Hey there, Plotaholics! Shane here.
Some of my earliest memories of a piece of media being scary originated with the intro sequence of Tales from the Crypt. The entire sequence runs close to 90 seconds, but the opening shot of an old (haunted) house behind a gate–where it should be–through the entire walk-thru of the property and house, which all culminated in the reveal of that terrifying crypt-keeper popping out of the casket and cackling maniacally, absolutely terrified me when I was a young chap of around five years old.
As a kid, I never made it past that intro, but as an adult, the horror anthology television series has become one of my favorite formats. I even enjoy the critically divisive Jordan Peele Twilight Zone reboot (enough). I’m not sure why I like this form. Maybe it’s my own hatred of long-term commitment.
Regardless, we have been inundated recently with the horror anthology. American Horror Story has been toying with the season-long anthology model for nine seasons now. The success of last year’s The Haunting of Hill House has paved the way for Netflix’s own horror anthology, the second season of which, titled The Haunting of Bly Manor, is coming in 2020.
Of course, this isn’t a new form, though. One could argue that the anthology form was born in the fledgling days of American literary culture in the short stories written by Washington Irving (“The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”), Nathaniel Hawthorne (“Young Goodman Brown,” “The Black Cat,” “The Birthmark”) and Edgar Allan Poe (“The Raven,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Fall of the House of Usher”).
Many scholars argue that Irving “invented” the short story as we know it today. Poe identified two ideal characteristics of the form: it must be short enough to be read in one hour, and it must contain a “unity of effect.” A “unity of effect,” according to Poe, is an aesthetic concern–each word and decision made for a short story must contribute to the outcome and the experience. It’s really about the economy of language.
Radio programs like The Weird Circle and X Minus One continued the tradition into the 20th century, and–once video killed the radio star–those radio programs would pass the baton to television programs, including the quintessential example of anthology storytelling in visual media–Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone.
So, it’s probably a little bit of a lot of things that makes this kind of storytelling attractive. For the reader/ viewer, there is the knowledge that we aren’t married to these stories for very long. We know things will change sooner rather than later. For the writer/ creator, there is a freedom in knowing the limits of your story—a half-hour, an hour, twelve hours, or whatever. You know that you have only so long to tell the story, so you won’t be tempted to let it grow until it’s unruly. There is also probably something to be said about this being popular on American TV because it’s in our cultural and literary DNA.
It goes without saying that anthology storytelling is not something that is exclusive to horror and science fiction, but it does seem–perhaps anecdotally–more pervasive in the genres of the weird and spooky.
Which brings us to 2019 and the premier of Shudder’s revival of Creepshow. Creepshow is different from the different iterations of The Twilight Zone in at least one way: each hour-long episode tells two different, standalone stories.
Shudder is also playing with the weekly release model in spite of its place in the digisphere, so as of this writing, the second episode is available. I’ve only seen the first so far. That first episode features stories called “Gray Matter” (story by Stephen King) and “The House of the Head.”
“Gray Matter” is about an alcoholic father who is transforming into a terrible monster. Two of the small town’s old-timers go check on him during a hurricane. Dumb. This story is a triumph of setup and a failure in execution. The payoff here just doesn’t quite land for me.
“The House of the Head” introduces us to Evie, a young girl with a haunted dollhouse. This is the more creative and compelling of the two Episode 1 stories– from premise to cinematography to payoff, this is a superior piece of storytelling.
And therein lies the appeal of anthology storytelling: even we don’t vibe with one of the stories, we don’t have to abandon ship. If you are a horror fan of any type, there is a better than good chance that Creepshow will feature a story that is exactly your preferred brand at some point.
Personally, I like the punch of shorter, standalone stories. There is often no room for the storyteller to tie things up and give us a moral lesson, leaving for more open-ended and ambiguous conclusions that are much more likely to lend themselves to analysis and thoughtful conversation.
Have you watched Creepshow? What are your thoughts? What is your favorite of the anthology experiments?
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