Lorna Jowett and Stacey Abbott, ‘TV Horror’ (2013), reviewed by Xavier Aldana Reyes

Posted by Xavier Aldana Reyes on March 22, 2013 in Reviews tagged with , , ,

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

Catherine Johnson, in her seminal Telefantasy (2005), argued that ‘the disruption of socio-cultural and generic verisimilitude implied in the representation of the fantastic […] offer[s] the opportunity to experiment with the formal possibilities of television as a medium’ (p. 147). Jowett and Abbott make a similar point in TV Horror, which aims to make us ‘rethink what we mean by horror within a televisual context’ (p. xiii). Their approach is one that avoids final definitions without shying away from labels – True Blood is identified as Southern Gothic, Twin Peaks as art horror – and one that rejects a more traditional chronological narrative. Instead, the authors focus on the hybridity of TV horror to ‘examine a broad selection of British and American TV movies, series and serials from the 1950s to the present as a means of unpacking the many approaches and formations of the genre for television’ (p. xiii). The resulting critical intervention is noteworthy, because rather than present TV horror as a genre that simply resists definition, it intends to explore the intricacies of its complexity. Chapter one, for example, foregrounds the paradoxes generated by the very nature of the medium: TV has an obvious ‘potential’ to enhance the genre (longer formats, serial narrative), but it can also lead to a ‘tension’ (p. xiii) generated by the constraining reality of given broadcast contexts (network restrictions or censorship). The conclusions are fascinating and challenge the well-honed conception that horror and TV are incompatible. In fact, two of the goals of this volume are to explicitly ‘contest the notion that “real” horror does not and cannot exist on television’ and to show that, in fact, ‘horror has been on television from the earliest days of the medium and […] has readily adapted itself to changes in the TV landscape’ (p. 223).

The layout of the book prioritises key aspects of television that are either directly addressed by TV horror as a genre (self-reflexivity, the medium as a horrific site) or that have an impact on the look, shape or feel of the final product (their branding and marketing, the amount of visual excess). This means that shows as diverse in their production values, audiences and national contexts as Dark Shadows, Being Human or Riget can cohabit the same pages. It also means that the shows can be analysed for what they bring into discussions of TV horror stylistically, and not just for the specificities of their narratives. Chapter two opens by introducing ‘four key genres that have played a defining role within the history of television: police investigation, hospital dramas, comedy and children’s television’ (p. 17) to ‘demonstrate how these mainstream genres have repeatedly co-opted the conventions and imagery of horror’ (p. 17). If the number of examples might feel a bit overwhelming at first, the following chapters settle on a less syncopated structure that develops arguments through a prolonged study of two or three key texts. Chapter three considers issues of narrative and discusses the various formats that TV horror has had over the years, from the portmanteau to the anthology via mini-series and serials. As the authors argue, this aspect of TV horror is important because different formats ‘negotiate their narratives and horror effects in very different ways’ (p. 44). Jowett and Abbott also trace the inception of the genre to the moment when ‘TV movies, series and serials stop[ped] trying to be like cinematic or literary horror [and] embrace[d] the televisual in all of its diverse formats’ (p. 55). Chapter four furthers this discussion by turning to adaptation and its effect on both TV horror texts and the myths themselves. Frankenstein and its televisual incarnations are discussed here alongside the recognisable brand that is televisual adaptations of Stephen King. A consideration of the author’s seal of approval, particularly with regards to The Shining, offers the perfect stepping-stone for chapter five’s study of the horror auteur, which focuses on the impact of Rod Sterling in his writing and presenting for The Twilight Zone or the work of Nigel Kneale and Steven Moffat. There is also space here for a fruitful insight on the curio-series Masters of Horror, which sought to encourage established horror directors to make TV films.

The second half of the book takes a more thematic approach, with chapters six and seven concentrating on the gothic aspects and bodily excesses of some TV horror programmes. The former looks at the ways in which TV has explored and revised the gothic through shows like American Gothic or Ultraviolet, and the latter investigates the problematic use of gore on TV. If the perceived continuation of body horror into torture porn is problematic because it fails to account for different treatments of corporeal transgression, the chapter does much to challenge ‘the assumptions that graphic depictions of gore are intrinsic to horror’ and ‘assert[s] instead that the aesthetics of horror are characterised by spectacle, with visual and aural excess encompassing both terror and horror’ (p. 132). The case is also made that the restrictions imposed on TV may have actually helped the genre to find innovative ways of conveying fear and disgust. Chapter eight expands the previous discussion on auteurism by looking at art horror TV and contesting its public perception as ‘challenging, as authored, and as quality’ (p. 159) through various examples from Twin Peaks, Riget and Carnivàle. Chapter nine turns to the self-reflexive nature of TV as a medium and argues that some TV horror has very explicitly exploited either the ‘apocalyptic potential made possible by the very ubiquity of TV’ (p. 182) or ‘the reality effect of popular television’ (p. 183). Crucial to this discussion is the figuration of TV as a portal or threshold. The final chapter considers the interactions between TV horror and its fans in order to ascertain the degree to which they affect each other symbiotically. The closeness between the product and its consumer is further analysed through the empathic links generated by the sympathetic monsters that often populate TV horror.

The best way to think about TV Horror is as a rhizomatic collection of chapters that intertwine and bleed into each other in order to create a mosaic of the myriad visual possibilities opened up by the horror/TV assemblage. Virtually every notable horror TV show up until 2011 finds a mention in its pages, which will make it both an interesting publication for TV and horror academics alike and essential background reading on the conditions of production of this type of genre TV. Its configuration of TV horror as a hybrid of sorts prompts questions about horror from a televisual perspective, and will complicate clear-cut definitions of the genre more generally (is horror an aesthetic mode, a web of intertextuality, a type of sensation?). The proposition that ‘fitting [horror] to the medium of television produces several innovations, whether these are in sound, special effects, aesthetics, taboo material or contemporary themes’ (p. 223) should help legitimize the study of elements of horror that do not rely on representational readings (i.e. what the genre does at a symbolic or metaphoric level ). An ambitious work of this size naturally runs the risk of offering short inconclusive snippets, but Jowett and Abbott find a very good balance between the readable survey and the case-specific study of relevant elements in shows. The result is a book that is instantly quotable and buzzing with ideas, and one which will influence future academic work on recent shows like American Horror Story, The River or In the Flesh.

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