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Hannibal in a plastic suit standing over a dead body with a scalpel
  • Horror on TV

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    Posted on: 21/05/2015

    In this essay, writer and teacher Craig Hildebrand-Burke traces the evolution of horror from film to TV, using Hannibal to explore the implicitness of the audience in horror on screen.

    Alfred Hitchcock famously quipped that ‘television has brought murder back into the home – where it belongs.’ In fact, many view Psycho as Hitchcock’s answer to the challenge of the new medium.

    The irony is the legacy of Psycho has now been translated into Bates Motel, a TV show that dramatises and serialises the life of Hitchcock’s antagonist and his fated mother. Horror has once again come home.

    PyschoAlfred Hitchcock's Psycho

    Then we have The Walking Dead, American Horror Story and, of course, Hannibal. There is a migration in the genre toward the smaller screen. And this is at the same time as horror films appear exhausted for new ideas.

    Since Psycho was first released, we’ve had The Exorcist, Jaws, Alien, The Shining, Rosemary’s Baby, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Night of the Living Dead, and, of course, The Silence of the Lambs, all seen as pinnacles of cinematic horror.

    But most of these are adaptations from books. Two that aren’t – Night of the Living Dead and Texas Chainsaw Massacre – borrow heavily from cultural traditions or factual accounts. And Alien was initially billed as Jaws in space.

    The most recent of these is Silence of the Lambs, made in 1990. It’s arguable that – with a handful of exceptions – horror cinema peaked a long time ago, and since then we’ve been suffering under the weight of endless sequels, prequels, remakes and reimaginings.

    Silence Of The LambsThe Silence of the Lambs

    The move of horror onto TV is welcome.

    Because similarly on TV we have been dealing with the consequences that the last great horror film inflicted upon us. Silence of the Lambs was a book-to-film adaptation that terrified, but also won acclaim and awards. It pushed the boundaries of the grotesque, and encouraged us to celebrate the evil nature of its arch-villain, who quickly became a parody, if not through actual parodies but through his inevitable sequels and prequels.

    Crime drama on television began to do likewise. The murder mystery and police procedural – ever-present on TV since the beginning – increasingly became motivated to emphasise the brutality of murder, the evilness of the killers and the nobility of the detectives. We’d tune in each week to catch the latest serial killer. Even soap-operas routinely use the death of a major character as ratings-bait. Somebody somewhere should do a body count.

    So in one sense it’s not surprising that Thomas Harris’s characters have ended up on TV. And yet despite Hannibal being an adaptation of a very successful series of books, this is different to other enterprises like Game of Thrones. We are not the first-born audience. This is not our first Hannibal Lecter. We’re not the same audience who watched Silence of the Lambs and made endless jokes about fava beans and a nice chianti. We have become attuned to serial killers and murder investigations as a result of that film, it is our staple diet, and we have grown fat on it.

    Bryan Fuller knows you cannot simply do-over Silence of the Lambs, or Hannibal Lecter. Horror, more than any kind of genre, demands imagination. Without it, there is no ghost. There is no monster. There really isn’t anything creeping up behind us on the staircase in the abandoned house. Imagination is where horror lives and it’s no accident that Will Graham says his skills in the show rely more on his ‘active imagination’ than anything else.

    So Stephen King outlines three basic aspects of the genre: terror, horror and gore.

    Terror is the dread and fear, the anticipation. Horror the scare, the jump, the fright. And gore is, well, gore. Good horror has traditionally had a balance of these three, in that order of preference. Aim for terror, punctuated by horror, and when in doubt, go with gore.

    Walking DeadThe Walking Dead

    Certainly that’s where horror has been living for the past twenty years. The Walking Dead is a case in point. And while there are gory moments in Hannibal, but the show is much more than that, and to some degree Hannibal is commenting on our tendency toward gore.

    Because we know the tropes of horror, we know the scares, even if we still sometimes fall for them. Horror, as it has been, isn’t working anymore. And Hannibal does something very different to what we’ve seen in the genre before, and it needs the medium of television in order to do it.

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