is on a Wednesday this year, so unless you’re a drunk or a student chances are
you’re not going to be dressing up and hitting a party. If you do, the party is
likely to be terrible. It’s a Wednesday FFS. All the partying should have been
done last weekend.
So no party, presumably too old to trick or treat, the next stop will likely be a scary movie? That's totally fine. Nobody's judging you here. I think there's something better though which I feel is often overlooked. Scary TV.
Now there’s a tradition of TV show Halloween specials, particularly in sitcoms. Roseanne always had brilliant Halloween eps, and more recently the greatest sitcom of the 21st century, Community, has had an amazing run of Halloween eps. I’m not here to talk about that though, I want to talk about fear, and why I think TV shows are capable of freaking you out more than any movie can.
Certainly in my life, the scares and fears that have stuck with me have been the ones I've seen on TV. There's a specific reason for this I think. TV is personal. It isn't an event, you don't go out to see them. Characters in TV shows are invited into your home on a regular basis. You’ve probably done the ironing to a soap opera. Or sat in your PJs watching a TV drama. These are shows and characters that have been with you in some of your most private moments. They are guests, they’re old friends.
So when a TV show decides to throw in something horrific or weird, often the effect is genuinely unsettling. Take this scene below. This is Home and Away. Home and Away! The perennial second place Austrailian soap in British home. Like Neighbours it's a long procession of bland tanned pin ups and old cranky Australians talking about flaming gallars. This is tea time entertainment, stuff you watch when you don't have a job. There are few things as harmless as Home & Away. So that one time when one of the characters sees the ghost of a dead character emerge from the fridge? It’s unnerving.
I'm serious. That terrified me, because why the hell was it happening? Such a jarring moment.
This brings me to one of my most lingering fears, the TV series Twin Peaks. A masterpiece for sure, I think the reason the horrifying moments in Twin Peaks worked so well was that they were placed within a series which tonally had much more in common with your typical TV soap opera.
It was this comfortable, homely atmosphere mixed with the horrific and occult which left me consistently on edge whilst watching it. Add into this incredible score and sound design, which just add to this sense of dread, and you get scenes like this. I can still barely watch it because if I do every time I look around the room I’m just waiting for Bob to be watching me and oh god what if he’s in the mirror.
scream, man. Ugh.
Another unlikely moment of terror in my childhood came from Quantum Leap. Sam Beckett is a hero, one of the last great American heroes on TV. Zero flaws. Quantum Leap was rooted in sci fi but the central premise allowed them to play around with theme quite a lot. Usually this was some noble cause of helping out an underdog of some kind, with Sam ending the episode giving an inspirational speech/roundhouse kick to someone before leaping into the sunset to save another day.
Things went a little differently however in the Halloween episode ‘The Boogieman’. there were all kinds of classic horror set ups which are a little bit chilling for sure, but nothing major. All these weird spooky shenanigans will just be the fault of some kids right? Right?
Wrong. They ran with it until it became a nightmare.
(I can't embed this link which annoys me, but you can watch the clip if you click through.)
Granted, they blew it off as a dream right at the end, but holy shit, that moment when you realise this isn’t going to resolve itself, and that AL IS THE DEVIL. Weeks of sleep loss.
Dawson's Creek. We all remember the nightmare scenario of Joey choosing Pacey over Dawson, but Dawson's Creek had a number of great Halloween episodes during its run. No big surprise really given that the creator and showrunner Kevin Williamson was also responsible for Scream. He knows how to play around with the genre.
What strikes me most about this particular moment though, the reason it still sticks in my head all these years later, is how extreme it was for what was ultimately just a kids' show. I
mean, you expect a kind of ‘spooky’ story, but this was dark and weird, and
the payoff was not at all what I expected. It was a good few years before I got
online too, and for the longest time I thought I had just imagined this episode.
Which is as good a time as any to introduce perhaps the finest moment of TV horror ever created. Something that absolutely could not exist in the internet world. Stephen Volk’s Ghostwatch. I’m calling it Stephen Volk’s Ghostwatch because I don’t think he’s given enough credit for writing something so groundbreaking and ahead of its time, but also to remind myself that it isn’t real.
I only tuned in to watch it because Craig Charles was one of the presenters and at the time I was a gigantic Red Dwarf nerd so I couldn’t miss it. As the ‘documentary' progressed however I became more and more unsettled. At various points, I literally turned the TV to another channel. I couldn’t face it, it was too real, too intense. If you haven’t seen it I urge you to find a copy and watch it all and don't read anything else about it.
I can look back on it now and admire the craft of it, it’s a masterpiece. Not just for the believability of the story, but for the craft that went into making it. Such spot on casting of TV favourites. A great studio set, completely believable. Also, whilst we never actually see the ghost, there are several subliminal hints at it peppered throughout the episode like Tyler Durden in Fight Club.
So brave, so playful and imaginative. Amazing TV. Maybe the saddest part is that it'd be almost impossible to replicate in the modern world, both because the channel wouldn’t allow it, and also because the internet means everyone is connected. Within seconds of the kid speaking in tongues we'd be looking at her casting call pro page and patting ourselves on the back for our detective work.
Part of me thinks this is a shame, but a bigger part wishes that I had been able to do that at the time. At least I would have got some sleep that night.