Pop Culture

Can Stephen King bring horror back to TV?

Miraculous healings, corpses covered by swarms of ants, an artist afflicted with terrifying telepathic powers and haunted by the dead. It's the latest frightfest from Stephen King, the most trusted brand name in the horror genre. His new 15-hour miniseries, "Kingdom Hospital," premieres March 3 on ABC.

Though inspired by Lars von Trier's acclaimed Danish series "The Kingdom," the American version has lots of signature King touches, including the character Peter Ritter (played by Jack Coleman of "Dynasty"), who's brought to the hospital when he's run over by a drug-impaired driver, which happened to King himself in 1999.

King has brought his work to television roughly a dozen times over the years, with varying success. The best of his small-screen set was the 1994 miniseries of his sprawling post-apocalypse novel "The Stand," but like King's "The Green Mile," that was a fantasy with dark overtones rather than an outright scarefest.

However, TV is now taking to King's pure-horror works with a bloody vengeance. Besides "Kingdom Hospital," there'll soon be a new miniseries of his vampire novel "Salem's Lot," and ABC plans on an adaptation of his Richard Bachman book "Desperation" in 2005.

King's previous attempts to bring pure horror to TV have been markedly less sanguine. This goes especially for the pointless TV retreads of "Carrie" and "The Shining," which had already been perfected on film and seem more like attempts to capitalize on King's profitable marquee name. It's nice to see that "Salem's Lot" is being tried again, though — the first TV adaptation, in 1979, was a disaster despite the directorial effort of "Texas Chain Saw Massacre" helmer Tobe Hooper. A nonsensical script and poor acting staked it long before it rose from its coffin.

Three levels of fright
When I think of the King stories that most truly scared the bejeezus out of me, I think of his books, especially "Salem's Lot," and his movies, especially "The Shining." King on TV lags far behind. In part, that's a fault of the medium itself. TV is less able than books to truly engage your imagination, since when reading a book you have to come up with the images on your own. And movies and books both have greater leeway in showing the blood and gore that forms the basis of so many terror tales--that's as crippling to the genre as not being able to paint a picture with the colors blue or green.

Does that mean television is fundamentally unable to do horror well in the first place? Obviously not, though you can certainly point to any number of embarrassing failures. (Remember Lou Diamond Phillips' "Wolf Lake"? How about "Freakylinks"? I wish I didn't.) But even the high points, like "The X-Files," "Kolchak: The Night Stalker" and "Twin Peaks," have had to swim against the tide to be great.

King himself can give us a clue to why it's so hard to be frightening on broadcast TV. He's not only an expert at telling horror stories, but he's written some cogent essays on how it works. In his 1981 book "Danse Macabre," he divides the horror story into three levels of fright.

The most subtle level of fear he calls terror, the dread of the unseen and unknowable. The next level, what he calls horror, is more direct and specific. Terror is being afraid of what's behind a door; horror is opening the door and seeing a guy with an axe. The basest level of fright is the gotcha! and the gross-out, or as King memorably describes it, having "a leech jump out of a letter slot and fasten itself into your face." This is the area TV has the most trouble pulling off, since it's so delicately close to areas the FCC has declared no-fly zones.

With few exceptions, TV can't really deal in the physically repellent, though the boundaries have been pushed repeatedly. The game show "Fear Factor"  now gets away with showing grossness that would have had earlier shows' producers exiled to the Antarctic. But for the most part, TV has clamped down hard on depictions of horror that stray too far from family-friendly viewing.

One infamous "X-Files" episode, "Home," was banned from reruns after its initial broadcast, because of its supremely nightmarish central image, the limbless matriarch of an inbred clan of hillbillies. Rod Serling's "Twilight Zone" more successfully used ugliness for a couple of memorable twist endings. He got away with this because his stories were, at their heart, morality plays, and the shocker endings were integral to them. Take the episode "Eye of the Beholder," in which plastic surgeons fail to cure a girl's supposed hideousness--but when the camera finally shows her face, we see that she's beautiful, and lives in a world where everyone else, to our eyes, is horribly deformed.

Things that go bump in the nightTruly inspired horror comes not just from the gruesome shock, but from shadows and misdirection and the unseen things that go bump in the night. Here, the medium of television can really shine. Every good horror story uses some mix of all three elements, of course, even if the chief element in their scariness comes from the least vulgar elements. David Lynch's "Twin Peaks" is still television's greatest exemplar of the otherworldly quality of nightmare, with its backward-talking midget and spectrally evil villain Killer Bob--but that horror went hand-in-hand with Laura Palmer's very grisly rape and murder.

Television has also been very good at a macabre blend of horror and comedy, a tradition in American horror that goes back at least to the old 1950s EC horror comics, which came to TV as the rather corny '80s show "Tales From the Crypt." But that developed into a sophisticated storytelling mode starting in "Twin Peaks," and later "The X-Files," "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Angel." Lean too far in that direction, though, and you've got dreadful camp of the "Lone Gunmen" variety. It's not surprising that the series that could do comic horror well were also superb at pure horror.

Science fiction and horror have also been good matchups, of course. "The X-Files" married the genres extremely well, but the tradition goes back a long way to older shows like "The Invaders." "Star Trek: The Next Generation," for instance, had a tradition of making really creepy Halloween episodes. And although it's mostly remembered for its cheap cardboard sets, even the venerable British show "Doctor Who" pulled off some remarkable creepy Gothic stuff in its 1975 season, especially the episodes "The Seeds of Doom" and "The Brain of Morbius." While the plots were highly derivative of previous classics, with bits of "Quatermass and the Pit," "Frankenstein" and "Donovan's Brain" mixed together, the shows had a ghastly life all their own, and stand alongside the best genre work on TV. (That very edginess, though, led to a firestorm of censorious criticism, and the BBC soon toned the show down into incoherent drivel.)

Certainly, if anyone can bring true chills back to TV, it's King, especially given something as juicy as Von Trier's original to work from. He's had his share of clunkers on the page as well as the screen, but King is still perhaps the best living manufacturer of a satisfying scream.

Christopher Bahn is a writer living in Minneapolis.