It’s hard to overestimate the profound effect of the TV on American culture; it may be rivaled only by the Internet or the smart phone. Television was introduced into US homes in the late 1940s and, according to James Baughman, “No other household technology, not the telephone or indoor plumbing, had ever spread so rapidly into so many homes.” The “number of homes with TVs increased from 0.4 percent in 1948,” Baughman writes, “to 55.7 percent in 1954 and to 83.2 percent four years later.” By the mid-1950s, “‘Television had established its place as the most important single form of entertainment and of passing the time.’”[i]
Given the rate at which TVs spread through US homes, it’s actually rather surprising that they don’t make an appearance in a horror film until George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead in 1968—a decade after they had insinuated themselves into over 83% of our homes. (Having said that, I’m eager to hear from people who know of horror films before 1968 that weave TV into their plot.) Since 1968, the TV has been a regular in the horror film, and so here I just want to sketch out some of the highlights of TV’s role in US horror, tracking how it has manifest our culture’s changing anxieties about that box that has transfixed us for almost 60 years. And if that last sentence sounds elegiac, it is—because TV’s power is on the wane.The TV in Night of the Living Dead is a lifeline—a promise of hope, a source of life-saving information. The group of strangers trapped in the farmhouse on the night when the dead start coming back to cannibalize the living gather around the television like it is their only hope of salvation. They listen with unquestioning credulity to the newscaster—even though Romero (not as credulous as his characters) slyly has the newscaster offering contradictory messages: Stay inside, shut the doors! Head to the closes rescue center!
Trying to follow the advice they’ve heard on the TV, the group launches a plan to get out of the house and head to a rescue center (as the TV told them to do). Romero’s cynicism about television and its “authorities” is dramatically manifest in the death of two of the group and the subsequent boundary-pushing scene of the ghouls feasting on their body parts.
Ten years later, John Carpenter put a TV smack in the middle of the two homes where Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) and her friend were babysitting. Little Tommy Doyle and Lindsay Wallace stay glued to the set for much of the time they are on-screen. In Halloween (1978), the TV has become a source of pure entertainment—not, as in Night of the Living Dead, of information.
Carpenter, moreover, made sure that the TV was not just a box, separate from the viewers gathered around it. By showing Tommy and Lindsay watching The Thing from Another World, Carpenter wove the film-on-TV into his own film. The Thing (on TV) anticipated Michael Myers (in the real)—the boogeyman-in-ice thawed out and stalking teens in Haddonfield, Illinois. Carpenter showed us that the boundaries between the televisual and the “real” world won’t hold for long.
As engrossed as Tommy Wallace and Lindsay Doyle were in horror movies, Steven Spielberg’s Poltergeist (1982) suggests an escalating anxiety about the absorption of children (literally) into the TV. When her parents and siblings aren’t paying attention to her (the TV as babysitter—a theme begun in Halloween), Carol Anne disappears through a portal and ends up literally in the TV.
By the self-reflexive, ironic 1990s, life was quite blatantly imitating television, with the infamous scene in Wes Craven’s Scream (1996) in which Randy (Jamie Kennedy) elaborates on the rules of the slasher film while Halloween plays in the background. Reality and fiction blur dangerously, as Randy yells at the screen: “Behind you, Jamie!” as Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis) is stalked by Michael Myers. Scream’s own Jamie (Randy) is similarly being stalked, and, despite all his knowledge of the rules, Randy is nonetheless unaware of the killer behind him. Scream suggests the dangers of believing that the rules of film/TV are “real”—of immersing yourself too fully in the TV. In the end it is Sidney (Neve Campbell) who triumphs and defeats the killers, not least by bringing a TV crashing down on one of their heads. Getting out of the televisual dreamworld and living in and taking charge of the real is what ensures survival.
Mary Harron’s American Psycho (2000) was much less sanguine than Scream about the power of humans to resist the pull of TV. She cleverly shows two moments when the TV is on in the high-rent apartment of Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale)—first showing a porn film and later Texas Chain Saw Massacre. In both instances, Bateman is not actually watching the screen but, also in both instances, he later enacts the scenes that had been playing on the screen. Their images seem to burn themselves into his psyche, leading to compulsive repetition, even though he is not watching. Or perhaps the fact that he is not watching closely is the problem, and Harron is subtly urging critical viewership (which her film itself certainly demands)—a practice that will prevent such compulsive re-enactment.
There is perhaps no film that expresses the power of TV to shape, even determine, who we are than Gore Verbinski’s The Ring (2002). I’ve written about TV in The Ring at greater length so here I just want to make the point that, counter to the message of Scream, The Ring makes it clear that it is not so easy to stand outside, to resist, the seductions of television. Samara’s monstrosity is bred by TV, with which she is left alone for much of her life, and, of course, her “curse” is spread by TV—by the fatal videotape. Unlike Sidney’s ability to send the TV crashing down on her attacker in Scream, the TV knocks Rachel (Naomi Watts) down the well into the embrace of Samara—and she never gets out. The film ends with Rachel and Aidan passing on the curse, with Samara still “alive” and able to transgress the boundaries of the TV and “infect” anyone who watches.
The last film I want to mention in this brief and partial survey is Michael Haneke’s Funny Games (2007), a re-make of his own 1999 Austrian film of the same name. Haneke has made it very clear that his film is a critique of violence in the media—so much so that he suggests people should walk out before the film’s over. There is, though, very little on-screen violence in Funny Games (only one instance, actually). However, after one very disturbing murder occurs off-screen, Haneke offers an extended, stationary shot of the room in which it happened, significantly dominated by a television now spattered with blood. Although the content playing on the TV is benign (NASCAR racing), Haneke joins with both Harron and Verbinski in emphasizing the omnipresence of the TV. It’s always there, always on—and it is affecting us in ways we can’t begin to grasp at a conscious level. It is, moreover, as the blood dripping on the screen suggests, culpable for the violence in this film, however indirect that connection seems (and it is much less direct than in American Psycho and The Ring). The media—TV—produces acts of violence that seem motiveless because, Haneke suggests, they make all of us much less human.
Despite the constant presence—often central presence—of the TV in horror film, its days may be numbered. Young people are watching screens, certainly, but they’re not watching the TV.[ii] Already horror films increasingly feature the media and the devices by which young people are watching—Snapchat, Facebook, laptops, and phones. Given horror’s perennial tendency to tap into our anxieties, social media and new technologies will no doubt be a staple of horror to come.
[i] James L. Baughman, “Television Comes to America, 1947-1957,” http://www.lib.niu.edu/1993/ihy930341.html
[ii] See “Youths are Watching, But Less Often on TV,” The New York Times, February 8, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/09/business/media/young-people-are-watching-but-less-often-on-tv.html and “Time Spent Online ‘Overtakes TV’ among Youngsters,” BBC News, January 26, 2016, http://www.bbc.com/news/education-35399658