Stranger Things is back, and while the exploding rats in episode one looked promising and the ’80s production design is as endearing as ever, I find the high concept monsters of the Netflix sci-fi hit underwhelming.
Given digital advances and levels of investment, it’s odd that subscription television isn’t producing the kind of beasts that give us nightmares.
As confirmed by a trip down memory lane’s dark side alleys, free-to-air television has been delivering the jump scares since the 1970s.
Lost in Space (One of Our Dogs is Missing, Season 1, Episode 13, 1966)
As a rule, the most disturbing feature of Lost in Space was not the monsters, but the fact that the Robinson family was required to explore unknown galaxies clad in velour leisure suits. But this critter, unleashed during the first series, gave me the shivers.
A rough beast, half gorilla, half Gimli from LOTR, stalks the Robinson family while Professor Robinson and Major West are absent exploring. With all its hair, antennae and fangs the beast was easily the most unsettling thing seen on the show until Doctor Smith donned a Prince Valiant wig and went full flower power in season 3.
Kolchak: The Night Stalker, (Horror in the Heights, Season 1, Episode 11, 1974)
Intrepid reporter Karl Kolchack tackled a monster each week in this cult series. This one was the most terrifying (although fans seem split between this and Demon In Lace, which involved a seductive Mesopotamian succubus).
An ogre from Hindu mythology, the Rakshasa, takes up residence in Chicago and begins to eat the local population. He is able to get close enough to strike by adopting the guise of his victim’s most trusted friend/relative. Undisguised, the beast resembles a Yeti/Rob Zombie hybrid.
Kolchak is convinced he has the upper hand because he trusts no one, but Rakshasas haven’t survived over countless centuries through looks alone. Classic viewing from a much-loved series.
Trilogy of Terror (1975)
The TV movie that still haunts the dreams of 1970s children (at least the last third does). A triptych horror anthology starring Karen Black that seemed to spring from nowhere one Saturday night in 1975, its first two chapters are utterly forgettable, but the third, Amelia, is a deranged classic.
A hideous fanged Zuni fetish doll, possessed by the spirit of an ancient warrior, stalks a young woman in her apartment brandishing a kitchen knife. If that concept isn’t terrifying enough, how about this for a finale? Amelia, now possessed by the hunter’s spirit herself, reveals wicked fangs while awaiting her mother’s arrival crouched like an animal, driving a kitchen knife into the floor mechanically.
I watched this home alone during a thunderstorm and insisted the dog sleep on my bed that night.
Stephen King’s It (1990)
Tim Curry had already made lingerie terrifying when he scared the bejeezus out of everyone as Pennywise, the storm-drain dwelling, child devouring clown in the miniseries based on the Stephen King bestseller. Sensitive souls among us had only just recovered from the creepy ghost clown in season 1 of Scooby Doo, Where are You?
The moment Pennywise offered Georgie a balloon before baring his fangs and ripping the little boy’s arm off was the moment when many of us gave up circuses for good.
The X-Files (Home, Season 4, Episode 2, 1996)
With themes including incest and child murder, this episode of The X-Files made such an impact the Fox network refused to repeat it. Mulder and Scully investigate the discovery of the corpse of a hideously deformed baby (the type of case commonly assigned to the FBI, it seems). This leads them to a homicidal family of inbred hillbillies who respond by slaughtering members of a small farming community.
The agents’ grotesque discovery about how the clan regenerates and the role of the matriarch, Mrs Peacock, in all this was a jaw dropping moment.
The concept was based (like Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes) on an actual (albeit disputed) historical episode. The Scottish cannibal Sawney Bean and his clan reportedly murdered, dismembered and devoured hundreds of unfortunates who strayed too close to their cave lair during the 16th century. Memorably horrific and educational too.