The 1980s Anthology Show

So, here is a quiz for you. Put the following figures in order of promise, if they were associated with fantasy and horror television shows of the 1980s (and early 1990s): George Romero, Stephen Speilberg and Robert Zemeckis. Who is the most likely to produce the best and who would you expect to produce the worst?

Well, you would probably be wrong.

I am not saying that it is a work of genius but Tales from the Crypt (Zemeckis, 1989-1996) is was a fun show that tried to capture some of the trashy energy of the horror comics of the 1950s, much like the Stephen King collaboration with Romero on Creepshow. Amazing Stories (Speilberg, 1985-1987) is a polished (a little too polished, if you ask me) attempt to do a kind of updated Twilight Zone. It is fun but a little uneven, with several episodes descending into the syrupy nonsense that bedevils many Speilberg efforts – it was also (possibly because of its expensive production values) the shortest lived of the three series, and only ran for two seasons, while Tales from the Crypt ran for seven seasons and Romero’s contribution ran for four seasons.

Finally, Romero’s contribution was Tales from the Darkside (1983-1988), a rather odd effort. It’s not without its charm and it has some decent stories but it also has some stinkers. Many episodes, even though they are only half an hour long (or actually about 20 minutes without the adverts), seem hopelessly padded, the final twist being painfully obvious from the outset and the efforts at its deferment being strained beyond belief. Also, the visual style is beyond dull, with many episodes being stagey, wooden and making one yearn for the visual flair of an Aaron Spelling production.

If these shows confound expectations about their origins, they also demonstrate another interesting feature, which was a strong tendency within the 1980s. While there were numerous made-for-television horror films and mini-series during this period, the television shows that followed the series format were often obsessed with nostalgia. If Tales from the Crypt paid homage to the 1950s horror comics, both Tales from the Darkside and Amazing Stories are clearly attempts to recapture some of the glory of the anthology series of the 1950s and 1960s, shows such as The Twilight Zone. The Twilight Zone was even remade as series in the period (1985-1989); as was another classic Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1985-1989). The Outer Limits was also remade, although this was a decade latter (1995-2002).

So what is going on here? Well, one could related it back to debates over postmodern nostalgia, although this would seem to suggest that this nostalgia was less a ‘cultural condition of late capitalism’ than a more historically specific phenomenon. It could therefore be argued that it was simply an updating of the obsession with the popular culture of the 1950 and 1960s that one finds in the work that King, Romero, Speilberg and Zemeckis had produced back in the 1970s. Furthermore, these shows were produced in a period during which American television was going through rapid and dramatic transformations, and many of these shows were explicitly bound up with these changes. They can therefore be seen as examples of a classic strategy in which people look back to the past as a way of negotiating change.

Next Week: Tales from the Darkside: Wheat and Chaff.

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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.’