How horror TV embraced our demons
Looking for a last-minute Halloween costume? Consider going as John Carroll Lynch. The veteran character actor has been absolutely horrifying in two very different roles on TV this fall. In SyFy's Channel Zero: No-End House he's played "The Father," the cannibalistic husk of the heroine's dead dad. And in American Horror Story: Cult he's reprised his role as "Twisty the Clown," the show's shabby, grotesquely grinning psychopath. The latter is a conventionally nightmarish vision of Americana gone wrong. The former is ... something else.
Horror has a spotty record on television, probably because TV has long been a medium that prefers to put viewers at ease, rather than freaking them out. In the '60s, The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits were notable exceptions. But while those two anthologies featured plenty of terrifying moments, they also bounced from horror to other, lighter fantasy genres, like science fiction. Later that same decade, the ABC soap opera Dark Shadows followed the tribulations of a vampire and his relatives, but emphasized gothic romance over things that go "Boo!"
In the decades since, TV has tended to linger in the Dark Shadows corner of the horror genre. Fan-favorite shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The X-Files peppered their ghost stories with plenty of jolts, but their ultimate goal was to weave long narratives that would keep audiences hooked for years. See also: True Blood, Supernatural, Fringe, The Vampire Diaries, and on and on. Anthologies like Tales from the Crypt and Masters of Horror have had more freedom to wreak havoc, but only because their characters weren't coming back next week.
The old divisions between "monster of the week" and "epic saga of good and evil" may be crumbling though, thanks to hybrid series like American Horror Story and Channel Zero. And now's a good time for that change, too, given that big-screen horror has also evolved in the 2010s.
Most of the mainstream horror of the past decade can be divided into two sub-genres: the last vestiges of the "found footage" craze (best-exemplified by the Paranormal Activity series) and the more recent flood of era-spanning "demonic possession" franchises (such as Insidious, Ouija, and The Conjuring/Annabelle). But just about every year over the past five years has also seen the release of one or more sophisticated horror features that have inspired fierce devotion. The Babadook, It Follows, The Witch, Don't Breathe, Get Out ... these aren't just bone-chilling movies, they're statements about the world in which we live. They all suggest that we're enduring a time where monsters can't be vanquished, only managed.
That's a perspective that would likely be familiar to Channel Zero creator Nick Antosca. The series is based on viral internet legends and images, with each six-episode season delving deep into a single "creepypasta" premise. Last year's Channel Zero: Candle Cove was about an obscure children's series that's warped the lives of the people who remember it. This year's Channel Zero: No-End House is about a haunted house that contains a portal to another dimension, shaped by the customers' wants and fears.
Both Channel Zero seasons dwell on a similar idea: that there are dark corners of popular culture where deeper horrors hide. Lynch's character in No-End House, for example, is a suicide, and when his daughter Margot finds him inside the haunted house, she's both terrified and drawn in — because even though her dad is now a flesh-eating monster, he also might be able to explain the most troubling memory of her youth. Margot knows she should flee, but she can't look away.
Where Channel Zero has been spooky and contemplative in its two years on the air, writer-producer Ryan Murphy's American Horror Story has spent eight seasons taking classic horror concepts and cranking them up to maximum volume. Each year of AHS has told its own story, but some characters have overlapped, and their various adventures haven't exactly resolved with a "happily ever after."
American Horror Story: Cult has been Murphy's most ambitious and disturbing season yet. Set in the aftermath of last fall's presidential election, the plotline reaches back to the paranoia and terror of America in the '60s and '70s, finding the origins of today's plague of anarchic trolls and fascist bullies in the likes of the Zodiac killer and Valerie Solanas. Lynch's killer clown represents the safe fictional horror that we escape into, while Cult's cast of dark-web culture-warriors are the real-life nightmare we can't yet wake up from.
Channel Zero and American Horror Story aren't the only offbeat, plugged-in horror TV series of recent years. Amazon recently debuted the quasi-documentary Lore, based on the podcast of the same name, which explores the historical truths behind some of our scariest fictional notions (like werewolves and zombies). The acclaimed anthology Black Mirror predicts the warped places that our modern technology might eventually take us. The gore-soaked NBC version of Hannibal reimagines the serial killer thriller as something gorgeously operatic.
Still, most modern horror TV is along the lines of Penny Dreadful, Outcast, and Stranger Things. The horror elements are undeniably pronounced — with demons, monsters, and extra-dimensional critters terrorizing the heroes. But they're scary only in brief bursts, before getting back to what the characters are thinking, feeling, and planning.
The Walking Dead — easily the most popular example of horror TV in the 2010s, even as its ratings are on the decline — is both an example of and an exception to the genre at its most conventional. It's a show about zombies where the ghouls are mostly obstacles that the humans have to overcome on their way to some other episodic quest or conflict. The core storytelling structure isn't that much different than Supernatural, in other words.
Where The Walking Dead does connect to Channel Zero and American Horror Story though is in its overriding sense of despair. Every time the heroes seem to be making progress, their egos lead them to blunder into some catastrophic error that destroys nearly everything they've built.
This is a case of a long-form serialized TV show deriving a thematic angle from an economic necessity. To keep this successful show going, the story has to keep dead-ending and resetting. Fans waiting to see anything like hope in The Walking Dead are going to have to wait for viewership to completely crater.
But while that nihilism can be unsatisfying to the audience, it's also fascinating as a statement of where we are right now as a society. The phenomenal success of The Walking Dead and American Horror Story mean that week after week we're gazing into an abyss, willingly. Perhaps we're searching for clues to how to survive it.