Scooby Doo, Where are You, Now that We Need You?

What can I say about the glory that is the original series of Scooby Doo? It is one of those shows that makes me want to sound like some BBC arts presenter, who gushes with superlatives about the rich, artistic quality, the genius that evokes Leonardo, Michelangelo. You know, that kind of stuff. I even want to suggest that our brave hero’s cry of ‘Scooby Dooby Dooooo’ reminds me of Yeats…

I know that Scooby is back with a vengeance, and it is a deep pleasure to see youngsters worshiping at his majestic feet but (and now I definitely sound like a BBC arts presenter decrying the decline of western culture) it’s just not as good as it once was. Yes, folks, I am getting old.

But what can Scooby and the Gang tell us about horror and television. Well, first, there is the association with children that we discussed a while back. The show started in the late 1960s, which was only about ten years after horror films were the first major package of films that were sold to television and developed a huge following among the kids.

Indeed, most of the humor in the series relies on a high level of familiarity with the history of the horror film. Each week, the gang would run into yet another classic monster or classic monster movie type, and the series depends upon a familiarity with these monsters, their mythologies and the narratives with which they were associated.

None the less, the show was actually strongly associated with a particular period of horror. Despite the psychedelic clothes and van design, the series is strongly rooted in the monster-hunter narratives of the 1940s, as exemplified by the Sherlock Holmes films of the 1940s.

If the Sherlock Holmes films are now remembered as detective stories, they were known as ‘mysteries’ at the time; and the term ‘mystery’ was not a separate category from ‘horror’ but meant stories of the strange, weird and uncanny. Holmes was therefore usually hunting down supposedly supernatural monsters, and even when the mystery was not a monster on the loose, the ‘mystery’ was not just a puzzle to be solved but a seemingly impossible phenomena that seemed to defy logic – even when the work of Nazis or criminal gangs.

It is therefore worth remembering that the Scooby gang drive around in ‘The Mystery Machine’, and they are teenage detectives in search of clues. They were monster hunters in much the same way as Holmes in the 1940s or Carl Kolchak in the 1970s.

This also relates to a theme that is central to the 1940s but also to horror from the Gothic novel to the present: the tension between the rational and the irrational. In the Holmes narratives, the conflict revolves around the possibility of supernatural explanation versus the power of Holmes’ rational logic. Would he be able to counter the supernatural; to give it a rational explanation? Or would the forces of the supernatural and the irrational win out?

Of course, like the Scooby gang, Holmes always finds a rational explanation; as does the detective in The Beast With Five Fingers. But in other narratives, the supernatural wins out and ridicules the powers of rational thought. Think about The X-Files for a moment!

However, Scooby Doo, Where are You? may have seemed to follow a rational logic but, let us be honest, who really cared about the key figures of rational normality, Fred or Daphne? Walking blocks of wood! Instead, it was disruptive monsters on the one hand, and the mad antics of Scooby and Shaggy on the other, that provided excitement. And Scooby and Shaggy were driven by an obsessive preoccupation with food; not the desire to solve the mystery (they ran to food and away from the mysterious and uncanny).

They are driven by the body, not the mind; they continually lapse into irrational panic; and it was usually their slapstick clumsiness that captured the menace, not Fred and Daphne’s carefully laid traps. And then, of course, the two blocks of wood are finally upstaged by Velma, who explains everything; and she was in almost all ways far closer to Shaggy and Scooby than Fred or Daphne, being another teenager outsider: the bespectacled smart girl. God, one can only imagine the humiliation that Daphne must have heaped upon her in the locker room back at school!

At the present, teen horror series a huge on television following Buffy the Vampire Slayer (in which Buffy’s group called themselves the Scooby gang); and, consequently, while Buffy may have been highly important in industrial terms, Scooby Doo hangs over the whole output (from Buffy to Pretty Little Liars, Supernatural, Teen Wolf, and The Vampire Diaries) like some grand ur-text; or some renaissance master: Leonardo, Michelangelo …

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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.’

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.