Horror(:) Television

review by Yaghma Kaby

Belau, Linda, and Kimberly Jackson, editors. Horror Television in the Age of Consumption: Binging on Fear. Routledge, 2019. 214 pp., $39 paperback and eBook.

Horror Television in the Age of Consumption: Binging on Fear is a 2019 anthology edited by Linda Belau and Kimberly Jackson featuring thirteen articles, each of which engages with the question of horror in television from a different critical lens, such as psychoanalysis, gender, and class, to name a few. This recent scholarly endeavor focuses on the increasing number of TV horror series so as to open up debates around the renewal of the horror genre and the plethora of ways to examine it within the context of contemporary television. In addition to textual analyses, the authors and editors of this collection attend to links between cinema and television, question of television style, and historical inquiries pertaining to the horror genre. The collection is organized predominantly chronologically, beginning with 1950s horror series and addressing more contemporary shows in the later chapters, with some overlap in the chronology resulting from each series’ release and ending dates. While such an organization has the merit of showcasing the trends that horror television has cycled through, the book has a tendency to prioritize certain critical approaches. In fact, over the years the horror genre has had a rapport with a psychoanalytic approach, and that applies to the essays in this volume, too. In my view, the collection would have achieved greater balance and diversity had it paid equal attention to other critical lenses, notably queer theory.

Horror and television make for a strange mix because television is traditionally associated with domesticity, and horror disrupts that. Television is a “site for and of potential horror” (16) and this is one of the main arguments this volume proposes. Beginning with older horror anthology series, such as Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1955-1965), the first two chapters (by Peter Hutchings and Mark Jancovich, respectively) set the stage for the collection. As Jancovich’s chapter makes clear, episodes that would conform to the horror genre as we know today were sprinkled throughout Hitchcock’s anthology, thereby discreetly making their way into mid-century U.S. homes and opening television up to the possibilities of the horror genre. However, the first two chapters leave the readers with the impression that the entire collection will engage with TV horror from a historical or industrial standpoint, yet succeeding authors shift to analyzing television texts and to a lesser degree their social context. Given that Hutchings and Jancovich’s chapters introduce us to the anthology form as the precursor to modern TV horror, I would have liked to see another essay trace the progression of the genre and the television industry by discussing, in a later chapter, a contemporary horror anthology series, such as American Horror Story (2011- ).

Despite it not being the books’s primary objective, this collection widens the scope of what is considered horror on television. For example, the editors do not equate horror with gory visuals. Rather, the essays engage with a more diverse aesthetic. The book highlights not only the links between television horror and its precedents in Gothic literature, but also the move away from the Gothic to modernize horror. A chapter by one of the editors, Kimberly Jackson, explores ties between the series Dexter (2006-2013) and Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, noting that Dexter, in its “postmodern surface” and continued seriality—even in the case of murders committed by the titular character—becomes “a twenty-first century version of the [novelistic] myth” (65-66). Paralleling Dexter and his sister Debra to the literary classic’s characters Catherine and Heathcliff, Jackson resists defining horror mainly in terms of visceral images and allows for investigating the role of gender in defining the genre.

Issues of class and gender are further expounded through a discussion on the figure of the werewolf in U.S. television. According to Lorna Jowett, the werewolf figure stands in opposition to the vampire to connote white masculinity. That said, these figures are malleable, especially in serialized television; they are influenced by social and political changes and may shift in meaning over the years. Through the example of Netflix’s Hemlock Grove (2013-2015), Jowett argues that the commercial drive towards gaining greater viewership (here, for Netflix) has been influential in redefining the representations associated with werewolves and vampires. Furthermore, TV horror’s engagement with socio-political issues and change is not confined to figures of werewolf or vampire. As discussed in James Daems’ essay on Sleepy Hollow (2013-2017), the series’ “pastiche of genres” makes visible the uncertainty and anxieties of the post-9/11 years (135). Taken together, these essays effectively highlight the ways in which TV horror reflects a context of contemporary U.S. society.

Using  psychoanalysis as a way to read television texts and also the horror genre itself provides a significant approach that threads its way through several chapters in the book. For example, by looking at the roots of the zombie as a “non-European construction” (90), Alexander N. Howe uses Lacanian theory to dissect The Walking Dead (2010– ) and the ways in which it depicts bodies—both human and zombie. Touching on seriality, the author also examines the challenges of sustaining a horror series over multiple episodes and seasons. Howe argues that the length of this particular series results in zombies being divested of their horror status. Lacan is also foundational to Linda Belau’s chapter on Bates Motel (2013-2017) and the “Maternal Thing.” In addition, through Lacanian theory, Ed Cameron’s essay considers Twin Peaks (1990-1991) as a series whose surrealist images have been vastly influential on contemporary television horror. These chapters are located at different points in the collection which indicates book’s theoretical penchant for critical engagement rooted in psychoanalysis. However, given the diversity of TV horror, more space should have been allocated to other critical approaches.

Another prominent discussion strand in this book, and one of its strengths, is comparing horror in cinema and television. Television studies are often secondary in importance for media scholars; this volume aims to rectify that, especially for studies of the horror genre. Of the horror series analyzed here, a few such as Bates Motel and Hannibal (2013-2015) have prior cinematic iterations. The corresponding chapters touch on that connection. Yet the critics here who take up these film/TV comparisons demonstrate that horror in television stands on its own. I found it refreshing to see these shows given due attention beyond their link to cinematic predecessors. To give one example, as Stacey Abbott argues, Hannibal pushes boundaries, especially when considering the place of gore in horror and specifically on television. Abbott links the characters’ point of view to the “gothic horror traditions” (129) that are used in the series’ mise-en-scène and excessively pretentious aesthetics, thereby making a case that this is “prestige horror” on television (123).

The focus on lavish aesthetics as a feature of television horror is also taken up in Michael Fuchs’ essay about Showtime’s Penny Dreadful (2014-2016). Fuchs insightfully investigates the show’s return to Victorian Gothic tales and the temporal tension that exists in bringing the Victorian period into the present moment. Such a backward glance also figures as “nostalgia horror” in Rose Butler’s chapter on Stranger Things (2016– ), where contemporary social and political anxieties get expressed through the world of the Upside Down and the series’ 1980s aesthetics.

Any book discussing horror would be incomplete without including a queer perspective. This book investigates the queer family as depicted within Scream: The TV Series (2015– ). Here,  Kyle Christensen brings together discussions on the link between cinematic predecessors and the depiction of a mother-child family unit similar to Bates Motel. However, as Christensen makes clear, Scream does not follow through with its promise of queer representation and ends up queerbaiting its audience. While I am glad to see the book includes a chapter with a queer critical lens, I still see a need for greater range of queer scholarship, especially when compared with the multiple chapters offering a psychoanalytical reading. In fact, a number of series under direct discussion in the book, such as Bates Motel and Penny Dreadful, overtly have the potential to be examined through a queer critical lens.

This book successfully bringis together scholars at different stages of their academic career, from established to emerging scholars, and it incorporates diverse approaches, so that the resulting volume provides an overview of ways of engaging with TV horror. Historical and textual analysis of television horror series form the bulk of the critical discussions, which can be the building block for future research into more recent horror series, such as Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House (2018) or FX’s horror anthology, American Horror Story (2011- ), as well as research into television production, audience and fan reception and engagement.

The present volume engages with many questions central to the study of horror television: the definition and outer limits of the genre, the legitimacy status of television compared to film, and the placement of horror within a socio-political context. Due attention is given to both popular and cult horror television series and the ways in which each of those series push the boundaries the genre. Furthermore, the references to binge-watching and fandom practices are apt and the inclusion of some widely popular series allows for future studies to continue the discussion of fandom.

The chapters are organized in such a way as to address both the question of history as well as textual analysis of selected television horror series and figures in the horror genre. The current chronological organization—beginning with 1950s and 1960s horror anthology series and then moving on to more contemporary examples and debates—seems adequate. However, TV horror provides ample space for a wide variety of approaches, including but not limited to queer theory, and I would have liked to see the range of approaches more rounded. Having said that, this edited collection is a valuable resource for its audience, among whom are emerging researchers in the field of TV Studies and other readers interested in learning more about the television series they have watched.