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The TV Gothic: When Horror Came Home

Thomas Lalli Foster
Darren McGavin in Kolchak: The Night Stalker

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

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.

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.)

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