Television, long the home of monstrous behavior, has never seemed like the ideal medium for actual monsters. TV has tried to generate chills over the years, but for every occasional success like “The Twilight Zone" or “The X-Files," there was a “Kolchak: The Night Stalker" or “666 Park Avenue" that was quickly killed off. If you’re looking for legitimate, jump-from-your-chair scares, the conventional wisdom goes, you’re usually better off in a theater.
Lately, though, horror has stormed the small screen, winning over viewers in large numbers by rewriting the rules specifically for the medium.
“The Walking Dead," which returns Feb. 10 to AMC, is already one of television’s most popular dramas, and “American Horror Story" is finishing up its second season on FX with a third on the way. Fox has a serial killer series, “The Following," starting its body count on Monday, and coming soon are the Jekyll and Hyde-inspired “Do No Harm" on NBC and “Cult" on CW. Meanwhile “The Vampire Diaries" (CW), “Grimm" (NBC), “True Blood" (HBO), “Supernatural" (CW) and “Being Human" (Syfy) continue to scare up decent ratings.
“Now there shouldn’t be any doubt that TV can be as frightening as feature films," said David Schulner, executive producer of “Do No Harm," which follows a kindly Philadelphia doctor by day who becomes a violent psychopath by night.
That’s not an easy accomplishment. At the cineplex the setting seems more ideal: a dark room filled with strangers. At home, however, the lights are on, and you’re sitting in the same place where you laughed at last week’s “Modern Family."
But Schulner argued there’s actually “no place scarier" for a frightfest.
“When I’m home, everything I love is near me," he said. “So the slightest creak or noise outside while watching something designed to frighten you is the scariest thing."
Just as characters in horror films must deal with the frequent appearance of unwanted entities, so too must horror shows confront something equally unreal that makes their job more difficult.
“My frustration is with the thing that keeps network television alive: the advertisements," said Kevin Williamson, an executive producer of “The Following," which he created, and “The Vampire Diaries," and the screenwriter of “Scream." “It’s very difficult to create any suspense if you’re riding into a commercial break every few minutes. The ads take you out of the moment, so you’re always writing a big moment for the act break, and God forbid if the audience doesn’t come back after it. That’s a luxury shows have on HBO or Showtime, but I haven’t had on a network."
For Williamson less gore on TV means more suspense: “Everyone keeps asking me about the scary, the scary." His show has been cited in the post-Newtown debate about violence in entertainment. “But all I’m thinking about when writing is the love story, the love story. I don’t try to add murders for the sake of murders, because that can take away their meaning."
To Schulner seeing a monster leap out or a head chopped off is “the release of tension" rather than the cause of it. That’s why he has paid attention to making his Hyde “sexy, devious and dangerous." When the character seduces a woman in a hotel room, he creates the longer-lasting feeling of suspense than just a quick chill.
In most horror movies audiences usually have no history with the characters, so there’s a legitimate sense that anyone could die at any time. With TV series, however, it’s harder to believe anything bad will happen to the stars. If you aren’t concerned that these people might actually die, you’ll end up with “a toothless scare because you’re not saying to yourself, ‘I hope this person I’ve come to care about doesn’t get hurt,’" said Schulner.
That connection may make it tougher to buy that characters are in jeopardy, but it also provides an opportunity.
“Movies can thrill people with dead-meat characters, the ones you don’t care about, so they can be killed in outrageous ways," said Gale Anne Hurd, an executive producer of “The Walking Dead" and a producer on the film “Aliens." “It’s referred to as horror porn, and there’s a whole industry based on that. But I’ve discovered in TV, when audiences are inviting you into their homes on a weekly basis, they develop a huge investment in the people they are watching. They see the characters as real people."
Once that happens, it doesn’t matter if the monsters aren’t as elaborate as those in a film or if a beer ad breaks the momentum every 10 minutes. Kill off a main character occasionally, and the fear of what might happen next becomes genuine. No show has proved more adept at this than “The Walking Dead," which has regularly dispatched lead characters.
“Viewers know they can’t fall back on the ‘They’re never going to get rid of that person’ excuse," Hurd explained. “The paradigm for what can be done is shifting, because nobody is safe. And that’s how you get people jumping out of their seats, which is a reaction I’ve even seen people have even watching ‘Walking Dead’ in the back of an airplane."