed the Catholic Cross in the Primitive Baptist Church. You get props for that.

    Tom Bryant
    BA Philosophy – Clemson Univ.
    MA Religious Studies – Univ. of South Florida

    1. Thanks. And believe me, I will give “The Walking Dead” another chance. I have the season finale saved and will indulge when I’m in the right state of mind. Here’s hoping…

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