The return of TV horror

New series The Walking Dead is the latest shock and gore drama for the small screen

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The return of TV horror
Written By
Gareth McLean

From Being Human to True Blood, Marchlands to Dead Set, TV drama is awash with more gore and haunted by more ghosts than it has been for decades. Now we have another US import, The Walking Dead, on Channel 5. It stars British actor Andrew Lincoln as a sheriff searching for his family in a post-apocalyptic Deep South that's overrun by zombies. 

Catapulted to fame in America by the series' success, Lincoln is perhaps better placed than most to ponder television's fresh interest in the not-so-freshly dead. He says that it isn't the blood and guts that appeal to audiences, but the heart and soul.

"When I read the script for the pilot, it wasn't the shooting guns, riding horses and killing zombies that appealed to me the most," he says. "In the midst of this extraordinary, extreme world, you have quiet moments of connection between characters, and that's what great drama is all about."

For Lincoln, The Walking Dead is as much about his character and the motley gang of human survivors battling the darker instincts of humanity's desperate vestiges as it is about them fighting the undead.

"When civilisation is gone and law and order absent, all that's left is a group of people holding on to what it means to be human - and some of them do better than others," he says. "If you look at 'classic' horror films like The Shining and The Omen, they transcend their genre. Something like Don't Look Now is a study of grief and The Walking Dead is a study of loss."

This sentiment - that great stories transcend genre - is echoed by Toby Whithouse, creator of Being Human. "The horror genre is a prism that allows you to tell human stories. The thing that made Mitchell in Being Human interesting wasn't that he was a vampire, it was his struggle with his humanity."

That's as maybe, but why the new interest in horror and why now? "When I started out as a writer, sci-fi, fantasy and horror were dirty words," says Whithouse. "There were very few successful shows and none of the broadcasters thought they had mainstream appeal.

"The new Doctor Who proved that there was an audience willing to watch 'genre' shows, and Being Human wouldn't have happened if Doctor Who hadn't been a success."

Of course, TV's renewed interest in creatures usually confined to horror films is part of a bigger trend. Twilight, with its audience raised on a diet of Harry Potter, is both a publishing and a movie phenomenon, with more than 100 million books sold and a film franchise that's earned almost £1.3 billion.

Video games such as Resident Evil - which has sold more than 40 million games and spawned films, novels and merchandise - and comic books are crowded with armies of the undead and the nearly dead; The Walking Dead is itself based on a hugely successful series of comic books. So is there more to TV's love affair with all things gruesome than simply an attempt to leap aboard a passing bandwagon?

"So much horror is about suggestion," Whithouse says. "You'll hear the monster scratching but you don't see it, because what you imagine is infinitely more terrifying than any amount of CGI. When you're working in TV with a small budget, that is of considerable appeal."

Mark Gatiss, who wrote Crooked House, BBC4's Christmas 2008 ghost story, as a tribute to Lawrence Gordon Clark's 1970s adaptations of MR James's ghost stories, says that his love of being scared, and scaring others, was instilled in him as a child.

"When I was growing up, people weren't so averse to scaring children. Things like Children of the Stones and the film of Quatermass and the Pit were major influences. They'd show horror films on TV on Friday nights and they really educated a generation in terror.

"It's a shame horror movies aren't still on with that kind of regularity. They provided a banquet of scares that had a profound effect on a whole raft of people now working in TV. That's been cut off at source and now there's not the same strong, overripe meat to feast upon."

Certainly Gatiss, Whithouse and Doctor Who's Steven Moffat, who wrote that series' most terrifying episodes, such as Blink, cite similar influences, and that might go some way to explain TV's penchant for horror. The geeks have inherited the earth. But what of the wider fascination?

"The current vampire boom must be some kind of response to the world we're living in," muses Gatiss, "but I don't know if we're yet in the right position to analyse what precisely it means."

Jack Thorne, writer of Skins and This Is England '86, is currently working on The Fades, a new horror/supernatural drama for the BBC. He also wonders if the renewed interest in horror isn't a reflection of the terrors of the real world.

"Since 9/11, I think we've been living on edge, in a perpetual state of unease and fear," he says. "When you don't feel comfortable in your life, you need other worlds to immerse yourself in."

Or it could be simply that horror - a genre that is often contingent on what's not seen - is more friendly to smaller budgets than, say, sci-fi. But however you explain it, TV is running scared of horror no longer.