Back in the day, horror reigned supreme on television with shows like Tales from the Darkside, Tales from the Crypt, and Friday the 13th: The Series (which lacked a certain hockey-mask slasher).
American Horror Story and Walking Dead opened the floodgates to a new horror revival on television.
Over the weekend, screenwriter/educator Tananarive Due moderated this Comic Con @ Home horror panel featuring an A-List of horror showrunners.
This included: Nick Antosca (Channel Zero), Meredith Averill (Locke & Key), Don Mancini (Chucky), Greg Nicotero (Creepshow), and Jami O’Brien (NOS4A2).
They shared their secrets and gave behind-the-scenes anecdotes on what it took to put the fright back on the small screen.
A Horror Renaissance
Jami O’Brien discussed how there was a big break where there wasn’t a lot of horror on tv and then that all came back with the Walking Dead.
On this new renaissance of horror television, she stated:
I always try to think of the psychological reason for it, but I wonder if it’s actually just because it’s kinda fun.
Greg Nicotero stated the advent of video games has introduced horror to a younger audience. He said:
Horror video games really did a lot for horror television.
Nick Antosca chimed in with the idea that the horror we love, and that really lasts, is about something else:
The Shining is about an abusive father. The Exorcist is about your teenage daughter changing. We have an opportunity to explore the sense of pervasive dread that is all around us.
Children in Horror
For Locke & Key, Meredith Averill said when it came to how they approached children in horror, they made a conscious decision to lean more into the fantasy elements. As she put it:
Because tonally we made that shift we were okay in protecting any question of what was too far. It’s a question of, do you want to go that far? For us, we always go back to what is the tone of the show?
Greg spoke on the notion of the innocence of childhood. As he said:
A gateway into some sort of supernatural world really does involve this sort of blank slate, this wide eyed wonder of believability and I think that’s what kids bring to the genre.
The Perfect Creepshow Story
Greg spoke about how crafting an anthology series meant that every three-and-a-half days you are creating a whole new world.
In terms of a perfect Creepshow story:
When I read these stories, what’s most important is I kind of get a little of a chuckle out of it even if it goes to a dark place. I want to have fun with it.
Scaring the Audience in Episodic TV
It can become difficult to keep an audience engaged and scared in episodic television, as Tananarive puts it “on one level your audience knows that these characters are going to be alright.”
On how he keeps the audience scared, Nick discussed the idea of achieving a sense of continuing persuasive dread that feels like an ongoing nightmare or dream. As he put it:
My preferred version is the seasonal anthology, 6-8 episodes. You can tell a complete story, you can see where you’re going, you know that some of these characters might be able to die, but you still have more real estate than a film.
Chucky vs. Scope
Don spoke about making Chucky fresh again, especially with a new medium (television).
For Don, the difference between Chucky scaring people on the big screen where we can loom large versus now on television where people would potentially be watching on their phones comes down to fundamentals: “more close ups and less wide shots.”
To Stream or Not to Stream
Streaming adds a new element to watching horror television. The audience can binge watch versus waiting for the next week. The panel discussed the pros and cons of it all.
Meredith chimed in with:
It goes back to kind of what Nick was talking about with sustaining the tension. I like to be in that space and stay there.” Meredith went on to say how working in streaming makes that easier, you already have the audience in that space versus getting them to that space in 45mins and then the audience having to wait until the following week to come back.
Nick then went on to say how he prefers Hulu’s hybrid method which allows you to “binge and get invested and then tortures them a little by dragging it out.” He said:
When I’m forced to digest week to week, maybe it stays with me a little more?
Plus it’s nice to have those watercooler moments to inject that into the culture when you have that week-long pause.
Characterization and the Supernatural
How do you balance creating a fully developed character with supernatural elements?
I was afraid if we didn’t care about these people we wouldn’t care about any of that either [that being the fantasy elements of things like Christmas Land].
NOS4A2 handled this by having everything come from character – need, emotional charge, character drive. Making things grounded in a real world need and real world character impulses.
Any great horror story has to have a foundation that is non supernatural, a human foundation. Rosemary’s Baby, you’re supposed to be able to trust your husband when you’re pregnant, he’s supposed to help you out. And instead he sells you out for his career. That’s a powerful story even if it’s not supernatural.
You can watch the entire panel here: