5 TV Horror Writers On Creating Scares For The Small Screen
Like a virus, horror has jumped from one host to the next: from a tradition of storytelling to the stage to books to movies and to television. And as the format has evolved, so has the genre. With audiences turning to scary shows they can watch at home, episodic horror has become more and more popular. And with streaming capabilities, fans are consuming these series in marathon mode, which affects how the writers behind them structure each season's narrative. Bustle recently spoke with writers from five popular series to see how TV has advanced the horror genre, using the medium to their advantage when it comes to creating bigger, more sustained scares.
The Twilight Zone, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, American Horror Story, The Walking Dead, and The X-Files all paved the way, but it was arguably when Stranger Things premiered on Netflix in mid-2016 that the genre saw a major resurgence on the small screen. Since then, we've seen the premieres of Castle Rock, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (CAOS), Twin Peaks: The Return, What We Do in the Shadows, Santa Clarita Diet, Into the Dark, Jordan Peele's reboot of The Twilight Zone, and The Haunting of Hill House, adapted from Shirley Jackson's seminal horror novel — the list goes on and go.
TV executives are starting to realize that audiences have a huge appetite for the genre. It's not a "niche thing that just a few horror nerds want to geek out about," Hill House writer Meredith Averill tells Bustle, adding that a series format captures "people who wouldn't even traditionally like horror" if it were presented in another way.
And while the continued horror TV boom proves that people want to be scared out of their damn minds, the methods these shows are using to accomplish that result — especially when it comes to streaming — are arguably uncharted territory. Here's how TV writers have adapted and even improved on the genre, which is in a constant state of reinvention.
A Different Format Changes The Game
While the box office indicates that audiences are still heading to theaters to see films like Us, Midsommar, and It Chapter Two, there's also an appeal to enduring jump scares in the comfort of your own home. As of January 2019, Netflix boasted 139 million subscribers, while Hulu had 25 million. With their accounts, audiences not only have access to streaming originals — they can also marathon network shows that they may have missed the first time around when they inevitably land online.
The first installment of AMC's anthology show The Terror depicts an ill-fated expedition to the Arctic Circle and is streaming on Hulu now. The followup, The Terror: Infamy, involves a Japanese internment camp during World War II and is in the middle of its original airing.
Showrunner Alexander Woo spoke to Vox about the intimacy that's inherent to watching a TV show, which can even amp up the scariness. "I think Texas Chainsaw Massacre is great for a big screen because it's you and 200 other people, like, 'Don't go in there!'" he told Emily VanDerWerff. "But for the kind of thing that really worms under your skin, I think television is ideal because it is so intimate, psychological."
Woo's co-creator, Max Borenstein, expands on this concept for Bustle, saying, "[Horror TV] puts more demand on sophisticated kind of suspenseful storytelling rather than shocks and jump scares and surprises." He points out that when you're watching a movie in a theater, you're forced to pay rapt attention, whereas with TV, our minds often wander.
"I think what it results in is filmmaking on television that's less dependent on the construction of scenes in that cinematic jump scare or even Hitchcockian suspense manner," he says. "Which, I love both of those things, but they don't work quite as well or as comfortably on TV because of the nature in which we consume it."
Character Development Is Key
Shows like The Terror are more reliant on character development than films, per Borenstein, since audiences spend more time with them. "What you remember and care about ends up being these character arcs," he says. "There are some jump scares, but that's not what you take home. What you come away with is the real sort of slow build, eerie mystery kind of stuff."
The Terror: Infamy co-creator repeatedly brings up the "real estate" of television as a major plus. "It doesn't make characters less scary by getting to know them," he says. "If anything, it makes them more interesting and sometimes scarier.... You understand motivation, and that can be terrifying."
For example, The Bent-Neck Lady from The Haunting of Hill House is horrifying to audiences in her own right. But she only becomes more so when it's revealed that she's actually the ghost of Nell (Victoria Pedretti) — one of the Crain children — who's taken to hovering above her younger self.
In The Terror: Infamy, the Big Bad is a yūrei (or Japanese ghost) named Yuko (Kiki Sukezane). And while she's certainly dangerous, the mysterious woman becomes more sympathetic as the season goes on and a backstory that only a series could give ample time to shows that this spirit isn't a true villain at all.
"The horror is the situation that creates this [monster], and the ghost becomes someone who's almost a victim, as well," Borenstein says. "And I think that's something that you don't have the real estate to do in a film."
But Pacing Is Everything
With horror TV, it's also essential to keep audiences both engaged and scared throughout. Averill describes a white board in The Haunting of Hill House Season 1 writers room, on which the writers distributed "creepy man magnets." These monster magnets represented scary moments in the series. Using the visual aid, it was easy to tell where the writers needed another terrifying scene to keep the season consistent.
For writer Kate Trefry, each season of Stranger Things is "one giant movie," hence the titles: Stranger Things 1, Stranger Things 2, etc. Instead of featuring a "monster of the week" to drive each episode, the Netflix simultaneous drop model allows for a seamless season narrative. The writers assume audiences will breeze through it in a few days.
But rather than strategically placing the show's scary moments, Trefry says she struggles with not giving everything away too quickly.
"You really have to pace yourself and trust that the tension and the dread is going to get across, and it's going to get across in a multitude of different ways that aren't necessarily on the page," she says. "It's going to be the way it's shot, it's going to be the music, it's going to be the way it's lit. You have to know your tone and just trust that the tone is going to translate [to viewers], which it usually does."
CAOS writer Joshua Conkel says that his main struggle is that he starts caring too much about the characters and wants good things for them. "But we're writing a horror show, so you're like, 'OK, at what point have we served so many terrible things up to Harvey?'" he says. He also points out that, since the protagonists of the witch drama are teenagers, they also need to have fun within the story. "So it's really a difficult balance, but the thing that [showrunner] Roberto [Aguirre-Sacasa] always reminds us of is like, 'Hey, this is a horror show first.' So you have to lead with that, and then let the laughs or the emotional moments or the sweet moments fall where they may."
Inspirations & Influences
And while they're working with different rules, the TV horror writers Bustle spoke to also have a deep appreciation for scary movies. Anyone who's seen a single episode of Wynonna Earp, the feminist series about a hard partying black sheep (Melanie Scrofano) who defends her cursed town, will probably note that it pays homage to Buffy. But writer Caitlin D. Fryers also cites The Exorcist and The Descent as being touchstone films for the show's writers — the former informing the demonic "revenants" the gun-toting heroine deals with and the latter an all-female horror favorite.
Averill says that the 2014 Australian horror drama The Babadook came up a lot for The Haunting of Hill House's writers (like the series, Jennifer Kent's breakout hit uses elements of the genre to tell a story about human connection and grief), as did Alfred Hitchcock's 1948 psychological thriller, Rope.
Of course, Stranger Things is famous for its many homages to '80s pop culture. Trefry cites everything from David Cronenberg's body horror classic The Fly to Red Dawn, about a group of teenagers banding together against a hostile invasion, as inspirations for Stranger Things 3. Conkel says that when CAOS first began, the writers' main touchstones were Rosemary's Baby and The Omen — two acclaimed movies about the devil's influence on humanity. But there are also Easter egg nods to other horror classics. Harvey (Ross Lynch) wears a white crop top in a Part 1 episode as an homage to Johnny Depp's character in A Nightmare on Elm Street. The Spellmans' stained glass ceiling, he says, is a nod to the original Suspiria, which is about a coven of witches masquerading as a prestigious ballet academy.
Making The Monsters
Wynonna Earp has to deal with numerous one-off demons, as well as a Big Bad each year. Stranger Things and The Terror spend all season developing one monster. The Haunting of Hill House, on the other hand, follows a group of ghosts residing in the Crain family's sinister mansion. All of these creations must pose a threat, advance the story, and give audiences something new to fear.
The Tall Man (Fedor Steer), Averill says, came out of a conversation with showrunner Mike Flanagan, in which she told him about being chased down a New York City street by a man wearing stilts. "And ever since, anytime I'm anywhere — not that I'm often places with people on stilts — but I have this visceral fight-or-flight reaction to it," she says. "And Mike thought that was so hilarious that he was like, 'We need to have a ghost that is impossibly tall.'" While its origins are somewhat silly, the character itself is chilling.
Though these monster must be scary on their own, they often symbolize something intangible that the characters are dealing with. In the CAOS Part 1 episode, "Dreams in a Witch House," a demon called the Batibat caused the Spellmans to fall into a deep sleep, where they became imprisoned by their deepest fears. Conkel points out that, even though the episode stands alone, the Batibat still serves the development of the protagonists.
Similarly, Fryers says the demons in Wynonna Earp often mirror our heroes' anxieties. "The horror and the tension...always comes out of a particular demon being the worst possible demon for a particular character to have to face," she says. The writer cites the Season 2 episode in which the demon Hynpos causes Wynonna to fall into a coma; when she wakes, she's six months pregnant and horrified to discover her swollen belly.
"To be able of manifest that in a demon of the week is a great opportunity because it's real and raw," Fryers says, pointing out the political aspects inherent to Wynonna's choice being taken away. "And that's what's scary."
Where Humor Fits In
With all of this going on, laughs are sometimes needed to alleviate the tension. Buffy's dry wit paved the way for spiritual successors like What We Do In the Shadows, Stranger Things, and Wynonna Earp.
"One of my favorite things about horror is its ability to satire and not take itself too seriously," Trefry says. "And I think that the balance of levity and gravity is really important — to make the laughs funnier and the scares scarier, you have to have both."
Indeed, what audiences take away from each season of Stranger Things is typically not the chaos wrought by the Demogorgon or the Mindflayer, but Steve "The Hair" Harrington's (Joe Keery) character evolution from popular jerk to willing babysitter, Erica's (Priah Ferguson) one-liners (after all, you can't spell America without Erica), or everyone's favorite Russian Alexei and his penchant for cherry Slurpees.
As Wynonna Earp, Scrofano (who is also in this summer's hit horror comedy Ready or Not) effortlessly throws sarcastic asides into almost every showdown with a demon. The show is also packed with winky pop culture references.
"I think [horror] gets too overwhelming if it's constantly dark and grim and emotional," Fryers says. "But if you throw in the humor, it actually allows you to do more of that and make those other moments feel even stronger."
The Deeper Message
As any genre fan knows, effective horror films set out to do more than just scare their audience. Get Out skewers white liberals, 2018's Halloween reboot is largely about PTSD, and It Follows subverts the trope of sexually active teen girls being "punished" in slasher films. The best horror TV is similarly deep.
"Horror operates ... best when [it's] an allegory for something," Conkel says. "Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is really about organized religion and patriarchy. So you need to be doing two things at once with the genre, otherwise it's just genre for genre’s sake." In her efforts to escape and reject The Church of Night, Sabrina (Kiernan Shipka) is really taking a stand against both institutions Conkel mentions. "That's why witches are scary, traditionally, especially to men, is it's about women who have powers," the writer explains. "And those powers, of course, can be used against men."
While both seasons of The Terror depict supernatural monsters, the show is actually a grim representation of the evils men inflict on each other. It's fairly obvious from the get-go that Season 2's true villain is the American military, who rounded up Japanese-Americans after the attack on Pearl Harbor — something which star George Takei experienced himself.
"Ghost stories have always been, in some form, about ... being haunted by some version of the past or being haunted by human wrongs," Borenstein says, calling The Terror "a historical ghost story."
Averill says she often thinks about The Haunting of Hill House as "Six Feet Under with ghosts," referring to the Showtime drama about a family-owned mortuary that tackled everything from drug addiction to abuse to, of course, death. Through the terrors experienced by the Crain family, Hill House explores mental illness and collective trauma, making the comparison apt.
There's room in the culture for as many different kinds of horror TV shows as there is for horror films. As Borenstein points out, both the medium and vocabulary are still evolving. "Horror can work on television in many of the same and many interesting, different ways that I think we've only started to scratch the surface of," the showrunner predicts.