IN THEORY, the return to the airwaves tonight of gothic horror Penny Dreadful ought to be a cause of dread and disquiet. Shot in Wicklow and Dublin, on paper this Victorian romp contains all the ingredients required of a full-tilt fright fest: fountains of blood, body parts in jars, things that not only go bump in the night but gibber and moan outside your bedroom door.
Last year’s opening series culminated with our rag-tag heroes doing battle with pallid she-vampires, while another main character sprouted wolf hair and howled at the moon. What could be scarier?
A lot, it turns out. Though Penny Dreadful, staring Eva Green and Cork newcomer Sarah Greene (no relation), makes for frequently icky viewing, it never gets beneath the skin or leaves a truly lingering chill. In this respect, it is typical of horror on television which, to be blunt, isn’t all that horrific.
Consider The Walking Dead, the zombie juggernaut which manages to make the undead apocalypse feel like a medium-level inconvenience. And then there was the The Strain, a 2014 vampire series from director Guillermo Del Toro that turned progressively sillier so that, halfway in, you didn’t know whether you were supposed to cower from the blood suckers or giggle.
Every so often, it is true, a television show will spook the parts other broadcasts cannot reach. The grimacing clown from the most recent series of American Horror Story was undeniably disturbing; if you weren’t clown-phobic sitting down to watch, you almost certainly were at the end. American Horror Story creator Ryan Murphy actually fretted he had gone too far with the gruesome jesters.
“I’m worried about people being too afraid of our clown,” he said last year “It’s heart-stopping what he does... I’m worried that people are going to have cardiac arrests.”
However, American Horror Story, with its creepy clowns, is an outlier. The blunt fact is that, when it comes plucking at our emotional nerve endings, television lags behind cinema. Contrast Penny Dreadful’s troweled on ‘horror’ with the subtle, allusion-rich scares served up by recent movies such as The Babadook and It Follows.
The first was a brain-frazzling monster flick that doubled as a metaphor for the pressures and traumas of parenthood (was the monster real – or something conjured by a disturbed child?); the latter an (arguably retrograde) commentary on moral licentiousness in which a victim inherits a deadly metaphysical virus after a one-night stand.
These are subtle films which couch their horrors in subversive terms, in jarring contrast to the ‘he’s behind you’ frights of Penny Dreadful and the often ribald American Horror Story (clowns excepted).
The truth is that the harder television tries to induce goose-bumps the flimsier the pay-off. It is surely no coincidence the truly creepiest TV shows do not advertise themselves as fright-fests. For instance the recent BBC drama Black Mirror is piled high with disturbing concepts — such as the idea you can ‘block’ people in real life as with social media — while never touting itself as belonging to a particular genre.
The best lesson in the ways television can and cannot unsettle is perhaps provided by the notorious BBC one-off Ghostwatch, from 1992. Though screened on BBC2’s evening drama slot, Ghostwatch’s faux-documentary style convinced many at home the haunted house tale was genuine.
The 90-minute ‘documentary’ chronicled the apparently real takeover of a semi-d in London by a spirit named ‘Pipes’ , pushing the inhabitants past the brink of sanity. So far, so cliched. What gave Ghostwatch its eerie power was that it was presented as a Newsnight-eseque current affairs show, with Michael Parkinson offering commentary back in the studio and Craig Charles playing a news reporter. There was even a hotline so the public could report ghost sightings.
Ghostwatch ended with one of the householders hauled away by the poltergeist, fate unknown. The moment it went off air, the BBC was inundated with calls from shocked viewers.
Later, an 18-year-old with learning difficulties committed suicide, having connected the malfunctioning central heating system in his home to ‘Pipes’ penchant for banging on radiators, while two young boys were confirmed to have suffered post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of the broadcast.
While these tragic events remind us the line between shiver-inducing and genuinely scary should not be crossed flippantly, they also demonstrate just how ineffectual is modern horror TV. No matter how many buckets of blood Penny Dreadful sloshes about tonight, it is unlikely to cause viewers much in the way of lost sleep.
TV has never been smarter, sassier, sexier, but the one thing it cannot yet do consistently is pack us off to bed with a chill in our hearts.
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