The first installment in a series looking at the development of the horror genre on TV.

The History of Genre Exchange

The analysis that follows could, very easily, be considered as a case study in the application of Vivian Sobchack’s theory in “Bringing It All Back Home: Family Economy and Generic Exchange.” Sobchack’s analysis contends that with the rise of TV in the 1960s and 70s, horror, family melodrama, and science fiction infiltrated domestic space, the home. Further, her analysis revolves around an understanding of these genres as each representing a specific temporality—horror representing the past, family melodrama the present, and science fiction the future—and that in the 60s and 70s these genres began to run together, films classified as horror could increasingly also be called family melodrama (eg Poltergeist). Where my analysis below differs from Sobchack’s is in the conclusions I hope to draw from considering this era in horror and its relationship to TV and to other genres. Sobchack’s assertion is primarily concerned with agency in relationship to patriarchy, children, and domestic space (for some of my previous work on similar concepts, see this podcast on The Shining). My goal for this post, however, is to explore a more general historical approach to considering the following series, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Twilight Zone, and Dark Shadows in terms of their historical relationship to the Cold War.

Horror and Television Censorship

Much like the history of cinema, television’s relationship with horror as we understand it today has largely been shaped by regulation, oversight, and censorship. While film directors generally enjoyed increased creative latitude with the shift from the Motion Picture Production Code (also referred to as the Hays Code) to the voluntary Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) rating system in 1968, television’s relationship with violence and horror has had a much more complex trajectory. Operating on a similar logic as Hollywood Studio System decency and morality clauses, the National Association of Broadcasters adopted a set of decency guidelines for television broadcasts referred to as the Code of Practices for Television Broadcasters (or the Television Code) in 1951. These provisions overlapped in some places with Federal Communications Commission regulations but were otherwise largely voluntary and unenforceable suggestions for television content. That said, the Television Code’s impact is visible in early examples of television horror, perhaps most notably in the fact that programs airing from 1955 through 1973 don’t really constitute “horror” as we currently understand it.

Most significantly, the Television Code, upon its adoption, included the following provision in the section on “Acceptability of Program Material”: “[subsection] (s): The use of horror for its own sake will be eliminated; the use of visual or aural effects which would shock or alarm the viewer, and the detailed presentation of brutality or physical agony by sight or by sound is not permissible.”[1] This clear statement prohibiting the conventions of the genre, in addition to more general statements regarding the presentation of violence and criminal activity, accounts, at least in part, for the disavowal of horror conventions on television. While the TV landscape has changed considerably since the 1950s, this history continues to inform the genre’s development as medium-specific and distinctive from horror fiction, cinema, gaming, etc.

Alfred Hitchcock Presents

True to form for Alfred Hitchcock’s work, Alfred Hitchcock Presents is primarily concerned with interpersonal conflict; horror derives not from what external supernatural forces do to torment people, but rather what people do to themselves and each other. Alfred Hitchcock Presents engages with Cold War anxieties linked to the Red Scare and McCarthyism. While the anthology series covers a number of topics, generally having to do with murder and deceit, a number of episodes explicitly feature duplicity in domestic space which functions allegorically as a means of expressing and grappling with the fear that a spouse, child, friend, or neighbor could be an enemy of the state or, in turn, that that person might gladly hand you over to the government.

The first thing to understand about how the Cold War operated is also the basis for Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation. Baudrillard’s assertion that “It is not the direct threat of atomic destruction that paralyzes our lives, it is deterrence that gives them leukemia. And this deterrence comes from that fact that even real atomic clash is precluded—precluded like the eventuality of the real in a system of signs.”[2] This is to say that the Cold War, for all of its reliance on deterrence strategies, on waging a war in the minds and hearts of people without ever actually waging war, on redefining what war even is, fundamentally structures anxiety during this period as being rooted in ambiguity. When, in “Don’t Come Back Alive,” Mildred and Frank Partridge (Virginia Gregg and Sidney Blackmer respectively) first devise a plan to defraud their life insurance agency and when they eventually turn on each other, both conflicts and their subsequent narrative tension are built less on a direct action but rather on the threat of action, on a “what if” rather than something that actually happens. Similarly, in “Our Cook’s a Treasure,” the tension arises first from the possibility that Ralph and Ethel Montgomery’s (Everett Sloane and Janet Ward) new housekeeper could be a notorious killer, and then from Ralph’s sudden realization that his wife is trying to kill him. In both episodes, the suspense and horror come first from the fear that a loved one isn’t the person you thought them to be—that they could stop loving you without your knowing/noticing—and then from the ambiguity of that change. A person’s spouse changing inexplicably from lover to murderer are representations of a relatively ephemeral dilemma that firmly situates Alfred Hitchcock Presents within Cold War interpersonal and deterrence anxieties.

The Twilight Zone

Where Alfred Hitchcock Presents addresses its Cold War context obliquely, The Twilight Zone directly grapples with the fear of atomic/nuclear/computerized technology that in many ways defined Cold War-era science fiction. According to Christine Cornea, American, Japanese, and British science fiction and horror films during the Cold War era “ostensibly dealt with the destructive potential of atomic weaponry and concerns surrounding the development and future use of nuclear power.”[3] The same could be said for much of the science fiction/horror television of the era (e.g. The Outer Limits episodes “The Galaxy Being” and “The Architects of Fear”). The Twilight Zone takes a slightly different approach to this anxiety, in many cases presenting stories in which the nuclear apocalypse has already happened and dealing with the fear of isolation in the event of total destruction.

The Twilight Zone’s first episode (after the pilot), “Where Is Everybody,” sidesteps this a bit, with the twist ending revealing that Mike Ferris (Earl Holliman) is actually an astronaut in training and that the rest of the episode, in which Mike wanders around a deserted town populated only by mannequins, thinking he is the last survivor of the nuclear apocalypse, has been a hallucination. The episode, in this way, builds tension and fear first on the premise that Mike will live out the rest of his life without any hope of human companionship, and second on the impending uncertainty of what consequences the Space Race might bring. Building on similar fears of isolation, “Time Enough At Last” revolves around Henry Bemis (Burgess Meredith), a banker who inadvertently survives an atomic bomb while reading on his lunch break in a bank vault, and finds that with no one else left alive, he finally has time to read as much as he wants, an endeavor that has previously been thwarted by his wife and boss. In a horrifying twist of fate at the end of the episode (which makes this the most frightening Twilight Zone episode to my mind), Bemis drops his glasses, shattering the lenses so that he can no longer see or read anything clearly. While this conclusion might seem trivial, if still horrifying, it brings about the question that would haunt the post-/apocalypse genre for years to come: what happens when people with specializes skilled, necessary skills, are gone? How do we continue to function as we previously have without knowing how to make and do the things necessary to make life livable?

Dark Shadows

Before addressing Dark Shadows specifically as a contemporary gothic family melodrama, I’d like to point out that the majority of the show’s storylines are either inspired by or adapted from classic gothic literature. For example, Victoria Winters’ narrative arch seems to be an amalgam of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre and Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca. There are also numerous references to Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla, Bram Stocker’s Dracula (and F.W. Murnau’s loose adaptation of it, Nosferatu), and Patrick Hamilton’s Gas Light.

Much like the texts it references, Dark Shadows’ use of gothic elements (ghosts, vampires, dopplegängers, etc) has to do with the fear that the past is dangerous, and that it will come bubbling to the surface at any moment and wreak havoc on an individual’s (or a nation’s) carefully-ordered life. This anxiety takes on different meanings depending on the era in which the text is produced (fear of the past means something very different in Victorian England than it does in the 1960s United States), but the representational meaning of gothic conventions remains consistent nonetheless. Considered in these terms, Dark Shadows, like the other series I’ve discussed already, is allegorical for Cold War anxieties, but unlike Alfred Hitchcock Presents’s focus on domestic, interpersonal conflict and The Twilight Zone’s preoccupation with external technological annihilation, Dark Shadows seems to be populated by characters who are most afraid of infiltration. While the show was already popular by April, 1967 when the character of Barnabus Collins (Jonathan Frid) was introduced, Barnabus quickly became one of the show’s most recognizable (and marketable) stars.[4] While his character develops considerable complexity as the narrative progresses, Barnabus serves two main purposes in the narrative; to incite conflict and to seduce women. These purposes become interconnected in the Cold War context. Barnabas enters the story as a relic of the Collins’ family’s history, a history wherein Barnabas’ father essentially buries his own son alive in order to preserve the family name. Moreover, Barnabas’ entry into the 1960s Collins family is already characterized by the kind of distrust and duplicity characteristic of Cold War-era politics in that he poses as a distant cousin from England, immediately identifying him as a liar. Whereas the introduction of a new character, an outsider, in classic gothic literature like Jane Eyre and Rebecca means a necessary disruption of stasis with the danger already present in the domestic space, in Dark Shadows it is, at times, reversed, so that the new character, the person being introduced, is the dangerous infiltrator, the representative of Soviet Spies and Communist Sympathizers.

[1] Bronson, Edward H. “Acceptability of Program Material.” Code of Practices for Television Broadcasters, Including Procedures Relating to Administration, Hearings and Decisions. Washington, D.C.: Television Board of National Association of Radio and Television Broadcasters. (16 January 2017).
[2] Baudrillard, Jean. Simulacra and Simulation. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan, 1994. Print. 32. (emphasis original)
[3] Cornea, Christine. Science Fiction Cinema: Between Fantasy and Reality. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 2007. Print. 59
[4] Benshoff, Harry M. Dark Shadows. Detroit, MI: Wayne State UP, 2011. Print. 58

Further Reading

Barnouw, Erik. Tube of Plenty: The Evolution of American Television. New York: Oxford UP, 1975. Print.

Benshoff, Harry M. Monsters in the Closet: Homosexuality and the Horror Film. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1997. Print.

Edgerton, Gary R. The Columbia History of American Television. New York: Columbia UP, 2007. Print.

Gaddis, John Lewis. The Cold War: A New History. New York: Penguin, 2005. Print.

Jowett, Lorna, and Stacey Abbott. TV Horror: Investigating the Dark Side of the Small Screen. London: I.B. Tauris, 2013. Print.

Masco, Joseph. The Theater of Operations: National Security Affect from the Cold War to the War on Terror. Durham: Duke UP, 2014. Print.

Meehan, Paul. Horror Noir: Where Cinema’s Dark Sisters Meet. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2011. Print.

Nathanson, Amy I., and Joanne Cantor. “Protecting Children from Harmful Television: TV Ratings and the V-chip.” Parenthood in America. University of Wisconsin-Madison, 15 Oct. 1998. Web. 16 Jan. 2017.

Roman, James W. From Daytime to Primetime: The History of American Television Programs. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2005. Print.

Thompson, Ethan, and Jason Mittell. How to Watch Television. New York: New York UP, 2013. Print.

Waller, Gregory A., ed. American Horrors: Essays on the Modern American Horror Film. Chicago: U of Illinois, 1987. Print.

Image Credit: CBS Television Distribution © 1959

Author: Geneveive Newman