It was a dark day, weary with rain and shackled with grey clouds. I was enjoying my usual TV time, lost in the far-away world of medieval London rife with the supernatural. It was then that the actor on my laptop screen muttered a single terrifying dialogue that out-classed all the horror celluloid that I had indulged in over the years.
“No more let Life divide what Death can join together,” whispered a young and pale man with swirls of misty fear simmering in his slit-like eyes. The man was no other than the famous Dr. Frankenstein, in his early days as a medical prodigy, expressing the moral stigma of instilling life where it belonged not.
I realized then that true horror was not reliant on plastic special effects or unanticipated bursts of audio-visuals. True horror was the one which created the mirage of a morbid violation—a nearly philosophical task that required meddling with the fundamental fabric of the viewer’s mind.
Horror is a greatly misunderstood genre of TV and film. While most indulge in it to gain respite from the mundane monotony of everyday life, I believe true horror requires the touching upon man’s deepest emotional crevices. Whereas movies like Saw attempt to do this by displaying mindless debauchery that satisfies our pulsing need of violence, brilliant TV shows like Penny Dreadful achieve this by connecting with us on a deeper philosophical level.
Why is this? The notion of “life” has several stereotypes attached to it. Life normally equates with happiness, gratefulness, jolliness, and more of the likes. It also displays a tapestry of negative elements—the perils of poverty, loss of love, grief, and death. But seldom do we see the concept of life as a blasphemy—as the committing of a sin that forever decimates the fabric of humanity. John Logan, in Penny Dreadful, captures this theme with great clarity and direction in Frankenstein’s confrontation with his destructive creation. He uses it to raise the aforementioned questions on who has the authority to dispense life, and hereby connects with the audience on a deep sentimental level. He destroys these stereotypes usual associated with life, and hence manages to create what I believe to be “true horror”.
This is but one of the many threads of story that weave together the whole plot of Penny Dreadful. The central story revolves around a kidnapped daughter which a team of skilled, but unlikely, companions are attempting to find on the pay-roll of the affluent father. This core plot is peppered with abominating tales of a prostitute succumbing to tuberculosis, a mysterious young man driven by his carnal desires, and the anathematized Frankenstein who is ripped by the moral secretions of his life-dispensing studies. I will stop here, but there is much more enticed viewers witness.
Another great piece of fiction has achieved this sublime horror characteristic, The Walking Dead. In the latest season, we see Rick Grimes, the much beloved protagonist, bite of a man’s neck with his mouth and then continue to dismember him with his teeth. This scene is perhaps the most gruesome to have aired this year and it leaves a scarring emotional wound on the audience. The protagonist was viewed as the triumph of humanity in a world where survival instincts have annihilated fundamental humanist traits. His vividly portrayed descent into savagery, however, instills great horror in the audience not just because of the grotesque visuals, but because the viewer has now come to believe that there is no hope for humanity, though there is hope for humans to survive. The show achieves its aim of portraying nature in its fundamental form—not the beautiful mother we often like to see her as, but instead as that of a monster.
With the golden-age of television upon us, expect to see more such renditions of true horror. Horror which not only challenges your ability to watch blood-curdling anatomies, but horror which connects to your mind and gives you a scare from within.