As Halloween looms less than a week away, this time of year would usually be a period of celebration for the quintessential horror fan. Unfortunately, the month of October has been severely deficient in its output of quality horror movies. Or horror movies in general for that matter. Since the first week of October, the major studios have only released three movies that can reside comfortably within the horror genre. While the critically savaged “Dream House” was ultimately disowned by its director as well as by stars Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz, “The Thing” turned out to be a CGI-heavy retread of the terrifying 1982 John Carpenter film, minus the scares or any semblance of character development. Sure, “Paranormal Activity 3” managed to provide a few reliable jumps, but the freshness of this hand-held camera franchise has long since disappeared. With only one more Friday to go before pumpkins give way to turkeys (or more realistically, Christmas decorations), it seems that horror fans will have to place their hopes on a more productive 2012.
So why am I writing about such a depressing topic? And isn’t this supposed to be a television column? Well, in contrast to the sad state of affairs that has characterized the film industry’s treatment of the horror genre, television has thankfully stepped in to fill this void. This trend, however, has changed dramatically in recent years. Ever since “The X-Files” ended its nine-season run in 2002, television executives have proved reluctant to green-light pilots that legitimately qualify as horror shows. Granted, there has been some logic behind these decisions. Has anyone ever heard of “Harper’s Island” (essentially an update of Agatha Christie’s murder mystery “And Then There Were None”) or “Happy Town” (think “Twin Peaks” without David Lynch’s talent)? Didn’t think so; they were both cancelled after one season.
Some people may claim that other modern shows, such as “Dexter” or “True Blood,” fit the horror mold. I would concede that they do (after all, serial killers and vampires have been staples of the genre for decades), but only loosely. To me, these shows lack the defining quality of any horror-based entertainment medium and the reason why I personally find the genre so appealing. While experiencing a truly great moment of horror, you have absolutely no idea what will happen next and that uncertainty, the sense that anything could happen, is what fills you with fear. This intense dread becomes such a visceral sensation that you physically feel different than you would while watching any other genre. Jason Zinoman, the author of the wonderful book “Shock Value,” also explained the appeal of the horror experience in terms of a unique sensation during an interview onNPR: “I’m often on my Blackberry worried about three things I have to do the next day, [but] I never feel more in the present than when I’m scared in a horror film. And I think that is a very addictive feeling.”
I remember experiencing this feeling last year while watching the first season of AMC’s zombie series “The Walking Dead.” Although the first few episodes draw on many of the familiar tropes of classic zombie movies, such as a man waking up from a coma in a deserted hospital (à la “28 Days Later”) or using an isolated farmhouse as refuge (à la “Night of the Living Dead”), the epic scope of the show is entirely new for a horror television series. The massive budget allocated by AMC genuinely makes viewers feel as if the world has indeed succumbed to a zombie apocalypse. Just try to watch the scene from the pilot episode, in which protagonist Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) rides through a deserted Atlanta on horseback, without getting chills. Not only do the sets and zombie special effects look fantastic, but “The Walking Dead” also fosters an emotional attachment to its characters that transcends the relatively lightweight bonds typically forged over the course of a two-hour movie. As a result, you actually care about whether or not these characters become food for the undead, a fate that has already trimmed down about half of the original cast members.
The renaissance of television horror that began with “The Walking Dead” has continued this year with the premiere of “American Horror Story” on FX. The bluntness of the show’s title should serve as a no-nonsense warning for those viewers who are faint of heart (i.e. Hilary Hamilton). After only three episodes, I can maintain that this is the most bizarrely terrifying show that I’ve had the pleasure to watch. Created by Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, two of the showrunners behind “Glee,” and starring Connie Britton of “Friday Night Lights,” “American Horror Story” centers on an emotionally and physically scarred family (psychiatrist Dad had an affair with one of his students, Mom recently suffered a brutal miscarriage and the teenage daughter cuts herself) who move to Los Angeles to begin the healing process. The only problem is that their new house is haunted with more disturbing baggage than they are.
Yes, the show is outrageously over-the-top, with scenes of dead fetuses floating in formaldehyde, kinky sex in a full-body leather suit and an archly sinister Jessica Lange making grave pronouncements like, “My womb is cursed.” On Fox, the after-school special morality that characterizes “Glee” routinely keeps the wilder instincts of Mr. Murphy and Mr. Falchuk in check. Working under the free reign afforded by the horror genre, however, excess soon becomes the norm in “American Horror Story.” For this reason, it quickly establishes itself as the most frightening show on television. The viewer remains keenly aware that anything can (and probably will) happen to these unfortunate characters, and that possibility is utterly horrifying.
Thus, while the film industry is currently in need of some fresh blood (pun very much intended), fans of the genre have the opportunity to alleviate their withdrawal symptoms with free weekly doses of “The Walking Dead” and “American Horror Story.”