What makes horror, horror? When does the scary become the truly frightening? In recent years, many TV shows have experimented with certain elements of the horror genre. It’s a natural fit, given horror’s close relation to the thriller and suspense, television’s most dominant genre in most shows. But what makes horror its own genre entirely? Despite its popularity as an influence, few shows are explicitly horror shows in the same way that others are comedies or social dramas. However, that may be about to change, as a renaissance in the way television deals with horror is taking its first tentative steps.
One of the frontrunners of this is the NBC show Hannibal, a prequel series following the famous character from the films and novels and an explicit attempt to make a horror show in the style of the great cable channel dramas defining television today. It is immediately and impressively striking just how far the creators commit to this aim right from the very start. The opening scene depicts the protagonist, Will Graham, imagining himself committing a brutal serial murder in his investigation for the FBI, a welcome fresh take on the overdone tropes of police procedurals. Moreover, the sheer violence of the imagery the show depicts is shocking (and especially surprising from an American network show, while also a welcome sign that the networks are not ready to be completely overshadowed by the cable channels just yet). Such images cause many of the moments of disbelief in viewing, not because of implausibility, but because of how little we expect such things to happen on a TV show. From the darkness of the plot twists to the unconventionality of the narrative, these moments have always marked great television, but may be an essential regular component to horror and of Hannibal.
Unfortunately, the regularity and force of these moments recedes quickly after the first few episodes, as the show settles into its rhythm as a series; albeit, returning spectacularly for the finale. This is surely one of the greatest challenges for creating horror on television, in such a way as to fit an ongoing narrative. It may also be the reason why American Horror Story uses an anthology format, telling a completely different story every season, with which it has had great success.
However, what is very consistently maintained throughout the show is a deep and disturbing sense of unease. This is largely achieved by Mads Mikkelsen’s brilliantly nuanced portrayal of Hannibal. Rather than being constrained by the fact that we know Hannibal is the villain, the show and Mikkelsen create in him an extremely unpredictable and hard to read character. In a way, the show uses an inverse of the same dynamic of Homeland’s first season, where we were kept uncertain as to how much, if at all, Brody was a villain.
In Hannibal, the question is obviously not whether he is the villain, but how much, if at all, he is not, with his professed care for the other characters both affirmed and thrown into doubt again and again. As the characters get closer to Hannibal, and his intentions remain stubbornly unclear, the ever growing psychological unease is chilling.
Yet, this effect is normally absent from many horror themed shows. BBC’s Luther, which only really emphasised its horror element in season one, was unapologetically blunt in hammering shock value scenes and horrendously evil villains on viewers. Rather than the moments of disbelief discussed above, this technique in Luther is more like the jump scare in traditional horror films. There is no subversion of audience expectations, just the brutal presentation of ideas and imagery in as raw a format as the creators can manage. It certainly provided a few frights, but the method quickly grew stale and, at times, ridiculous.
Then again, Luther was never primarily a horror show (more than anything it was a neo-noir). Its scares were only part of the suspense, a result of flirting with the horror genre to add a fresh element to its composition, but never the main direction. Another show in this vein is The Walking Dead, one that also contains plenty of brutal shock moments. As if to remind viewers of that fact, the recently begun fourth season has had images of truly stomach turning gore in the first two episodes already. The Walking Dead may seem more like it is supposed to be a straight horror show than Luther, yet, it is at least arguable that zombie movies themselves have never really been about scaring people. Certainly, The Walking Dead focuses more on action and social drama than outright horror, but there are still moments of that same current of unease that is so prominent in Hannibal in the psychological damage the characters suffer.
This is largely the state horror on television is in right now. It is often an ingredient thrown in to create a fresh flavour for the constant need for suspense in shows, but it is slowly beginning to be used as the main course itself. Bates Motel and Hemlock Grove are two other shows that make horror the focus, rather than a secondary element, and look to be just the beginning of a new wave. What exactly makes a horror show a horror, instead of a suspenseful show with horror characteristics, may still be uncertain and being explored. Nonetheless, it is still a largely untapped genre for television, and, if the first season of Hannibal is anything to go by, it’s definitely worth doing more than flirting with it.