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.
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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