Made-for-Television Horror Films

The made-for-television horror film is an odd object. It gets a fairly dismissive treatment in Greg Waller’s essay on the subject (in his collection American Horrors) where he claims that it is preoccupied with the ‘child-less, married woman, twenty to twenty-five years old, who is before all else identified as a wife’ or the figure of the ‘psychic investigator’. Of course, the latter type is a rather strange one to take issue with as it includes examples like the rather wonderful exploits of figures such as Carl Kolchak, the protagonist of Matheson’s truly wonderful made-for-television horror film, The Night Stalker, which most people agree to be a classic (and not just a classic of television horror but of horror more generally)!

The former type is also interesting but in a different way; and is based on an explicit preference for stories that do not ‘overwhelmingly adopt a narrative form based on the personal adventures of an individual protagonist or small group’ and in which ‘the horror is [not] localized, identified as a single incident’. However, this preference is also a gendered response. In other words, this response relies on an established options between the public and the private, in which the public is seen as ‘properly social and political’ while the private is ‘relegated to the realms of “escape”‘, the realms of the ‘localized’ and the ‘individual’. However, as Angela Partington claims, such a distinction is ‘a consequence of the critic’s class and gender-specific notions of’ politics, a notion that is quite at odds, for example, with ‘experience of working-class women’ for whom the social and political are experienced as precisely ‘private and emotional’ and vice versa: the ‘private and emotional’ are therefore deeply social and political.

Furthermore, such a position seems to oddly reject precisely those kinds of narratives that one might see as heirs to a long tradition of female Gothics. Consequently, if Waller is right about its prominence within made-for-television horror film, this category would benefit from a lot more discussion, and I hope to return to this in later entries. However, I am not at all convinced that made-for-television horror films are dominated by such types and, even if they are, there are still a wide range of other types.

The Night Stalker and its sequel, The Night Strangler, were examples of the psychic investigator, as was The Possessed, a rather weird made for television horror film in which James Farentino plays a mysterious figure who wanders the earth confronting evil and finds himself battling dark forces in a girl’s school. However, there was also a series of classic horror adaptations produced by Dan Curtis. In The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Dracula (again written by Matheson) the terrifically tragic Jack Palance starred as the respective monsters, while The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Turn of the Screw were built around other actors.

It should also be remembered that Stephen Spielberg started off in television and that his first film, Duel, was a made-for-television horror film (yet again written by Matheson) that was only given a theatrical release after its reception on television. The film tells the story of an ordinary man who, while traveling across country in his car, is menaced by a mysterious truck.

In short, there is a rich and diverse body of work within the made-for-television horror film. Some examples, such as The Possessed, are preposterous but fun. Others such as Duel or The Night Stalker are acknowledged as classics. And yet others, if Waller is right, represent a prolific, if largely forgotten, body of female Gothics.

Of course, the made-for-television horror film is very different from the made-for-television mini-series which I will discuss on another occasion but is another rich tradition that includes examples such as The Dark Secret of Harvest Home and numerous adaptions of Stephen King novels including Salem’s Lot (twice), It, The Tommyknockers, The Stand and The Shining. But that is for another day.

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Algernon Blackwood (1936) – a host of fears

As my dear friend, Derek Johnston, is fond of reminding me, the first night of scheduled television in the UK ended with a couple of ghost stories told by Algernon Blackwood. Also, as Derek usually adds, this choice by the BBC drew on formats familiar in their radio service. Like Lights Out, then, this event illustrates the ways in which, in its early years, television horror initially drew on models from radio, rather than cinema. Nor was this transmission a one-off event, and Blackwood appeared on television for a number of years afterward, where his recital of horror stories became a regular feature of the schedules. So much so, that the BBC continued the format in later years, when Lord Dunsany followed Blackwood as a horror narrator.

However, there are also other aspects of these shows that are worth commenting upon. The format draws on the tradition of oral storytelling, a tradition that is used in a range of different types of television programming (Jackanory, the News, etc.) but seems to have acquired a particular significance in relation to horror. Television horror has used the figure of the narrator as a frame for its horror tales in a way that is very rare in cinematic horror. The use of John Houseman at the start of John Carpenter’s The Fog is one of only a handful of cinematic examples, but given Houseman’s was a close collaborator with Orson Welles, the fact that he is telling a ghost story to a group of children huddled around a campfire, and that the film’s central character runs a radio station, which she uses to hold a community together in the face of vast supernatural forces, this opening may be highly suggestive in ways that should become clear later.

First, while this technique is rare in cinematic horror, radio horror was fond of this convention, as can be seen in the case of ‘the Man in Black’ from Appointment with Fear and later The Man in Black, but also in a range of other examples (see Richard Hand’s Terror on the Air!). Similarly, it is a major feature in television horror: Alfred Hitchcock Presents used the great director as a host, who book-ended the stories with his macabre wit; Thriller employed the figure of Boris Karloff in a similar way; The Twilight Zone featured Rod Serling; Great Mysteries had Orson Welles; The Night Stalker and The Norliss Tapes both had fictional characters narrate their stories (the former was told by Carl Kolchak while the latter were supposed to be the taped files of David Norliss, although it never developed into the series that it appears to have been designed to become); Night Gallery was (again) hosted by Rod Serling; Tales of the Unexpected was, at least initially, introduced by Roald Dahl; Tales from the Darkside had an unnamed narrator; and Tales from the Crypt had the crypt-keeper. Even the screenings of horror films on television have a long history of being introduced by horror hosts, a practice that dates back to 1957 when ‘Shock Theater’ showed a series of Universal horror films on television that were often hosted by figures such as ‘Zackerley’ and ‘Vampira’.

One function of these horror hosts is that they were able to create a sense of consistency across different stories. Without Alfred Hitchcock’s introductions, Alfred Hitchcock Presents would not have been a show but simply a series of individual plays. In this way, these hosts also work as a kind of guarentor or brand that can encourages trust and a sense that people know what to expect.

On another level, they operate to set the tone, to generate a sense of anticipation by hinting at the horrors to come, or a sense of light-heartedness that encourages viewers not to take things to seriously or even overtly ridicule what they are about to watch- horror hosts such as ‘Zackerley’ and ‘Vampira’ established an overtly camp relationship to the films that they introduced; and both Hitchcock and Karloff established a sense that the macabre stories that they introduced were meant to establish a playful relationship with their audience and did not simply pander to unhealthy tastes.

To some extent, then, the figure of the narrator in television horror works to illegitimate the horror story and another way in which it seeks to do so is by relating the horror tale to a tradition of oral storytelling. Rather than simply gruesome stories, the shows are aligned with more comfortable notions of the traditional bedtime story: Blackwood’s stories were read just before the end of transmission as a way of signalling the close-down and sending everyone off to bed. But they were also reminiscent of the fireside story and particularly the horror stories traditionally told to children around camp fires on dark nights – which is explicitly what Houseman is doing at the opening of Carpenter’s The Fog.

These associations are interesting in other ways. First, they relate the narration not simply with oral traditions but traditions associated with childhood; and, second, they associate such acts of storytelling narration with special events that occurs outside of normal, everyday life. The bedtime story is a transitional tale that takes the child from the world of everyday life to the world of sleep and dreams; and while the fireside story takes place within the domestic interior, the campfire story takes place at a time outside normal everyday schedules (normally a holiday period) when the child can stay up late and when the child is often away at camp. Sleepovers are also commonly associated with the oral telling of frightening tales, and again it is often seen as special occasions when do not have to return to their respective homes at the end of the day, as would normally be the case, but when they can stay together and stay up late,

But the horror host does more than simply associate these stories with oral storytelling. The common description of them as hosts is also significant. Television horror is often seen as inappropriate to the home, and the uncanny literally means unfamiliar and its Freudian use is drawn from Freud’s ‘unheimliche’ or unhomely. But there are questions about why anyone would let the uncanny into our homes (television commonly being seen as a primarily domestic medium). One answer may be in the term ‘host’, a host being someone who often welcomes you into their home. In other words, the host may work to mediate between the world of domestic security and the world of unsettling horror. Rather than audiences welcoming horror into the domestic, the host takes them out of their domestic existences and welcomes them into the world of horror.

Much has been written about the television as a technology that mediates between the home and the world beyond it, either enabling people to stay inside while remaining aware of the world outside, or enabling people to travel without leaving the comfort of their living rooms. The horror host captures something of this quality, acting as a conduit between the domestic interior and the world outside. But such a conduit does not simply keep things separate but always puts them in play with one another. Sometimes this is felt as pleasurable escape from routines of domestic life, sometime a threatening blurring of the line between the two worlds, and sometimes as calling the distinctions between the two into question: as Alfred Hitchcock is famously quoted as saying,’One of television’s great contributions is that it brought murder back into the home, where it belongs.’