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Tuesday, March 23, 2021

5 Tales of Scarecrow Horror from TV Anthologies [Series of Frights]

Series of Frights is a recurring column that mainly focuses on horror in television. Specifically, it takes a closer look at five episodes or stories  each one adhering to an overall theme  from different anthology series or the occasional movie made for TV. With anthologies becoming popular again, especially on television, now is the perfect time to see what this timeless mode of storytelling has to offer.

The common scarecrow, a humanoid effigy designed to ward off pests, is a staple of agriculture everywhere. Their ability to frighten doesn’t end with birds, though — without warning or awareness, a person can be caught off guard by these looming, idle shadows in the dark.

People today know a scarecrow could never be anything more than an antique form of pest control, but in the back of their minds, they might feel otherwise. Literature and cinema have each given life to these figures made of straw and dressed in old garments; what of their counterparts on the small screen? How do they come across when their sentience is laced with terror?

Thriller (1960-1962)
The Hollow Watcher

Not to be confused with the British series of the same name, this Thriller anthology underwent several transformations during its two seasons. The show started out with a focus on straightforward tales of crime and suspense before eventually switching to horror. Most fans agree it was a welcome change of pace.

An especially creepy offering seen during the series’ pivotal turn to horror was “The Hollow Watcher.” Set in the fictional Dark Hollow of South Carolina, an Irish bride covers up a murder by stuffing the dead body inside a scarecrow. Her crime doesn’t go unavenged, however, because the scarecrow — known locally as the Hollow Watcher — is now alive and stalking her.

The more Meg (Audrey Dalton) becomes unraveled by her misdeed, the more audiences will think her guilt is manifesting as — maybe even summoning — the episode’s namesake. Meg’s anxiety only worsens once her partner in crime Sean (Sean McClory) arrives in town, posing as her brother. He sets out to prove this Hollow Watcher is nothing more than Meg’s new husband Warren (Hugo Wheeler) trying to out his wife as a murderer.

Dark Hollow’s backwoods lore is evidence of ongoing power struggles in the community. The very idea of a sinister and all-knowing scarecrow intimidating people into behaving, as well as causing wives to become more submissive to their husbands, is a clever ruse. Along with colorful acting and a harrowing conclusion, “The Hollow Watcher” is a notable slice of telegenic folk horror.

Tales from the Crypt (1989-1996)
Four-Sided Triangle

Not too long after her memorable role in Nightmare on Elm Street’s Dream Warriors, Patricia Arquette starred in one of the strangest and most unforgettable episodes in all of Tales from the Crypt. The series has never shied away from its lurid leanings — and this episode is certainly no exception. What does make it stand out, though, is a distinct happy ending for the protagonist. It wasn’t often the central character escaped a terrible fate in these stories.

Mary Jo (Arquette) has been hiding from the law at a farmhouse where she’s frequently mistreated by the abusive owners. When George (Chelcie Ross) attacks Mary Jo, though, a sustained head injury causes her to believe a scarecrow is now her lover. He finally tries to exploit the situation, but that is only until the suspicious wife Louisa (Susan J. Bommaert) catches on.

A number of Crypt episodes are persistent when citing the series’ brilliance and impact, but Tom Holland and James Tugend’s collaboration — based on a tale from the second-to-last issue of EC’s Shock SuspenStories — stirs up vivid memories for those who grew up with the Cryptkeeper. “Four-Sided Triangle” haunts audiences with indelible imagery including the scarecrow’s cheerful façade so out of place in the story at hand, the villains’ well-earned punishment, and most shockingly, a vicious assault scene involving Arquette and Ross’ characters.

Holland and Tugend reworked the source material by having Annie (now named Mary Jo) suffer her terrible ordeal, then later flee her captors. The comic saw Annie already infatuated with her strawman before the lascivious Abner (George) pulled a fateful switcheroo with the scarecrow. On top of that, Louisa does not feel the pointy end of a pitchfork like her comic counterpart Hester. These changes add depth and agency to Mary Jo while also offering a more complete ending. There is also the ambiguity in the episode’s ending where viewers have to wonder if Arquette’s character was playing George and Louisa all along so she could escape.

R.L. Stine’s The Haunting Hour: The Series (2010-2014)

Classic adolescent anthologies Are You Afraid of the Dark? and Goosebumps each include tales of scarecrows (“The Tale of the Silent Servant” and “The Scarecrow Walks at Midnight” respectively) coming to life and doing someone’s bidding. And because of that, these stories incidentally turn out to be more similar than different. Meanwhile, another horror series, also aimed at younger viewers, thinks the end of time will be caused by scarecrows. This episode of The Haunting Hour is set in a rural–urban fringe and focuses on two siblings earning money through farming. While Bobby (Richard Harmon) excels at raising cows, his younger sister Jenny (Bailee Madison) struggles because the crows continue eating her crops. A stranger (Juan Riedinger) then comes into town and sells the girl a scarecrow. Bobby’s suspicions about the mysterious salesman later prove correct when his parents and the other residents start disappearing.

Although R.L. Stine’s name is prominently attached, very little of his writing was used for the series. The show’s creators Billy Brown and Dan Angel occasionally wrote for the show, and one of their best collaborations with director Ken Friss is “Scarecrow.” This seems all run of the mill until it’s very clear the titular creature is part of a systematic attack on not just the main characters but the entire world.

A feeling akin to cosmic dread is perceived by Bobby’s friend as she calls him in a panic, shouting “This is the worst feeling that I’ve ever had. It’s like everything is there and everything is nothing, and I hate it. I know it’s coming,” all before disappearing along with everyone else. While the scarecrows are alive, they are not simply inanimate objects vivified by magic. No, they are really people turned into scarecrows by an unseen force.

As the population is reduced to straw, only Bobby is left all alone with the sinister salesman. Interestingly, two different endings were made and aired for this episode — one happy, one bleak. The former sees Bobby defeating the antagonist and presumably saving everyone, whereas the other is nihilistic. Unable to rescue the town, Bobby himself is finally turned into a scarecrow along with the rest of society.

Junji Itō Collection (2018)

Followers of Shintoism are familiar with the kami (or deity) known as Kuebiko. This folkloric spirit is invited to possess farmers’ scarecrows to help with autumn harvests. After, the scarecrows are stacked, then set ablaze to release Kuebiko back into the ether. While Kuebiko is benevolent and helpful, the straw statues seen in Junji Itō’s story “Kakashi” (“scarecrow” in Japanese) are more ambiguous. 

Like the manga short it’s based on, the anime adaptation seen in Junji Itō Collection focuses on several bereaved people visiting their dearly departed loved ones’ graves in a rural village. Other mourners follow suit when a father erects a scarecrow above his late daughter’s gravesite. The figures begin to change in appearance over time; they inexplicably take on the faces of the deceased. The weirdness does not end there as the scarecrows now carry out the wishes of all the souls they embody.

“Kakashi” isn’t a particularly frightening entry in Itō’s stockpile of macabre stories, yet the mangaka does vividly illustrate human grief and the extent people go to to see their dead friends and family again. There are also mildly disturbing moments like a mother’s suspicions — she thinks her husband played a role in their son’s death — being confirmed all thanks to a scarecrow.

Although “Kakashi” is one of the author’s shorter works, it was adapted as a feature-length movie in 2000. The overlooked and obscure J-horror film is rather different from the manga, and it incorporates elements of the Kuebiko myth, too.

Creepshow (2019-Present)

The Companion

Once they’ve sprung to life in horror stories, inert things like toys and scarecrows turn malevolent possibly because they lack a soul. And if they had a soul, maybe they could better resist the pull of evil. It’s food for thought when relating the same ideas to humanity. Creepshow’s episode “The Companion” depicts the above theory when an abused boy stumbles upon a menacing scarecrow at an abandoned farm. It’s only after he accidentally awakens it by removing the stick keeping it dormant does he learn the scarecrow was created by a lonely widower.

Harold (Logan Allan) flees to the derelict farm because his older brother Billy (Voltaire Colin Council) chases him there. While the initial threat eventually leaves, Harold is then left to deal with the inspirited and vicious scarecrow. In the meantime, Harold finds a letter written by the companion’s late creator, Brenner (Afemo Omilami); it explains he made the thing to ease the loneliness after his wife passed. The scarecrow was no friend, though, as it killed a child. So before Brenner died, he restrained the beast with his cane — he drove it straight through a heart-shaped Valentine sitting at the center of the scarecrow’s chest — and left it hanging on a post outside his farm.

David Bruckner and Matt Venne’s ‘80s-set adaptation absorbs the gist of the episode’s basis — a short written by Joe R. Lansdale and his children Keith and Kasey, and first published in 1995’s Great Writers and Their Kids Write Spooky Stories — while also making room for more drama. The entire sibling subplot doesn’t exist in Lansdale’s writing, but that on-screen element makes this tale feel the most at home in Creepshow. After all, the wraparounds in the original movies ended with the mistreated children getting revenge on their tormentors by taking supernatural measures.

Bruckner maximized a meager budget and produced one of the more attractive and most atmospheric entries in the first season; the special effects alone for the horrific scarecrow are impressive. All of this isn’t dragged down by an uncomplicated plot, either. “The Companion” does a terrific job of encompassing the trademarks of Creepshow, as well as maintaining the celebrated ethos of the films.


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