Oooowoooooooo! This year, the networks have heard the howl of the creatures of the night — and they’ve given them primetime slots. A frighteningly high number of new shows are crawling with ghosts, ghouls and gremlins — most notably “The Night Stalker” (ABC, Thursdays, 9 p.m. ET) and “Supernatural” (WB, Tuesdays, 9 p.m. ET), along with Jennifer Love Hewitt’s “Ghost Whisperer” (CBS, Fridays, 8 p.m. ET), plus several science-fiction shows that mingle horror elements among the aliens and spaceships.
Is it a response to the popularity of scary movies like “The Ring” and “The Grudge,” or have networks finally realized that there’s been a horror hole in the schedule since “Buffy” and “Angel” turned to dust? How many doctor, lawyer and cop shows can a network air before viewers grow weary of courtroom and operating-room scenes? Sure, shows like “Tru Calling” and Matthew Fox’s “Haunted” gave the supernatural thriller genre a whirl in recent years, but they never caught on with a mass audience. What were they missing? And what do this season’s shows need to deliver to make sure they scare up high ratings?
Author Joe Nassise, president of the Horror Writers Association, a group of writers that has counted genre heavyweights like Dean Koontz and Clive Barker among its members, says that labeling a TV show as horror can scare some viewers away. “The general public equates horror to the slasher flicks of the 80s and the 90s,” Nassise says. “Horror is so much bigger than that.”
Many viewers probably don’t even realize their favorite show incorporates themes and elements common to the horror genre. (“Lost,” anyone?) The most successful are those that blend scares and suspense with rich characters, the right ratio of humor to shocks, and a big-picture storyline that can carry a show — and its viewers — along, episode after episode.
While last season’s surprise supernatural hit “Medium” may have paved the way for the spate of new shows, “Lost” proved that horror can find a broad audience. With its unseen-things-in-the-jungle tension, ghostly apparitions, a telekinetic kid, and mysterious healings, “Lost” quickly became the most mainstream horror show in recent years.
The drama demonstrated viewers’ fervor for supernatural elements combined with thrills, mystery and — most important — character development. Though it’s a tough act to follow, shows looking to catch on with a mass audience can take a lesson from “Lost,” as well as from a pair of nosy FBI agents and a certain beloved vampire slayer. Here, then, are five tips for supernatural success on the small screen:
Develop an overriding mythology. Monster-of-the-week shows are fun, but they quickly fizzle unless an overarching plot ties it all together. Successes like “The X-Files,” “Buffy,” and “Angel” all recognized the importance of developing an ongoing storyline.
“You had these episodic adventures, but each one pushed the main storyline … a little further down the road,” Nassise says. “That’s important for anything that’s going to last long-term.”
This season, the two highest-profile horror shows are clearly aiming for a long run by developing plotlines that can carry them for years. “Night Stalker” follows investigative reporter Carl Kolchak and his co-workers as they search for who — or what — killed his wife, uncovering other baddies along the way. And in “Supernatural,” two lock-picking, karate-chopping, scythe-wielding brothers cut a swath through inhuman villains as they search for the evil creature that murdered their mother.
Create characters the audience cares about. Action-packed plots are great, but if the audience doesn’t care about the characters, a high-concept show is dead in the water. “The X-Files” succeeded because it grounded its often outlandish plotlines with accessible characters, Nassise says.
“With ‘X-Files,’ you’ve got two characters that people absolutely understand, can relate to, can see themselves as — the skeptic or the believer; everyone’s experienced those two extremes," he says. "Everything else that happened on that show was added to the basis of who these characters are. “It’s easier for the audience to suspend their disbelief because they have fallen so deeply into that character’s reality, into that character’s world, that it’s not such a big stretch.”
Taking the time to develop a flesh-and-blood supporting cast is also integral to creating nail-nibbling moments. Since secondary characters are more likely to bite the big one at any time, it’s critical to make them real enough so the audience gets uneasy about their chances for survival. At least in the pilot, the McG-produced “Supernatural” focuses only on the pair of brothers as they zip from one mystery to another in their ’67 Chevy Impala. And since viewers are fairly confident nothing terrible will happen to either of the leads, an opportunity to build tension is frittered away.
Ratchet up the suspense. If “Jaws” taught audiences anything, it’s that what you don’t see is far scarier than what you do. “Lost” won early points for keeping whatever it was in the jungle hidden behind palm fronds. “Night Stalker” got the message, too, and producers are apparently reworking the pilot to give the first-episode creatures less screen time. A viewer’s imagination can conjure up a far scarier beastie than the special-effects department ever could.
Find the right mix. “Buffy” and “Angel” blended heart-pounding suspense, soul-tearing pathos, clever writing and laugh-out-loud humor — and cultivated a rabid fan base as a result. Early indications are that neither “Night Stalker” nor “Supernatural” has found quite the right ratio immediately. In “Supernatural,” Jensen Ackles cracks constant one-liners that are far more annoying than funny. And “Night Stalker’s” original pilot was so straightforward and humorless, the producers reportedly shot additional scenes to inject a bit more fun into the show.
Don’t hold back on the horror. The shows that make the most impact on fans — and, possibly, the ratings charts — are those that kick imagination into overdrive. With well-done shows popping up on cable like weeds on a gravesite, the networks need to get into the game. Though they’re bound by stricter rules prohibiting violence, gore, and explicit language, broadcast TV can still deliver works worthy of next-day office debate. “Don’t be afraid to push the envelope,” Nassise counsels, and some shows seem to be paying attention. “Supernatural” delivers a pair of enduring images in its pilot, horrifying and jolting in not only their in-your-face visual style, but more importantly, in how they affect the lead characters.
The programs that settle for quick thrills instead of sustainable chills are going to find themselves heading to the ratings graveyard, paving the way for a fresh crop of replacement dramas about, you guessed it, more lawyers, doctors and cops.
Now that’s scary.
Brian Bellmont is a writer in Minneapolis. His supernatural thriller "Seether" is making the rounds of publishers.