When people talk of excess in horror, it is almost invariably about gore and violence. The 2000’s brought splatterpunk to the screen with the Saw franchise, Eli Roth’s Hostel movies, and a string of really bad Texas Chainsaw Massacre movies. Without a doubt, the use of excess torture and violence in movies to repulse the viewers is the absolute lowest form of horror. It is a far cry from the suspense and dread that was mastered by Alfred Hitchcock.
Much has been said on the subject, so I want to talk briefly on a different kind of excess seen in recent horror television. This is excess of the unfamiliar. When I speak of the unfamiliar, I am speaking mostly of the supernatural — things that are unfamiliar to our natural world. It can be in the form of supernatural creatures, milieu, or in the laws of nature.
One example of a good use of the unfamiliar is in AMC’s The Walking Dead. Building off of the successful comic book, The Walking Dead is a post-apocalyptic drama taking place after the world has suffered a zombie pandemic. The show focuses on diverse humans survivors (?) as they struggle against a zombie-dominated landscape. The infestation has caused society to collapse, leaving the remaining humans without power or a form of commerce. Aside from these setbacks, the world is largely familiar. The zombies form a part of the backdrop, rarely having any form of identity. The humans, on the other hand, have strong character arcs and they form the central theme of the show. There are no added twists of dragons emerging from faraway lands or the humans having supernatural powers.
Another television show I completed recently was the second season of American Horror Story. This show largely takes place in Briarcliff Mental Institution in Massachusetts. A journalist named Lana Winters goes to investigate the institution and when she uncovers some suspicious activity, she finds herself being committed as a patient. A fellow patient, Kit Walker, is falsely accused of being a serial killer. There are other characters who play a vital role in the plot including a disciplinarian named Sister Jude, a psychiatrist who takes a special interest in Lana and Kit, and a mad scientist who does medical experiments on patients. This season of American Horror Story is fascinating aside from one element — aliens. We are first given clues of aliens in the first episode and the subject is mostly dropped for the rest of the show until the end. Aliens are the unfamiliar excess and are not central to the plot development. What could have been a stellar season was tainted by the almost humorous addition of extra-terrestrials.
The third I will mention is a Netflix original series called Hemlock Grove. This is the show that inspired me to write this post, filled with unfamiliar excess purely for the novelty of it. The basic story is that in the small town of Hemlock Grove, there have been a series of violent murders that many believe were committed by a werewolf. Wealthy socialite, Roman Godfrey, teams up with an outcast gypsy, Peter Rumancek to find and kill the perpetrator. The only thing is that Peter is a werewolf, but is he the killer?
The premise of the story is intriguing enough, but the story is completely ruined by unnecessary additions of the unfamiliar. Roman’s sister is a giant and has one extremely large eye that she hides beneath her wig. Her name is Shelley, clearly paying tribute to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Roman’s cousin has become impregnated by an angel, Peter’s cousin practices witchcraft, and the Godfreys own a large skyscraper in rural Hemlock Grove where a mad scientist works on projects like a modern day Dr. Frankenstein. The multiple extensions of the unfamiliar take the story unnecessarily away from the central theme and the show’s conclusion only adds more ridiculous speculative elements to the mix.
HBO’s True Blood (a show I lost interest in after the second season) mixes the frequently combined vampire, werewolf, and faerie mythos. Even humans, like the central character, Sookie Stackhouse, have special abilities like mind-reading. I didn’t find the excess in this show to be too distracting, saved in part by its adherence to a set of rules that were common to the tropes.
My comments about the excesses of the unfamiliar are not a criticism as much as they are an observation. I enjoy authors such as China Mieville who take the reader far away from our familiar world, but I believe the story must have a system of rules that gives the reader a set of expectations. Hemlock Grove stumbled miserably away from what seemed to be a normal world into a place where I question if anyone is human. Hmm… Maybe the show was more like the real world after all.