What is whetting the appetite of horror fans? Zombies? Demons? Monsters? Jesse Whittock looks for answers from the key broadcasters, producers and distributors behind the best fear-inducing shows on television
On Friday, October 9, 2015, around 15,000 people flooded into Madison Square Garden in New York City to attend an exclusive event for the season six premiere on The Walking Dead. The iconic venue in Midtown Manhattan is more used to hosting music concerts, boxing fights and American sports events than actors from a horror television drama show, but the night proved things are changing.
The Walking Dead, AMC’s ratings juggernaut about a group of survivors in a zombie apocalypse, has led a new generation of horror programmes in the past half-decade, with other efforts including sister series Fear the Walking Dead (now holder of the largest-rating debut cable TV season record), Ash Vs Evil Dead (Bruce Campbell returning as schlock-horror anti-hero Ash Williams), new season Fox effort Scream Queens, and American Horror Story (top, an FX anthology series from Glee creator Ryan Murphy).
“The Walking Dead paved the way for horror to come through more mainstream television channels,” says Rick Ringbakk, co-founder of US reality TV producer 5X5 Media.
Broadcasters may now be looking at horror as banker genre, but when the zombie apocalypse started in October 2010 “nobody knew The Walking Dead would be a hit in the US”, says Sharon Tal Yguado, head of Fox International Studios and executive VP, global scripted at sister firm Fox Networks Group.
FNG predecessor Fox International Channels had invested in the project early, taking international day-and-day rights, but Tal Yguado says that as AMC’s ratings expectations were much lower than they are now, the main commissioning qualification was “quality”. That quality assurance came from the popularity and depth of Robert Kirkman’s Walking Dead comic books, which have published since 2003.
“The show broke records all over the world – it broke records on its premiere night,” says Tal Yguado. “When we look back in retrospect the thing that was obvious was that it was ground-breaking, a first in genre. Like Lost, there was a something for the viewer in the survivor element. That was the identifiable element, and that is also quite addictive.”
That element has helped AMC’s chat show spin-off The Talking Dead to do huge numbers immediately after the main show, and Fox UK recently acquired the series. “The host, Chris Hardwick, is a fan of The Walking Dead, and his enthusiasm to get the story behind the episode is addictive,” says Tal Yguado.
“There is a culture of binge-viewing happening and a saturation of content in television – I’m a producer and even I can’t keep up with half of what is launching – so you need shows that manage to grow their audience, create an urgency around them and get people talking about them,” she adds. “It’s important to create a desire to continue the conversation.”
A gluttonous desire for horror content is driving demand, something that has led to the creation of horror themed video-on-demand platforms. “This is a dedicated fan base,” says David Fannon, executive VP of Screen Media Ventures, which operates on-demand app FrightPix. “People who love horror, love horror. They can go from high-end to over-the-top schlocky crap.”
FrightPix offers horror films such as Paranormal Activity 1, 2, 3 and 4 for free in Canada and the US, and recently did a deal with cult horror-cum-social-commentary-film director Lloyd Kaufman. This will see the Troma Entertainment founder (pictured above) curate 20 of his favourite films, prefaced by a personal video introduction to each.
On the subscription on-demand front, AMC earlier this year launched the horror-themed Shudder, after the success of its thematic Doc Club. The platform currently offers curated and hard-to-find movies for US$5 a month.
Sam Zimmerman, a former horror magazines editor and now curator of Shudder, says of the model: “Horror is essentially niche, but is one of the only genres that constantly has had crossover appeal. The Walking Dead has exposed people to fandom, but many people enjoy horror movies without even realising that they do.
“The genre can inspire the dedication for an SVOD service like this, and there is the library out there to service them.”
Horror does indeed have a long history, stretching back nearly 120 years to the silent films of cinema pioneer Georges Méliès. It also spans a wide variety of genres – schlock, psychological and gore, for just three examples – and even more sub-genres.
“There is a bit of a spectrum in the horror genre,” says Greg Phillips, president of UK-based distributor Content Television & Digital, which launched serialised horror drama Slasher (pictured) at MIPCOM. “Are we talking the kind of horror that boys watch when they’re drunk at midnight, or is it the kind that couples cuddle up to? In TV it’s a mixture of both.”
Slasher represents the first original series for thematic horror cable channel Chiller in the US, and has Canada’s Super Channel and Shaftesbury on board. Phillips says it has appeal to a television audience as well as to core horror fans because it is “mystery horror, suspense and crime fiction. It has a horror edge, especially if you look at the artwork we’ve done for it, but it’s actually serialised television”.
Formatting horror to make it more ‘televisual’ has been a key element in the success of The Walking Dead and FX anthology drama American Horror Story around the world for the Fox channels, says Tal Yguado.
She expects the same from Robert Kirkman’s next project, Outcast (right), which Fox’s international arm wholly owns, and which will soon air on premium channel Cinemax in the US. The show, again based on a comic predecessor, follows Kyle Barnes (played by Patrick Fugit), a young man plagued by demonic possession who, with the help of a troubled preacher, embarks on a journey to find answers to his predicament.
“What Robert has done again is create the human story that is at the heart of the piece, which is very identifiable and sympathetic,” says Tal Yguado, an executive producer on the show. “He treats the story as if it could happen anywhere.”
She says Outcast presents a different kind of opportunity than The Walking Dead, because, “a larger part of society believes in demonic possession than zombies”.
The fanboy element common to many horror hits has even extended to unscripted TV through shows such as Sony Pictures Television and ITV2 format Release the Hounds, BBC Three’s I Survived a Zombie Apocalypse, and Game Show Network’s Hellevator (below), which comes from The Purge studio Blumhouse Productions, Matador Content and Lionsgate Entertainment.
“Each episode has specific nods to horror fans, from using genre lingo to introducing urban legends and real-life stories such as the first documented American serial killer Dr. H. H. Holmes, who lured his victims to their deaths in his elaborately constructed ‘Murder Castle’ home in Chicago,” says executive producer Todd Lubin.
There are elements of humour, too, which is common with another new effort, 5X5 Media’s Bruce Campbell’s Horrified (WT), which will see the comedy-horror legend hosting a reality competition show that celebrates horror fandom. Each episode focuses on one horror staple – monster, zombie or psychopath for example – and has contestants completing challenges to stay in the game.
“Part of the issue with horror merging into reality is that horror is all about the suspension of disbelief, and in reality no-one is going to get killed,” says 5X5’s Rick Ringbakk. “That’s why the comedic-based horror genre was the starting point of development. We wanted it to be a celebration of the genre itself; to help fans live out their horror fantasies.”
Ringbakk points the Campbell’s cult appeal among fanboys and girls, saying the actor is “definitely enjoying a resurgence, with Ash Vs Evil Dead getting the second season pick-up before the first has even gone out fully”.
US premium cable channel Starz is placing significant faith in Ash Vs Evil Dead (below), the drama-comedy based on classic horror film The Evil Dead.
“Ash is a unique property, which can attract people who grew up with the original show, and appeal to the next generation,” says Starz managing director Carmi Zlotnik. “The fact [the film] broke ground as a mash-up of horror and comedy made it unique.”
Keeping continuity with the film’s tone and aesthetic was paramount, adds Starz’s senior VP, original programming, Marta Fernandez, which is why the involvement of Campbell, Evil Dead director Sam Raimi and original producer Rob Tapert was mandatory. “Bruce is amazing on set,” she says. “He knows how to make everything Evil Dead whenever it veers off.”
The idea was to create a unique world of comedy and terror. “We’ve tried to show the horror of it all,” says Zlotnik. “This is a scary movie with an idiot as a central character. It has all of the psychological triggers that we think of in horror, but then have someone wise-cracking his way through the story.”
Almost inevitably, the show debuted in the US on the spookiest night of the year: October 31. “There are a few factors you have to think about when launching a show: one is availability – what window, what competitive products are on the market and what sort of experience is it for the audience,” says Zlotnik. “With Ash we felt it was great to air it at Halloween.”
With horror programming in its various guises continuing to draw in big audiences, producers and broadcasters are searching for ways to make their efforts reach traditional horror fans and comic book collectors, as well as much broader primetime TV audiences.
“Fear for fear’s sake doesn’t work on television,” says FIS’s Tal Yguado. “Maybe it does in cinema, where the room is dark and there is surround sound. In TV it’s about putting yourself in the shoes of other people, and if you can do that people will watch week after week.”
The genre is, however, showing signs of fatigue: The Walking Dead’s sixth season premiere may have brought thousands to Madison Square Garden, but couldn’t match the record-breaking season five premiere, which took 17.3 million.
For the moment, however, viewers remain as numerous as the ‘walkers’ stalking Rick Grimes and his ragtag band of zombie apocalypse survivors.