Last night saw the launch of American Horror Story, and it's just the beginning. October also sees the start of Once Upon a Time and Grimm, and the return of The Walking Dead. Horror and dark fantasy are preparing to dominate the small screen more than ever.
But how do you make dark, supernatural stories work on television? How can television possibly compete with movies for scares and special effects? How do you keep a scary or dark story going, week after week? We asked some of our favorite television writers to explain how horror and dark fantasy can rule on television.
Top image from Twin Peaks.
We spoke to:
- Sera Gamble, executive producer of Supernatural
- Josh Friedman, creator of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles and the unaired Locke and Key
- Robert Hewitt Wolfe, who was a producer on The Gates and The Dresden Files, plus Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, The 4400 and Andromeda. He's now a co-executive producer on Alphas.
- Jane Espenson, a co-executive producer on Once Upon A Time whose other credits include Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly, Battlestar Galactica, Game of Thrones, Torchwood: Miracle Day, Caprica and Dollhouse
How do you freak people out without spending movie money on special effects?
Gamble: Luckily for modestly budgeted productions everywhere, you can scare people without spending much money. It's about creating tension. A lot of the scariest sequences in film and TV are basically about people walking up ordinary hallways to closed doors. When executed really well, that kinda thing will freak out even the most jaded genre fan.
Friedman: People have been scaring people without expensive effects since the beginning of film. Sound design, editing, etc. Basic storytelling. You have to take your lessons from the past, rather than get all crazy with what may exist technologically. The reality is, most VFX companies make you a lot of promises they can't keep given the time and budget constraints. It's not their fault — they just get all hopped up and excited and want to make you happy. But most of the time you're not. The reality is, most TV shows have horrible VFX. Even basic matte shots and comps for driving shots, green screens, etc. It's abominable.
Wolfe: Your best bet, in television, is to play to your strengths. TV is naturally somewhat claustrophobic, which works well for horror or suspense. Usually in TV, unlike film, the people most threatened are characters the viewers are already invested in, which adds to the sense of danger. And because we don't have to go for a big action scene every ten minutes or so, TV has the luxury of indulging in the kind of slow-build tension film rarely engages in. Luckily for people working in television, what you don't see is often more scary than what you do see.
Espenson: Having worked on Caprica and now on Once Upon a Time, I am stunned at the effects that can be captured now within a TV budget, so if you wanted to grab some high-tech scares, that might well be something that a TV show could deliver really really well.
What about going too far for television?
Gamble: We sometimes do go too far. We're a network show; much grosser versions of several scenes end up on the cutting room floor because we're obliged to make them less violent. But to the credit of our network, I'm often surprised by what they let us air. Anyone who's seen Supernatural knows we get pretty gory. We blow zombie heads sheer in half on camera.
How do you keep this going week after week?
Gamble: I think every TV show faces a version of the same issue— how to stay fresh. When our exec producers sit down to start charting a course for the new season, we always start by asking what disappointed us about the previous season, and what else we would have added if we had more time. That's a good way to get clues for new directions.
Friedman: If you rely too much on surprises, your show's gonna be hacky, and will bore people pretty quickly. We're a savvy bunch and viewers metabolize a show's storytelling structure faster than we realize. You need a clarity of purpose and character so people can relax into the story — story, NOT plot. Not event. What are you building towards? Just tell a good story. Easy to say, virtually impossible to do. You need to find an architecture that allows for a weekly story engine without creating a predictable crisis/crisis solved loop. It's fine for a medical show, not for fantasy/horror.
Given that horror and dark fantasy rely on surprises and mystery, how do you keep from explaining too much or creating a sense of familiarity, in a weekly TV show?
Wolfe: The shorter format helps here. In 45 minutes or less of screen time, you often don't have time to explain much. And like you said, horror and dark fantasy thrive on mystery. So the story often works better with less explanation. There's always a tension between overexplaining for sake of clarity and underexplaining for sake of mystery, and successful shows strike a delicate balance between the two (with the occasional but unavoidable over-correction one way or the other).
Gamble: As long as you give enough information to assure your audience that you do in fact have a plan and you eventually intend to reveal all, I think you can get 'em on board. I personally can't invest in a show if I start to sense that they're making it up as they go along. I like to feel like the end of the story is taken care of. Then I can sit back and relax into the mystery.
Is it easier to generate scares with a "monster of the week" or with a recurring monster?
Wolfe: I prefer the recurring monster when possible. On The Gates, I think Christian, our recurring vampire, was a lot scarier than any of our one of guest vamps, because the more time you spent with him, the more disturbing he became. But X-Files and Night Stalker had a lot of success with one-off baddies, so that can work too. It really depends on whether you're doing a more contained, procedural, episodic show or a continuing serialized show. Both have their plusses and minuses.
Friedman: I was going to use the contrast between X-Files and Twin Peaks to answer this, but it just led me to the bigger question: what evidence do we have currently that anything truly scary can exist on television? I haven't seen American Horror Story but I assume it's scary and noisy and we'll see what its staying power is. Those guys seem to have a knack for spectacle.
I enjoy True Blood but it's more dark fantasy than horror. Will Grimm succeed? Will Once Upon a Time? We'll know soon enough. But I'm sure neither of them are particularly scary. Locke and Key would've been a hybrid of the two story telling modes — key of the week, mixed with the larger mystery of the family and their past. We had a big bad for the season, as well.
Commercials are a challenge: can you keep people scared during a Mazda commercial? This is something we talked about a lot during Locke and Key — where do you put act breaks to maximize suspense? How do keep people feeling like they're trapped in a room with the story? It's one of the reasons horror is especially difficult on network TV.
How do you use ongoing weekly character development to strengthen the horror/fantasy elements, instead of having them be at odds?
Espenson: Television has the advantage of having massive opportunities for character development. And you're going to be more scared of the dangers threatening these characters you know and love than you are if it was all happening to people you're only spending two hours with. In that way, the stakes will keep naturally rising over the season as the audience gets more invested in the characters as people.
Wolfe: Any time the audience is invested in who might live or die in a horror story, the storyteller wins. The trick is to make sure they audience never dismisses the possibility of a given character kicking the bucket at a moment's notice. Additionally, in dark tales, there's usually some nasty dark secret at the heart of even your brightest and lightest characters. Television gives the storytellers time to get to these secrets slowly and organically.
Gamble: It doesn't matter how awesome your creatures are — if the audience doesn't give a shit about the characters, they're not going to stick around. Actually, on a more basic level, I've never really separated fantasy or horror storytelling from any other kind of storytelling. I want to watch people I can relate to going through difficult stuff, with dramatic or hilarious results. Be it divorce or alien invasion. Aliens for the sake of aliens belong in video games.
Friedman: Again, it all comes back to writing. How invested are we in our characters? How much do we care about their well-being? That's not necessarily their physical well-being-it's more likely their emotional and spiritual well-being.
You need to care about the people in the story. It's an insanely banal point. But if you can do that, you can move an audience at a core level and not just through superficial thrills. The two scariest shows I watch are Luther and Breaking Bad. They center around two phenomenally watchable characters who get drawn into some dark and fantastical places. Season 2 of Luther is terrifying. There are episodes of Breaking Bad that are absolute white knucklers.
The Monsters of the Week on Luther may be human but they are truly monsters. They inhabit every nightmare we ever had as a kid, and more importantly, they inhabit every nightmare we have as adults. Neil Cross is a genius because he understands what terrifies real people, not just what entertains horror fans.
What's the biggest mistake people make in doing horror or dark fantasy on television?
Wolfe: I think, since X-Files, one of the big mistakes has been to try to do horror as a procedural. The problem is, investigators are by their very nature, super-competent. Plus they choose to do the investigating. The audience doesn't worry about them the same way they do some innocent schoolgirl or spunky telepathic waitress. I think to a certain extent, this is what hampered both Dresden Files and The Gates. People weren't all that worried about/for Harry Dresden or Nick Monohan. These were tough, capable guys. So the horror aspects never worked when they were in peril. The audience only became invested when an innocent or less-heavily-armed people were threatened.
Gamble: I believe it's usually a mistake to approach the writing of a genre show as though it's different from any other type of show. The trappings are different, the toolbox is different, but an absorbing story is an absorbing story. It's not like E.T. made people cry for some whole new genre-specific set of reasons. Monsters aren't cool on their own— in fact, on their own they've all been done to death. So if they're not in a story that feels personal and specific, they turn lame fast.
Friedman: The biggest mistake is thinking of them as horror or dark fantasy and writing/shooting them as such. You immediately fall into tired tropes and quickly become a prisoner of special effects you'll never be able to pull off week to week. I never thought of Locke and Key as a horror show—I just thought of it as a story about a family who'd gone through a trauma and was trying to move on. Granted, that's easy to say when there's a creepy girl in a well, but still. You have to approach everything from character and a grounded reality.
Mark Romanek and I talked all the time about creating the most realistic environment we could for these fantastical and scary events. Make people feel like they're watching something very grounded and elegant and real. As much as we'd like to believe TV has become more filmic, it's still best done when it focuses on story and character and eschews spectacle and high concept worlds. But now I'm sounding like an old man.
Want to read a longer version of these interviews? Here's the full-length version, which we cut for length reasons here.