Why is horror so successful on television? We’ll get to that, but first make note – Grimm is planning some kind of reboot in its fifth season. The Zombie-as-metaphor has evolved into a reflection of American office culture. And the hardest special effect of all is a good toupee. Those revelations and more spewed forth like rivers of blood from the unfocused but highly entertaining Scary 3.0: The New Horror panel, held today in the Paramount Theater at the start of the 2015 Produced By Conference.
In attendance were executive producers Dave Alpert of The Walking Dead, Norberto Barba of Grimm, Jeremy Carver of Supernatural, Carlton Cuse of Bates Motel and The Strain, and Tim Minear of American Horror Story. The five of them talked at length about the increasing success of horror on television and why audiences are responding so strongly to horror, digging in to how technology and social media impact their work, while also revealing surprising trivia, like the difficulty of making a convincing hairpiece.
So why has horror made such a strong comeback? Alpert attributes the success of horror on television in part to what he calls “a certain amount of escapism,” that allows audiences to set aside their own worries, but he went further, making the case that the genre’s resurgent popularity is a specific reflection of our tumultuous times. “It started during the economic crisis,’ he said, adding that “I don’t think it’s a coincidence that when the crash hit is when horror started to really take off on television.”
Alpert continued that theme later in the panel. Zombies have, of course, always been used as metaphors, from civil rights turmoil, to consumerism, and even delayed adulthood, but in Alpert’s view they’re reflective of American working culture. Asked why zombies are so scary, Alpert referenced the Chuck Klosterman essay “How Life Is Like A Zombie Onslaught, adding that “A lot of people, they spend all day working… somedays you spend all day responding to emails, and the more you do, the more you have to do.”
But other members of the panel weren’t necessarily so (humorously) glum, attributing the success of horror more to the changing landscape of television. As networks give greater freedom for shows to push the envelope, with the ability to achieve greater technical ambitions, and the increasingly cinematic quality of television, in that view horror is allowed to thrive more fully than was previously possible. “With higher production value and really awesome looking stuff, horror is like the perfect genre to play with cinema, and I think play with genre,” Barba said. “And audiences are enjoying… all the possibilities that we can do visually with horror.”
Carver concurred, adding “with all the programming out there now these horror shows can go almost in a way more niche in terms of they don’t have to appeal to everybody, they can be much more adventurous and daring.” But, he made clear, the writing ultimately matters most. “I personally think the horror genre is, like any other genre, the show is only gonna sustain itself if it has the characters to sustain these stories. Horror or not, I don’t think horror alone is going to bring people in.”
“Um, when you put a giant billboard up with a worm crawling into an eyeball, it kind of cuts through the clutter,” Carlton Cuse said about The Strain‘s success, to big laughs.
More seriously, taking about technological advancements that have made convincing special effects much cheaper, Cuse said outright that “it would not have been possible to make [The Strain] five years ago.” Carver backed him up, noting how SFX heavy Supernatural is, and how “well over a thousand” visual effects shots were made possible by bringing their visual effects team in house.
Not that non premium cable networks are allowing these shows an free hand when it comes to gore. All five producers talked openly about the things done to get around network censors. “You pad out your episode with horrible horrible things that you know will never be let on,” Carver said. Cuse meanwhile confirmed that The Strain has filmed so truly grotesque stuff that never made it onscreen – specifically, when the character Bolivar loses his genitals during his transformation into a vampire during The Strain’s first season, they actually shot a scene of “his d-ck falling off.”
But having those limitations helps, the panelists agreed. “Real horror is the build up, the suspense, the dread,” Minear said. “When you show something you take the air out of it.”
Minear also credited the current television landscape, which he called “the greatest boon to writers in recent years,” Minear praised the rise of the limited series, which he later said saves writers from having “to bullsh-t your way through five years,” and noted that with American Horror Story‘s success, other networks have explored limited series, citing The Slap and Aquarius in particular.
* Discussing the success of their shows, and the need for reinvention, Barba dropped an interesting tidbit about the upcoming fifth season of Grimm. “The fifth season is going to go through a reboot phase just to keep it fresh,” he said, though he declined to elaborate.
* The panelists were very bullish about social media’s contribution to the success of their shows. Barba, noting how precisely analysts study social media reactions during broadcasts of Grimm, said “they’re almost like test screenings.”
* Talking about his anxiety regarding the SFX on The Strain, Cuse described his relief at how it turned out, before adding, to big laughs, that “The only thing people didn’t buy into was Cory Stoll’s hair.”
* So what scares them? Cuse: “earthquakes”; Barba: “disease”; Minear: “personal interaction”.