With Halloween just around the corner, it’s only natural that thoughts should turn to scary television programmes. And I’m not talking about unintentionally scary ones like I Love My Country – shows so badly thought-out that viewers are left disorientated and nauseous at the mere thought of them – but ones deliberately engineered to giveus all the willies.
Generally speaking, these are pretty hard to come by. It’s easy enough to make a scary film – you just chuck a load of kids into the woods and let a baddie with a chainsaw pick them off for a couple of hours – but television’s reliance on longevity makes it much harder to sustain the scares.
You couldn’t make a TV series about a load of kids in the woods being picked off by a baddie, for example. First, you’d have to pad out the story with all sorts of superfluous bumf like romantic subplots and unnecessary flashbacks. Second, chances are that all the actors are locked into lucrative multi-series contracts with the show, so they’re obliged to spend several years almost but not quite getting killed again and again until the audience gives up and drifts off. Incidentally, this is the precise reason why The Walking Dead is about as scary as a puppy in a tutu.
When you’re young, though, your ability to be frightened isn’t sullied by this knowledge of convention. Everything is scary when you’re a kid. Chorlton and the Wheelies is scary when you’re a kid. Worzel Gummidge is scary when you’re a kid. I distinctly remember being scared witless by an episode of Benji, Zax and the Alien Prince, although subsequent YouTube viewings suggest that I might have actually just been an incomprehensible wuss.
Still, though, the biggest television scares of my life all come from the 1980s. When I was about ten, for example, there was a children’s show called Alfonso Bonzo, about a kooky (if slightly offensive) Italian stereotype who liked to swap things in increasingly sinister ways. Even thinking about the final episode, where Alfonso Bonzo flies into a fit of jealous rage and breaks a child’s leg, is still enough to bring me out in a cold sweat.
But nothing, even to this day, can compare to flat-out terror of The Tripods. A BBC series that ran on Saturday teatimes from 1984 to 1985, The Tripods has aged about as badly as anything that’s ever been made. It’s a hokey War of the Worlds rip-off, with special effects that look they were thrown together in an hour by a man with a hangover on an Amstrad, and yet my abiding memory of it is one of all-consuming fear.
It’s one of those shows I can only remember in snatches, presumably because I could only stomach a few minutes of it at a time before having to duck under a blanket or run out the room shrieking.
In a bid to conquer my irrational fear of The Tripods, I’ve since taken to watching the show online. And, despite the hideous production values and questionable acting, I can still understand what made it so petrifying. On one level, the show manages to play on a creepy, Wicker Man folk-horror feeling, full of unseen dread. On another, there are a load of giant alien robots that eat people alive. It’s still scary, even now that I’m not a wet-mouthed four-year-old. I have no idea how I made it to adulthood intact.
But still, let’s turn this over to you. What’s the scariest television programme you’ve ever seen? Leave your suggestions in the comments below.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010