SDCC's 'Scary Good TV' Panel Offers Fascinating Insight Into the Minds Behind Today's Best Horror

A behind-the-scenes glimpse at AMC’s first season of Creepshow.
A behind-the-scenes glimpse at AMC’s first season of Creepshow.
Photo: Boris Martin/AMC

Every year, some of San Diego Comic-Con’s panels have broader appeal, while others are a bit more specific. The Shudder-presented “Scary Good TV with Horror’s Top Showrunners” falls into that latter category, but horror fans (especially fans of Channel Zero, Locke & Key, and all things Chucky) won’t want to miss it.

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The panelists included Nick Antosca​ (​of Syfy’s late, great Channel Zero; he’s also working on Syfy/USA’s upcoming Child’s Play series, Chucky), ​Meredith Averill ​(Netflix’s Locke & Key), ​Child’s Play creator Don Mancini​ (Chucky; he also worked on Channel Zero), ​Greg Nicotero​ (​Shudder’s Creepshow), and ​Jami O’Brien​ (AMC’s ​NOS4A2), with the excellently chosen moderator Tananarive Due, who’s a screenwriter, educator, and the executive producer of the outstanding Shudder doc ​Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror.

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If you’re a fan of any of those shows or just horror in general, it’s well worth watching the entire panel; everyone involved brings a lot to the discussion. But just one of the topics covered was whether or not working on episodic TV makes it more of a challenge when it comes to scaring the audience—since, as Due put it, you have to assume the major characters are probably going to survive?

“It’s a different kind of scare. I think in serialized TV—and to me, the best example of this is Twin Peaks—what I try to achieve is that sense of continuing, pervasive dread. That kind of atmosphere that pervades the entire show, and feels like an ongoing nightmare, or dream,” Antosca said. “My preferred version is the seasonal anthology—six, eight episodes, you can tell a complete story, you can see where you’re going, you know that some of these characters might be able to die, but you still have more real estate than in a film, and it’s kind of a unique beast.”

Mancini jumped in to add, “That real estate allows us to get more into the characters than we can in any individual 90-minute movie, so there’s more opportunity to create that kind of dread and suspense that Nick is alluding to than we did in the movies. For me, that’s the biggest opportunity I saw in taking our franchise from film into tv, was to really make it more of a story about characters than it had ever been before, including Chucky’s character.”

Mancini also weighed in on another showrunning challenge: scaling down the scares from the big screen to a TV screen, or maybe even an iPhone screen, while still keeping them effective. “The difference between Chucky scaring people on the big screen, where he can loom high above the theatergoers, [and] now...people are going to be watching it on their phones—fundamentally it almost comes down to, this is simplistic, but more close-ups and less wide shots. That’s really part of your marching orders. But, you know, Chucky’s handsome, so he can take it.”

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Everyone in the group weighed in on Due’s question about which they prefer, both as audience members and as members of a show’s creative team: a show that drops all its episodes at once for maximum binge potential, or one that doles out new episodes on a weekly basis.

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“It goes back to what Nick was talking about sustaining the tension. I like to be in that space and stay there. It’s very hard as an audience member, and I think as a creator, to make a 42-minute episode of television, build that tension, sustain that tension, and then the episode’s over, and then next week you have to kind of do it all over again. How do you get people back in that space?” Averill said. “So that’s why working in streaming, I’ve found that to be easier because you’ve already kind of got them in that space. But that said, Channel Zero, to Nick and Don’s credit, that was appointment television for me. Every time I came back to a new episode a week later, they managed to get you right back there. So it can be totally done, it’s just harder.”

“I binge-watch stuff as well, but I [also] like the anticipation that builds,” Nicotero said. “I think that goes back to when I was younger and you’d get the TV Guide, and you’d go through the TV Guide and you’d see what movies and TV shows were going to be on, and you anticipated when it was coming and when you were going to get it again. So I liked that we dropped Creepshow once a week, but also it’s a little different because I’m not telling the same story from week to week. I have a whole new story [with each self-contained episode].”

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Antosca pointed out that there’s a third way to do things. “I think the strategy that Hulu and some of the other places do now, is do a couple of episodes first, the first three episodes, and after that week to week,” he said. “As a creator, I think that’s my favorite version because it allows people to binge and get invested, then it tortures them a little bit by dragging it out. So, a hybrid is kind of the ideal in my case.”

Mancini and O’Brien (whose NOS4A2, which is currently in its second season, uses a traditional weekly schedule) are more old-school. “It’s nice to have those water-cooler moments to inject that into the culture when you have that week-long pause,” Mancini said. “You allow for people in the midst of all that anticipation and suspense wondering what’s going to happen next week, people are talking about it, and I think that’s really valuable with regard to the story’s staying power.”

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Added O’Brien, “I do think there are pleasures to both versions, but I like that our work in the writers’ room—in which each episode has a theme, and we work really hard on making these [individual] episodes in addition to making the series-long arc—I do think that episodes stick with you better when you watch them week to week, than when you just kind of binge the whole thing.”

If you’re so inclined, you can watch the entire panel embedded above. Stay tuned to io9 for more SDCC 2020 coverage.

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DISCUSSION

Locke & Key? Locke & Key was neither scary nor all that good. It was decidedly in the hidden world subgenre of fantasy and was all around mediocre. If they want a scary and good Netflix series I’d say The Haunting of Hill House is still top of the line.