By Diane Werts
“The Walking Dead.” “American Horror Story.” “True Blood.”
TV dares to scare us every day now. Who needs Halloween?
All of us, apparently. Networks are ramping up eerie episodes and spooky specials like never before. And you know TV only gives us what we want. Halloween now is commonly cited as America’s second most popular holiday (after Christmas). Take that, Valentine’s and Mother’s Day.
“I think the popularity stems from how there’s no agenda on Halloween. It’s just about having fun,” says Thomas Vitale, executive vice president of programming at Chiller and Syfy. Both of his NBC-owned cable channels are doing it up big this month — Syfy is running its annual 31 Days of Halloween, while smaller sibling Chiller debuted the fright flick “Dead Souls” and now premieres the documentary “The American Scream” on Oct. 28 at 8 p.m., following three families who turn their homes into elaborate houses of horror.
“It’s not a religious holiday,” Vitale ticks off among Halloween’s selling points. “It has no political implications. It’s popular among people of all ages. There are no romantic entanglements, no family agenda, no worry about aging.”
Just lots of personal catharsis. Don a costume. Be somebody else. Let loose. Scare others, and get scared yourself.
“A good scary movie has to have that emotional release,” Vitale says. “You come out of it almost feeling cleansed, like all the tension has evaporated from your life.”
Heavy, no? So lots of TV treatments keep it light.
Sitcoms go gonzo for ghost day, with nearly two dozen having at it for 2012. (Did you even know there were that many sitcoms on the air?) New TV movies jump on board. Vintage marathons line up (“Roseanne,” the queen of scream). And unscripted schedules fill with titles boasting the words “ghost,” “scare,” “monsters” and “paranormal.” In the run-up to Oct. 31, viewers seek the supernatural, the way we indulge miracles at Christmastime.
That yearning for magic/catharsis has spilled over from once-yearly stunts like ABC Family’s annual 13 Nights of Halloween to weekly doses of danger — HBO’s on-hiatus hit “True Blood,” AMC’s new third season of “The Walking Dead” and FX’s just-back second round of “American Horror Story,” subtitled “Asylum.” Vitale says “the attitude has changed both with the audience and with critics,” who often used to dismiss such “genre” offerings as being akin to comic books — something for kids, or adults with arrested development.
Vitale, a longtime devotee of fantasy/ fright, thinks the mainstreaming seen in scare series on broader-based outlets like AMC and FX reflects new appreciation for the imagination unleashed in these shows.
“I love the fact that ‘genre’ is looked at not just as popular now, but it’s looked at as quality. People used to say, ‘Wow, for Syfy that’s good,’ like ‘for genre.’ Now, they say, ‘That’s good.’ No more genre qualification.”