Fall is my favorite season for a lot of reasons: the weather, the leaves, and the excuse to decorate with skulls (current skull count: 9, current pumpkin count: 14, both seem to grow every day) and, of course, new fall tv shows. Hollywood embraced fantasy and horror this year, bringing shows that appeal to people like me – geeks.
While I’m waiting patiently for the fantasy based “Once Upon a Time” and “Grimm”, both about fairy tale characters living a normal life, the horror shows are already captured on my TIVO. I’m not an author snob who argues that the only way to tell a story is the written word. I see the promise that comes when a brilliant director uses images and visual metaphor to tell a story. I coo over artistic interpretation. I love a good symbolic opening shot.
None of which I found in American Horror Story. I gave it thirty minutes. Thirty minutes I’ll never get back. In that time the show offered one ghost, two deaths, one politically incorrect lush, a broken marriage, and a very creepy disabled girl. I prefer my haunted house shows have more haunting, more scares. Either way, the most intriguing story element in a haunted house story should not be the S&M suit in the attic.
At the opposite side of the spectrum is BBC’s Bedlam. It just plain does everything right. The scares are subtle enough to work on your imagination. In the first episode the dripping of water when all of the taps are dry made me play the ‘is he or isn’t he insane’ game. That’s my favorite part of horror, the psychological scare, the ‘did I see that’ debate. Horror shouldn’t be about buckets of blood and loud violins, but about doubt and disbelief. Introduce a main character who has just gotten out of the nut house, put him in a highly suggestible state, and then amp up the tension with things that could be explained away and I’m hooked.
Most ghost stories aren’t new. I first read the story that introduces Bedlam in the third grade. A driver picks up a passenger by the side of the road, spooky events result. That first time I heard it the passenger was the ghost of teenage girl on her way to prom. In the first episode of Supernatural the passenger was a hitchhiking La Lorna. I’ve found historic accounts of the same story, with the ghost-passenger as a man killed by highway men or a woman on her way to be married. Anna Dressed in Blood (the best ghost story I’ve read this year) twisted the tale to include a James Dean look-alike. Bedlam twists it again, making the passenger the ghost hunter, the driver the ghost.
That level of sophistication permeates the show. When a couple kisses passionately we know a ghost is behind them. Does the director pan out to show us the dripping, bloody mess? Nope. In one of the huge mirrors in the room? No again. Instead the shadow of the ghost appears in a smaller side mirror, just enough that it registers, not enough that you can see it clearly. Brilliant. Restrained. I can’t wait to see more.