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Thursday, March 23, 2023

Throwback Thursday - Television Terrors The Spooky Special Episodes

note: This was written for Gravely Unusual three or four years ago. This was an excellent magazine that I think may still be in print. At the time I had the idea to dip into the annual spooky horror themed episodes that many shows had every October. Do they even do that anymore? Sorry I stopped watching television a decade or so ago… not to be cool but because I have too many shitty movies to watch. I hope you enjoy this and if so let me know. I may continue the series here or in one of the other magazines I contribute to. I also have another installment that I did for a later issue of Gravely Unusual that I can dig out of the archives.

Television Terrors: Growing up in the Warm Glow of the Boob Tube

The Spooky Special Episodes 

by John Shatzer

My name is John and I’d like to say hi to you, the readers of this fine magazine. I’m new to these pages so I thought the best place to start was with a brief introduction. I’m a true child of the ‘70s having been born at the beginning of the decade and spending my childhood soaking up the polyester fun. This means I can actually remember a time before home video when you had to watch what they were going to show on television when they (the stations) decided to air it. Sounds terrible doesn’t it?

Marty Sullivan aka. Super Host
Well actually it wasn’t that bad and as I get older, I miss the excitement of sitting down with the new T.V. Guide to plan out my week. In future installments of Television Terrors I hope to talk about my local horror hosts and the memories I have of watching them as well as some of the great made for television movies that were spawned by the big three networks trying to fill up their primetime schedule. For this inaugural article I thought it would be fun to talk about some of the special horror themed episodes of my favorite shows from the ‘70s and ‘80s. Yes, I’m including the decade of the ‘80s here as well since the last gasp of what I’m covering extended into it before being snuffed out by the home video market.

You younger readers might not remember that a lot of network shows would do a special “spooky” episode now and then for fun. Many times, this would break with the normal format of the program as they would veer away from the typical formula and add some supernatural elements that would then be ignored the very next week. I thought it would be fun to take a look at some of these. In an effort to head off any complaints about me forgetting classic television shows like Kolchak the Nightstalker or the Twilight Zone remember I’m specifically looking at programs that broke with their normal format. So those that normally featured the creepy or the supernatural aren’t eligible for this list. With those ground rules in place let us dive into the good stuff. Though before I do that I must warn you that to properly explain why they are on my list I must drop some spoilers.

Might as well kick things off with a quintessential ‘70s show, The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries. This program lasted for three years running from 1977 to 1979 on ABC. The shows always had that Scooby Doo vibe where at times you might think there was a ghost or some other supernatural element, but it always ended up explained away logically. That is except for the premier 2-part episode that kicked off the 2nd season of the series. These episodes are The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew meet Dracula parts I and II. They aired in 1977 on consecutive weeks specifically September 11th and 18th. 

Paul Williams has fangs!
The story has the Hardy Boys investigating the disappearance of their father Fenton, who was looking into some recent art thefts. They eventually track him down to a town in Transylvania where a big rock concert is taking place at Dracula’s castle. The boys tag along with a rock band which gives Joe a chance to sing in the episodes. Joe was played by Shaun Cassidy who lest we forget was a teen heartthrob and popstar at the time (hey it was the ‘70s!). Along the way they meet up with Nancy Drew for the first time. She was sharing information with their father on the art thefts and of course she ends up in Transylvania as well.

Also in the two episode arc are ‘70s icons Paul Williams, playing the rock star hosting the concert, and Lorne Greene as the soon to be retiring police inspector, Hans Stavlin. That is some serious star power right there! Things play out as one would expect for this series with some secret doors, dramatic freeze frames before the commercial break, and of course the big reveal at the end that explains everything. Here we find out that Hans had been responsible all along and had manipulated things so that it seemed supernatural forces were to be blamed. The stolen art was stashed in the castle in a secret room that he was using the Dracula legend to keep everyone away from. Very Scooby Doo right? I’ve included this on my list because of the ending. As the police are taking away Hans Joe spots the handcuffs in the mirror… but Hans casts no reflection! See what they did there? Hans must have been a vampire maybe even Dracula himself! That was a fun twist on the formula that left the audience wondering what the heck was going on.

Buck Rogers in the 25th Century was a science fiction/adventure program that as a kid I never missed. Although this episode aired on January 3rd, 1980, I’m still counting it as a ‘70s show. The episode that I’m covering here is, Space Vampire. It deviates from the normal content of the program as it deals with some darker stuff, though still in a cheesy form fitting body suit kind of way. I mean it was still Buck Rogers they weren’t about to go full horror on an audience of unsuspecting kids. Though I’ll freely admit that this one did scare the bejesus out of 9-year-old me.

Buck and his pal Wilma Deering, played by the lovely Erin Gray, are heading off for a vacation. Along the way they are stopping off at a space station to drop off Twiki, the robot, for some maintenance. While there an out of control shuttle crashes into the station. Checking it out they find the crew dead under mysterious circumstances. Thinking that a contagious disease is responsible the base is locked down and everyone quarantined. Of course, we the viewer know that it is really a space vampire and eventually so do our characters. A big fight ensues, and the vampire is sent into a nearby star. Being the kind of show that it is once the vampire is killed off all of the “dead” victims get better.

This one really did scare me as a kid. Not so much because of the space vampire, which was silly looking to me even at that age. What I found spooky was the look of the dead bodies with their pale grey skin and the black circles under their eyes. They had a very zombie like appearance which is only accentuated when they get up and start staggering around doing the vampire’s bidding. And while I find the possessed Wilma scenes to be a bit cringeworthy today, they worked really well for me then. As an older and wiser fan, I now recognize that the abandoned ship arriving with a dead crew, named Demeter, whose first victim was a bounty hunter named Helson, are all call backs to the original Dracula novel. That sort of attention to detail is fun and adds an extra layer of the story to be enjoyed. Who doesn’t love a little bit of horror in their science fiction?

It is kind of strange that this was shot in December and aired in January as you would think that would fit better closer to Halloween. But I decided to include it here because over the years as I’ve caught the series in reruns, I’ve noticed that they will play the series out of order to make sure that Space Vampire plays around Halloween.

Time to go a bit further into the ‘80s and hit up an episode of The Greatest American Hero titled The Beast in Black which originally aired on December 9th, 1981. Much like the previous Buck Rogers episode this one also aired a bit out of order in reruns to make sure that it played in October.

For those unfamiliar with the show, The Greatest American Hero follows the adventures of a high school teacher, Ralph Hinkley, who meets up with some aliens one night. They find him worthy and give him a super suit that grants him all kinds of amazing powers when he wears it. The red tights and cape should be very familiar to comic book fans without infringing too much on anyone’s copyright. Hinkley is joined by an FBI agent named Bill Maxwell as he attempts to use the suit to do good and earn his extraterrestrial gift. The running gag throughout the show is that Ralph has lost the instruction manual, so he never quite knows what powers he has and how exactly to access them. 

This episode has Ralph and his students trying to rescue some salvage from an old house before it is torn down. While checking out an old safe Ralph realizes he can see into the 4th dimension, which I believe for the purposes of the show means he can see ghosts and evil spirits. An accident happens and Bill is killed… but just for a few seconds as he is possessed by a very angry ghost. After some creepy stuff happens the pair end up back where it started, in the old mansion trying to force the cranky spook out of the FBI agent.

These shows normally had the pair running around solving crimes or helping people. There were deaths and murders, so this isn’t as geared towards kids as the previous programs, but it never ventured into horror before or after this. They even changed up the soundtrack and music cues to make the episode feel like a horror movie, which I thought was a nice touch. This episode came out of nowhere and was an unexpected treat. That is probably why almost 40 years later I still remember it. 

The last show that I’m going to cover is the Scott Bakula vehicle, Quantum Leap. This science fiction program had our main character, Dr. Sam Beckett jumping thru time setting right things that had gone wrong. Who decided what had gone wrong and why Sam had to fix it was a big mystery for most of the show. Though they do give some explanation in the final episode that borders on the fight between good and evil, so sort of in the supernatural genre. This allowed the writers and actors to jump around in location and setting leading to them exploring all kinds of stories, some of them firmly in the horror genre. There seemed to be at least one very cool spooky story each season. Though since most of the time the stories leaned into drama with a dash of science fiction, I’m counting the episodes that broke the normal format of the show. I’m including my favorite of the bunch here. Don’t agree? Well this is my article, so I get to make the rules.

A Portrait for Troian originally aired on December 13th, 1989. Seriously, what is it with these December air dates and spooky episodes? But I digress. Here we have Sam leaping into an investigator of psychic phenomenon named Dr. Mintz. He is working for a woman tortured by the death of her artist husband, thus the title. She keeps hearing voices calling to her to join him in the lake, seemingly to tempt her into drowning like he did, though his body sank to the bottom of the lake and was never recovered. There is a lot of atmosphere including a spooky old mansion and a creepy housekeeper. The episode does an excellent job capturing the feeling of a late sixties or early seventies haunted house movie like The Haunting or Legend of Hell House.

What I’ve always loved about this episode is that like every other Quantum Leap story up to this point we get a logical explanation for all of the events that transpire. But as you are ready for the credits to roll, there is a final twist just as Sam leaps out, that drops a supernatural gotcha. The episode ends with an earthquake that frees the bodies trapped at the bottom of the frigid lake including Troian’s husband and that of the housekeeper, who has apparently been a ghost the whole time! Add that last bit to the overall creepy vibe and I had to include this one here.

This wraps up my first installment of what I hope becomes a regular feature here on the pages of Gravely Unusual. Stop by next issue to find out what weird bit of classic television I decide to spend far too much time thinking about. Until then you can contact me at gutmunchers@gmail.com with any questions, suggestions, or complaints. I love hearing from people, even if it is just to tell me how wrong I am!

Ó Copyright 2023 John Shatzer




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