A Personal Reflection on Horror Films on British Television (1975 to 1984)
words by Sarah Johnson
It’s December 1975, I am nine-years-old, lying in bed with the blankets pulled over my ears. The bedroom door is ajar, letting in light from the hallway as I don’t want to be in the dark.
I can’t sleep, I’m scared. Not terrified or even badly frightened, I just have that feeling of apprehension mingled with excitement I now recognise as being one of the joys of watching a horror film. Only I’m not watching a horror film, I’m listening to one. I lie in my semi-dark bedroom as the sound of Frankenstein: The True Story (1973) floats up to me from the television in the living room downstairs. I asked to stay up past my bedtime to watch it, fascinated by the trailers I’d seen on BBC Two, but was considered far too young and easily scared. Nearly all the films I saw up until the age of 18 were on that television. We lived in a semi-rural area, the nearest cinema being eight miles away. With limited public transport, going to the cinema was a major, and expensive, event. Instead, we’d gather around the only television we owned, a huge monstrosity bought in the 1970s, but at least it was colour, large and loud.
Frankenstein: The True Story is the first horror film I remember having a reaction to, a mixture of fear and anticipation, possibly heightened due to not being able to see the cause of the increasingly frequent screams and discordant music. As Neil Lerner writes, we can close our eyes to horror but it’s not easy to do so with our ears, stating:
‘…of all the cinematic genres, horror gives music a heightened responsibility for triggering feelings of horror, fear, rage…’ (2010, p.viii).
When I did get to see the film many years later, I found the experience far less frightening than I expected based on my childhood memories. At one point, I matched the sound of music to one specific scene, that of a dismembered arm dragging itself across the laboratory floor as Dr. Henry Clerval (David McCallum) dies of a heart attack. As the arm pulls itself from the cupboard in which it’s stored, the sound of discordant strings and piano notes grow in volume to combine with the noise of sodden flesh being dragged over a stone floor. The sounds express the surreal horror of the image, but also the disappointment of Clerval, who realises at that moment his process is reversing, the living flesh is dying. That knowledge dies with him. It’s a notable scene in the film as it represents a turning point, the moment at which Dr. Victor Frankenstein (Leonard Whiting) decides to press on with the creation of “our Adam”, The Creature (Michael Sarrazin), using Clerval’s brain.
When I watched the scene, the implications it held for the developing narrative had a greater impact on me than the sight of the dismembered arm. Perhaps inevitable given I was older, but also an example of how sound alone conveys horror and sometimes our imagination will conjure images far worse than those created on the screen. Interestingly, as a result of my childhood experience, rather than being repelled by the idea of watching a horror film, I was attracted to it. I wanted to see.
Watching horror films on television developed into a habit as I got older. By summer 1978, I’d be staying up late to watch weekend horror double bills on BBC Two. With it being the school holidays and the double bills comprising old Universal and Hammer Horrors it was considered little harm would come to me. My older brothers were there to act as gatekeepers of taste if needed and the event became something we looked forward to. My brothers’ viewing habits added to the experience, as one would provide a running commentary intended to ramp up the tension, while the other would literally leap out of his chair with every jump scare. As I watched a film in anticipation of frights, I also kept half an eye on him in anticipation of the effect it would have. Inevitably, his reactions created an extra level of tension and as he jumped, I would follow, resulting in laughter. As Peter Hutchings wrote:
‘The jump scare or startle effect is probably the crudest sensation that horror can invoke inasmuch as it involves an automatic physiological response from the spectator’ (2017, p.183).
I discovered that being afraid could be fun, as much a physical sensation as an intellectual or imaginative exercise.
By 1979, our viewing habits expanded to include other late-night broadcasts. Of note is Asylum (1972), broadcast in May 1979 on BBC One, as this cultivated my taste in portmanteau horror films, a form I’d not previously seen. It was also my introduction to Robert Powell playing a character other than Jesus. I’d watched him in Franco Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth (1977) shown on ITV, and was fascinated to now see him in what I knew was regarded as a less reputable genre. As an Amicus production Asylum was typical of their output, anthology films being described by Kim Newman as:
‘mini-movies in which something supernaturally horrid happens to an embarrassed guest star’ (2011, p.34).
In this case, Dr Martin (Robert Powell) listens to the supernatural experiences recounted by four inmates of a psychiatric hospital, some with a basis in reality that eventually leads to his death. Of the four tales, I found the most memorable to be ‘Frozen Fear’, in which Walter (Richard Todd) kills and dismembers his wife Ruth (Sylvia Syms), wrapping her body parts in brown paper and storing them in their freezer. Just as the arm in Frankenstein: The True Story has its own life, her body parts also acquire an autonomy that allows Ruth to exact her revenge on her husband and his mistress. While the story did not exactly scare me, my brother’s later recreation of it did. He would hide behind doors in the dark hallway, mimicking surprisingly well the sound of Ruth’s dismembered head breathing through brown paper. It was one of the last horror films we watched together as, inevitably, more of his evenings were taken up by other adolescent interests as the year progressed.
Increasingly, I watched horror films alone, now being considered old enough to use my judgement as to what is suitable and the fact nothing too extreme was ever going to be broadcast on the three available television channels. VCRs were on sale in the UK, but unaffordable for my family and friends. Julian Petley writes that as of early 1979 there were fewer than 100,000 VCRs in the UK and the ‘video nasties’ concerns didn’t emerge until May 1982 (2011, p.17). So, my relationship with horror films on television became increasingly solitary. That is until Salem’s Lot (1979).
A mini-series broadcast by BBC One in September 1981 at 21.25 after the Nine O’Clock News, Salem’s Lot was event television. I watched this with my mother, which was unusual as she often worked evenings. For one week in September we sat down together to enjoy Salem’s Lot and this made it even more of an event for me. I’d seen most of the Universal and Hammer adaptations of Dracula but the film that intrigued me the most was Nosferatu (1922). Having seen clips of Nosferatu, I was mesmerised by the image of the vampire’s shadow ascending the stairs to Ellen’s bedroom. Hooper’s head vampire, The Master: Kurt Barlow (Reggie Nalder), looked a lot like Count Orlok (Max Shreck) to me. Hooper’s interpretation of Stephen King’s novel has been criticised for a lack of originality. King had a particular issue with Barlow’s representation:
‘The two-part TV special was directed by Tobe Hooper of Texas Chain-Saw Massacre fame, and outside of a few boners – such as making my vampire Barlow look exactly like the cadaverously inhuman night stalker in the famous German silent film Nosferatu – he did a pretty good job.’
(Eric Norden, 1983)
As Simon Brown points out, this representation of Barlow is contrary to that of the suave, sophisticated European Dracula as embodied by Bela Lugosi or even Louis Jourdan. Barlow looks like the evil, supernatural being he is, with Brown explaining:
‘the result is that Barlow is terrifying primarily because of how he looks, and so can scare viewers without having to actually do anything vampiric’ (2017, p. 31).
In a made for television film, this is important as Hooper was working under the confines of television Broadcast Standards and Practices of the time. This meant the emphasis was on creating an atmosphere rather than graphic scenes of horror or violence. For my mother and I, this was incredibly effective, as evidenced by the amount of jump scares and feeling of creeping horror. We were both inclined to double-check that our bedroom windows were closed at night after watching the vampire Danny Glick (Brad Savage) float out of a cloud of mist to scratch at friend Mark Petrie’s (Lance Kerwin) bedroom window. The sound of Glick’s nails scratching at the glass is a sound that stayed with us. As a viewer of horror films, my inclination is still towards the power of suggestion to create a sense of increasing horror, combined with jump scares to release the tension.
Watching Salem’s Lot with my mother is the last memory I have of seeing horror films with family. Three years later in 1984 I completed my A-Levels and moved with a school friend into a flat in the nearest big city, looking for adventure, new experiences and opportunities. Our television was second hand, black and white with a small screen. Most evenings we went out and watching television was a rare occurrence. Luckily, we did watch one film that remains an all-time favourite of mine, The Haunting (1963). Broadcast on the 4th August 1984, we were still settling into our new home in a large Victorian house, converted into flats and a little dilapidated. Ours was a small two-bedroom flat at the top of the house with sash windows, sloping ceilings and strange angles. Given the subject matter of The Haunting, that of “an evil old house,” house which is “born bad” as Dr Markway (Richard Johnson) says, it’s not surprising we chose to see it nor that we had our own ghostly experience at the same time.
Undoubtedly, the most effective scene in frightening us is that in which Theo (Claire Bloom) and Eleanor (Julie Harris) are terrorised during their first night at Hill House. They are woken by the sound of knocking while Dr Markway and Luke (Russ Tamblyn) are “decoyed” outside. Alarmed, Theo and Eleanor huddle together as the temperature drops and the knocking slowly proceeds along the hallway outside, a distant thud that increases in volume as it approaches their room. This use of sound creates rising tension which culminates when whatever is making the sound reaches their door. The sound varies between that of the door being knocked and the glass above it, accompanied by a point of view shot from the perspective of whatever is outside trying to get in. It is only when Eleanor shouts, “It can’t get in!” that the unseen ghost recedes. Robert Wise worked as a sound editor before becoming a director and the use of sound throughout is suggestive of horror, and sometimes the direct cause of it. We often hear the ghosts in The Haunting, but don’t see them.
Pam Keesey writes about the power of suggestion in The Haunting and how it contributes to making it a successful horror film. The audience and characters are not confronted by a single personification of the ultimate evil, but rather are surrounded by it when they enter Hill House. As Eleanor thinks, the house is ‘alive’ and feels them move about it. It watches them, just as it peered at Theo and Eleanor when they cowered in their bedroom that first night in Hill House. This use of suggestion is not to everyone’s taste, but it had a lasting impact on me. Equally as effective, is the use of sound in the scene where Eleanor listens in the night to a child’s cries. Afraid, she holds Theo’s hand, but discovers this is impossible as Theo is sleeping yards away. Eleanor rises, her hand held out in horror, crying, “God! God! Whose hand was I holding?” Even now when I wake in the night with my arm dangling over the side of the bed, I wonder whose hand I might have been holding.
This brings me to my minor ghostly encounter, while watching The Haunting that night in August 1984. For extra atmosphere, we were watching with the lights switched off. The black and white television lit the room, the door was closed, but in the hallway outside the light was on. Under the door, a strip of carpet was illuminated. At some point, we heard the door opposite open, a footstep on the floor, and a shadow was briefly seen to cross the strip of carpet. Neither my friend nor I had visitors in the flat, we weren’t expecting any and there were no spare keys. Perhaps it was the power of suggestion, but we didn’t particularly want a ghostly, or human, encounter. After a brief exchange we decided to ignore it. Later, once The Haunting finished, we turned all the lights on and searched the rooms of the flat. To our relief, we found nothing.
Looking back, I see how the context in which I first watched horror films influenced my relationship to them. It was an event, a shared family experience that was a source of enjoyment. In these conditions, it was safe to feel afraid. As such, I developed a fondness for the genre that’s lasted. Although my tastes developed and diversified, I still return to those films of my youth. Many I consider comfort viewing. If I can’t sleep, I might watch an old classic, perhaps an Amicus anthology, falling asleep to the sound of crackling brown paper as dismembered body parts pursue an unfaithful husband.
Brown, S. (2017) ‘Stephen King’s vampire kingdom: Supernatural evil and human evil in TV adaptations of Salem’s Lot (1979, 2004)’, Horror Studies, 8(2), pp. 223–240
Hutchings, P. (2017) Historical Dictionary of Horror Cinema (2nd edition). Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers
Keesey, Pam (2000) The Haunting and the Power of Suggestion: Why Robert Wise’s Film Continues to ‘Deliver the Goods’ to Modern Audiences. In: Silver, A. and Ursini, J. (eds) Horror Film Reader. New York: Limelight pp. 305-315
Lerner, N. (2010) (ed.) Music in the Horror Film: Listening to Fear. (Routledge Music and Screen Media Series.) New York: Routledge
Newman, K. (2011) Nightmare Movies: Horror on Screen Since the 1960s (2nd edition). New York: Bloomsbury
Norden, E. (1983) The Playboy Interview: Stephen King. Playboy, June 1983
Petley, J. (2011) Film and Video Censorship in Modern Britain. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press
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