Praise for Twisted Tales Events

'In the past few years Twisted Tales has become a major force in the promotion and appreciation of horror fiction. As well as putting on author readings and signings at bookshops it has expanded into organising larger events, bringing authors and critics together for discussions of the field. I've been involved in quite a few of both and have found them hugely enjoyable and stimulating - I believe the audiences did as well. May Twisted Tales continue to grow and prosper! If you love the field, support them! I do.' - Ramsey Campbell

‘Twisted Tales consistently produce well-organised events for writers and readers of horror. What really distinguishes Twisted Tales for me is the intelligent themes and investigations they pursue, and the high quality of the discussions they always stimulate. As an author I've been invited to three of their events and have been pleasantly startled, to near shocked, by the attendance levels - two out of three were even sold out. I salute anyone who contributes so much to the literary and cultural life of horror fiction.’- Adam Nevill

'Twisted Tales events are wonderful... a great way of promoting 21st century horror fiction. Supported by Waterstone's Liverpool One and really well organised, Twisted Tales brings together established names in the genre as well as new voices and of course readers. Looking forward to much more to come...' - Alison J. Littlewood

Monday, 18 February 2013

TV Horror: Stacey Abbott and Lorna Jowett in Conversation

To celebrate the release of their new book, TV Horror: Investigating the Dark Side of the Small Screen (I.B. Tauris, 2013), Stacey Abbott and Lorna Jowett discuss their love of the genre and how this has influenced their research.

What was the first horror you remember seeing on TV?
LJ: I think my viewing experiences, and maybe my taste, are very typical of my generation in the UK. I watched the BBC kid’s show Rentaghost (BBC 1976-1984), along with countless others, and its premise of ghosts trying to come to terms with being ghosts, and trying to make their way in a world that tended to assume ghosts did not exist was an early example of the sympathetic monster tradition that we identify across various TV horror programmes in the book.

Count Duckula was always one of my favourite characters on DangerMouse (ITV 1981-1992) during the 1980s when I was a child, and perhaps this started my early fascination with vampires. By the time Duckula got his own spin-off show, I was at university and watching less television, but parodying classic vampire convention via an animated duck whose main ambition was to be in showbiz certainly made Duckula memorable.

SA: For me, growing up in Canada, my first experience of horror on TV was I believe Count von Count on Sesame Street (NET1969-1970, PBS 1970-). He was gothic and comic, lived in a castle, wore a cape and a monocle, and was surrounded by bats (which he would count with such gusto); what’s not to love? I had never seen or read Dracula at that point so I did not know upon what his appearance and accent was based but I was transfixed by the imagery. Even in this child-like fashion, he was both unsettling and alluring. Then there was, of course, Scooby-Doo. It offered the thrill of ghosts, vampires and monsters but always left you safe in the knowledge that it was always a hoax.

Beyond children’s programmes, my first encounter with any type of horror was on television, although I didn’t really distinguish between cinema releases shown on television and made-for-TV movies. I remember being terrified by Dan Curtis’ TV-movie The Curse of the Black Widow (ABC 1977), a film about a woman who turns into a giant black widow spider and kills her lovers, which I watched with my best friend Wanda. We were so scared that when it finished we saw a small spider crawl across the floor and we both screamed and ran upstairs to my parents. But I also have clear memories of being between 8 and 12 and watching loads of scary movies including Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (Charles Barton 1948), Brian DePalma’s The Fury (1978) (I remember everyone was talking about the climatic exploding body the next morning at the bus stop), The Exorcist (William Friedkin 1973), and Halloween (John Carpenter 1978) on television for the first time. And yes I recognise that there are issues with classification here but in defence of my parents who let me watch these films; they knew that for me the pleasure was in being scared while immersed in the film and that the fear never lasted past the film’s end… like being on a roller-coaster. There was something exhilarating about watching these movies in the darkness of our living room, or on the little black and white television I had in my bedroom. And I loved them all.

LJ: Although most people probably first encounter horror as teenagers, it wasn’t high on my agenda. I didn’t go to the cinema often, and when I did it was with a group of female friends who wanted to see the latest romance flick (I still roll my eyes when I hear the theme song from Flashdance). Yet I do remember as a young teenager of maybe 13 watching a slasher film (and now I can’t even remember which one) on video at a friend’s house. It was a sunny afternoon, so we had the curtains closed and watching the screen in the dark was an atmospheric and creepy experience. That immersion in something promising to thrill and scare is surely a key factor in horror of any type.

What is the scariest thing you’ve seen on TV?
We asked people this as we were researching the book, and got some great answers.

LJ: My partner’s uncle Frank told me about an American anthology show called One Step Beyond (aka Alcoa Presents: One Step Beyond, ABC 1959-61), which he was banned from watching as a child. He used to sneak back down the stairs (after being sent to bed) and listen to the sounds coming from the sitting room where his parents and older sister were watching the television. It was much scarier that way, he admitted... While I knew about and had seen many older anthology shows like The Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents, I’d never heard of One Step Beyond, and it was a useful comparison, especially in terms of how it presented the fantastic and the unexplained.

I’d heard my dad talk about watching television at a friend’s house because his family didn’t have one, and that was probably not uncommon in the post-war years when he was growing up. Until I started writing this book, though, I never realised that the programme he went to watch was Quatermass (BBC 1953, 1955, 1958-59). Dad told me how one night he left his friend’s house to walk home in the dark and suddenly saw a plant-like mass looming towards him. It was only after running all the way home in a flat panic that he realised it was a stand of sweet peas in the neighbouring garden.

SA: Yes, everyone we asked had a fantastic story to tell about the scariest thing they’ve seen on TV and it was amazing how everyone seemed to get a fresh chill down the spine as they told us. Memories of things we see on TV, particularly as a child, have a strong hold on us. For instance, my friend Jen described being haunted as a child by nightmares of a tiny African warrior with a spear, hiding under her bed. She didn’t know where the image came from until eventually hearing Joss Whedon refer to the African Zuni Doll, from the TV Horror movie Trilogy of Terror (ABC 1975), being the scariest thing on TV. She had apparently seen it as a child of about 2 or 3, when her mother probably assumed she wouldn’t take it in. But she did and it stuck. In fact, the African Zuni Doll has had this impact on many people and you’ll see its influence on other horror texts, including Joe Dante’s Gremlins (1984) and Small Soldiers (1998) as well as the BBC TV series Psychoville (BBC Two 2009-2011).

One of the most common answers we received was the episode ‘Home’ from The X-Files (Fox 1993-2002). But it was interesting how people described it, picking out what scared them most. For some it was the disfigured mother being kept ‘on the wheelie thing under the bed for inbreeding with her sons’ (Rachel), the abject body at its purest. For others it was the contrast between the uplifting Johnny Mathis song “Wonderful Wonderful” being played while the Peacock boys beat the sheriff and his wife to death in their home [I actually heard this song in a pub in North Devon recently and it sent chills down my spine just hearing it, even out of context]. This episode plays with a wide range of cultural anxieties about the body, incest, home invasions. Whichever way you look at it, the episode offered a disturbing image of ‘home’.

LJ: Yes, this episode of The X-Files is one that probably makes it as a personal Scariest TV Moment. The X-Files lost none of its impact for being watched on a tiny portable TV screen in black and white, all I could afford as a postgraduate student. ‘Home’ had me, like many other viewers, covering my eyes and turning away. So, for myself, I have to say Doctor Who and The X-Files probably tie for the title. Doctor Who was, like many of the other shows I’ve mentioned, part of a British childhood, and that behind the sofa experience is never forgotten. The X-Files brought back that creepy behind the sofa feeling but in a show obviously aimed at an adult audience and presented with a visual panache that made it stylish and distinctive.

SA: The other favourite of mine, and many of the people we talked to, was Twin Peaks (ABC 1990-91), particularly the episode that reveals who killed Laura Palmer where Laura’s cousin Maddie meets a terrible end, once again in the family home.  This episode is still terrifying in both its brutality and its anguish; David Lynch really understood that the strength of TV horror was not just the violence but the emotional attachment that we develop to characters on television and, therefore, the pain when they are confronted by such violence and horror.  

For me, though, the scariest example of TV horror is Tobe Hooper’s Salem’s Lot (CBS 1979) and, in particular, the image of the young Danny Glick, now a vampire, floating outside of his best friend’s window, scratching the glass and asking to be let in. Even today, regardless of the less than perfect special effects and the excessive vampire make-up, the scene gives me chills. The sound of the finger nails scratching the glass, so subtle and yet disturbingly violent, highlighting the fragility of borders between inside and outside, safety and danger, life and death, home and not-home. It captures all the reasons why vampires are scary.   

Oh yeah, and of course, Papa Lazarou’s first appearance in the second season of The League of Gentlemen (BBC Two 1999-2002). There is something about Reece Shearsmith in full black face (a disturbing notion in and of itself), using a guttural voice to utter those surreal and memorable tag lines ‘Hello Dave… You’re my wife now’ that just freaks me out.

LJ: Definitely! It makes me shiver even to think of it. LoG is one of those shows that thrives on discomfort and makes the viewer squirm, not sure whether it’s even ok to laugh at stuff like this.

What are the major differences between how horror works on TV and how it works in other forms?
LJ: Clearly this is the main focus of the book. I think some of the key differences are about structuring horror to fit the TV form. One of the things that fascinate me about horror on television is its endless possibilities for development in unfolding a story and a mythology that might run for years. This adds so much depth to the rewriting and revisualising of standard horror icons and tropes. In the book we touch on werewolves, zombies, vampires, the Frankenstein story and all of these are transformed and remade on television continually.

We’ve also tried to explore in the book how the domestic arena of television, far from undermining horror, can actually add to it. What could be scarier than a monster in your living room?

SA: Absolutely, it is notable that many of the examples of TV’s scariest moments mentioned above take place in the home. For so long people have said that watching horror on TV diffuses the horror because you are watching it within the safety of your home but the reality is that most of these stories take place in the home, reflecting the audience’s own situation and environment. Suddenly your own home is not so safe anymore.   

One of the things we talk about in the book is also how many of the restrictions imposed upon television, either through censorship or more limited production budgets, can actually encourage TV horror producers to be more creative with how they convey horror. If you can’t show everything then what do you do? Well, the creators of shows like Pushing Daisies (ABC 2007-09) and Dexter (Showtime 2006-) develop an excessive mise-en-scene that evokes horror in quite distinctive ways. Paint the horror on the walls, sometimes in the case of Dexter’s blood spatter, quite literally.

Why do you enjoy watching horror on TV?
SA: I am drawn to the moral ambiguity that seems to be such a major part of contemporary television, and TV horror in particular. This is something that comes up quite a bit in the book. TV’s seriality means that you are forced to get to know TV characters in a more intimate way than you do with characters from the movies.  You literally spend a lot more time with them. But when the characters are vampires, ghosts, or serial killers, the relationship becomes even more complicated. How are we supposed to feel about these ‘people’ and their actions? Do we want Dexter to get caught or aren’t we really cheering for him to get away with murder? Do we want Mitchell or Angel (or any other reluctant vampire) to stay on the wagon and not drink human blood, or don’t we (maybe just a little, maybe a lot) really want them to fall of the wagon because they are so much fun when they do? And when they do give in to their blood lust, aren’t they all the more terrifying because they are loved characters we’ve invited into our homes, as opposed to two-dimensional monsters?

LJ: I love watching TV and I love horror, so the two are a natural combination. My attraction to television is partly about my love of stories, and serial drama offers so much scope for telling visual stories in all kinds of engaging ways. I agree that every season of a show like Dexter brings something new in terms of where it takes the characters, and how it tests our engagement with them, but TV Horror’s also partly about what it gives us on screen. When the UK version of Being Human (BBC Three 2008-) introduced new vampire Hal in season four, it took me a while to warm to him. But who could resist seeing him washing dishes at the kitchen sink, wearing yellow Marigolds while hearing him sing The Four Tops' 'Reach Out (I'll Be There)' in a surprisingly convincing falsetto (4.5)?

SA: Yes, TV horror can really mix things up quite a bit and blend horror with comedy in insanely brilliant ways. Angel’s ‘Smile Time’, the episode where hero-Angel gets turned into a muppet, has such a great mix of comedy and horror. The villains, the demonic puppets using a children’s television show to suck the life-force right out of its young viewership [yes a not too subtle commentary on the perception of television as mind-numbing], are some of the nastiest monsters on Angel. They exploit children, abusing the trust children put into their favourite TV characters [with not so subtle suggestions of paedophilia]. At the same time, having Angel played as a muppet throughout the episode (described by Spike as a ‘wee little puppet man’) is outstanding comedy that is very typical of Angel and much TV horror. 

Can you talk about one of your favourite TV horror moments?
LJ: We talked earlier about Scary TV Horror moments, but one that always makes me laugh out loud was in another episode of Being Human (‘Puppy Love’ 4.6). A video of Tom’s werewolf transformation has been posted on YouTube and werewolf Allison tells the gang that they’re trending on Twitter and a Facebook group is trying to hunt them down. When they look blank, she comments, ‘Don’t tell me you’re still on MySpace,’ to which Hal, 500-plus year-old vampire replies, ‘We’re more Ceefax people…’ This line apparently got Ceefax trending, spoke volumes about Hal’s character, as well as his age, and was even funnier for a viewer too old for BBC Three’s target youth demographic.

SA: So hard to decide, there are so many; some that stuck with me from my childhood and others that I discovered while researching this book. One that stands out is vampire Barnabas Collins’s first appearance in the original series Dark Shadows (ABC 1966-71). In this sequence, Willy Loomis, a petty crook, is hunting through the Collins’s family tomb because there are rumours that the family jewels are hidden there. He finds a hidden tomb and a coffin encircled with chains (a bad sign if ever there was one). After breaking through the chains, he pries open the coffin, peering into its recesses, only to have his leering gaze turn into a look of sheer terror as a hand emerges and grabs him by the throat… fade to black as sweeping gothic musical score rises. End of episode. I watched this knowing full well what was in the coffin but what must this have been like for audiences in 1967, watching Dark Shadows on a weekday afternoon after school? Terrifying and completely gripping (no pun intended)! On a less scary note, another of my favourite moments from Dark Shadows was the first time that Barnabus is shown entering into waitress Maggie Evans’s bedroom as she sleeps; this was the moment when Barnabus would reveal himself as a vampire, bearing his fangs for the first time. Unfortunately, it was obvious that the fangs didn’t quit fit poor Jonathan Frid, who did his best to show them without having them fall out of his mouth. This is a great reminder of the difficulties of doing this kind of show in the 1960s, a programme shot live to tape meaning no retakes, when time and money were restricted. The episode ended on this note and then the next day it picked up where the scene left off but clearly Frid had a better set of fangs which he could bear quite easily. 

But these are just a couple of many favourite moments.

LJ: Yes, there are too many. When I think of TV Horror I often think of the memorable music that goes along with it. I have The X-Files theme as my ring tone. The unforgettable and often parodied theme to The Twilight Zone (CBS 1959-64), the haunting music of Twin Peaks, the finger-snapping, toe-tapping theme to The Addams Family (ABC 1964-66), the grinding echoes of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre that back the credit sequence of American Horror Story, all give a sense of the vast range that’s possible for horror on television. Also, I think one of the things that make TV Horror so enjoyable for me is its repetition of certain moments, something which is so integral to television. The music for Twin Peaks, to me, has much more impact than similar music composed by Angelo Badalamenti for David Lynch’s films because we hear it over and over again, so it becomes tied to the visual imagery and embedded into the fabric of the show.

SA: Yes, music is so important to any type of horror, as is sound more generally. Some of my favourite moments from Nigel Kneale’s work in TV horror are linked to his use of sound, such as the horrifying noise of the rats first scurrying underneath the floor boards and later tearing through the wood in ‘During Barty’s Party’, an episode of Nigel’s Kneale’s series Beasts (ATV 1976), or the ghostly repetition of the sounds of a horse-drawn carriage crash and a woman and her son drowning in the marshes in his adaptation of Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black (ITV 1989). Somehow, the repetition of the sound when you can’t see anything is all the more haunting.

Is TV horror now different to TV horror of previous eras?
LJ: The obvious answer is both yes and no. An early chapter of the book charts changes in the TV landscape and offers some thoughts on how these have affected horror on television. I think there’s more scope for horror on television now that we have many more channels and those channels are not competing for the same mainstream audience. This means a bigger range of horror from the more explicit HBO’s True Blood (2008-) and AMC’s The Walking Dead (AMC 2010-) to Joe Ahearne’s atmospheric miniseries adaptation The Secret of Crickley Hall (2012), shown on BBC One in a prime time evening slot.

SA: One of the points of the book is to show that TV Horror has always been there and, we would argue, always will be. But I suppose it is more visible now. In the past, horror seemed like more of a gamble in a market where you want the highest rating possible. If Horror is the most disreputable genre, as Robin Wood once described it, then TV producers were unlikely to highlight a show’s horror pedigree. So it was hidden within shows that could be described as something more acceptable like science-fiction (The X-Files, Quatermass, Twilight Zone), or teen drama/comedy (Buffy). But now things are completely different. Despite its obvious hybridity with melodrama and bromance, Supernatural (WB 2005-06, CW 2006-) has always presented itself as horror and more recent shows like American Horror Story (FX 2011-) and The Walking Dead are even more upfront about it.

Why is horror so popular on TV right now?
LJ: I think one of the reasons is that there’s a massive boom in fantasy genres generally, with Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter and Twilight all being massive successes across more than one medium. Also, because television is usually a hybrid of genres, it lends itself well to incorporating fantasy elements into popular and established TV formats. So Being Human initially seemed to be a housemates sitcom where the housemates just happened to be a werewolf, a vampire and a ghost; Supernatural combines road movie, horror, and bromance; American Horror Story season 1 took the haunted house trope from horror and added US domestic melodrama to produce a twenty-first century American gothic; Dead Set played shamelessly on popular derision of reality TV by having zombies invade the Big Brother house.

SA: I agree that fantasy genres are hugely popular now, so television is an open market to develop these genres further. Also, many channels are looking to make their mark, capture audience attention within a very competitive market, and so horror is eye-catching and, if you get it right, the genre has a built-in audience ready and waiting for quality TV horror. 

Another reason, perhaps a little less commercial and more from the heart, is that many of the people writing and producing contemporary television are themselves fans of TV horror. Frank Spotnitz, one of the writers and executive producers for The X-files recently explained that what drew him to the show, first as a fan and then as a writer, was that it was clearly influenced by his favourite TV horror shows from the 1970s, most notably Kolchak: The Night Stalker (ABC 1974). He was thrilled to write for The X-Files and develop the genre further. Writers and producers like Joss Whedon, Tim Minear, Steven Moffat, Mark Gatiss, Jane Espenson, Joe Ahearne and Eric Kripke are all fans of fantasy, horror and cult television. They are making the shows that they want to see.

LJ: And the shows we want to see…

Further updates and projects arising from book research
SA: This book grew out of countless conversations about Buffy, Angel and many other favourite TV programmes, our frustrations about how TV horror was so often ignored and our various ideas about horror. While the book is now out, the conversation is still ongoing. I don’t see this as the end but the beginning of our interest and research into TV horror. There is so much that remains to consider and discuss.

LJ: Absolutely. Now that we’ve started we realise that there’s so much more to say.

SA: The next related project will be the conference we are co-organising on the vampire on television (TV Fangdom: A Conference on Television Vampires, at the University of Northampton in June 2013). While vampires are currently very popular and there has been a lot of discussion about the genre, little consideration has been given to the role that television has played in the development of the genre. 

LJ: Yes, we’ve had some great proposals for the conference and we’re looking forward to it.

Conference Website:

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