Fear factor

As a young woman walks alone in the damp, dark woods, a hand suddenly comes up from the ground and grabs her ankles. She frantically tries to escape before realizing that the nemesis is actually her vampire love interest, who eventually seals the loving reunion by sinking his fangs into her shoulder.

Romantic, eh? The scene is straight from HBO’s hit drama series True Blood, one of several cable shows that is pushing its own twist on the horror genre to bring in the eyeballs.

Besides HBO’s True Blood series — a love story between a strong but vulnerable young woman and a 100-year-old vampire, which has averaged 7 million cumulative weekly viewers during its just-ended freshman run — even general-entertainment networks are finding that hair-raising shows can sell.

AMC posted double-digit viewership increases this year for its annual eight-day October “Fearfest” horror-movie marathon, formerly “Monsterfest.”

VH1 is currently airing Scream Queens, a reality-show competition in which 10 actresses vie for a role in next year’s Saw VI horror flick. And NBC Universal’s Chiller channel is gaining traction with more than 20 million subscribers.

Gore films and splatter flicks are thrilling audiences on every platform. The box office is getting the biggest hit: Summit Pictures’ teen-targeted, vampire-tinged love story Twilight has generated $120 million at the box office since its debut two weeks ago, while the fifth installment of “torture porn” mutilation movie Saw V earned nearly $60 million at the box office since its debut two months ago.

Online, Comcast’s Web-based and video-on-demand service FearNet averages around 1 million unique users per month with its mix of classic horror films and original content. And several horror video-game titles filled with monsters and aliens are set to launch over the next few months, including new editions of hits Alone In the Dark and Resident Evil.

Nowhere has the horror genre had a bigger impact this year, though, than on the cable industry, feeding on viewers’ desire for the macabre. At a time when the stock market is in the tank, terrorism is still a threat and people are concerned about the recession, scary shows are, perhaps surprisingly, a widespread, if not well-liked genre.

Such shows elevate the “scary characters, monsters, emotions, and really base primal sense of fear that’s in all of us,” said David Sehring, general manager of Voom’s Monsters HD, a 24-hour horror high-definition movie channel that features classic horror films such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Friday the 13th. “People like to confront their fears in the comfort of their living room.”

With a few notable exceptions, not very many horror-genre shows have broken through onto the broadcast television landscape. A 1972 TV movie and 1974-75 series called Kolchak: The Night Stalker was popular on ABC, and more recently, the campy teen-targeted drama Buffy the Vampire Slayer ran from 1997 until 2003, first on The WB and later on UPN.

In 2005, ABC unsuccessfully attempted to revive Night Stalker, in which an intrepid reporter stumbles onto stories of the occult, but the show was cancelled after one season due to poor ratings.

“If you look at the top television series in almost any era, what they have in common is that they feature characters that television viewers can relate to and recognize,” said TV historian Tim Brooks, who while at Lifetime two years ago helped spearhead the two-season run of a vampire/police drama, Blood Ties. “Anything too fantastical and clearly not real tends not to play well to the television audience, which for the most part likes to see themselves and their own lives on the screen.”

Since viewer expectations aren’t as high for a niche cable network such as NBCU’s 20 million-subscriber Chiller channel, some believe that horror content has more staying power on cable TV. “If a cable show gets 2 million people, it’s considered it a hit, so the genre has a better chance of taking hold,” Robert Thompson, founding director of Syracuse University’s Bleier Center for TV and Popular Culture.

Indeed, the 2 million mark was enough for HBO to consider its vampire drama, True Blood a huge success for the 30 million-subscriber pay TV service. The series, produced by Alan Ball (Six Feet Under) and based on the popular Sookie Stackhouse novels by Charlaine Harris, took in an average of 2.2 million viewers during its 12-episode run on HBO this past fall, and 7 million cumulative viewers, on average, once repeats and on-demand plays are added. If the cume numbers hold, the series would place third behind HBO standouts The Sopranos and Sex and the City, according to the pay service.

While the story is steeped in vampire lore, HBO Entertainment president Sue Naegle said the series successfully mixes other elements including suspense, mystery and romance — the love interest of Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin) is a 173-year-old vampire Bill Compton (Stephen Moyer) — to help the show reach a broad audience.

True Blood is a hybrid, and part of its success is that you can be a horror fan and find your way in, you can love a great soap and find your way in, or be a great fan of romance and find you way in,” she said. “There’s really something for all different kinds of audiences, and once you’re in, you can appreciate all the other pieces of it.”

Thompson added the success of True Blood, as well as the success of the teen-aimed Twilight romance novels — the mid-November release of the movie has earned more than $100 million at the box office — has helped the genre broaden beyond its stereotypical male-targeted, violent and often-misogynistic images.

“I think it’s a misconception that men are prototypically the ones into horror or sci-fi, but women love a good scare just like a man does,” said Naegle, adding that True Blood’s audience is 60% female. “This is about what scares you psychologically and whether or not the real-life monster that could be outside your door is as scary as what is going on inside your head, with regard to your fears about love or sex or anything else. These shows are more textured and more real, and that’s why it’s easier for women to watch.”

Indeed, women seem to be tuning into horror content on cable, as witnessed by AMC’s increased female viewership during its annual Halloween-based “Fearfest” programming stunt this past October.

The eight-day stunt, which featured such bloody films as Return to the House on Haunted Hill and Resident Evil, drew 327,000 female viewers during its Oct. 24 to 31 run. That’s a 49% increase in the demo over the same period last year, according to AMC senior vice president of programming and scheduling Tom Halleen.

“Women are watching — it’s split right up the middle among our target 18-49 demo, which benefits us in that we’re a male-skewing network,” Halleen said. “When you’re talking about fear and the fear ride, it doesn’t matter whether you’re male or female. I think we all have that desire and rush and want to enjoy it together.”

Thompson said the continual “domestication” of the horror genre will continue to attract more viewers that may have been turned off by the multiple body counts attributed to serial killers Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees in the Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th movie franchises.

“The monsters are no longer out to get us … instead they’ve become us,” Thompson said. “The horror genre has in many ways been converted from this thing designed to scare the living daylights out of you to a new way of telling stories of contemporary America. True Blood is about the vampire next door; the Twilight book series and the movie is about kids with the usual problems that kids have, only there’s a vampire among them.”

But it’s not just the softer side of horror that’s getting audiences on cable. FearNet, Comcast’s horror video-on-demand/Web-based channel, is scaring up a record number of viewers in its third year with a mix of classic horror films like Rosemary’s Baby and Night of the Living Dead, according to Comcast Emerging Networks and FearNet president Diane Robina.

In October — traditionally a big month for horror buffs, because of Halloween — FearNet on-demand drew a network record 13.1 million downloads, paced by the 1.2 million views for renowned horror producer Clive Barker’s movie The Midnight Meat Train, according to the network.

The Fearnet.com Web site drew nearly 1.1 million unique users — a 125% increase from last October, and 6.5 million page views, up 150% from October 2007.

While the network’s vast library of horror titles drives much of its audience, Robina said FearNet is also drawing viewers with original content. The network has teamed with Hollywood director Sam Raimi (Spider-Man) to produce a Webisode series called 30 Days of Night. The series, which has spawned two sequels, have drawn more than 13 million views since debuting last year, according to Robina.

The service is currently offering a Web series featuring producer Mary Lambert (Pet Sematary) dubbed The Dark Path Chronicles, and later this month will debut Fear Itself, an anthology series coproduced by Lionsgate, FearNet and NBCU, featuring original stories from famous horror producers.

“The Web turns out to be a really great platform to create these Webisode series,” Robina said. “It’s very much appealing to our 18-to-34 target viewer who wants to watch what they want when they want to, and it’s important to say to our fans that we are a breathing, live brand that makes content.”

Horror has been a fixture on American screens since the silent-film era, with such classics as the vampire-tinged Nosferatu, followed by classic monsters such as Frankenstein and Dracula, and later in the post-atomic 1950s with such nuclear-altered giant monsters as Godzilla.

The horror genre really took off in the 1970s and over the following two decades with the development of bloody slasher films such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and the Friday the 13th movie franchise.

More recently, the post-9/11 era has ushered in what has been termed “torture porn” with movies such as the Saw franchise — which has earned $342 million over five films since 2004 — providing gory bodily mutilation, including scenes of desperate victims literally sawing off their own limbs in an effort to escape the clutches of madmen.

“Post 9/11, the daily news on TV was so horrific that filmmakers had to go very extreme to freak people out, which drove the success of the torture porn movies,” said Thomas Vitale, executive vice president for programming and original movies for NBCU’s Chiller, which will offer weekly horror movie premieres in 2009. “We’re now moving into a period of hope and new beginnings, so horror entertainment — while still scary and horrific — is going to become more imaginative and fantasy-driven.”

Robina also believes future horror projects will continue to migrate away from the violent, bloody slasher films and more toward story-driven fare like True Blood in an effort to attract a more mainstream audience.

As evidence, she pointed to the number of recent horror-driven theatrical films starring marquee actors like Shia LaBeouf (Disturbia), Nicole Kidman (The Invasion) and Jessica Alba (The Eye).

“I think you’re going to see a more PG-13 type of horror,” said Robina. “I think with the success of Disturbia ($80 million at the box office) with LaBeouf you’ll see a lot more movies targets a younger, female demographic.”

But many believe the torture porn or “gorn” (gore-plus-porn) segment of the horror genre will continue to thrive as well — and potentially become even more grotesque in an effort to appease hard core fans.

Monsters HD’s Sehring said the genre will always consume a healthy portion of the entertainment industry’s audience.

“The genre will always be a happening one,” Sehring said. “Like Jason Voorhees, it never dies. … It just keeps coming back.”

R. Thomas Umstead

R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.