Returning to Horror Roots: What Can We Learn From Season 1? – Originally published on Rain Man Digital
I find September to be an odd time of year as a nerd in Arizona. In other parts of the world this is the time of year when the seasons begin to change and things start to cool down, allowing for the resurgence of all kinds of outdoor activities for those who actually enjoy the company of other humans. Those of us who live in a desert however do not find respite from the heat until late October. Even then the heat does not quite go away as much as it takes a three month holiday to Australia; returning to bombard you with meaningless selfies and eat all your food like that sibling who is always between jobs yet can still afford to travel while you have to deal with Creepy Chris from accounting on Tuesday. Summer movie season is over, video game releases do not properly kick in until mid-October and now television shows are doing this thing where it’s apparently cool to comeback in late October for all of eight weeks before taking another two months off.
So with Hellatus being dragged around like a child in a gorilla pen, I realized I had a decision to make. I could either spend my time working on a bestselling novel, or cleaning my bathroom, or solving the world’s energy crisis; or I could bum on the couch and binge watch nearly a decade of television in a few short weeks. Take a guess which one ended up happening.
Going Back to Basics
According to Robert Singer, Season 12 will be telling smaller stories and “going back to basics” with more horror elements. If this is true and he is not a dirty liar who won’t be receiving any gifts this holiday, then they need to consider all the elements of the early seasons that made those one-off horror stories scary in the first place.
Cinematography (Lighting in Particular)
The most dramatic change between Season 1 and the present seasons is the lighting. Entire scenes are shrouded in darkness with only a few key points of light. Whether it was the lair of a Wendigo or the office of an airline worker, the darkness is palpable, almost consuming the scene in ways we don’t quite see anymore, which is ironic considering the big bad of Season 11. While this may seem like a simple idea, it holds some serious weight. I have seen the Wendigo episode. I know exactly what will happen, it cannot surprise me. But when that old man sits back in his chair, darkness draped over half of his face, as if he is living in both the present and that terrible memory that haunts him still, talking about how it murdered his family, how it unlocked the door, how it dragged his parents into the forest as they screamed, it feels real. It feels as if you are in that dark room, and there is something peering back at you from the inky blackness. You can feel him relieve that horrific moment. But when we look at nearly any other scene from recent seasons such as the Thinman episode, we never quite get that primal fear of the dark like the previous seasons evoke because it is all too bright.
Art and Costume Design
Ten years is a long time and even longer still when you have to come up with new and creative designs for your monsters every week. With over two hundred episodes and counting, it is to be expected that the creative well may have gone a bit dry, but there was something to be said about the creature designs from Season 1. Within the first dozen episodes we have more than eight unique monster designs, most of which were for one episode and then never seen again. The Woman in White, Scarecrow, Wendigo, Hook Man, one fuck ugly ass reaper, all of which were dramatically different from each other. Even the other ghosts of the season did not look like the Woman in White from the pilot. That is not to say that each of these monsters were a success, (insert Bugs joke here right?) but they all had unique designs that still stand out amongst the horde of monsters we have seen over the years. Conversely, Season 11 was a fantastic season and did introduce some new monsters, but the appearance of most of the recent additions have simply been variations of a person with sharp teeth and different colored eyes. That may be great if we see those eyes glaring at us from the shadows, but combined with the well-lit scenes, it leaves little to the imagination and the horror quickly dies. I’m not saying that the writers all need to lock themselves away in a dark room and go on a mushroom inspired vision quest, but we are quickly running out of colored contact lenses and I don’t think that a monster with periwinkle colored eyes will inspire fear in quite the same way.
Things that go bump in the night are all very well, but after ten years of random noises coming from down the hall, what once was enough to inspire dread has now just become a noisy roommate stumbling home after a night of drinking. And like that alcoholic roommate, it becomes harder to care and easier to turn up your head phones. American horror has always been a bit more “in your face” than other cultures. We are after all the one culture where a man with a chainsaw for a hand chops up people and monsters with the same ease as he would a watermelon. Well, America and perhaps Resident Evil, but I’m trying to make a point here! One of my personal favorite episodes of Season 1 is Scarecrow, where a pagan spirit inhabits the body of a scarecrow and goes on an annual happy couple skinning spree. In this episode we see small visual ques to the horror that is about to happen, like the bulge in the pants of a new prison cellmate. There is a wonderful two minute sequence in which Dean discovers that the Scarecrow is in fact wearing the skin of its most recent victim thanks to a visible tattoo, all while starring just 6 inches away from the thing. Yes, Dean does make reference to it, but anyone who has been paying attention will quickly discover that detail long before Dean says anything. What is more disturbing is that during the close up, at the 14 minute and 32 second mark, we can in fact see the creature breathe. Imagine if you were Dean in that situation right now and tell me you wouldn’t have made a mess in your pants like an incontinent house pup.
Weave the Story Throughout the Season
This one will come off as a bit pretentious and may even sound like I am telling the writers how to do their job. There is some truth to that. But I’ve gone too far to apologize now so fuck it. Perhaps Kripke’s greatest strength was his ability to weave hints and clues about the overall story of Supernatural without any of us really knowing where it was all going until the end. We all know that the story ultimately comes down to Sam and Dean representing Michael and Lucifer in a great apocalyptic battle between duty and selfish desires verses family and what really matters at the end of the day. And even though this is the entire concept of the series, we are still given a small taste of the whole plot in the same Scarecrow episode. John Winchester tells them to do something, Dean takes order and Sam argues, they fight over whether or not they should listen to him or go their own way, only to come back together at the end because they are family and that trumps everything else. It’s how they stopped the apocalypse; it’s how they defied destiny. And it is all sitting right here in the eleventh episode of the first season of a show that no one at the time knew would last.
Moving On Into Later Seasons
Meanwhile, Carver and the team had some good ideas and season 11 was absolutely superb, but every season felt like a stepping stone to the next for no other reason than to be a stepping stone. The gates of Hell are still open, Demon Dean was all of 3 episodes, and the Mark of Cain, while a great idea and had some interesting avenues to it, ultimately ended up being just a McGuffin for The Darkness to show up. While these seasons had some great moments to them, none of it felt like a cohesive whole that led us to one place that, when looking back on the journey, allow us to clearly see how we got here. In early seasons things happened for a reason. In the later seasons, the things that happened were the reason.
While I fully support the idea of more horror brought back to Season 12, at the end of the day I have faith in Supernatural, despite my pessimistic ways. Ultimately, what I hope for from future seasons is an evolution of the series. The Kripke era changed the status quo of the world and how our characters interacted with it every season, forcing them to grow as characters. Meanwhile, seasons 7-10 essentially felt like a holding pattern and existed simply to present new challenges to the characters, but not in any substantial way save for Season 11. With Chuck and Amara off on a vacation/sibling therapy session for the time being, perhaps some of the decisions the boys have been making recently will finally catch up with them as it seems to be with the British Men of Letters. Then again, if we really want to go for something out there, we know that other worlds and dimensions exist thanks to Death and God. Perhaps we can finally see The Winchesters vs Cthulhu in something other than my dreams.
Originally published on Rain Man Digital