Supernatural spirits, eerie ghosts, bloody knife-wielding monsters and flesh-eating zombies are usually only seen on television screens during the Halloween season.
But horror fans are now getting their fill year round as cable networks roll out an increasing number of original series and movies to satisfy a growing viewer obsession with the macabre.
NOT JUST MALE CAMP
Once considered campy, male-dominated programming, horror and supernatural content is engrossing a new generation of viewers across all demographics. Executives from such networks as Showtime, Lifetime Television and Turner Network Television say the escapist fare is scaring up strong ratings during a period of uncertainty in a turbulent world.
The horror genre has thrilled audiences on the big screen since the early 1900s with the silent film Nosferatu. The 1930s and 40s produced such classic screamers as Frankenstein, The Wolf Man and King Kong. The creeps marched on through the 70s and 80s with slasher films like Halloween and A Nightmare on Elm Street, leading to today’s gothic films, which include The Grudge and The Ring.
But horror has a more checkered history when it comes to television. Some shows found life on broadcast TV, among them daytime soap opera Dark Shadows in the 1950s, the short-lived Kolchack: The Night Stalker in the 1970s and The X-Files in the 1990s. But the genre didn’t take a successful bite out of cable until 1995, when Home Box Office debuted horror anthology series Tales From the Crypt. American Movie Classics has also kept the genre alive each October with its annual “Monsterfest” marathon of acquired, horror-based films.
Networks have learned that the rewards can be significant. Last year, TNT’s two-part, original movie Salem’s Lot, a remake of the 1979 made-for-TV horror flick, finished third among all original movies in attracting adults 18-49, while generating a 4.4 household rating, according to Nielsen Media Research.
Also, the genre has played well on the big screen. Through September, seven horror or supernatural-themed films finished first in box office receipts during their inaugural weekend debuts: Hide & Seek, Bogeyman, The Ring Two, The Amityville Horror, The Exorcism of Emily Rose and The Fog.
As a result, both cable and the broadcast networks are looking to ride the wave of the genre’s popularity. Within the last two years, the broadcast networks have churned out supernatural series like Invasion, an updated The Night Stalker, Surface, Medium and this year’s Emmy Award winner for best dramatic series, Lost.
SOME SCARY FARE
Cable shows include Showtime anthology series Masters of Horror, bowing later this month, featuring 13 original works from some of the top horror directors: John Carpenter (Halloween), Joe Dante (The Howling), Stuart Gordon (Re-Animator) and Tobe Hooper (Texas Chainsaw Massacre). Here! TV’s lineup features the gay-themed supernatural series Dante’s Cove. And TNT has Nightmares & Dreamscapes: From the Stories of Stephen King slated for a summer 2006 debut.
The genre has even spawned three 24-hour cable networks. Two set to debut next year: HorrorNet, backed by movie director Joel Silver (Matrix, Lethal Weapon), and Fangoria TV, an offshoot of the popular magazine of the same name. They’ll join Rainbow Programming Services’ Monsters HD, which is the only dedicated horror channel offered in HDTV.
Executives involved in original horror projects say the genre’s revival is due mostly to a desire among viewers to escape from the real-life horrors confronting the world today. According to them, the growing threat of terrorism, as well as natural disasters like hurricanes Rita and Katrina and last year’s devastating tsunami have sent viewers looking for a haven to release their fears.
“With horror movies, it’s almost like you’re taking away that unknowable and unnamed fear — fear of terrorism, fear of global warming, economic fear,” says TNT senior vice president of original programming Michael Wright. “It’s therapeutic to go see a terrific horror movie and take the monster out from under the bed, into the light and kill it. That’s what makes horror movies so fun — you take the unknown and make it known.”
In fact, such social strife has always driven the category.
“The time of the big bug movies of the 50’s came during the post-war nuclear-scare,” says horror film director Mick Garris (Riding The Bullet, Critters 2). “The threat of Communism led to movies like the Invasion of the Body Snatchers, where there’s some creeping disease that takes you over and turns you into a monster. I think we’re in a time of social upheaval right now where people turn to the fantastic terrors to maybe blow off some of those fears in hopefully healthy way.”
In addition, today’s remakes of classic horror films like the Amityville Horror, The Fog and House of Wax are thrilling a new generation of viewers, while re-acclimating horror content to baby boomers who grew up watching on-screen horror icons like Michael Meyers, Jason Voorhees and Freddie Krueger slash their way through 1980s genre flicks.
“What you’re seeing is baby-boomers as well as their kids gravitating to a genre that the older viewers were basically weaned on,” says David Sehring, senior vice president and general manager of Rainbow Media Services’ Monsters HD Channel.
But the genre isn’t just drawing younger viewers. Cable — though it’s various niche networks — is introducing and tailoring horror content to audiences that fall outside of traditional, young male fanatics.
Lifetime scared up a large female audience for its Oct. 3 original thriller Haunting Sarah, according to network senior vice president of original movies Trevor Walton. The supernatural movie finished fourth out of seven Lifetime movies released this year among women 18-34 and 18-49, while generating an impressive 3.5 rating.
Walton says women have always had an interest in the genre, but would rather view such programming through plot-driven storylines rather than via the typical blood-and-gore slasher films.
“I don’t believe the supernatural area is exclusive to guys,” Walton says. “Women have wide-ranging interests and an incredible interest in edgy, psychological thrillers and true crimes.”
Further, women gravitate to strong female characters depicted in such horror shows as Buffy the Vampire Slayer or movies like the Alien franchise.
“Women didn’t necessarily come out to see Jamie Lee Curtis [in the Halloween films], but in this current environment they’re coming out to see Halle Berry in Gothika,” says HorrorNet president Kim Bangash. He says the horror audience is now twice as large as science-fiction’s because of the growth of female viewers.
“A lot of the studios come back to us with research showing a very strong component in female audience, which has evolved over the last generation or two,” he adds.
HORROR AND GAYS
The genre also plays very well within the gay and lesbian community. In addition to Dante’s Cove, Here! is delving into horror with several original movies and an original series. Network co-founder Paul Colichman says gay and lesbian viewers, in particular, have always embraced the genre. The symbolism of isolation and refutation that’s part-and-parcel of fictional monsters speaks to the community because of its own struggle for acceptance, he says.
“The horror film, in general, has always been an area that gay people have been very involved with,” says Colichman, who produced the Academy Award-winning thriller Gods and Monsters.
“There has always been an affinity with gay people and horror movies. Think of Frankenstein and The Invisible Man … it’s always about people who are outsiders. Gay people have always felt that they’re not quite like anyone else.”
Cable, particularly through commercial-free premium channels, also provides a more exhilarating and authentic horror-viewing experience for viewers. Horror producers say cable offers them greater artistic freedom to truly develop their visions — in other words, they can get as graphic as possible without having to worry about content restrictions, according to Garris.
“Horror is intended to go a step beyond the pale, and [cable] allows us to be able to that without having their hands tied behind their backs by advertisers and by other censorship interference,” says Garris, executive producer of Showtime’s Masters of Horror miniseries. “It’s hard to build a sense of growing dread, fear and tension in between Pampers commercials.”
HorrorNet’s Bangash adds that emerging cable distribution platforms such as video-on-demand and video via broadband will allow networks to provide different content-edited version of their movies and series.
“The robustness of today’s media environment — where you have an evolving landscape with many different platforms to reach your fan base — will allow for different versions,” says Bangash, whose network is expected to launch during the second quarter 2006.
“You could offer programming on a subscription basis or an on-demand basis where you can see your uncut, unedited versions as a complement to a linear channel.”
Cable further enhances the viewing experience of horror programming through technologies such as HD and Dolby 5.1 sound. Such enhancements allow viewers to vividly see every vein protruding from a dismembered head and hear the crisp, clear pitch from each blood curdling scream in the safe comforts of their homes.
“A lot of the people who are flocking to this genre are early technology adaptors,” says Monster HD’s Sehring, whose network is developing an original series, Monsterrama, a behind-the-scenes look at horror movie special effects.
“The whole idea of transferring movies to a HD format is a whole other experience, because your getting that theatrical movie experience at home in a more visually stimulating service.”
Adds Gerris: “In the horror genre, setting a mood both pictorially and audibly are all huge elements in conveying that sense of dread and mystery and suspense.”
While the trend toward horror and supernatural programming is alive and thriving today, HorrorNet’s Bangash worries that the genre may burn itself out due to the glut of such programming currently available.
“That’s a valid concern to think about,” he says. “But if you can create compelling programming or a compelling brand, there is a fan base that is craving for more programming.”
HorrorNet’s Sehring believes that the genre is far from digging its own grave and will be frightening viewers for a long time to come.
“The interest in horror has always been around, from the days of late-night TV, the drive in movies of the 60s and 70s to the 80s grind ’em up exploitation films,” he says. “There will always be a new generation of viewers who’ll want to be scared.”
Adds Turner’s Wright: “I think the horror genre has been pretty sturdy going back to Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff. While the amount of content may fluctuate, the nature of the storytelling morphs and mutates to reflect the times. As our cultural anxieties shift, so do the monsters that we create in our films.”