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.’

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Lights Out (1946-1952) – Radio to TV

If you like stuff like The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits, you should check out Lights Out. It was a TV show that ran from 1946-1952 and featured the kind of weird stories and situations that would make those later shows famous. It also illustrates one of the key issues about television at the time. Although many critics today see television horror as a poor relation to cinematic horror, Lights Out was an adaptation of a radio horror show that had started in the 1930s. The radio show was hugely popular throughout the 1930s and 1940s and, after 1936, it was associated with the figure of Arch Oboler, an outspoken anti-fascist who was fond of social and political themes.

Also, during this period, it was radio, rather than cinema, that was the mass medium, and horror was one of its key genres at the time. For example, if one looks at the radio output of Orson Welles during the late 1930s, it is striking how many of the stories that he adapted were clearly associated with Gothic horror. Furthermore, he not only decided to make Dracula the first radio production of his Mercury Theater radio show, but his infamous radio broadcast of War of the Worlds was clearly intended as a horror story and was broadcast on Halloween. Welles had even built up a major reputation on radio as the voice of The Shadow, a radio superhero with mystic powers and an emphatic association with horror. (For more on Welles, radio and horror, see my article, Shadows and Bogeymen: Horror, Stylization and the Critical Reception of Orson Welles during the 1940s.)

Consequently, the kinds of horror that one finds in Lights Out are very different from those associated with cinematic horror at the time. Indeed, 1946, when Lights Out started on TV, was precisely the point at which the cinematic horror cycle of the 1940s went into decline before the resurrection of horror in the 1950s, with the SF-horror films that followed The Thing from Another World (1951). (It fact, it is interesting that Lights Out had already been playing with the relationship between horror and science fiction on the television well before 1951.)

Lights Out did not focus on monsters, or on Gothic villainy, but rather on the weird and uncanny. In The Dark Image, for example, a wife is menaced by a mirror that was the property of her husband’s former lover. Initially oppressed by its presence, she eventually finds herself trapped on the other side of the glass, her rival having taken her place in our world. Furthermore, the process of her entrapment in the mirror is fascinatingly visualized, and requires one to rethink the common claim that television is somehow less visual than cinema and is therefore a problematic medium for horror.

The sequence is highly visual and uses trick photography to convey the notions of doubling, transference and entrapment, but it does not do so in a literal way. It does not aim for verisimilitude but for something more suggestive or metaphorical. In other words, it demonstrates that, even in the late 1940s and early 1950s, television was clearly a visual medium, and that it was experimenting with visual techniques of story-telling, even if it sometimes visualized things in terms that were different to those common in the cinema.

It is no surprise then that Rod Serling claimed to have been inspired by Oboler and by shows like Lights Out. Of course, you shouldn’t expect the kinds of production values on which Serling was able to count a decade later but, as a fun-filled glimpse into an imaginative and experimental period of television horror, Lights Out has much to offer.

Welcome

In the mid 1980s, Gregory Waller claimed that ‘made-for-television horror would seem to be by definition impossible’. Nor is this position rare in commentary upon horror and even Stephen King in his study of the genre, Danse Macabre, argues that television is ‘dedicated to the pervasion of the status quo and the concept of the LOP – Least Objectionable Programming’, a situation that places it in tension with the horror genre, the ‘bedrock’ of which ‘is simply this: you gotta scare the audience’.

Nor have these assumption about television horror changed much since the 1980s; and, as Matt Hills points out, when looking ‘at more recent academic surveys of television and genre, one could still be forgiven for assuming that “Horror TV” … does not meaningfully exist as a category’ in so far as it does not even appear in volumes such as Creeber’s The Television Genre Book (2001) and many of the ‘possible candidates’ for a discussion of television horror (such as Twin Peaks, Buffy the Vampire Slayer or The X-Files) are ‘generically nominated in ways that render horror relatively invisible’.

Of course, there is now a huge amount of work on specific contemporary examples of television horror, with articles, books and even whole journals dedicated to Twin Peaks, The X-Files, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, But most of this work concentrates on the period from the 1990s onwards, and often explicitly associates the emergence of such shows with changes in television, and the emergence of what is sometimes referred to as ‘TVII’. In this account, there is little challenge to the accounts of television presented by Waller, except that these accounts are restricted to a specific period of television history (‘TVI’). In other words, his position goes unchallenged in relation to earlier periods, but it is claimed that institutional and aesthetic changes in the 1980s not only made television horror a possibility but also well suited to the new era.

It would seem that, in the past, horror television was still ‘by definition impossible.

However, horror television certainly did exist in the past, and both Waller and King not only acknowledge its long history of horror television, a history that goes back to the very earliest days of the medium, but  also celebrate certain supposedly exceptional texts as classics. However, despite being anomalous or exceptional, it would seem that horror television is actually associated with many key moments in television history. For example, The Quatermass Experiment is often cited, whether rightly or wrongly, as one of the defining moments in the history of British television that is second only to the televised Coronation of Queen Elizabeth the Second. In other words, as Charles Barr has argued, it was ‘a landmark … in intensity of audience response’, accounts of which have become legendary, and probably exaggerated, but the sense is that this series, like the Coronation were ‘must see’ events that made television essential viewing at a time when the medium was attempt to build its audiences.

The show was therefore pivotal both in the development of audiences and in its significance for the industry and it was developed as the BBC’s answer to the campaigns for a commercial competitor, a campaign that resulted in introduction of Independent Television in 1955. As a result, Lez Cooke argues that the series ‘may be seen to mark the moment at which television drama in Britain finally broke free from the shadows of cinema, radio and theatre to offer its first truly original production.’

Even when they were not pivotal to key historical moments of television, horror television is hardly rare and the landscape of television history is littered with classic examples, a brief survey of which would include, Lights Out, Nigel Kneale’s adaptation of 1984, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Boris Karloff’s Thriller, The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, Out of the Unknown, Night Gallery, Dr Who, Dark Shadows, the BBC Christmas Ghost Stories, Mystery and Imagination, Brian Clemens’ Thriller, The Stone Tape, The Night Stalker, and Duel.

Indeed, in the early years of television in the UK, horror was seen well suited to the new medium and even before The Quatermass Experiment the BBC had been drawn to horror materials and, after World War 11 and the resumption of television broadcasting in the late 1940s, the BBC quickly turned to horror as the basis for many of its single plays. Two plays that are often cited as key examples of what the BBC referred to as ‘horror plays’ were Rope (January 1947) and The Two Mrs Carrolls (February 1947), although these were adaptations of theatrical hits, that would also be the subject of cinematic adaptations at around the same time, Jason Jacobs has demonstrated that the BBC used these horror materials in the hope that they would help the Corporation to establish a ‘new aesthetic’ for television drama that would both create a distinctive feel and exploit features seen as specific to the medium of television. As a result, Jacobs quotes a memo from Robert MacDermot, Head of BBC Television Drama, to Cecil McGiven, Head of Television, in which he suggests that ghost stories might be well suited to television, and could be used to ‘create a very effective eerie atmosphere’. Rather than a situation in which ‘made-for-television horror would seem to be by definition impossible’, the BBC seemed to both hope and fear that the ‘intimate’ quality of television would make it particularly effective as a horror medium.

Of course, this begs the question: if at one time horror was seen as well-suited to television, what changed? Also, can anyone name other examples of the horror plays?

In this blog, I want to start by discussing some of my favourite horror television shows, and some of my pet peeves. These may include some of the titles listed above but they will also include a range of other example: Beasts; Doomwatch; and Kolchak: The Night Stalker. However, while I plan to focus on television, I decided not to limit myself too much, which is why I have included film in the title of this blog. Also, given that not all horror television programming is exclusively or even predominantly identified as horror, I have gone for the slightly more open notion of ‘the fantastic’.

I hope people will get something out of what follows, or at least enjoy it. Oh, and please feel to suggest examples.