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It’s Halloween, and here at Vada we’re celebrating all that’s scary. There will no doubt be much focus on the horror movie in all its forms, from pinnacles of excellence like The Shining and The Blair Witch Project to terrible, awful crimes against cinema like Exorcist II: The Heretic (demons!! locusts!! Richard Burton hating himself!!).
But they’re not the be-all and end-all of the horror genre – there are some amazing small-screen horrors out there, and they make the most of their medium to completely outshine their glossier, silver screen counterparts.
5- More screen time for characters = bigger scares when they’re in trouble.
Your average horror movie has maybe less than half an hour to make you care about the main characters before horrible things start happening to them. And if that half an hour hasn’t succeeded, then why would you give two shits that the pretty blonde lady is about to get her head chopped off? You’re expected to emotionally invest in and care about what happens to these characters, otherwise you’d end up just rooting for the axe-wielding murderer instead.
A TV series has hours and hours to continuously give you all the reasons you need to make you care about their protagonists. They can introduce backstory, give their characters more by way of motivations, feelings and personality, so when they’re suddenly put in mortal peril, the tension becomes unbearable.
Example: Daryl Dixon – The Walking Dead.
When Daryl was first introduced to the show, he was a stereotypical, violent redneck who didn’t play well with others. Over the subsequent four seasons, after an extensive emotional arc and a hell of a lot of bad-ass moments, he’s become a fan favourite. Every time anything bad happens in TWD, my first thought is always “Daryl better not die!”. And I’m not the only one. That level of love for one character just doesn’t really happen in horror films, because there’s not enough time to make your audience care that much.
4- So much more time to enjoy the scares.
This just comes down to simple facts – a multi-season TV series will scare you many more times than a 90-minute movie ever could. If you love horror, you love being scared. Make the right decision.
Example: American Horror Story: Murder House.
Where to begin? Murder House starts freaking you out before you even get the opening credits, as two kids are murdered by an unseen horror in the basement of a seemingly abandoned house. Before you know it, you’ve got ghosts, otherworldly rapists in rubber fetish suits and a bloodthirsty homunculus toddler all clamouring to scare the shit out of you at least 5 times an episode for an entire season. It’s like every haunted house movie you’ve ever seen but with the scary cranked up to 11.
3- Brevity is the source of horror.
Conversely, with some horror shows, each episode will focus on a completely different story. Within a very short space of time, you have to set the scene, introduce your characters, and scare your audience. No mean feat. However, crystallising the fundamental elements of the plot into less than half an hour can produce some true gems of small-screen scariness.
Example: The Twilight Zone.
It might be older than some of our parents, but The Twilight Zone remains one of the greatest horror TV shows ever made. It may not be horror in the way that we would recognise it today – there’s almost no gore and it’s not always conventionally scary, but some of the episodes are still creepy enough to send shivers down even your 21st-century spine. From the infamous “Terror at 20,000 Feet”, starring William Shatner and a distinctly gorilla-like gremlin on the wing of the plane, to the masterful “It’s a Good Life”, which is the precursor to every single horror film featuring a creepy-ass child, it’s full of some brilliant scares.
2- Better scope for full range of emotions
Some horror films do use elements of humour or sentimentality to balance all that gore and violence, but they only have so much time to do so. At the end of the day, they want to scare you, and they only have the maximum of a couple of hours in which to do so. A lot of films which mix comedy and humour end up being defined by their comedic element – look at something like Joss Whedon’s Cabin in the Woods. Yes, it’s kind of scary, but it’s funny – once that humourous element comes out, the horror loses some of its edge. In a TV show, across multiple episodes you can create a more balanced blend of emotions that don’t rob the horror of its overall power.
Example: Sleepy Hollow
Fox’s new horror venture, Sleepy Hollow, features a 19th-century soldier called Ichabod Crane who finds himself suddenly reawakened in the modern day, teaming up with a small-town cop to stop the Headless Horseman. You get some amazing fish-out-of-water comedy moments – “What’s insane is a 10 percent levy on baked goods. You do realize the Revolutionary War began on less than 2 percent? How is the public not flocking to the streets in outrage?” – but they’re mixed well with the Horseman’s creepy presence and penchant for hacking and slashing.
1- Better storytelling
Horror movies only need to pique your interest enough to get you to part with your cash and get your butt on a cinema seat, and as long as they deliver a basic level of scariness, they’ve done their job. A TV series has to keep your attention and keep your interest over many many weeks and months, and to do that they have to keep the story fresh and fascinating at all times. Twists, turns, intrigues, misdirection, suspense, and all of that many many times per episode in some cases, or else people would simply watch something else.
Example: American Horror Story (all of them)
In terms of what it does, American Horror Story is no different from any horror film – it introduces its characters and setting, and then horrible, scary, creepy things happen. However, across all three seasons, with their three distinct and independent storylines, it does so much more. Its second season, Asylum, featured a human skin-wearing serial killer, a nun possessed by the devil, a Nazi war criminal performing experiments on people, and alien abductions. All in one season. Likewise, the current season, Coven, has a sadistic racist 18th century noblewoman who finds herself in 21st century New Orleans, crying at the sight of an African-American President; an immortal voodoo queen; a subplot involving the reanimated body of a dead frat boy, and a minotaur. Yep, a minotaur. There’s so much going on, so many characters to explore, flashbacks and dream sequences, it’s so much more complex and simply far superior to any movie plotline.
That’s why as far as I’m concerned, TV horror beats horror cinema every time. And if anyone tries to tell you otherwise, you know what to say.