the-tv-gothic-when-horror-came-home
Darren McGavin in Kolchak: The Night Stalker

The TV Gothic: When Horror Came Home

Fetish dolls, freak outs, and feminism (really scary) all played their roles in '70s TV horror.

The watchword for horror is the ’70s, an acknowledged influence for current lights such as James Wan. The remake of Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark — originally a 1973 ABC Movie of the Week) — is one indication that US television is essential to this horror era. Availability’s an issue (unless noted, the following films aren’t on DVD or authorized streaming, and DVD availability refers to US releases only), but perhaps there’s justice in finding weird tales in the shadows beneath media platforms. Horror was a major genre ’70s-era US TV made lots of horror; I’ll overlook some good ones. I won’t include most remakes, which seem negligible except for the above-named Katie Holmes film.

The spotty DVD availability of these series and TV movies could be linked to horror’s failure with continuing characters, as with the short-lived Kolchak: The Night Stalker. The Darren McGavin series is a horror-comedy, a rarely attempted genre that nonetheless wasn’t uncommon in ’70s: see, as per example, Phantom of the Paradise (1974) and The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975).

The Kolchak saga began with two popular TV movies (both on DVD), and boasts oddly impressive progeny even aside from its cult following: Sopranos creator David Chase was a staff writer, and Kolchak was one inspiration for both Chris Carter (indeed, 2005’s reboot Night Stalker was too much like The X-Files to be worth it) and Eric Kripke, whose Supernatural is the longest-running fantastic series in US television history; then again, horror and sci-fi have a mutual attraction to creative troublemakers. Kolchak isn’t to my taste, but if you’re curious, the best-regarded series episodes are “The Spanish Moss Murders” and “Horror in the Heights” (on DVD and streaming on Amazon). Other series, such as The Sixth Sense (1972), tried in vain to capitalize on an ESP craze, and the short-run Cliff Hangers! (1979) updated movie adventure-serials, as Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) would later do to greater profit and success. Cliff Hangers! did earn a place on TV Guide‘s all-time cancelled-too-soon list (3 June 2013), with the episode that riffed on Dracula the best remembered.

While scary series with continuing characters wilted and died, horror found a TV perch in one-shot narratives. The early ’70s were a time of experimentation with format: as with ABC’s smarmy Love, American Style, segments of NBC’s Night Gallery could be any length up to around 50 minutes (which wreaked havoc with the show’s syndication run). Meanwhile, the still-new made-for-TV movie format caught fire, with some hourly series running up to 90 minutes (that didn’t last). Many of these horror TV movies were considered series pilots, but given their track record, the sincerity of network interest seems debatable.

Whether anthology segments or TV movies, one-shots had at least one advantage over most US television: the story didn’t have to end back where it started. One-shots were a natural for horror, partly because the industry had been burned by content controversies. Although the guiltiest parties were action series (The Untouchables, The Wild Wild West), horror all but disappeared from the small-screen in the mid-’60s. Even as the evening news became horrible, prime time was packed with sitcoms, spoofs, and spy craze-inspired series.

At the beginning of the ’70s, however, Hollywood TV took advantage of the low profile of one-shots: few viewers would bother protest a one-and-done, 80-minute potboiler, or an especially dark anthology entry; the fantastic genres were considered beneath notice by many. Parenting was adjusting to TV — kids were assumed in bed after the 8 to 9 pm “family hour” — and with crime rates rising, it was a time of cocooning by the TV. Horror one-shots provided variety and flexibility in programming, and many were set in residential areas similar to those of the viewers; the better to frighten them.

Of course, there was no way to televise the gory violence of films such as Night of the Living Dead. Instead, TV looked to more refined classics: The Uninvited, I Walked With a Zombie, Diabolique, and teaspoons of Psycho and Rosemary’s Baby. Indeed, Diabolique was remade with Tuesday Weld and Joan Hackett, as 1974’s Reflections of Murder. Television busily remade the classic monsters, offering at least two versions each of Frankenstein, Dracula, and Jekyll and Hyde. These various remakes were well-regarded, but are outside the scope of this article, and atypical in that most TV movies were either non-supernatural, or concerned ghosts, demons, or witchcraft. In 1968, however, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, with Jack Palance, provided an early credit for the late producer Dan Curtis, a central figure in TV horror: he’d already created the daytime gothic-soap Dark Shadows (1966-71 and on DVD, as are the 1991 and 2012 versions).

Most ’70s TV horror films were melodramas, but nonetheless striking in their evocation of a national time of sackcloth and ashes. After the battles of the ’60s, viewers were clearly done with the utopian dialectic (network TV produced relatively few sci-fi TV movies); instead, we craved the romantic, mystical, and personal. Even the era’s seminal news event (Watergate) held mysteries: the identity of “Deep Throat”, or the missing 18 minutes on Nixon’s Oval Office tapes. Viewers instinctively sentenced themselves to a decade of purgatory, before finally exorcising the ghosts and demons with films such as Poltergeist (1982), Ghostbusters (1984), Back to the Future (1985), Beetlejuice, and Die Hard (both 1988).

The TV movies of the ’70s confound expectations. Certainly, many have camp aspects, and their power to frighten, inevitably, has diminished. (Best bets for scares: Duel, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, and Tobe Hooper’s Salem’s Lot (all on DVD) and, if you can find them, Trilogy of Terror and A Cold Night’s Death.) Several remain overshadowed by their titles: Satan’s School for Girls (1973), Look What’s Happened to Rosemary’s Baby (1976), and Devil Dog: The Hound of Hell (1978); those three are on disc, with Devil Dog growling on Blu-ray and streaming. On the other hand, TV movies were long victims of bias. A common insult for a disappointing theatrical film was “it’s like a TV movie”; now, the claustrophobic focus on performance and genre conventions plays as a style of its own. Consistently, the strength of these offerings is atmosphere, assisted by the bickering characters, out-of-the-way Western locations, vintage color-film photography, and somehow even the credits, which are almost always yellow, the color of fear. (If you’re old enough to have seen them first-run, these movies are blessedly free of the earnest moral negotiations of series television.)

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While the critical consensus is still in process, one of the boldest stamps of quality for this era was a script by Richard Matheson. Matheson died in 2013, but his legacy lives on: he wrote 16 episodes of The Twilight Zone, and his novels include The Shrinking Man, Hell House, and I Am Legend, all of which have been made into either theatrical or television movies. Matheson’s other TV movies include Duel (an early peak for Steven Spielberg), Dying Room Only, and The Stranger Within (all three are Southwest gothics), and his collaboration with Dan Curtis produced both Kolchak TV movies, and the anthology films Trilogy of Terror (1975) and Dead of Night (1977). Fortunately, all five are on DVD, although Trilogy of Terror is out-of-print and pricey.

Matheson also created the anthology series Ghost Story (1972-73), which morphed to Circle of Fear midway through its lone season (I’ll use the latter title, partly because that version has killer opening credits). Like Night Gallery, Circle of Fear was both significantly underrated and seemingly cursed: Night Gallery (pilot movie 1969, series 1970-73) was plagued by infighting, and notoriously butchered for syndication (sometimes yoked to the inferior gimmick series The Sixth Sense), and Circle of Fear had a fatally slow start under both titles (his “A New House” is good, but awfully slow for a pilot).

Circle of Fear (finally out on DVD-R) can be simplistic on the story level, but it’s powerfully atmospheric, and more cinematic than almost anything else discussed here, given its European horror (Hammer’s Jimmy Sangster contributed to five scripts) and the Val Lewton cycle influences. In addition to several episodes mentioned below, I’d recommend “House of Evil”, with Melvyn Douglas and Jodie Foster, written by Robert Bloch.

The Triggering Sin

Perhaps the most obvious marker for white guilt is films / episodes about tiki or fetish dolls, which mix fears related to colonialism and modern materialism.

While The Twilight Zone varied in genre, the Rod Serling-hosted Night Gallery is a red-blooded horror series, albeit one calibrated for television. Now that it’s available uncut (on DVD or Hulu), it’s hard to think of a teleseries that benefits more from digital technology. Admittedly, Night Gallery had a devil of a time getting visuals and scripts working simultaneously, although certain episodes might be worth it just to gawk: “The Tune in Dan’s Café” and “The Waiting Room” (both set in Stygian watering holes), or “The Ghost of Sorworth Place” (Jill Ireland, never more beautiful).

At the other pole are sturdy plots virtually ruined by optics, as with “The Diary”, marred by Patty Duke’s wig and Patrick Wayne’s sweet-potato tan; the fatally dated décor in the time-traveling episode “Tell David… “; or the sunny-snowy day of “Silent Snow, Secret Snow”, based on Conrad Aiken’s much-anthologized short story. Night Gallery was at its best with vest-pocket Greek tragedies, such as “The Sins of the Fathers”, “Lindemann’s Catch”, and “Finnegan’s Flight”, and their respectable tries at Lovecraft are “Cool Air” and “Pickman’s Model”.

That’s the market report; from here on is a breakdown by theme, appropriate for a distinctive continuum in which you’ll trip over the same few obsessions. That means female protagonists, often newly divorced or widowed, and usually coping with dysfunction or even murder in the family, sometimes tied to a looming inheritance. Expect obsessed artists and writers in lonely old houses, often haunted; big, angry dogs and gossiping townsfolk; mild-mannered psychopaths and useless cops; magical artifacts (spirit jars, evil dolls); Lovecraftian demons; and crank phone calls.

I believe that most horror films (and some non-horror) begin with a “trigger sin” that precipitates whatever havoc assaults the characters; as per example, the horror in The Birds (1963) seem triggered by Lydia Brenner’s hatred for her prospective daughter-in-law (as explained by Dennis Kleinman in Cinefantastique Vol. 33, #3, June 2001). This sin can be trivial: clowning in the cemetery in Night of the Living Dead, or the tossed cigarette butt in Creature from the Black Lagoon. Indeed, a trivial sin might be preferable: in some Night Gallery episodes, the central character is so awful, their demise seems pat.

In the horror genre, characters must face punishment, or the story’s just random chaos: “if they don’t transgress, they can’t be punished” (The Cabin in the Woods, 2012). Despite its occasional flair for social criticism, horror serves the part of the brain that wants to practice human sacrifice and write the Old Testament. In Hollywood horror of the ’70s, the trigger sins usually connect to white guilt, and/or the social disconnection of the ’60s and after. From our current vantage, white guilt (in some cases, we could substitute Western or moneyed guilt) stretches back decades, but as an active emotion it’s recent: the characters played by Gary Cooper and Jimmy Stewart rarely seemed to carry guilt. It became a greater part of the social consciousness not just because of the Civil Rights movement, but also due to a more educated population with more leisure time, and the media content, rather than social connection, to fill that time.

Social disconnection in the ’70s spiked due to divorce and women in the workplace, as well as because of a population that was at once polarized, middle-class, and highly mobile. In the ’70s, parents were newly willing to leave kids alone, a prerequisite for all those movie teens getting stalked and slashed. In horror of the era, families are rarely intact, as they strain to absorb transition or tragedy in a landscape that’s decentralized and depopulated. We see this in The Exorcist, even before the horror; that brownstone is too big for two people.

Perhaps the most obvious marker for white guilt is films / episodes about tiki or fetish dolls, which mix fears related to colonialism and modern materialism. (It should be remembered that the point of these films is catharsis, not enlightenment). Even sitcoms were a part of this: the 1972 episode “Hawaii Bound” is an unusually disturbing The Brady Bunch episode; their family trip is cursed when Bobby (Mike Lookinland) finds a native doll. Similarly, 1975’s Trilogy of Terror is known for the final episode “Amelia”, with Karen Black menaced by a “Zuni fetish doll” that’s come to life, and the Lovecraftian creatures in Gargoyles (1972) and Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (1973) at least partly reference native peoples (both are on DVD, with commentaries).

Gargoyles is pleasingly loony, like an episode of classic-era Doctor Who; it walks a fine line between spoof and fantasy. It would’ve made a good series, with Cornel Wilde as debunking author Mercer Boley, well-paired with strong-willed daughter Diana (Jennifer Salt, who became a television writer-producer, including of American Horror Story). Like many of these horror TV movies, it’s set in the Southwest. Aside from the gorgeous scenery, this allowed rural horror without offending the important Southern market. On their desert research trip, Diana falls captive to the gargoyles, the basis for various historical legends. In Carlsbad Caverns, she reads aloud from an abduction narrative (from “the year 1417”) that clearly evokes miscegenation fears:

The sin was not my own, but forced upon me by the incubus, who of a night did slip into my bed-chamber and taunt and seduce me with demon’s promises until I was as if on fire. He was of uncommon height and finely built, a devil’s face — a frightful beauty that did put me in a spell. I had no will of my own, but did let the incubus do his will until I was driven mad.

At this point, the chief gargoyle (Bernie Casey, but apparently voiced by Vic Perrin) leans in and purrs, “Don’t worry, I am merely — curious.” Later, he threatens Wilde’s “supremacy on this planet!”

Night Gallery joined the white-guilt-terror trend with “The Doll”, as well as other episodes, including “A Question of Fear” and “The Caterpillar”; it’s known for introducing entitled characters to creepy-crawlies. Fans point to “The Caterpillar” or “A Fear of Spiders”, but the one that got to me was “A Feast of Blood”. Several episodes of Kolchak: The Night Stalker evoke white guilt; “Bad Medicine” features a seven-foot tall Native American sorcerer. In the TV movies The Horror at 37,000 Feet (1973) and Killdozer (1974, on DVD), ancient demons possess modern vehicles (compare the theatrical Horror Express); the latter is set on another Pacific island. In The Norliss Tapes (1973), a demonically inspired sculpture is the vehicle for horror.

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Sebastian Cabot in Ghost Story / Circle of Fear

Circle of Fear observes the same trigger sins. In the standout “Earth, Air, Fire and Water”, written by Harlan Ellison, four hippie artists are rootless and broke enough to be easy prey for demons. It’s one of the best evocations of the era’s disillusion (like “Amelia”, it seems to feature an early viral ending). “A Touch of Madness” is also solid, recycling a formula from the Boris Karloff-hosted series Thriller: the protagonist in a decaying Southern mansion with its crazy, stuck-in-the-past owners (the Southern manse being America’s equivalent to the craggy castle). Arguably, white guilt also informs the bayou frights of Moon of the Wolf (1972 TV movie, on DVD) and Kolchak‘s “The Spanish Moss Murders”.

The alien invasion narratives of this era also reflect viral isolation. His finger on the zeitgeist, producer Quinn Martin kept trying to update his The Invaders (1967-68): “The Nomads” is a shuddery one-hour installment of his anthology Tales of the Unexpected, with David Birney as the Vietnam veteran who’s lone witness to an alien invasion. Martin’s 1980 TV movie The Aliens are Coming is tongue-in-cheek — Stephen King gives it an approving nod in his non-fiction Danse Macabre — with Max Gail amusing as the genre’s least-convincing fake-human.

The early ’70s were also peak years for modern feminism, comparable to the gay rights movement in the 21st century; thus gender is a near-constant theme, despite that fact that the vast majority of these films were made by men. While sexism is by no mean eradicated, in most cases, these films offer more of a gender-anxiety dialectic, a mix of the patriarchal and the progressive in one text. (Just to complete this aspect: people of color are rare in these one-shots, although Night Gallery makes an effort. A few one-shots indulge in the demonizing of Vietnam veterans that was shamefully routine in the ’70s.)

Shifting Gender Roles

The ’70s had an innocent faith in equality that left lots of room for hissable female villains.

The trend of featuring female protagonists had multiple causes: the excitement inherent in “woman in jeopardy” narratives; compensation for Hollywood’s reduced supply of theatrical women’s films; and the need to counterprogram the era’s ubiquitous detective series. Culturally, female leads recognize a critical social dysfunction that men had failed to solve. On Night Gallery, only women detect certain realities, as in “The House”, “Tell David …” and the haunting “The Dark Boy”. “The Dead Man” is powered by an unusually frank acknowledgement of both female desire and male reactions to that desire. Roughly one-quarter of Circle of Fear stories concern a new widow. In the especially cinematic “Creatures of the Canyon”, Angie Dickinson’s widowed character attempts gets on with life and work, at which point the universe animates against her, especially the neighborhood dogs. Circle of Fear‘s impressive roster also includes Gena Rowlands, Helen Hayes, Patricia Neal, Elizabeth Ashley, Meg Foster (twice), and Shirley Knight.

Among films about women punished for their independence, there’s a singular subset containing such TV movies as Crawlspace and When Michael Calls (both 1972 and hard-to-find) and Bad Ronald (1974, on DVD-R), all pre-dating the theatrical releases of Halloween (1978) and When a Stranger Calls (1979). This subgenre suggests that while it’s OK for a young woman to work and be independent, she’ll probably be menaced by some half-man making crank calls, or her watching from the walls. Thankfully, later TV movies seemingly regret and reverse these portrayals.

Richard Matheson penned the unusual The Stranger Within (1974, out on DVD-R), in which Barbara Eden is gradually affected by an off-screen encounter with aliens. This one looks ahead to Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but with an art-film approach and no special effects. Eden reunited with her erstwhile “master” Larry Hagman (from I Dream of Jeannie) in A Howling in the Woods (1971). Tellingly, they play a separated couple, and there are few laughs as Eden eyes a murder mystery in her unfriendly, high-altitude hometown. This one’s only borderline horror, but offers an especially strong jolt of dislocation.

These years had an innocent faith in equality that left lots of room for hissable female villains; Dead of Night (1977) offers a good one. The Stranger in Our House (1978, on DVD as Summer of Fear) ends up being Linda Blair’s witch of a cousin; until the lively climax, however, she does little worse than steal Linda’s boyfriend. Joseph Stefano’s script for Home for the Holidays (1972) offers five guesses who’s the female killer; although highly rated, it doesn’t justify a top cast that includes Eleanor Parker, Julie Harris, and Sally Field. Circle of Fear‘s “Cry of the Cat” demonstrates why Val Lewton didn’t set Cat People at a Southwest rodeo, and Kolchak specialized in female villains, as David Chase warmed up for created Livia Soprano (Nancy Marchand).

In some of these films, women have cause for fury. Shelley Winters punishes an intruder in the high-rated Revenge!, and Patty Duke goes goth in She Waits (1972) and the widely panned Look What’s Happened to Rosemary’s Baby (1976, on DVD-R). Television channeled Stephen King’s Carrie with The Spell (1977, featuring a 13-year-old Helen Hunt) and The Initiation of Sarah (1978, Kay Lenz, on DVD). These do border on a half-camp subgenre that includes The Devil’s Daughter (1973, Shelley Winters again, on DVD-R) and the aforementioned Satan’s School for Girls (also 1973). Spielberg’s Something Evil might best them all, if you can scare up a decent copy. Grand Dame Guignol dates back at least to What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), and continued in ’70s TV, giving strong roles to Winters and Barbara Stanwyck among others, and helped make horror a women’s genre in front of the camera.

Some of these films and series did register social change through a bewildered male character: think Jack Lemmon. This meant work for the ever-apoplectic James Franciscus: in an eerie TV movie from 1970, he tries to convince neighbors they’re “night slaves” of aliens. From a novel by Jerry Sohl, Night Slaves heavily poaches from works such as It Came from Outer Space and The Outer Limits, but it works. In both Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970) and Circle of Fear‘s “At the Cradle Foot”, Franciscus character’s awareness of time travel doesn’t necessarily mean breaking the cycle. The latter is scripter Anthony Lawrence’s revision of his classic Outer Limits episode, “The Man Who Was Never Born” (1963), the difference being the shifts from the fears of the ’60s (conformity, global apocalypse) to those of the ’70s (conspiracy, personal oblivion).

Similar to theatrical films as Deliverance and Straw Dogs, Duel warns of loopholes in male evolution. Circle of Fear favors wry skepticism of “the new man”: think cardigans, luxuriant hair, and long talks over coffee. “Elegy for a Vampire” turns the future Barney Miller (Hal Linden) into a vampire without much of a fight; in “The Phantom of Herald Square”, David Soul takes after Elizabeth Bathory. Night Gallery offers a neat pair of episodes in which male logic competes with revived paganism: the cinematic “Since Aunt Ada Came to Stay” with Jeanette Nolan, and “Last Rites for a Dead Druid” with Bill Bixby.

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Rod Serling in Night Gallery

With women and intuition ascendant, the traditionally male sciences seemed a bad bet (this also informs TV movies about grounded astronauts). The well-recalled Hauser’s Memory (1970) adapts the Curt Siodmak novel about a researcher (David McCallum) forced to host the consciousness of a Nazi counterpart. A Cold Night’s Death (1973, why is this not on DVD?) is a remarkably unsettling chamber piece in which Arctic ice matches the morality of animal experimentation. Another memorable diptych in the Night Gallery suggests prophecy is no less fraught since the Greeks in the episodes “The Boy Who Predicted Earthquakes” and “Little Girl Lost”. “Deliveries in the Rear” offers Night Gallery‘s take on body-snatching.

The Norliss Tapes (1973, on DVD but out-of-print) combined the era’s curiosity-killed-the-cat narratives, with Dan Curtis tailoring the Kolchak formula for the star of The Invaders, Roy Thinnes. It’s handsomely produced and well-regarded, but rings false to me. Like Kolchak, it was designed to launch a series about an occult investigator, as were the busted pilots Dark Intruder (1965, with Leslie Nielsen, on DVD) and Gene Roddenberry’s Spectre (1977) and The World Below (1978). The Louis Jourdan vehicle Fear No Evil (1969) gets raves and a lone sequel, Ritual of Evil (1970).

The ’70s were a strange time in which everyone belonged to one cult or another: the swingers, the Deadheads, or the Trekkies to name a few. Hollywood responded with films in which absorption wasn’t much of a stretch, like the 1978 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Also in this cycle: the nightmarish TV movies The People (1970), Black Noon (1971, Roy Thinnes again) and Gary Sherman’s The Mysterious Two (1981, on DVD). The latter is based on the early “career” of the Heaven’s Gate cultists; in a subversive bit of casting, the male half is presidential John Forsythe. In the notorious Circle of Fear episode “Legion of Demons” — an update of The Seventh Victim, the cult seems code for orgies — a common fear/desire of the time.

Google’s list of the top 50 horror TV movies features almost half made in the ’70s, most of which were released from 1971 to 1974, when our guilt-and-dread wallow fertilized the TV gothic. Of course, any list driven by decades-old memories isn’t infallible. Still, there’s reason to believe the cycle ran out of steam: between Night Gallery (cancelled 1973) and Tales from the Darkside (debuted 1983), the only fantastic anthologies produced for US TV were the aforementioned Tales of the Unexpected (just 8 episodes) and Darkroom (1981-82, 7 episodes containing 16 stories). Neither of those short-run series are available on either DVD or streaming.

Consider also that the sheer number of creepy TV movies about women being victimized drew complaints, evident in a change in tone in later movies. The titles remained sensational but the treatment became serious, veering away from horror toward the suspenseful social drama of Are You in the House Alone? (1978, starring Kathleen Beller) and John Carpenter’s urban-set Someone’s Watching Me! (1978, Lauren Hutton, on DVD). The former starts off exploitive, but Beller’s natural performance saves the movie as it builds to an empowering conclusion. The latter is the better film; it portrays a misogyny that’s institutional, almost literally. (This change in tone raises the failure of Shout! Factory to follow their sole “TV Terrors” release, a double-bill of Are You in the House Alone? and The Initiation of Sarah, a likely disappointment to fans looking for the horrific.)

One of the TV movies I remember watching in the era was Trapped (1973), with James Brolin playing a man left overnight in a department store as the guard dogs try to kill him. It’s a powerful metaphor for a society too busy or too proud to correct its mistakes. While the social changes of the ’50s and ’60s made it possible for millions of Americans to control their lives (including things most of us take for granted, like voting or divorce), they left many without enduring social connections. In a consumer society, relationships became as disposable as everything else.

In the ’70s, Hollywood sought and found its own brand of horror, a native horror for their target audience: white Americans. In the films surveyed, even before the characters fall afoul of ghosts, demons, or a cult, they are beset with disconnection, divorce, and loneliness. Typically, the protagonist is at home, or returning to her childhood home, but unlike the suburbia of ’80s horror, these houses often have woods around them, or are located in a small town or a resort community. The same is true of theatrical horror of the early ’70s: Hollywood was still allowing merciful distance from horror.

Further, television’s ’70s horrors helped create the trope of the “final girl”; see especially two exciting, feminist thrillers: Elizabeth Montgomery in 1972’s The Victim and Valerie Harper in 1977’s Night Drive (the latter is available streaming on Amazon). Similarly, Tales of the Unexpected‘s movie-length “Force of Evil” (1977, an uncredited gloss on Cape Fear) pioneered the villain-who-won’t-stay-dead trope. Once Halloween (1977) hit the right formula, theatrical films took over, nasty and teen-oriented, including When a Stranger Calls (1979), Friday the 13th (1980), A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), and The Stepfather (1987). These theatrical films remain more frightening than the TV gothics of the ’70s, but in their atmosphere and mournfulness, the latter survive as bracing documents of the human source of the era’s fears. White guilt and social disconnection proved a potent brew; slashers and serial killers oozed forth from the cinema.

When white Americans began their suburban migration, they were encouraged to move “to the country” or “to a small town”. This marketing was an attempt to normalize the unprecedented: a class of millions, with relatively little in common, forming new communities that purposely lacked center or structure. These suburbanites were thousands of miles from the graves of their ancestors; most shed their extended families as well. They did this not as refugees, but as the privileged.

The assumption was that they had nothing to complain about. Their children rebelled, however, knowing that something was wrong even if they weren’t sure what it was. Hollywood horror wasn’t sure, either; it was all over the map in the postwar years, from museums (House of Wax) to corporate offices (Seconds) to the desert (Duel) to the backwoods (Deliverance). Finally, in the hands of baby-boomer directors, it would settle on the idyllic streets of bedroom communities. Like so much in suburbia, horror was close to home.

Thomas Lalli Foster writes about popular culture in the context of social change. He has written for Video Watchdog, Rue Morgue, and Senses of Cinema.

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