“We hope to create a whole new genre — comedy horror,”
said Washington Irving,
said Wes Craven
said Elvira, Mistress of the Dark
said Ryan Murphy, regarding his new Fox series “Scream Queens”, (co-created with Brad Falchuk and Ian Brennan and set to debut in September 2015).
Given the success of his and Falchuk’s ingenious American Horror Story, Murphy’s hubris here is almost forgivable. Almost. While he didn’t create the genre, his influential contributions to horror on the small screen can’t be overlooked. But there are quite a few who came before him who deserve some credit as well.
If horror is defined as a work that produces emotional, psychological or physical responses in its viewers causing them to react with fear, then the genre of horror may be as old as storytelling. Horror has been consistently present and thriving in film since before the talkies and in literature as early as Gilgamesh. Its first literary practitioners include Mary Shelley, Edgar Allan Poe, Dante and Homer, among others.
In spite of the genre’s success in literature and film, horror hasn’t always been so prevalent on TV. In the 20th century, most horror television shows were episodic rather than serial and often appeared as horror-hybrid. Here’s a quick timeline of horror on the small screen:
1955 – Alfred Hitchcock Presents — the prolific film director and producer created this serial, which featured drama, thrillers and mysteries. Elements of humor were present, too, especially in Hitchcock’s intros.
1959 — The Twilight Zone — Rod Serling created this series of unrelated stories that contained drama, psychological thriller, fantasy, sci-fi, suspense. Episodes usually ended in a macabre or unexpected twist.
1963 — The Outer Limits — a show very similar to the Twilight Zone but with emphasis on Sci-Fi.
1964 — The Addams Family and The Munsters — sitcoms that were not truly scary, but definitely drew upon popular horror tropes.
1966 — Dark Shadows — a gothic soap that involved vampires, witches and other elements of the supernatural.
Episodic horror continued through the 20th century with shows like Tales from the Crypt and Tales from the Darkside. Networks attempted to capitalize upon the success of horror films by releasing series in the ‘80s like Freddy’s Nightmares and Friday the 13th: the Series (a show that had absolutely zero in common with its namesake), but horror on TV didn’t really catch on until the ‘90s with the emergence of The X-Files, Twin Peaks and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Younger viewers were even beckoned by the darkside with shows like Goosebumps and Are you Afraid of the Dark?
Horror can be a tricky genre to define. For example: I have extreme physical, psychological and emotional reactions to Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, but can the show still be considered a work of horror? To further explore, let’s take a look at some common subgenres of horror. I’ll provide some of my favorite examples in each category. (Note: this list is neither exhaustive nor totally serious).
Gothic: Involves stories of vampires, witches, werewolves, ghosts and demonic pacts. Examples: True Blood, Supernatural, Penny Dreadful, Teen Wolf, Vampire Diaries, Witches of East End, Dark Shadows, Salem, Twin Peaks, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Charmed, Sleepy Hollow, the Bachelorette…
Psychological: Exploits human mental anguish in order to frighten. Examples: the Twilight Zone, Black Mirror, Bates Motel, Hannibal, Hoarders…
Cosmic: Illustrates human insignificance in light of a cruel universe that casually destroys us. Examples: Black Mirror. Lost. Wayward Pines. Louie….
Religious: Desecrates what is comforting and holy in order to shock viewers. Uses symbolism of organized religion, including tales of the apocalypse, Satan, The Antichrist, and cults. Examples: Salem, American Horror Story, the Whispers, the Walking Dead, the Following, Supernatural, the Leftovers, 19 Kids and Counting…
Sci Fi: Uses horror to show the evils of scientific knowledge, the scary future, how cutting edge research can go horribly wrong, or how crippling a lack of knowledge can be. Examples: the Twilight Zone, the X-Files, Star Trek, Battlestar Gallactica, Dr. Who, Orphan Black, Lost, Sense 8, Humans, the Strain, Extant, Falling Skies…
Splatter: Uses the fragility of the human body to evoke fear. Game of Thrones, American Horror Story, The Walking Dead, Harper’s Island, Scream: the TV Series, Botched…
Survival: plays on fears of nature with human protagonists as prey or victims of creatures or forces more numerous or powerful than they are like: the undead, wild animals, disease, barbaric masses, aliens, etc. Examples: Game of Thrones, the Walking Dead, Sons of Anarchy, Lost, the Whispers, Falling Skies, Undercover Bosses, the Real Housewives…
According to the writer and horror authority Stephen King, “We make up horrors to help us cope with the real ones.” Considering this century of terrorism and climate change, daily acts of random violence and police brutality, the proliferation of technologies hell-bent on consuming us, and the unending pressure to keep up with the Kardashians, the explosion of horror on the small screen is no surprise. And it has just as much to do with Ryan Murphy as it has to do with you and me.