Small Screen Scares: Horror on Television – American Horror Story, Tim and Eric’s Bedtime Stories, and Channel Zero
In the last few years, horror on the small screen has seen a boost in popularity. There have always been some representations of the genre on television (Tales from the Crypt, Night Gallery, Masters of Horror) but I have personally found the real sense of horror in these productions to be rare. Tales of the Crypt was often a blend of horror and comedy, and Masters of Horror was a very mixed bag when it came to writing. The horror currently gracing our screens is not always top notch either, but there have been some programs or episodes that have surprised me with how dark and existential they are in their exploration of the genre. We’ll be taking a look at American Horror Story, Tim and Eric’s Bedtime Stories, and Channel Zero: No-End House.
American Horror Story: Cult (Season 7)
Written by Ryan Murphy & Brad Falchuk, Tim Minear, James Wong, John J. Gray, Crystal Liu, Todd Kubrak, Joshua Green, and Adam Penn
Directed by Bradley Buecker, Liza Johnson, Gwyneth Horder-Payton, Maggie Kiley, Rachel Goldberg, Barbara Brown, Angela Bassett, and Jennifer Lynch
American Horror Story has been a roller coaster of quality since its first season. Every fan seems to have their own personalized ranking of the annual anthology, and I’m no different. I consider Asylum (Season 2) as my favorite with Murder House (Season 1) right behind it. At the bottom of the rankings would be Hotel (Season 5) and Coven (Season 3). Part of the problem with AHS is showrunner Ryan Murphy. There is no arguing about his ambition, it is very apparent in the prolific nature of his work. However, AHS is currently in a stylistic rut. Roanoke House (Season 6) felt like we might be in the midst of a grand reworking of the formula, but even that series fizzled out near the end. Between the lack of aesthetic variety in how the show looks and the unfocused structure of the character arcs AHS can be one of the more frustrating shows on television.
What keeps me coming back though is that it does not flinch from touching on reasonably dark subject matter. It is also one of the Queer-est shows on television. While it didn’t invent the idea of using horror and monsters to explore the LGBT experience, it often does an excellent job with it. Too often LGBT characters are presented in the vein of Will & Grace or easily consumable prime time fodder. It is nice to see something that feels pretty transgressive.
This current season was one of the most infuriating for some reasons though. Before the season started, I noticed some talk online about Murphy using the 2016 election as the jumping off point and a small number of people were uneasy with the “realness” of that. I was looking forward to that because I believe horror that hits a psychological nerve is often the most affecting. Things started out rough though. There was a mishmash of elements (the murder clowns, the phobias, the political satire, and the cult). None of it ever meshed well, and many times it felt farcical. By the time we reached the end of the season, the cult leader Kai’s motivation had been thrown through the blender so many times I had no real idea why he was doing this any longer. The cult was not necessarily isolated from civilization, and thus the characters’ inability to seek out help felt more like plot convenience than an organic part of the story. The actors always do a great job in AHS, but I find they are not always given the best material to work with.
I did enjoy that Ryan Murphy found satire in both conservative thinking as well as white liberal arrogance. Sarah Paulson’s character felt like Murphy recalled some privileged Hollywood acquaintances, particularly in the intense mothering she showed towards her son early on in the season. Yet, once again plot convenience won out over consistently written characters. Our protagonist changes her entire personality for the sake of the story going in a particular direction at the halfway point. There is an in the fiction explanation, but it felt very rushed after the season spent so much time establishing how profoundly her phobias affected her life.
Cult definitely felt like a natural reaction to the horror of the 2016 election: emotional, angry, overwhelmed, messy. But that is why the season as a whole didn’t really seem to be saying anything. Yes, they manage to work in the phrase “nasty woman” as punctuation on the whole debacle, but why? What, if anything, is Ryan Murphy attempting to say about the current political climate. The end of the show seems to leave us in an existential state of helplessness, implying that the world is controlled by secret societies and there is nothing we can do about it. That is definitely a horrific ending, but it feels flat because of the mess we had to trudge through to get there.
Tim and Eric’s Bedtime Stories (Season 2)
Written & Directed by Tim Heidecker & Eric Wareheim
I know that Tim & Eric are a very polarizing duo. In college, I was a fan of the first few rounds of Adult Swim programming and became a huge supporter of Tom Goes to the Mayor. It has such a distinct look and sense of humor, unlike the rest of the shows on the network. Tim and Eric’s Awesome Great Job continued my love of this comedy duo. But Bedtime Stories seems like a significant step regarding quality and writing. This is still the original sensibilities from back during the early Tom days, but over a decade later and with a stronger sense of writing and filmmaking.
Bedtime Stories is a weekly anthology where each episode is a standalone horror story around 11-15 minutes long. This means the episodes are much more focused on a single gimmick or performance choice from the actors. The first season of the show slid back and forth between horror and straight comedy, but the horror episodes definitely stood out more than the lighter ones. For this reason, Heidecker & Wareheim made Season 2 a horror-focused affair. There are still jokes and humor, but the ideas are much darker.
The world of these stories is not our own, so you shouldn’t expect normal human behavior. This is a nightmare reality where everyone seems on the edges of madness. A good example of how quickly characters give into the absurdity is in the episode “The Duke.” In this episode, Ray Wise (Leland Palmer from Twin Peaks) plays a suave gambler who decides to steal the wife of a man visiting the casino. What makes this truly bizarre is that the only games being played in this game are not high stakes gambling, the focus of the story being scratcher lotto tickets. Gamblers sit around a table and watch each other scratch-off these cards with the sort of reactions you’d find playing Craps or Roulette. Add to that, Ray Wise convinces the cuckolded husband to change the structure of this relationship so that Wise is the father, the wife is the mother, and the husband becomes their son. Comedy and horror intermingle in this episode that, while presented aesthetically bright and silly, is telling a genuinely unsettling and strange story.
The “off-ness” of Bedtime Stories is what makes it so compelling. Tim and Eric have made a career out of subverting the audience’s expectations of comedy, in a way similar to that of Andy Kaufman. We think we see the joke before it hits but then the performer does a 180, and we end up in a place we never expected. Your mileage may vary, the tone of humor is intentionally hard to digest, but when the duo has the right actors and the right angle of strangeness we are given a truly unique picture of horror.
Channel Zero: No-End House (Season 2)
Written by Nick Antosca, Harley Peyton & Mallory Westfall, Don Mancini & Erica Saleh, Katie Gruel, Lisa Long, and Angel Varak-Iglar
Directed by Steven Piet
If you have followed my blog for awhile then you know I am a big fan of quality internet horror fiction. These stories are found in reddit’s NoSleep forum or scattered about under the moniker of “creepypasta.” Don’t get me wrong, there are tons of garbage creepypasta stories out there, but when a quality author pops up, they can be some of the most unsettling pieces of fiction around. Apparently, people in Hollywood thought the same thing and optioned the idea as an annual anthology series. The first season adapted Candle Cove and was good, but I still argue the original story is better because it is less complicated and straightforward.
This season’s adaptation was of No-End House and ended up being the best of three series I am discussing here. The premise is that Margot, a young woman, enters the No-End House with her friends. The No-End is an urban legend spread via social media. You go inside and apparently see lots of freaky things before you leave. Most people view it as some sort of massive art installation, but Margot and her friend learn otherwise. They exit the house, back into their neighborhood only to find this is a facsimile and they are still inside the house.
No-End House is an extremely character-driven horror story. Margot’s father died shortly before the start of the series and her grief and guilt over his death is the driving force behind the story. There is never an interest in explaining what the house is and where it came from. Instead, characters act human in that they just want to get out. Villains take honest and organic sympathetic turns, and individual characters are revealed as villains in truly disturbing ways. While Candle Cove brought me to the show, No-End House has sold me on this show as my favorite horror series currently on television.
While American Horror Story maintains a single showrunner driven vision, creator Nick Antosca has opted to rotate a different indie film director to helm each season. This has resulted in the first two seasons feeling connected yet very distinct. They have a sort of lo-fi sensibility where the horror doesn’t come from jumpscares but from slow, simmering tension. When great horrors are revealed, we linger rather than quickly jump away. Next season has already been announcer (Butcher’s Block) with director Arkasha Stevenson. It promises to draw its visual inspiration partly from Giallo films which should place it aesthetics as very distinct from the first two seasons.