Alfred Hitchcock famously quipped that ‘television has brought murder back into the home – where it belongs.’ In fact, many view Psycho as a direct correlation of that thought, in that Hitchcock created a horror mystery that dared to suggest the evil that lurks in the heart of men is most often exercised at home; domestic horror being the hardest to endure.
The irony is the success and legacy of Psycho has translated best not through a raft of dismal sequels and remakes but through a TV show, dramatising and serialising the life of Hitchcock’s antagonist and his fated mother. Horror has once again come home.
When we add to this Hannbial – doing likewise with Thomas Harris’s Hannibal Lecter – as well as The Walking Dead and the continuing themed miniseries American Horror Story, there seems to be a growth in shifting the genre to the smaller screen. So why has horror come back into the home?
There are several reasons that I can see, and the first is really levelled at what’s happened to the horror genre since the advent of television. Let’s take IGN’s list of the top horror films as fairly representative of most.
- The Exorcist
- The Silence of the Lambs
- The Shining
- Bride of Frankenstein
- Rosemary’s Baby
- The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
- Night of the Living Dead
Not bad, nothing outrageously against conventional thinking there. But what do we have? Five monsters, four killers, and zombies. No vampires, thankfully, though I suspect Nosferatu isn’t far off the Top Ten. But we also have seven book adaptations. The three that aren’t – The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Night of the Living Dead and Alien – all borrow extensively from heavily established horror conventions and tropes, as well as factual accounts and cultural traditions.
They are all excellent films. A few are truly great exponents of the cinematic medium. But in the breakdown of what’s what, we have the origins of what’s gone wrong with cinema horror.
The most recent film on that list was made in 1990. The second was 1980. Too many horror films since are remakes or reworkings of original ideas. Even more, like many in the list above, are just needless sequels and spinoffs of, again, original ideas. We have the reliance on standard fallback horror cliches – serial killers, supernatural serial killers, vampires, werewolves, zombies – and very little when it comes to imagining new, original horrors.
Additionally, how many new horror films are looking to books for inspiration? If seven out of the ten are book adaptations, doesn’t that say something? Even when we do get one, like Let The Right One In, and it astounds us with its originality and clarity of vision in telling a horror story, it’s then bundled up and remade a couple of years later.
We need new ideas, people. Cinematic horror is not offering them. Except in one really awful way.
I make no secret I dislike the trend of excessive gore in horror. None of the above films trade in that currency. The only one close to it, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, is tame by today’s standards of gore, and unfortunately appears to be left with a legacy of kickstarting this more-is-better gorefest.
But okay, people still watch these films, it doesn’t necessarily spell the end of horror. Or does it?
Horror cinema made its name in the thrill of the experience, seeing something visceral and challenging in a shared environment. It was something people took others with them to see the horror, to make you feel okay, to commune in the adrenalin. This then lead to horror as the date movie and the drive-in experience, where couples could do much of the mentioned sharing but add an extra dose of anticipation to the mix.
That’s all gone with excessive gore. Now it’s just a Youtube sensory viewing. Ingest what you can, so that you can add your name to the list of those who have seen it. The films are aiming for vomit, not screams, and the genre loses its appeal of being a shared viewing. Aspiring couples are more likely to want to scream their way through Alien than they are wanting to spew through Hostel.
By returning horror to TV, it brings with it a level of censorship. Even in these HBO days, there are visual limits to which TV shows are allowed to go, and we have a restoring of old elements to the genre. Suspense, anticipation, fear of the unknown, rich and dense narrative: these are all part and parcel of the new wave of horror TV.
I’m not holding onto much hope that cinema will return to the cinematic heights of The Exorcist and The Shining, but perhaps this boost of the genre through a different medium might reignite some of that lost flame. Rosemary’s Baby is scheduled to be adapted into a new series and Hannibal and Bates Motel have both been renewed for more. Hannibal itself aims to not only tell the story before The Silence of the Lambs, but also retell the film’s plot, and move beyond it. TV is allowing the horror to be once again told in an original way.
With the publication of Doctor Sleep late last year, as a sequel to The Shining, we’re left with the possibility that someone might perhaps try to do a cinematic sequel to Stanley Kubrick’s film. And yet a better opportunity is afforded here – serialise the character of Danny Torrance, the now-adult survivor of the Overlook Hotel, as he tries to find a life to live among the horrors of the modern world.
There’ll be more horror on TV, I’ve no doubt, more horror brought into our homes, and perhaps that will give audiences an opportunity to rediscover the almost-lost magic of the genre.