This Week in Horror
I thought for a change of pace today I might talk about the past week in the supernatural—the fictional kind that is. It was a big week for supernatural horror, and I have a few thoughts about some of the highlights.
I might as well start with the disappointing conclusion to the first season of The Strain, which ended its run last Sunday. The FX series, based on the literary trilogy of the same name, was marketed as a “unique” and “original” take on the vampire genre, but after watching the full thirteen episode run, my view of the show hasn’t changed since the pilot. The show is in no way original but rather a postmodern mashup of earlier vampire stories, and the only parts of the series that actually work well are the Gothic elements stolen wholesale from iterations of Dracula. As I noted in reviewing the pilot episode, the doomed plane motif was lifted almost verbatim from the “Demeter” scene in Dracula, and things did not progress much from there.
To the extent that the Master works as a character, it is because he steals mightily from Dracula. He skitters up walls like the Count, takes his visage and clothing from Nosferatu, and—in the rip-off most critics overlooked—he speaks to his minions in Biblical language and imagery; this is taken over directly from the novel Dracula, where the Count is presented as an Antichrist and speaks in the language of the New Testament devil: “All these lives will I give you, ay, and many more and greater, through countless ages, if you will fall down and worship me!” (cf. Matthew 4:9). Critics, like LaToya Ferguson of The A.V. Club praised the show for its unconventional view that religion is powerless before a material evil that works in the idiom of faith. But this is merely a reversal of Dracula, where the Count is the Devil rather than God, and not a clever reversal at that.
But the most bizarre of the show’s many—let’s call them “adaptations”—is the idea that there are some dead but dreaming Old Ones whom we must fear to waken, with a gnarly dude who speaks for them. They are a close parallel—and not a welcome one—to the Ancient Ones who sleep on their pillars in H. P. Lovecraft’s “Through the Gates of the Silver Key” and speak through ’Umr at-Tawil, the Prolonged of Life. But as really old vampires, they are nothing if not close copies of the Old Ones from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, originally introduced as vampire versions of the their Lovecraftian progenitors early in the show’s run. Not that Buffy was unique there, either; hierarchies of ancient vampires are a dime a dozen.
But I’ve wasted enough space on this juvenile version of vampire horror, though if you are interested in the backstory to the apparently dreadful new film Dracula Untold, my article on the real life inspiration for the cave where Vlad goes to gain superpowers from a cranky old vampire might be of interest to you.
Anyway, speaking of the Prolonged of Life, this week also saw the return of Supernatural for its tenth season, which makes it one of the longest-running horror series in television history, longer than Night Gallery (three seasons), Dark Shadows (six seasons), and even The X-Files (nine seasons). It’s also morphed into a weird, virtually all-male soap opera that bears only a passing resemblance to the show it began as in 2005.
Earlier this week the CW had a Supernatural special in which the show’s staff discussed the production, and I was amused but not surprised to see that everything I liked about the original conception of the show, the current show-runners considered its worst aspects, and everything I hate they found to be of overwhelming interest. They singled out the show’s second episode, “Wendigo” (2005), as a particular low point because of poor special effects and a lack of soap opera drama. Oddly enough, I’d have placed the episode high up on the list of early successes because it was a strong distillation of a B-level horror movie into 40 minutes.
In fact, in my 2008 book Knowing Fear—written during Supernatural’s second season (2006-2007)—I specifically praised the show for its adaptation of horror movie plots and its use of the forbidden knowledge motif. Then, of course, the show took a hard turn and doubled down on demons, added angels, and became a caricature of a Catholic guilt trip. Pretty much everything established in the first season or two—from the nonexistence of angels to the unparalleled power and horror of demons—went by the wayside, and what remained was … different.
I wasn’t surprised, but I was disappointed, to hear the production team talk about their love of the angel stories and of the endlessly repeated fraternal angst motif, both aspects I’d have avoided. Of course, doing so would have made Supernatural more like Kolchak: The Night Stalker, and it undoubtedly would have flamed out years ago since a decent semi-anthology of suspense is almost impossible to maintain. But would it have burned brighter than the current soap opera that masquerades in the original version of the show’s clothes?
Lastly, the biggest news in horror this week wasn’t technically supernatural at all. American Horror Story: Freak Show debuted this week, taking a clear inspiration from Tod Browning’s 1932 horror classic Freaks (his follow-up to Dracula), from which the first episode borrows the classic line “One of us!” (If the final scene of Freak Show’s first episode is any indication, it may even be a kind of sequel to Freaks.) American Horror Story is more of a Gothic novel than a horror story, despite its name, and this latest iteration of the horror franchise managed a series of scenes that were grotesque, though not exactly horrifying.
Like the movie that inspired it, Freak Show asks us to simultaneously sympathize with and gawk at its “freaks,” some of whom appear as themselves without computer or makeup enhancement. It’s hard line to walk, and a single episode is nothing to judge the series by. I discuss the role of freak shows in the development of the horror genre in Knowing Fear, including the unconscionable fact that in the 1800s, gentlemen would pay for the privilege of poking the freaks with a stick. Seriously. It was considered educational.
That said, I want to note the presence of a killer clown in the show. The evil clown is kidnapping kids for some ungodly purpose, but the costume used for the killer clown is that of Pagliacci, the Victorian-era killer clown of opera, whom I discussed in my pieces on killer clowns earlier this year. It’s good to know that American Horror Story respects the origins of this weird, mostly modern trope.
10/12/2014 05:41:07 am
The idea of a killer clown kidnapping kids reminds me of Stephen King's It. In that story Pennywise the Clown kidnaps and kills children following a hibernation period of about 30 years. I happen to think it's one of King's best novels.
10/12/2014 06:31:27 am
I thought the first AHS FREAK SHOW was excellent now I have to admit to bias since FREAKS is one of my favorite movies and I have worked closely for years with SHOCKED AND AMAZED helping promote and document modern and classic burlesque and sideshows acts. I hope it continues along the path it introduced in the first episode and uses the series normal absurd and over the top presentation within the parameters it was set up. Overall my favorite offering of the series so far and I cannot wait to see what is going to happen. Also on a side note the creators of AHS did spent a decent amount of time interviewing James Taylor that head of SHOCKED AND AMAZED in their research of sideshows and the mysteries and myths behind them.
10/12/2014 06:34:40 am
I'm going to agree with you that of the four season of AHS so far, this one probably had the best produced and most promising opening episode. I, too, am interested to see where they are going with it.
10/12/2014 07:23:14 am
My one complaint so far is that of the clown itself. I thought the use of modern makeup really took that character out of the Fifties time period that episode exists in. That said the use of David Bowie and Fionna Apples songs was fantastic, I would gladly pay to see a burlesque/sideshow review as was presented in the show, truly fantastic and really set a great twisted mood.
10/12/2014 07:18:51 am
"a weird, virtually all-male soap opera"
10/12/2014 07:19:15 am
10/12/2014 07:14:10 am
- the sleeping vampires sounds extremely close to White Wolf's Antediluvians. I assume you are familiar with it, but it's worth mentioning anyway. They seemed like something between a modest Lovecraft homage to something more akin to Rice's Queen of the Damned (and of course, White Wolf stole liberally from Rice's books up and down the line).
10/12/2014 08:13:48 am
Regarding ATMoM, yes, I think it's for the best.
10/12/2014 08:43:12 am
And again, I'd say it's a more extreme version of what you routinely see in serial entertainment. And it isn't like relationship drama is exclusively found in female-focused fiction. Superhero comics went down that road a long-time ago, and as I was trying to get at with too many words, the plot structure, the angst, etc. is just not that different from a lot of superhero comics from the 1970s on. Yes there are more fisticuffs and less sucking of necks and wrists and such, but yeah. Whedon's career of comics and Buffy and Angel (which as much as the Whedonites don't want to admit it, Buffy is a lot closer to paranormal romance than they might want to think, even before we got tortured angsty Spike with his shirt always off during Marti Noxon's final handling of the show) being a perfect example.
10/12/2014 10:45:39 am
I have nothing against paranormal romance: "The Vampire Diaries" announced what it planned to do up front and stuck with it, and became a decent genre show for it, at least until sheer age started to weigh it down. Paranormal romance is a return to the Gothic and the Romantic--and probably why so many are set in the South. The only reasons Supernatural stands out is (a) the lack of actual romance and (b) the hard turn the show made from its original concept (X-Files for the WB set), which is also the reason for (a). It's unusual in TV, where shows very rarely change into something different, and even more rarely pretend that they didn't and it was part of the plan all along.
10/12/2014 12:07:55 pm
Well sure, PR is what is, if one is honest about it. But it has taken a while to get there, and I think part of the reason many do revile it is that it can get confused for other "genre" material. This stuff did emerge out of "urban fantasy" and other material in the 1990s (Laurel Hamilton's descent from White Wolfish before White Wolf urban fantasy to supernatural erotica, for example). Or people who get pissed off about Twilight, but less so Shades of Grey, since one is more obvious about what it is.
10/12/2014 02:47:16 pm
"people who get pissed off about Twilight, but less so Shades of Grey, since one is more obvious about what it is."
10/12/2014 09:50:16 am
Just out of curiosity, has anyone here read much Stanislaw Lem? And if so, do you have any thoughts on the "horror" side of his work?
10/12/2014 10:28:21 am
" Tod Browning’s 1932 horror classic Freaks ".
10/12/2014 12:46:57 pm
The first season (the one you are referring to) was by far the weakest entry into the series. The second season had some great moments but the whole alien thing kind of ruined it for me. I thought the third season was pretty strong.
10/12/2014 05:57:46 pm
While I'd agree, as most seem to, that the first season was certainly the weakest. I have to disagree with the Columbine remark. School shootings are a very real thing and have been before and since Columbine. Had the details of the show's school shooter directly paralleled those of the Columbine massacre, there might be call for some condemnation, but they don't.
10/13/2014 09:27:42 pm
I happen some of the best TV out there to be fictionalizations of school Shootings. Degrassi and One Tree Hill both did brilliant storylines.
10/12/2014 01:58:22 pm
What, no nod to Doctor Who's horror episode this week?
10/13/2014 08:00:04 am
Honestly? I was busy this weekend. This post was written before the episode aired.
10/13/2014 12:56:20 am
10/13/2014 08:01:39 am
That very interesting about the different ways that the show was marketed in the UK and here. On this side of the Pond, the (now-defunct) WB marketed it as an attempt to lure in more male viewers for an action-oriented genre show, part of its final push to broaden its audience beyond teen girls.
10/13/2014 02:08:43 pm
The irony of Twilight and 50 shades of Gray is that 50 shades was originally a slash fan fiction of Twilight with the vampire turned into a rich man and the mopey teenager turned into a vampy sexualized character. 50 shades is torture porn for soap opera watching mommies. Twilight is for their kids.
10/13/2014 09:20:14 pm
FreakShow had me thinking of Tim Burton in general and specially Batman begins quite a bit.
10/16/2014 01:48:58 am
Jason thought you might be interested in this article about how clowns are upset at AHS
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I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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