Can TV Shows Be Scary, Actually?

Photo: Courtesy of Aidan Monaghan/AMC.
The Terror really wants to be scary. Like, very scary. In the third episode, an Inuit woman dubbed Lady Silence (Nive Nielsen) hides inside an igloo while a bear-like creature plods outside. The creature’s footsteps are heavy, and it snarls like a bear. It might actually be a large bear, but The Terror wisely chooses not to reveal its central danger just yet. At one point, the creature is close enough to the igloo’s entrance that its breath snuffs snow inside. Coupled with The Terror’s dissonant piano score, the result is more pastiche than true horror. The trimmings are there — creature, scared character, ominous music — but the flesh of it (sorry) promises something more meaty than pure terror. Lady Silence, true to her name, has yet to explain what she knows about the creature, but the show makes it clear she’s familiar with it. The creature spares her, maybe because it devoured Ciaran Hinds earlier in the episode, and it’s full. So, we know the creature has an appetite. Or, it has morals, possibly guided by a covenant with the Inuit. Whatever it is, it’s weird more than it is frightening. What, we’re supposed to jump at the idea of a giant bear looking for snacks? Once the unknown becomes known, it’s rarely terrifying. Which means, if a television show is six to 24 hours of things slowly becoming known, then television can’t ever be that scary.
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Or can it? It would certainly like to be, especially lately. There’s American Horror Story, Ryan Murphy’s take on the genre. Now in its seventh season, the series presents horror movies in ten to 13 episode increments. Or, depending how you take your scaries, it’s ten to 13 miniature horror films. When the show first premiered, Murphy told EW that he wanted to make a horror show, one that would gross people out.
“There was a shortage of creature-baby-in-the-basement-shows on TV,” Murphy said. He also added, “But this is really about our love for horror particularly which we felt as children and references from our pop culture youth.” The show isn’t frightening so much as an assembly of what once scared us. It’s freaky pastiche. Murphy said in the same interview that the writers spent their days discussing their worst fears then exorcising them via the show. The first season alone features a killer baby — the infantata — a masked rapist, several ghosts, and a school shooting.
Writing for Salon, Matt Zoller-Seitz called the first season “self-aware and incredibly high-strung.” Writes Zoller-Seitz, “It is also at once intentionally and unintentionally funny, and doesn't seem to care if you laugh at it or with it.” Narrative quibbles aside, the show is rarely all that scary. Even its title suggests it is a commentary on horror instead of horror itself. The most recent season, titled AHS: Cult, made horror out of the 2016 election of Donald Trump.
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There were a lot of scary shows for a minute, especially around the beginning of the 2010s. Some were popular; almost all of them struggled to sustain a sense of horror. There was (and is) The Walking Dead, which premiered in 2010, and True Blood, which premiered in 2008. The Walking Dead had shocks in store, especially in the beginning. Rick Grimes’ (Andrew Lincoln) first encounter with a “walker” — stumbling through an empty hospital months after zombies made it to Atlanta — is one of TV’s most suspenseful sequences. But, as the season progressed, the zombies became familiar faces. Now, in season 8, they are little more than grubby deus ex zombinas, there to force narrative movement. (Bored with your show? Kill someone!) The visibility of the monster is inversely proportional to the fear factor; the more we see the walkers, the less we fear them. True Blood was just a grittier version of Twilight — the vampires weren’t scary as much as they were hawt, and the show indulged the idea of werepanthers (like werewolves, but with panthers). Like AHS, True Blood fell prey to too many tropes.
In 2013, Netflix made a horror show called Hemlock Grove, which faced similar problems. There were too many weird things at work to focus on one, intensifying terror. Netflix made a second attempt with Stranger Things, which didn’t even market itself as horror. It was very upfront about being a show built on nostalgia, something all horror shows seem to be reaching for.
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Murphy in particular mentioned “baby-in-a-basement” television as something he wanted to see in the television landscape. He might be referring to Are You Afraid of the Dark?, an anthology series from the ‘90s. Or The Twilight Zone, also an anthology. He might also be referencing Twin Peaks, one of the few television shows that might fall under the ‘horror’ category.
David Lynch’s Twin Peaks isn't, well, anything really. It defies genre categorisation by being evasive. The revival, which aired last summer, had genuinely scary moments, like when a frog clambered inside the mouth of a sleeping girl. It also had tender moments, silly moments, and Michael-Cera-came-out-of-nowhere moments. Horror is hard to maintain, but not when it's punctuated by other genres.
Horror movies, for the record, tend to be short. A Quiet Place, the silent horror film currently making waves, weighs in at 95 minutes. Psycho is 105 minutes. The 2017 version of It was a full two hours and fifteen minutes, but — oop — the movie stopped being scary at 90 minutes. Being terrified is a hard emotion to maintain, especially when your mind wants so desperately to feel safe again. Once the unknowable becomes known — "it" reveals itself, or the demogorgon slinks out of the shadows — it stops feeding your frantic, terrified imagination.
The Terror has other genres going for it. It's brusque, Victorian, and heavy on the drama. In the fourth episode, which aired last night, the wives of the captains stranded in the arctic plead with the navy to recover the lost ships. They are dismissed (women!), despite their growing suspicion that something's gone horribly wrong. The moment isn't horrifying as much as it is good drama and foreshadowing. Later, the creature reappears and kidnaps Strong (Freddie Graves), one of the ship's men. A creature who kills is scary; a creature who kidnaps is less so. The creature is going to become a character, which means he won't be that scary! This doesn't mean Jared Harris, who plays Crozier, is any less compelling. It just means you can watch it late at night and buddy-less. Prestige television just wasn't meant to make you pee yourself.
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