Last Saturday’s episode of Doctor Who saw the concluding part to the (supposedly) much anticipated return of the ‘weeping angels’, possibly the most persistent living statues not currently performing for spare change in Covent Garden. Despite having won the prestigious title of ‘Scariest Monster of 2007’, which ranks somewhere above a National Soap Award in the TV plaudit hierarchy, they were slightly disappointing this time, speedily devolving to the somewhat less auspicious position of ‘Minor Hindrance of 2010’. This was partly because new show runner, Steve Moffat, broke his own rules – and thereby all the tension – by depicting the angels moving on screen, and partly because they spent most of the episode very slowly fleeing from the impressively vague ‘time energy’ leak like a bunch of spineless, granite pussies.
However, the main reason behind their seemingly lacklustre re-appearance lies in the problem that bedevils the use of horror in all television shows: namely that the audiences quickly grow acclimatised to whatever they’ve seen before. In this respect, TV is overwhelmingly handicapped at providing scares in comparison with film. Whereas a feature will only have to sustain the suspense for about two hours of new material, a television show has to consistently subvert the familiar in order to frighten its viewers. This effect is even bolstered by the surroundings in which we consume them; if you’re looking for somewhere to scare people, you could do a great deal worse than a darkened, cavernous room full of strangers. Frankly, you could just keep the screen blank, leave the lights off and the audience would probably descend into confused, sweaty panic within minutes.
Nevertheless, despite television generally being an overwhelmingly comfortable medium, the small screen has delivered some genuinely unsettling moments. Here’s my current top 3:
1) ZZZAP – All of ZZZAP. ZZZAP was a CITV mainstay of the 1990s, consisting of a series of bizarre sketches, the full screeching weirdness of which still haunts me today. Presented in the format of a giant comic book, it was created with the admirable aim of providing an after school TV show for the deaf. Unfortunately, it watched like a David Lynch production of The Beano. Suffice it to say that this is the only programme in existence in which disembodied magic hands feature as the least disturbing segment.
2) The Wire – ‘Back Burners’. While the majority of the world’s finest detective drama/sociological treatise/broadcast novel was chillingly grim rather than out-and-out terrifying, the depiction of Hamsterdam (a free zone for drug dealers set up by an exasperated Baltimore police major) undoubtedly qualifies as the latter. A scene in which plucky addict, Bubbles, wanders its streets at night, nervously flogging T-shirts among a decaying horde of gangsters, junkies and whores, particularly stands out for looking like a hybrid between a 50 Cent video and a Hieronymus Bosch triptych.
3) GÜ Puds – GÜ Chocolate Pudding Advert 2010. Not technically a TV show, this advert, in the form of a preposterous short film, takes the cake (ha) for being eerie and pretentious in equal measure. Here’s a summary: Anxious-looking woman walks into house, is accosted by a leathery Timothy Dalton lookalike and his harem of smug chocaholics, before sampling an apparently seizure-inducing souffle. Fin. Not truly frightening so much as mystifying off-putting, the only way to have made the product less palatable would have been to intersperse images of Piers Morgan’s smirking face throughout the slot.
(Please note: this list does not claim to be comprehensive, or even necessarily comprehensible, so no whining about how this list can’t even be taken seriously without including ‘random episode of Buffy’ etc.)