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Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Fear Invades the Living Room: A History of Horror TV, Part 1

Although often overshadowed by the older and less limited tradition of horror in theatrical motion pictures, the horror genre has nevertheless been a constant and important part of the history of television dating back to its very beginning as a commercial medium. It might be a more confined format in terms of running time, and in recent decades in terms of content, but horror television has benefited from something that all TV shows benefit from to one degree or another: intimacy.

It's an intimacy that the more communal movie experience doesn't allow (even more true in the pre-VCR age). And when it comes to a genre whose purpose it is to get under your skin, to exploit that which unsettles and frightens you, that level of intimacy is a major advantage.

Even though the phenomenon of TV didn't take root until after World War II, the concept of horror entertainment within the privacy of one's own home wasn't quite novel even then--after all, horror programs had already been a staple of radio stations going back decades. Perhaps that was why, in the beginning, horror was able to get its footing on television by drawing directly on that earlier medium.

It was Lights Out, a hugely popular horror/thriller anthology radio show of the 1940s, that was the first to make the transition. In 1946, the first of four Lights Out specials aired on American TV, the nation's first real taste of the boob tube's power to send a tingle down the spine using both audio and video components. They were followed in 1949 with a regular Lights Out series that ran for two seasons, presenting tales of the supernatural, some even based on the horror stories of authors such as Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allen Poe.

Once Lights Out was a hit, the door was open for a slew of anthology series, most based on the old radio format. In those early days, TV programmers were eager to fill their schedules with whatever they could get their hands on, and further radio adaptations such as Suspense (1949-53) in the U.S. and Appointment with Fear (1949-55) in the U.K. fit the bill. Even horror movie legend Boris Karloff got into the act with a short-lived anthology he hosted called Mystery Playhouse (1949).

The format of presenting a different tale of terror each week proved a stalwart of the early years of television, and Karloff wasn't the only cinematic luminary to benefit from its potential. In 1955, understanding how a TV series could act as the greatest form of self-promotion possible, director Alfred Hitchcock, best known for his suspense thrillers, kicked off his very own anthology show: Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Enormously popular, it ran for nine seasons, giving viewers a condensed TV version of Hitchcock's trademark blend of dark humor and murderous mayhem.

Aside from anthology programming, the other distinguishing feature of horror TV in the '50s was an obvious one. After all, what easier way for content-crazed programmers to fill their slates than by showing previously released movies? B-grade horror films were among the most easily acquired, and thus soon became a late-night staple. Across the nation, hordes of "horror hosts" sprang up. These campy personalities were hired by TV stations to introduce the movies, as well provide entertaining segues to run before and after commercial breaks. The first of these was Vampira, whose 1954-55 program out of Los Angeles set the standard. Among later hosts, New York's Zacherley--"The Cool Ghoul"--was the epitome.

The biggest windfall ever enjoyed by these types of programs was the 1957 leasing to TV by Universal Pictures of its impressive library of 1930s and '40s horror classics. Packaged as "Shock Theatre", the collection of movies that included Dracula, Frankenstein, The Wolf Man, etc., managed to repopularize those moldy oldies with a whole new generation of youngsters that ate them up with relish. An explosion in monster movie popularity resulted, producing the generation that would forever after be lovingly known as "monster kids".

Meanwhile in the U.K., there was some experimentation going on with presenting horror material in a format other than the ongoing series. The 1955 BBC presentation of The Creature starring Peter Cushing, for example, was an early example of a successful horror TV movie. And true to the British concept of limiting a "series" to a single season--more akin to what Americans would call a miniseries--the BBC also produced the landmark Quatermass Experiment in 1953. It would be followed by two other series, Quatermass II (1955) and Quatermass and the Pit (1958), and later inspired the earliest theatrical successes of Hammer Films.

Nevertheless, the Americans stuck to their anthological guns. In 1959, the series One Step Beyond debuted, showcasing paranormal tales based on supposed real-life accounts. Although a well-produced program, it would be totally eclipsed by another anthology which debuted the very same season, and which ironically did take horror TV one step beyond.

Or more accurately, to another dimension. One of sight, and sound.

Other major shows:

  • The Clock (1949-52)
  • The Web (1950-54)
  • Danger (1950-55)
  • Topper (1953-55)
  • The Veil (1958)

Soon to come: Part 2 - Terror Comes of Age


John W. Morehead said...

This is a great post based upon a great concept. Thanks for this.

B-Sol said...

My pleasure. It's not something I'd seen done elsewhere.

Wes Fierce said...

It goes without saying, Hitchcock and the Twilight Zone were so brilliant and such important cornerstones of horror, much less filmmaking and storytelling. If only the same caliber of intellect were applied to modern horror :P

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