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Translating Tradition: Domesticating Seasonal Horror through Television
Whether the occasion be Hallowe’en in America or Christmas in Britain, there are times of year when television is more likely to engage with tales of horror, including in series which would not normally incorporate the supernatural. These eruptions of the abnormal at particular points of the calendar derive from social events which served to mark out the passing of the year in pre-television times. While elements of these social events remain, television’s seasonal horror serves to domesticate these engagements with the supernatural, reducing the engagement with the social implications of these events and focusing them on the personal. This follows from the previous domestication of these elements from public events to domestic ones in the Nineteenth Century, as part of the ongoing move of entertainment and ritual from public to private, from social storytelling, to reading magazine stories within the family, to watching them on television. The domestication and move to the private is not simply in the place of reception of these stories, but seasonal horror also concentrates on narratives with domestic settings, bringing the social horror firmly into the home. However, this domestication also drives the narratives away from the engagement with social and community concerns, domesticating the supernatural narrative not only in the sense of bringing it into the home, but also in the sense of rendering it safe to have in the home.
Both the United States and Britain have traditions of marking out particular seasons with horror programming on television. In Britain, this traditional time is at Christmas, while in the US the time is at Hallowe’en. These productions may be single dramas, like the annual BBC Ghost Story for Christmas which ran through much of the 1970s and was revived in the mid-2000s, which told a different ghost story each year. They may also be represented by eruptions of the abnormal in series which do not normally allow for the presence of the supernatural, as with the Hawai’i 5-O episode ‘Ka Iwi Kapu’, the Castle episode ‘Demons’, or the Quantum Leap episode ‘The Boogieman’.
This paper will argue that these productions mark a stage in the domestication of social rituals and events, particularly in terms of the marking out of the year through particular events. Where at one point the calendar was punctuated by celebrations amongst the community, there has been an increased domestication of this demarcation of the year, accelerated by the spread of literacy and of domestic media such as radio and television. This is connected to the privatisation of culture, both in the sense that it has moved away from the public to the private, and also in the influence of business and capitalism and the associated changes in culture upon social practices. Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’ has been described as marking, and defining, the change of the social celebration of Christmas to a domestic, familial one that retains concerns about wider society.(Hutton, 1997: 113-114) Seasonal television horror takes this further, by emphasising the domestic nature of the medium through the domestic nature of the narrative, and moving further away from the supernatural tale as social commentary by containing and naturalising it. Not only that, but elements of the horror aesthetic become retained as an aspect of the season, with even the supernatural elements removed, as can be seen by the BBC Dickens adaptations appearing each Christmas since 2005, which have taken on a distinctly Gothic appearance of deep shadow surrounding innocent characters being menaced while surrounded by oppressive and ornate architecture.
While elements of social concern may be present in these texts, they are thus often distanced from the contemporary in time, completing the domestication of the seasonal horror story. Where once the calendar was marked out by communal activities which included engagement with supernatural elements which related to social concerns, now the domestication of these narratives through television means that they are presented as less significant, typically distanced from us in space and time, or they are normalised and contained by their presence in ongoing series, where the continuing nature of the narrative demonstrates that these forces cannot influence us in any lasting manner. In essence, we are left only with the ghosts of our past fears, retained as aesthetic and trappings and nostalgic recurrences, played out because that is what is expected of the time of year, rather than to serve a particular purpose.