In Terror Television: American Series, 1970-1999, John Kenneth Muir describes the premises upon which many TV series that feature horror as a staple of their episodes’ plots rely. In doing so, he provides horror writers with a means of creating a basis by which to establish and broaden the structure of a continuing series of sequels or an anthology of related or, indeed, interrelated stories.
Let’s take a peek at some of the premises that Muir identifies:
Night Gallery: in an art gallery of bizarre portraits, every picture tells a story. For example, the show’s host, Rod Serling, of Twilight Zone fame, introduces one portrait, from which proceeds a tale in which “a selfish young man yearns for the death of his rich old uncle so he can inherit the family’s incredible wealth,” as a result of which, “a painting in the old man’s estate becomes an instrument of the occult when it starts to reflect terrifying changes in the family graveyard.”
The Sixth Sense: an investigator with ESP experiences “visions and insights” as he investigates cases involving psychic experiences stored in a computerized catalogue. In one episode, a missing-in-action (MIA) soldier communicates by means of automatic writing--in Chinese, yet!--with his psychic sister, to let her know that he is still alive, but someone seeks, through arson and murder, to keep the MIA’s whereabouts secret.
Ghost Story/Circle of Fear: the owner of a haunted house recounts guests’ stories. In the series’ pilot, or initial episode, the owners, having just purchased and moved into the house, hear strange noises; the house, as it turns out, was built upon the gallows upon which an “unrepentant thief” was “hanged,” and, as a consequence--the actual nature of the cause-and-effect link is, as is often the case in horror fiction, tenuous and vague--the house is, as the local librarian confirms--indeed haunted.
Kolchak: The Night Stalker: “Reporter Carl Kolchak” pursues “great news stories” involving “monsters and supernatural phenomena.” In one case, he suspects that the gruesome murders of a serial killer is, in fact, the handiwork of none other than the 130-year-old, original Jack the Ripper.
Twin Peaks: “In the tall, silent woods beyond the northwestern logging town Twin Peaks, an ancient evil dwells” in what the region’s native Americans called The Black Lodge, which may, in fact, be “another dimension,” the source of “pure evil.” The doorway to this dimension can be opened as a result of “planetary alignment” or potential victims’ fear. The Black Lodge’s counterpart, which is believed to be the home of gods, is The White Lodge. Strange characters inhabit Twin Peaks. According to Muir, the show’s writers developed the town, even creating a map of it, before creating its characters.
The X-Files: A psychologist and criminal profiler, FBI agent Fox Mulder believes in the paranormal and the supernatural, investigating the agency’s “backlog” of the X-Files (“inexplicable” cold cases), hoping to learn why his sister was abducted by aliens; his partner is the skeptical physician and fellow agent Dana Scully. Muir points out that the series is based upon ten horror themes: (1) “Trust No One” (government conspiracies and cover-ups), (2) “Freaks of Nature” (animals, mutants, and other monsters), (3) “Foreign Fears” (“ancient ethnic legends” prove to have “a basis in fact”), (4) From the Dawn of Time” (“ancient and prehistoric creatures” enter the present because of “climatic changes,” humans’ “encroachment on their territory,” or their discovery at “remote locations,” (5) “Aliens” (extraterrestrials are “encountered but never validated empirically”), (6) “God’s Masterplan” (elements of Christian belief are “explored as ‘real’ concepts”), (7) serial killers, (8) psychic phenomena, (9) “The Mytharc” (elements of various thematic subsets fuse into a narrative nucleus with a “coherent” story line, and (10) “The Standards” (stereotypical villains from the horror genre, such as vampires and werewolves).
Poltergeist: The Legacy: “Since the dawn of man, a secret organization, The Legacy, has existed to combat the forces of evil, and it’s ‘houses’ are all over the world,” each one of which is populated by heroes “with special skills” who are armed with high-tech weaponry. Poltergeist: The Legacy chronicles “the San Francisco house, a magnificent castle” on “Angel Island.”
Dark Skies: “American history as we know it is a lie to cover up” humans’ war, fought by Majestic-12, a covert agency established by President Truman, which is currently headed by Captain Frank Bach, against a horrific “alien collective consciousness known as The Hive.” The series examines Bach’s decisions and their consequences.
The Burning Zone: “an elite ‘bio-crisis’ team” is dedicated to eradicating ‘disease that threaten to strike quickly and endanger many innocent Americans” in a sequence of attacks known as The Plague Wars. This team also seeks to counter The New Dawn, “a villainous organization dedicated to the annihilation” or humanity and “the supremacy of the Earth’s original life form, a hive-mind,” representing a “sentient virus that has been ‘asleep’ for 15,000 years.” As the series progresses, two of the experts leave the team to “spearhead” important operations in Zimbabwe, “to be replaced by the ‘rebel’ doctor Brain Taft.”
Millennium: this “horror/crime series” featuring “paranormal and supernatural overtones” was based upon a blend of two movies, Seven and The Eyes of Laura Mars.
Man on the Run: a cross between The Fugitive and A Rebel Without a Cause, this series follows the exploits of a “motorcycle slacker who discovers he’s a failed government experiment with a built-in expiration date” in the form of a “computer chip in his brain” that will kill him in a year, when he turns 21, unless he can locate his creator, Dr. Heisenberg, and undergo special “medical treatment.” However, there’s a complication: he’s been framed for killing the man who shared “the truth” with him and, now, he’s pursued by a government agent who is bent upon bringing him to “justice.”
Now that we’ve had a peek at some of the premises that Muir details in his fascinating tour of Terror Television, let’s see whether we can discern a few principles that horror writers can derive from such an admittedly rather abbreviated review.
- The premise should establish an opportunity for the occurrence of bizarre and mysterious incidents (for example, extraordinary natural events or paranormal or supernatural proceedings) and the arrival and departure of extraordinary beings or forces.
- The premise should allow a recurrence of a cadre of characters and the ongoing development of one or more themes.
- The premise should unify fairly disparate elements of plot, setting, and theme.
- The premise should allow the exploration of diverse types and sources of narrative conflict and character development.
- The premise should link past and present (and, possibly, future) action.
- The premise should allow something that is lacking (for example, justice) to be supplied.
- The premise should suggest, if not explicitly identify, one or more causes for the mysterious and bizarre occurrences that take place within and between the stories or episodes.
- The premise may involve cover-ups by government agencies, overt or covert, or by private, but powerful and well-financed, organizations.
- The premise should allow for both natural and occult explanations for and causes of the mysterious and bizarre incidents, forces, and beings.
- The premise may address topical events or social, political, or moral issues and concerns.
- The premise may be inspired by a film’s concepts or by combined themes from several motion pictures.
- The premise should allow for new directions of plot. (For example, Buffy the Vampire Slayer takes a new direction when Buffy Summers graduates from high school and enrolls in college, and The Burning Zone takes a new direction when two of its experts leave the group to head specialized operations related to the main line of investigation.)
Terror Television: American Series, 1970-1999 by John Kenneth Muir, McFarland and Company, Inc., Jefferson, NC, 2001.