Fear evolved to be a fleeting physical reaction. Fight or flight is only supposed to last long enough to escape danger. Psychologically speaking, humans aren’t built to endure hours of sustained terror. Yet, whether it’s Penny Dreadful or Stranger Things, horror addicts love to curl up with Netflix for a marathon of dread. Watching horror isn’t like it used to be. With the rise of streaming services, the horror genre faces the new challenge of binge-watch culture. What effect does this medium have on scare factor and can it take horror to new heights?
How did we get here?
Before streaming, television horror was constrained by weekly time slots. Creators had to contend with an unreliable audience, so they structured series for casual viewing. Shows adopted a “monster of the week” format that worked well even if watched sporadically. However, what worked well for syndication floundered when viewers started consuming a decade’s worth of episodes in a single weekend. Faced with a fundamental shift in how audiences watch television, producers adapted their approach. Netflix pioneered the world of “binge content” by releasing shows in season-long chunks and optimizing them for marathon viewing.
A new approach to story telling
With longer run times and no commercial breaks, binge content plays by different rules. For better or worse, creators have changed how they make shows to keep you clicking “Watch Next”.
- No Filler
Binge shows don’t waste time on scenarios (or infuriating Christmas episodes) that won’t be mentioned again. Every installment stays on track and, with no fluff to waste time, the storyline moves forward at breakneck speed. Episodes bleed together without having to rehash plot points. Twists and turns pile on each other with never-ending suspense and mystery. Stranger Things is a perfect example—more like a seven-hour movie than a television show. The long format gives the creators room to develop a complex story.
- Stifled Experimentation
Tight plots and fast pacing can have drawbacks. Sometimes an amazing concept doesn’t stand up to a full season of scrutiny. These ideas benefit from single episode exploration. Buffy mastered this with one-off monsters like The Gentlemen.
- No anticipation
A tortuous wait between episodes isn’t always a bad thing. A horror show that updates every week stews for seven days, allowing imagination to fill in horrifying implications while the show isn’t playing. American Horror Story capitalizes on this by leaving key doors open at the end of episodes to bring viewers back each week.
As viewers increasingly turn to streaming services rather than cable subscriptions, we can expect binge content to grow and adapt. We are already seeing the medium evolve. Stephen King and J.J. Abrams are teaming up to bring us Castle Rock. It isn’t out yet, but internet whispers say that it could bring us an anthology show that breaks the mega-movie mold. So, look forward to new terrors as horror masterminds push the envelope of an already edgy genre.