Appointment with Fear

Jack Kibble-White on TV spine-chillers

First published October 2007

In the last few years, television drama’s output has embraced an increasingly wider array of fantastical concepts. Doctor Who, Primeval and the recent six-part Jekyll have all done their bit to restore to the small screen the genre referred to by its fans as “telefantasy”. Yet this revival contains within it a secondary renaissance, one that has yet to be recognised as the potentially “next big thing” in television drama, namely the return of the spine-chiller.

Admittedly series such as Sea of Souls and Afterlife have dealt explicitly with aspects of the supernatural, but Jekyll, Primeval and Doctor Who thrive just as much on their ability to shock or frighten the viewer as they do on high concepts or action sequences. Yet surprisingly, spine-chilling is a television art that until recently has been all but lost from the schedules. The genre’s absence has traditionally been ascribed to programme makers’ belief that fantastical television dramas would not find a substantial audience, but Doctor Who‘s executive producer Russell T Davies, for one, has always recognised the potency of small-screen scares.

In constructing that series’ arguably most explicitly frightening episode to date, “Blink”, Davies picked up on the fact that if the production team could strike the right level of fear, its audience would “remember the episode forever”. This assertion is obviously based on personal experiences from formative years and it’s worth mentioning that in part the current renaissance of telefantasy as a whole is attributable to the fact that a number of today’s most notable scriptwriters and television professionals have themselves fond memories of such programmes from their youth; or, as Jekyll and “Blink” scriptwriter Steven Moffat puts it, “All the Doctor Who fans got old enough to write their own television shows”.

In investigating the history of British television dramas that are designed to frighten, it’s helpful to come up with some sort of definition as to what we’re looking at. This article could have been billed as a history of horror on the small screen or even the supernatural but neither word seems adequate to sum up the strand of television we’re tracking. The notion of spine-chiller, however, directs us towards television drama that uses more than the visceral shock tactics of the traditional full-blooded horror story, yet allows us to overlook work that, although featuring elements of the supernatural, doesn’t actually set out to scare.

Specifically, the type of drama we are interested in examining here is that which uses tension and atmosphere to create a space in which something unsettling or creepy can occur. To develop Davies’ point above, a successful spine-chiller is something that should live long in the mind of the viewer thanks to its ability to tickle the edges of our most basic flight or fight defences, invoking in us a genuine physical reaction to the frightening events unfolding on screen.

Of course scary stories have a long and distinguished literary past with authors such as Edgar Allen Poe and M R James having established many of the rules of the genre. Although various dramatic conventions and stylistic devices will be touched upon throughout this article, it’s worth noting Poe and James’ predilection towards short stories rather than full-blown novels can clearly be seen to influence television’s bias for presenting spine-chilling stories in the form of one-offs or anthologies, rather than multi-episode dramas in themselves.

One of the first British television dramas to tackle the traditional spine-chiller was indeed a one-off production. The BBC’s 1938 adaptation of WW Jacobs’ The Monkey’s Paw establishes a number of the most important elements that would come to characterise television spine-chillers throughout the next 30 years or so, and all of these are present in Jacobs’ original text. The story consists of a tantalising set up (that of the hero learning of the power of the eponymous paw to grant three wishes) and establishes an impending sense of doom right from the first moment (when we learn that an earlier recipient of the appendage used his third wish to ask for his own death).

This format of set-up and resolution is integral to any drama, but for a spine-chiller such as this, the explicitness of the initial question – and of its final resolution – are integral to the form. Indeed such is The Monkey’s Paw adherence to classic spine-chiller structure, it has been recycled countless times on screen (with another television version showing up as soon as 1954). The tale survives to this day with perhaps the most recent example being The League of Gentlemen Christmas special in 2000 (which retold the story as part of a portmanteau of similarly chilling, albeit comic, tales).

Beyond the simple mechanisms of the plot, The Monkey’s Paw also features thematic elements that will resonate with seasoned watchers of this genre. In particular, the paw carries with it connotations of prehistoric horror. In Jacobs’ original story there is a passage in which the hero gazes into a fire (in itself a symbol for primitive elemental force) and sees various faces appear amid the flames. “The last face was so horrible and so simian,” remarks the author, “that he gazed at it in amazement”.

This simian face stands for a kind of “eternal evil” that can be interpreted in both religious and evolutionary terms. It brings with it a fear that we can all share: that of a terrible force lurking at the birth of creation and potentially within our own selves. This universal notion is something that informs many of the more memorable dramas that follow within this genre, albeit ancient menace is more often represented by the inclusion of “old” cultures with some connection to the land such as gypsies or pagans, rather than explicit references to creation. In this context, children, with their close proximity to an act of creation (namely their own) can be used as a tool to frighten the viewer and as we shall see, they often are.

Although dramatic productions of a sinister or chilling nature continued to appear in the BBC’s television schedules on an occasional basis, it was after World War II the notion of “horror plays” as Lez Cooke refers to them in his book British Television Drama – A History became increasingly popular. This was in part due to the introduction of new technology that allowed programme makers to combine live studio performance with pre-recorded film footage, and also, thanks to a desire within the BBC to move towards more experimental television productions. Given, the supernatural’s focus on the sensory and psychological, such stories lent themselves well to avant-garde interpretations.

However, these productions were not without their problems and a series of plays broadcast under the umbrella title of The Edgar Allen Poe Centenary (BBC, 1949) provoked a record number of complaints from viewers who found them disturbing in the extreme. Curiously enough, similar fare broadcast on the radio as part of the anthology series Appointment With Fear (BBC Radio, 1943-55) provoked far less critical reaction, allowing that production to run uncontested for 10 series. In fact, Appointment With Fear is an important programme in our history, given that it established the predominant format for such tales – the anthology – as well as popularised the notion of a narrator (in this case Valentine Dyall) who would lead the audience into and out of each week’s story.

The role of the narrator in particular is worthy of further consideration. Nowadays such a device would be viewed as, at best, quaint and at worst, an intrusion into the reality of the story, yet as recently as the early 1980s (and Roald Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected) narrators were seen as important figures. Perhaps this was because they acted as an on-screen signifier, setting expectations and alerting viewers to be on the look-out for the kind of plot and character devices integral to the form. Certainly their presence usually accompanied stories that adhered closely to the established conventions of the spine-chiller (rather than those that sought to scare us through less conventional means). In addition, the notion of someone explicitly recounting a tale of horror to an audience brought to mind that iconic image so beloved of scary storytelling: that of a group of individuals sitting in rapt attention as a raconteur recounts a devilish tale.

The age of the spine-chilling anthology really kicked in with the arrival of ITV in 1955. As recalled by Helen Wheatley in her book Gothic Television, it was the commercial channel, not the BBC, which first popularised this kind of programming on television. Initially springing from the long-running anthology strand Armchair Theatre (ITV, 1956-74). Armchair Mystery Theatre (ITV, 1960-65) adopted the trappings of the spine-chiller anthology as defined by Appointment with Fear, even going so far as to include an on-screen host (Donald Pleasance) to tie-up each week’s story. However, Armchair Mystery Theatre‘s remit was a little wider than simply tales of the supernatural. For example, one episode featured the plight of a woman, paralysed by the shock of seeing her daughter-in-law killed, attempting to recover in time to reveal the identity of the murderer. Such a tale could perhaps provoke a sense of anticipation and tension in the viewer but couldn’t really be categorised as a spine-chiller in the sense we are discussing here.

Far more pertinent was the episode broadcast in 1964, “You Must Be Alone, Emily”. Written by Virginia Hewett, this tale centred on the chilling conceit of a girl who receives numerous telephone calls from an unknown admirer. While such a concept need not necessarily contain any elements of the supernatural, it is clear to see from this brief description alone how this drama could have played out in such a way as to merit inclusion in our discussion.

The 1950s and 1960s would prove to be a productive period for makers of terrifying anthology series. Out of This World (ITV, 1962) was presented by Boris Karloff and featured tales with a more explicit sci-fi bent to them; John Laurie fronted Tales of Mystery (ITV, 1961-63), a series adapting the short stories of horror writer Algernon Blackwood; and Mystery and Imagination (ITV 1966-70) presented small-screen adaptations of various gothic works. All of these embraced and made a virtue out of the trappings of their genre.

Interestingly, most of them played on either a Saturday or Sunday night. This served to establish the notion these series were to be considered reliable sources of escapism from the drudgery of weekday life. As such, it was critical to ensure viewers’ commitment wasn’t tested by anything too leftfield, meaning the kind of tales these programmes told never strayed too far from the audience’s preconceived expectations of what a mystery anthology should deliver.

Nevertheless, there was something changing. Helen Wheatley observes that Mystery and Imagination featured either a haunted house or a family trauma in “16 out of 23 episodes”. This bias towards domesticity was to prove particularly effective. By situating the on-screen events in a setting not far removed from the one the television viewer found themselves in while watching the programme, the sense of terror became instantly heightened. This remains true today and there is a strong argument to suggest television is the most effective outlet for the domestic horror story, with no other medium as well able to replicate that horrible, creeping sense a viewer can experience while watching a drama about an unseen malevolence zeroing in on somebody’s home.

If the BBC’s role in the development of the spine-chiller at this time seemed secondary, then it was to exert a strong influence on the genre’s development in 1968 with the broadcast of an adaptation of M R James’ Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad. Directed by Jonathan Miller and shown as part of the Omnibus arts strand, Whistle and I’ll Come to You (the slightly truncated title) featured a very traditional ghost tale, complete with uncovered old artefact (this time an Anglo-Saxon bone whistle but it may as well have been a monkey’s paw) and the resultant terror that ultimately befalls its finder. While the plot points adhered to the, by now, well-established formula, Miller imbued the production with a level of naturalism hitherto unseen in this genre. The pacing was torturously slow and much of the dialogue (the little of it there was) improvised. In a sense this was a progression of Mystery and Imagination‘s attempt at bringing terror into the domestic arena. With Whistle and I’ll Come to You, Miller was creating a world on screen that felt as if it could actually be the same as our own.

Of course this approach brought with it a serious challenge, namely how to portray the growing sense of there being a supernatural presence without instantly shattering the illusion events were taking place in our reality. Miller’s solution was twofold: firstly, to suggest the unusual occurrences were simply a figment of the central character’s (Professor Parkin) imagination and, secondly, to exercise what one-time BBC Director of Home Broadcasting Basil Nicholls referred to as an, “aesthetic of restraint”. This meant the supernatural incidents largely occurred off-screen or in a manner that made them at the very least ambiguous. Indeed it’s only at the story’s conclusion the viewer is offered any evidence that can resist an easy, logical explanation, and even then the bed sheet moving through the air of its own volition can be explained away as a representation of Parkin’s mental fragility.

The 1970s offered up numerous spine-chillers that played with rational explanations for supernatural occurrences. Nigel Kneale’s The Stone Tape (BBC1, 1972) postulated ghosts were simply playbacks of information stored in the surrounding environment. Although logical, this approach to the phenomenon was curious in that it actually resulted in making Kneale’s story even more spine-chilling (particularly in the brief scene in which a child’s letter to Santa Claus, written a long time ago is revealed to read, “What I want for Christmas is please go away”).

Similarly, anthology series Thriller (ITV, 1973-76) pursued a line of enquiry that suggested fantastical phenomena could be explained away as a representation of the main character’s flaky state of mind. Here the television spine-chiller was drawing upon a change then ongoing in murder fiction wherein authors such as Ruth Rendall were moving away from investigation-based stories in favour of psychological thrillers. Again, Thriller‘s attempts to explain away a man haunted by a mysterious killer by revealing the murderer is, in fact, the man himself operating under some kind of split personality (as was the case in the episode “Possession”) managed not to detract, but to add to the sense of horror, suggesting the terrifying sights we were so used to seeing on our screens could actually manifest themselves in our own lives should our mental condition deteriorate in the requisite manner. Much like the works of WW Jacobs and others discussed above, Thriller suggested our greatest source of fear may well actually be ourselves.

Thriller was significant for other reasons. It eschewed the traditions of restraint and ditched the period settings to which viewers had grown accustomed. Instead, what we had were stories set almost exclusively in the modern day that featured denouements of a graphic nature. There were some economic factors at play here that influenced Thriller‘s output. The series was a co-production between ATV and American television network ABC. This resulted not only in a number of US actors finding work on the show, but in the production of stories deliberately designed to play well on the other side of the Atlantic.

American television’s approach to spine-chilling was largely informed by series such as Dark Shadows (a gothic soap opera that majored in melodrama) and comedy shows The Munsters and The Addams Family. As such, the sense of restraint and atmosphere so integral to the British tradition had never really established itself in the US. Much like the horror films of Hammer and Amicus, Thriller attempted to fall into line with American sensibility, adopt American production values and feature stereotypical representations of Britain that would appeal to American audiences. Nevertheless, when Thriller was screened in the US it was in a repackaged format that featured newly-shot opening and closing titles that further accentuated the sensational content of each episode.

As the 1970s progressed, ITV continued its focus on the anthology series as the main vehicle for spine-chilling stories. Why this remained the case is worthy of some investigation. As we have already learned, the television anthology is perhaps the closest equivalent to the form of short stories penned by the genre’s most influential writers. Clearly, there is something about a spine-chiller that lends itself to the short story/one-off format. Perhaps it’s because at the very heart of a truly frightening tale lies an assumption the fantastical incident we are witnessing represents the only event of this nature to occur in the lives of the story’s characters. This is particularly important as any notion our hero is exposed to such happenings on a regular basis immediately dilutes our sense of fear as the unknowable in some way becomes more known. This is not to say ongoing series with supernatural elements cannot operate successfully, but rather they do not possess the same qualities of something horrific breaking into our world and so tend to feel far more as if they are taking place in a reality far removed from our own.

Nigel Kneale’s Beasts (ITV, 1976) stuck pretty closely to the anthology format, presenting us with six stand-alone tales of suspense and fear. The unifying theme was one familiar to the seasoned television watcher, namely, man’s conflict with primal forces. The first story, “Baby” featured a classic television spine-chiller premise as a couple moved to a new home in the country and uncovered a source of ancient evil, in this case, a mummified creature in a wall of their house. Drawing upon the success of writers such as H P Lovecraft, Kneale crafted a shocking conclusion that left the viewer with few answers and barely even a resolution, but it did at least terrify.

Two further episodes, “Special Offer” and “During Barty’s Party” used the well-worn device of keeping the source of terror out of view. Again, the utilisation of that aesthetic of restraint was shown to pay dividends, particularly in the case of the latter story, which was able to induce a high level of panic in the viewer simply through the judicious use of a sound effect of rats scuttling underneath floorboards. In fact the rodents themselves were never seen on screen at any point in the drama.

The BBC’s most significant offering to the genre during this time came in the form of the annual Christmas Ghost Story (a slot first set up in 1971, which would run until 1977). Whereas ITV offered viewers contemporary chillers, the BBC was content to dramatise yet more works of MR James. The period setting could be said to inhibit the viewer’s ability to truly visualise the threat in the story actually impinging on their own lives, but the Christmas drama’s focus on atmosphere, pacing and notions of ancient evil ensured those tuning in could not help but find themselves a little shaken by what they saw.

Of course, Christmas itself has an association with the supernatural that predates television (Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol being an obvious example). There is something about that time of year and its now largely forgotten association with Pagan rituals related to death and rebirth (most notably the turning of the seasons from winter to spring) that adds an extra piquancy to these stories.

Tales such as 1973′s Lost Hearts played on those fears of old times by referencing gypsies and featuring music performed on outmoded instruments such as a hurdy gurdy. It also featured children as the main source of terror, connecting us with the notion that the act of creation in itself is some kind of malevolent force. As observed by Helen Wheatley though, Lost Hearts wasn’t an entirely traditional spine-chiller. The fact the spectral children were portrayed in an unambiguous fashion, often taking centre stage, represented a move away from the previously established aesthetic. Additionally, the inclusion of a shot showing the ghost boy with chest ripped open and heart removed represented a then rare incursion for the BBC into out-and-out horror.

Traditional horror of the cinematic variety found its apotheosis on television in 1980 with the screening of ITV’s Hammer House of Horror. Much like Thriller, this anthology series was designed with one eye on the American market. This meant production values were superior to similar British fare. However, the characters and settings adhered to a kind of tourist view of Britain which nullified much of the programme’s ability to terrify. Whereas the earlier anthology series Thriller had been able to make a virtue out of these limitations (thanks largely to scriptwriter Brian Clemens’ ability to construct genuinely clever, twist-in-the-tale stories), Hammer House of Horror was willing to rest on its shocking visuals (such as a bloody severed hand in a fridge in the episode “The House That Bled to Death”). These tactics could certainly induce a frisson in the more faint-hearted viewer, but with the lack of genuinely chilling concepts underpinning the stories, there was little sense that Hammer House of Horror would, as Russell T Davies might say, be remembered “forever”.

It’s probably unfair to suggest Hammer killed off the spine-chiller genre on television, but it certainly contributed to the preconception growing in the 1980s that such dramas were, for want of a better word, a bit hokey and undeserving of serious attention. In fact, by the mid-1980s, pretty much any kind of drama that featured easily identifiable genre rules suffered under the scrutiny of a by now, post-modern-literate audience.

The 1987 James Bond film The Living Daylights responded to criticism levelled at the long running series for its overly formulaic and increasingly unbelievable plotlines by stripping out the trappings of the previous movies and returning the character to his literary roots. On the small screen, Robin Hood, Sherlock Holmes and Miss Marple all received a similar “back to basics” makeover.

For the spine-chiller, no such reinvention seemed possible, and while a series such as the BBC’s 1977 anthology Supernatural could appear in its day to be genuinely frightening, just 10 years later, its title sequence alone (consisting of baroque church music, shots of stone gargoyles and Olde English text font) would be enough to have it laughed off our screens. In fact, the spine-chiller became almost the exclusive preserve of children’s television, with series such as Dramarama and Tom’s Midnight Garden keeping the genre alive (both highly effective in their own ways, and at times as equally frightening as their “adult telly” predecessors).

In cinema, horror films were now more or less synonymous with the kind of graphic violence found in productions such as the Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street and other similar slasher movies, meaning that here, too, the traditional spine-chiller was overlooked.

Interestingly, some mainstream dramas did pick up the slack with three episodes of the detective series Bergerac (“What Dreams May Come True”, “Fires in the Fall” and “The Dig”) all addressing conventional supernatural subjects. The 1990s saw a brief revival of the spine-chiller anthology with BBC1′s six-part Ghosts and ITV’s five-part Chiller (both transmitted in 1995), but by far the most interesting and significant programme of this ilk broadcast that decade was Stephen Volk’s Screen One drama Ghostwatch (BBC1, 1992).

Something of a sensation at the time, Ghostwatch ingeniously used the format of a live television broadcast from a supposedly haunted house. Volk’s motivation here was to mimic the – in his words – “pseudo-documentary approach” of writers such as Poe who, according to the scriptwriter, “played such a trick by mimicking the factual articles that appeared around them in the publications where they first appeared”. In many respects, Volk’s intentions were much the same as Jonathan Miller’s with his production of Whistle and I’ll Come to You, namely to establish a fictional world that felt highly authentic. With the rise of programmes such as Hospital Watch Volk was presented with a perfect television model through which he could establish the “authenticity” of his drama.

As such, this ghost story played out via a fictional, one-off show hosted by Michael Parkinson, Sarah Greene, Mike Smith and Craig Charles. Choosing real-life television broadcasters as opposed to actors was one of the key production decisions in terms of selling the reality of the piece to viewers. In addition, Volk and director Lesley Manning spent a great deal of time ensuring the script adhered to the grammar of television live broadcasts – going so far as to allow Parkinson to stray off script and draw on his own experiences of presenting to further sell the authenticity (definite shades of the improvisation techniques used in the aforementioned Whistle and I’ll Come to You).

This innovative format allowed Volk to play with the established spine-chiller tradition of representing supernatural phenomena on screen in a partly obscured fashion. The fictional viewers of Ghostwatch were invited to contact the programme and point out moments in the footage when the phantom of the piece, Pipes, could be observed. The fact real viewers phoned the BBC in an attempt to do the same is a testament to the drama’s effectiveness.

Beyond the employment of live television conventions, there was another element to Volk’s script that helped sell Ghostwatch‘s authenticity and thus terrify much of the audience: the plot itself was heavily based on the well documented case of the late 1970s referred to as the “Enfield Poltergeist”. By drawing upon many of the elements of that incident (a small suburban house, the poltergeist activity focusing around two teenage girls) Ghostwatch possessed an additional ring of truth. It’s probable many watching the drama failed to directly link it with that case (which was heavily featured in the press during 1977 and 1978) but, nonetheless, at a subconscious level some kind of connection was undoubtedly made by a large percentage of the audience.

The net result was to create a drama that provoked a record number of complaints from traumatised viewers. It has to be noted many of these centred on the mistaken belief Ghostwatch had been misleadingly billed and promoted as a factual, live broadcast (it hadn’t and indeed its connection to the Screen One drama brand had been made explicit). But even those who recognised the production for the fiction it was, couldn’t help but be a little disconcerted by Volk’s cleverly paced build up in tension. Arguably, it’s only in the programme’s final 10 minutes that credibility is stretched to breaking point, with Pipes somehow able to invade the television studio, take over Parkinson’s autocue and even possess the man himself.

Perhaps this conclusion was intentional, a way to signpost the programme’s fictional nature. Nonetheless, it’s difficult not to conclude that if Ghostwatch had been able to exercise the aesthetic of restraint a little more tightly in the final reel, we would have been left with potentially the most frightening television spine-chiller of all time.

Of course, much of what we saw broadcast under the auspices of fiction on Ghostwatch is now presented to us as fact on programmes such as Most Haunted (Living TV, 2002 – present). Yet this series has never come close to equalling Ghostwatch‘s ability to terrify. In fact, the tradition of blurring genres and mediums in order to create a space in which to frighten continues to this day with Volk citing The Blair Witch Project (1999) as an obvious example that followed in his show’s wake. With the internet and television becoming ever more convergent, it’s not difficult to see how an ambitious television scriptwriter could employ a number of entertainment platforms simultaneously in order to create a truly immersive and terrifying new drama.

At the time of writing, there are no ongoing spine-chiller anthology series on mainstream British television. In 2002, BBC Choice embarked on a 14-part anthology series under the name Twisted Tales. Billed as a series of black comedy dramas, the intention didn’t seem to be to provide any genuine scares, but rather to further develop the seam of “dark” comedy, first ploughed by programmes such as The League of Gentlemen. More recent dramas such as Sea of Souls (BBC1, 2004 – present ) and Afterlife (ITV1, 2005-06) have been slightly closer to the mark, allowing anthology-style, one-off stories to be told as part of an ongoing series. Afterlife has also preserved the tradition of such programmes being screened on a Saturday night, although such has been the dearth of traditional spine-chillers in the last couple of decades, it’s telling its scheduling has felt like a bold move on ITV1′s part.

Created by Stephen Volk, Afterlife has clearly been influenced by films such as Ring (1998), Dark Water (2003) and specifically The Sixth Sense (1999), and has been reasonably successful at bringing their atmospheric tension to the small screen. Where Afterlife has arguably fared less well is in striking the right balance between gore and suspense. Still, its format (that of an unwilling medium who is sought out by individuals troubled by the paranormal) has allowed for an eclectic range of stories to be told. Similarly, Sea of Souls’ premise (that of a parapsychology unit at a fictional Glasgow university), has enabled all manner of paranormal phenomena to pass through its doors (including reincarnation and voodoo). However, the series seems to have elected to pursue a more traditional investigative format rather than attempt to focus on creating something truly frightening.

Perhaps then, the scariest drama currently on television is Doctor Who (BBC1, 1963 – present). Although it fails to work the viewer up into a heightened sense that what is happening on screen could happen to them too, it has introduced a number of highly memorable concepts and images. In particular, writer Steven Moffat has developed a line of horrors ranging from a gas-masked child endlessly calling for its mummy in 2005′s “The Empty Child”, to a clockwork robot hiding under a small child’s bed (2006′s “The Girl in the Fireplace”), and a malevolent species of alien that disguise themselves as stone statues whenever you’re looking at them (2007′s “Blink”). This last concept is particularly in keeping with the history of the television spine-chiller given that it makes explicit this notion of a menace that constantly operates just out of sight.

So, is the time right for a resurgence of the out-and-out spine-chiller? Perhaps. For those writers up to the task, television history has shown us that if you really want to send your viewers to bed in a terrified state, then it’s best to base your action somewhere domestic and close to home. Also, take your time to build up a fictional world that seems real and plausible to the viewer (perhaps your actors could improvise some of the dialogue) and by all means keep your supernatural menace off screen for as long as possible. If you can apply those techniques to an ingenious and unsettling concept, then perhaps your creation can attain a slice of that immortality reserved solely for television’s scariest dramas.