Medium is the scariest TV show we’ve seen in a long, long while. The question is: Why?
Let’s get rid of the obvious: It’s not the music, since there is no scary music. It’s not the dark lighting, the shadows, or the fact that most things happen at night, since most of the show happens during the day. It’s not because people are constantly screaming or are found in panic, since no one hardly ever screams in the show. It’s not because characters are confronted by killers or scary ghosts or any other allegedly-frightening unnatural phenomenon, since that doesn’t happen in Medium, either. It’s not because we meet scary beings or masked actors or CGI – there’s none of that in the show, either. And lastly, it’s not because of the gore, since there are no slashed bodies, dismembered heads, or whatever else you might find in the usual horror flicks.
So everything that is found in abundance in other horror flicks or even in current supernatural shows like Supernatural or Ghost Whisperer is not found in Medium. And yet these first two, which have all the elements mentioned above, are not scary (except when the music is scary), and yet Medium is. So the question is, what is it really that really keeps us scared?
The same thing that scared away our sleep when we were kids scares us today.
When we were kids, there were monsters in the dark, hiding in closets. Sometimes the monsters were hiding under our beds. We did not know what these monsters looked like. We simply knew that we did not know everything there was to know about the world (and so some form of monsters could exists) and that there are dark corners in our bedroom that we knew nothing about, either.
“What could possibly be there?” was the basic thought that led to many intangible possibilities in our minds. The possibilities didn’t have to be fully realized or fully imagined. In fact, the very fact that they weren’t, kept more possibilities alive. We were faced with an overabundance of unknown possibilities, and therefore an overabundance of scary possibilities.
It’s the unknown that scares us. And the unknown exists in a wealth of possibilities (That’s why realized monsters, like the ones in Supernatural, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, and most horror movies are simply not scary: their unknown nature has been stripped from them). Wealth of possibilities doesn’t necessarily exist in the dark, not when we’re grownups. Wealth of possibilities exists in a truly original story. That is because in an unoriginal story we can more or less guess the overall gamut of the nature of events that are going to take place. In a truly original story, we have no idea what might be happen next or where things are leading or what might be driving these events. And that might be scary.
Let’s take a look at a few examples.
Medium is about Allison Dubois, who happens to possess psychic powers, which are not in any way under her control. Occasionally she can see ghosts. Many times she has dreams which foretell events in the near future, the far past, or even the present someplace else. Allison is haunted by these powers, and yet she does her best to use them to help. She advises the DA, keeping her abilities a secret from the public. Her husband is a scientist. And their three young daughters are... well, three typical young daughters.
One day, Allison, who hasn’t slept in a long while, takes a break from work and goes home to sleep. Later, it’s discovered that she had gone to the bank and taken out all their savings: $15,000, which she then put in a bag. Allison doesn’t remember any of it, and yet that’s her signature, and the money is in her bag.
Her husband tries to take the money back the next day, and in the bank they tell him that she’d originally asked for 15 million dollars, and only after exasperating explanations, did she agree to change it.
Allison is sleepwalking, and her husband is afraid that she’s going to do very strange things. Since during last time she drove the car to the bank, he hides the keys when she sleeps.
Late at night, he wakes up to some strange noises. Allison is turning the house inside out, looking for the keys. And her voice, when she says that she must have the keys, is primeval and guttural (that’s called acting, not special modifications).
Later on, her husband will see that there’s no other solution. Another night, when she sleepwalks again, he lets her in the car as he drives to see where this would lead them.
Allison, in her primeval persona, tells him to stop in the middle of nowhere, on the edge of a cliff. She walks out of the car, and tries to walk off the cliff. Her husband stops her. She then leaps at him, without reason, trying to get past him. Saying he loves her, he tackles her, trying to wake her up.
I won’t tell you any more about what happens in the episode. But note how the possibilities are open before us. We don’t know what’s going to happen next. We’re not certain at all where things are leading the characters or the story. And we’re not certain what the driving force behind it is. As long as the driving force behind everything is written with consistency and logic, that is enough of a recipe to scare the pants off the viewers.
Let’s take a look at another example from an episode that came rather late in the series. The importance of that is that we, as an audience, have already learned to trust Allison’s dreams. And we have also learned that many of the episodes begin with something we soon discover is a dream that ends with Allison waking up with a gasp.
This episode begins with a normal family breakfast. The girls, Allison, and her husband all talk about how the two parents had met way back when, and how they had actually almost met a couple of years before that, but had missed each other. They start talking about what if things had been different... when one of the girls disappears. When Allison panics, no one understands what she’s talking about. And then another girl disappears. And then the last one disappears. And then the husband.
And then Allison wakes up. Except, that it’s not the Allison we know. It’s the teenage Allison, who has just had this dream about her future. This episode is about her. She had not yet met her husband, and the first meeting that ‘almost happened’ originally is but a few days in the future. In this episode her dreams keep warning her of the future we know her to have, and it seems that her dreams are guiding her to change this future, and make sure she never hooks up with her husband and never has the girls...
Again, look at the possibilities that are wide open before us. How many TV series offer you such an open plot? Originality of story and the fact that there always seems to be a logical and consistent reason behind everything is the way to freak out an audience.
Another episode begins in a normal family morning, with normal morning dialogue, except that all the characters are inanimate kids’ dolls. The characters’ voices are heard, but the dolls are dolls. Allison claims that things seem somehow different, but she’s not sure why.
Allison comes to the conclusion that they’re all dolls, and the entire family (of dolls) thinks she’s overreacting. Everything is as it’s always been.
Then one of the daughters says, “Mommy, you’d better be quiet. If you make too much noise, he’ll hear you.” And when Allison asks who ‘he’ is, a kid’s hand comes from above and takes one of the girls. Then we see a four year old child pick up the rest of her family. Last, he picks up Allison and begins to shake her.
Allison wakes up, normal as always, and to the same morning dialogue that took place in the beginning of the dream. Later that day, she’ll see the kid from the dream in the supermarket...
Do you know what’s going on? Don’t look now, but there’s a monster in your closet.