Small Screen Scares: Fear Itself

               While most of OcTerror focuses on film frights and delights, I can’t ignore the history and strides that have been made in television horror. Whether we think of black and white days captured by The Addams Family or The Munsters, ongoing sagas like The Walking Dead or American Horror Story, or even shows like The Haunting of Hill House and Midnight Mass, we can agree that—like film—horror television had been experiencing a Renaissance. For every award-winning, multi-season show, though, it helps to remember those that, perhaps, ended too early or didn’t end well enough: Castle Rock, Penny Dreadful, 666 Park Avenue. I’m also speaking, of course, of Fear Itself.

               In 2016, I compared and contrasted NBC’s 2008 show Fear Itself against the (then) six seasons of American Horror Story. Why did this anthology—airing for less than two months on Thursdays at 10pm—fail where the other succeeds? In 2016, I discussed the strengths and weakness of stand-alone versus continuous plotlines. Now, with two seasons of spin-off American Horror Stories available on Hulu and Netflix beginning Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities, I revisited the show’s only season to investigate the cause of cancellation.

               For the eight episodes NBC did air of Fear Itself, the average number of views was higher than FX’s American Horror Story would be until its third season. NBC is usually part of the basic television channels, compared to FX, and this may account for some of the difference. The later timeslot at 10pm guaranteed its darker material, but the show itself was still limited by some family-friendly regulations. (Notably, five years later, NBC would air Hannibal, which exceeds any idea of limits). What initially seemed to kill the show was the mid-season hiatus for the summer Olympics. The remaining five episodes never aired and Fear Itself was cancelled.

               Revisiting the anthology in 2022, however, reveals the wealth of possibilities that lay in its methodology and execution. Every episode was a brand new story, with a new cast, director, and writer at the helm. With thirteen episodes total, Fear Itself had time to dive into the depths of horror and bring plenty of scares to the small screen. Personally, I didn’t discover the show until mid-July 2008 with Darren Lynn Bousman’s “New Year’s Day” as my introduction. I was intrigued by the supernatural, but not quite into horror yet and found it was almost more than I could handle. I tuned in for the next two weeks for the following episodes, and then it was gone.

               In 2021, I watched a variety of anthology horror films and it’s safe to say the problems that plague this format at any level follow it onto television. The stakes, however, are different when producers are depending on each episode to bring in viewers in the following week. As I watched Fear Itself this month, I ranked each episode against the others. Surprisingly, for me, the first two episodes—“The Sacrifice” and “Spooked”—were near the bottom. While both showcased some good scares and acting, neither felt like the right way to start a series. It wasn’t until the third episode, “Family Man,” that things started turning around.

               The best episode, in my opinion and others, is “Eater.” Directed by Stuart Gordon and starring an early-career Elisabeth Moss, the episode details how a small town police station handles a cannibal criminal staying overnight in their holding cell. Compared to the rest of the series, “Eater” pushes that network rating with a lot of violence and gore uncomfortably left to the imagination, plenty of tension in its setting and pacing, and stellar performances and sound design. If you only watch one episode from this series, this is the one.

               In 2008, as an unofficial third season of Masters of Horror, the show boasts a veritable who’s who of television and horror. Every cast, many of who would go on to achieve wider fame, is recognizable and most episodes are carried well by entertaining performances. Names such as James Roday, Anna Kendrick, Wendell Pierce, Doug Jones, Brandon Routh, Briana Evigan, Cory Monteith, and Colin Ferguson bring these characters to life. They’re directed by notable names such as Mary Harron, Brad Anderson, John Landis, and Ronny Yu among others. In many ways, Fear Itself was, perhaps, a pit-stop in their storied careers, but a noteworthy one nonetheless.

               As with any anthology, there’s something here for everyone. Some episodes may work better for particular audiences versus others. Plots revolve around serial killers, vampires, reincarnation, ghosts, cannibalism, and more. None of the episodes are overly explicit in the violence or sexuality, suggesting more than showing, and perhaps it’s that lack that has made the show fade over time compared to others. Still, for what it was allowed to do, many of the episodes create unique areas of tension, play with popular tropes, and try their best to create atmosphere.

               Now, I could share my ranking of all the episodes, but I think it’s better for me to only share my top five. I tried to rank episodes based on the story, production, acting, and direction. With more horror experience under my belt, I found that some prior favorites fell flat this time around. Others, however, surprised me.

               Rupert Wainwright’s “Echoes” took fifth place by a smidge over John Landis’ “In Sickness and In Health.” This is the twelfth episode and one of the unaired treasures. In it a man discovers his sense of déjà vu may be because of a past life as a murderer. My favorite aspect of the episode was how coloration was used to further distinguish between the past and present, and how even that feels older compared to today.

               “The Spirit Box” by Rob Schmidt, another unaired episode, took fourth place. I could imagine this being a full-length teen movie because it hits all the predictable trope notes while feeling relatively fresh. This is helped by strong performances from Anna Kendrick, Mark Pellegrino, and Jessica Parker Kennedy. Here, two teenagers begin to investigate a dead girl’s murder after a séance. I also loved the use of text language with the titular box, because it feels very 2008/09 in a good way.

               Larry Fessenden tackles wendigos again in “Skin and Bones”, the last episode of Fear Itself to air. This episode is a slow burn, wrapped in atmosphere and absolutely bodied by Doug Jones. A missing rancher comes home, but his family begin to suspect something went terribly wrong in the mountains. The sound design of the blowing wind, ungodly vocals, and general panic set themselves apart here. I also love the tense stand-off between Doug Jones and Molly Hagan.

               “Family Man”, compared to the other episodes, feels relatively sedate but it’s all worth it for the final, gut-wrenching twist. In my initial discussion, I said this was one of my least favorites, but it’s grown on me. A loving husband and father swaps bodies with a notorious serial killer after a car accident. While this isn’t the peak of body-swap acting techniques or physical performances, the emotional heart and growing tension in both men’s situations amplifies what would otherwise be a rather drawl storyline. Colin Ferguson and Clifton Collins Jr. deliver on their performances with gusto.

               Then it shouldn’t be a surprise that “Eater” was my favorite. Not only does it somehow depict cannibalism in a network-TV-friendly way that is still disgusting and horrifying, but that is combined with the tension of a hostile work environment. Elisabeth Moss’ character is sexually harassed and belittled by the men she works with, and it’s that fine line between the ‘usual’ inappropriate behavior and the ‘unusual’ that helps this stand out. Stephen R. Hart is a physically intimidating force as the titular cannibal and his deep voice makes it all the more unsettling. This is an episode I can return to with new scares every time.

               Of course, for some, the title sequence may be scary enough. With “Lie Lie Lie” by Serj Tankian as the theme song and terrifying images like a Stephen Gammell illustration brought to life, the quick cuts only stay long enough for the image to flash in front of your brain like a subliminal jump scare. Perhaps this was early inspiration for later anthology show intros, but it’s effective and catchy every episode.

               So—why did Fear Itself fail? My conclusions in 2016 weren’t quite conclusive, but now I’m prepared to further my hypothesis. Fear Itself was ahead of its time and of its time. We are in the golden age of horror television and, if it were updated, I’m sure Fear Itself would have garnered more attention. Audiences are hungry for binge material and we have more avenues for production. Maybe network TV wasn’t the right fit, especially around the Olympics, but if the show were picked up for streaming then it could do better. Many of the same criticisms Fear Itself had in 2008 have also been given to American Horror Stories, which boasts Ryan Murphy’s name as one of its main selling points.

               If someone were to reboot Fear Itself today, I would hope they’d learn from the lessons of the past. Like so many other anthologies, there is a distinct lack of inclusion with only a few people of color and one woman contributing as directors. While the episodes are different, a few too many storylines revolved around police procedurals or serial killers. In the last fourteen years, more short horror stories have been published and are dying for adaptation to the small screen. Technology and storytelling have also evolved in many ways. Perhaps there isn’t a real “need” for Fear Itself since the need for a horror anthology show seems to be filled currently, but audiences are hungry for more and someone with the right vision could bring these forgotten fears back to life.

               As of this blog, Fear Itself is available to watch for free on YouTube or Vudu. Or, you can be like me and invest in physical media. Either way, this is a show worth checking out this October for frights, fun, and fear itself.

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