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Tuesday, August 3, 2021

5 Tales of Beach 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 beach is that terminal stage before entering the water and possibly never returning. Lakes, oceans, seas — these unfathomable places can create nostalgia as well as dread. Not everyone is capable of readily stepping foot in these wet expanses, so the shore seems like the safest place to be.

The characters in the following anthology episodes realize even dry land cannot stop water’s influences or dangers, though. Something unimaginable or terrifying can appear from the waves and onto the beach just as easily as people can wet their toes.

Night Gallery (1970-1973)

The namesake of this Night Gallery episode does not make it easy to like her. As soon as audiences meet young Brenda (Laurie Prange) in this Margaret St. Clair adaptation, she is wantonly destroying another child’s sandcastle. The other girl is distraught not only because her creation is ruined but because Brenda is nasty to her and every other kid on the island. Like the other families there, Brenda’s is vacationing on this undisclosed getaway from the mainland. What should have been a fun summer has turned out to be a lonely one for Brenda, and she only has herself to blame.

Everything changes when Brenda comes across a bizarre creature in the nearby woods; a muck monster covered in seaweed has washed ashore. She traps the thing in a pit before ultimately deciding to sic the creature on her parents. After leaving the door open at night, the monster slips into Brenda’s house. Eventually, Brenda’s parents and the neighbors drive the intruder back to the pit and bury it under a mound of rocks.

As easy as it is to dismiss Brenda as a brat with no redeeming value, she warms up at the end. She starts to act more human. And shortly before leaving the island, Brenda promises to come back to see the monster. She keeps her word; there in the pit, the trapped creature waits, showing signs it is still alive underneath the rocks. Flowers poke through the mound’s cracks, reflecting Brenda’s own personal growth since they last met.

The monster is less a freak of nature and more a physical manifestation of Brenda’s wellbeing. Her trapping it early on suggests the stagnancy in her emotional development; she repeatedly apologizes for her immature behavior yet still acts out. It is only when she sees the monster confront her parents does she recognize what is happening to herself. The creature approaches Brenda’s father not out of intent to harm him but to get him to see past its troubling veneer.

Tales of the Unexpected (1979-1988)
A Harmless Vanity

Although Tales of the Unexpected was inspired by Roald Dahl’s sizable output, most of the series is made up of other authors’ works. Theda O’Henle’s “A Harmless Vanity” is one notable example; Jeremy Paul turns her sordid story into a memorable, late-season offering befitting of the show’s title.

Mary (Sheila Gish) now suspects her husband George (Keith Barron) is cheating on her after her best friend Liz (Carol MacReady) planted the idea in her head. So, she sets up a meeting on the beach with the other woman. The encounter is awkward, but the real trouble starts when Mary’s rival Carol (Phoebe Nicholls) goes for a swim.

After an extensive makeover — a dramatic paint job from head to toe on top of a strenuous diet — Mary is ready to meet George’s apparent paramour. It seems probable Mary is going to do away with George’s lover herself at the beach until something in the tide turns, narratively speaking. The three women’s insecurities instead come out as they talk, and it seems more and more unlikely murder is in the wind.

A number of Unexpected episodes centered around affairs of the heart and body, yet none of them are as shocking as this one. In fact, it is not entirely clear if there really was a dalliance or not. That ambiguity is partly why director Giles Foster’s yarn is so suspenseful and compelling. Most of all, the audience also has no idea where this story is going until that devastating ending.

The Ray Bradbury Theater (1985-1992)
The Lake

The late Ray Bradbury expressed how much he loved this story; he even cried after writing it. The inspiration came from a lake he visited at a young age and wondering what was below the surface.

The Ray Bradbury Theater’s visual translation of “The Lake” captures the dreaminess and tangible pathos of the source material while also briefly expanding on the element of terror. Melancholy is still center stage as a man returns to a place of both great comfort and trauma. 

Young Douglas (Eli Sharplin) meets Tally at the story’s eponymous locale; they connect over building sandcastles. On the last day of their vacations, Tally goes for a swim — her last one, as a matter of fact. Douglas watches helplessly as his first love disappears beneath the waters and never comes up again. Twenty-something years later, an older and married Douglas (Gordon Thomson) visits the lake with his wife Margaret (Tina Regtien). Tally’s body was never found, but it is on this day she and Douglas are finally reunited.

Pat Robins plays up the presence of the lake; he makes it an omnipotent entity that can both take things away and give them back. In this case, the water does something appalling; it removes a child from the world before she has a chance to live her life. It is hard to summon up the mental labor to explain away such a tragic death, but at the same time, there is some solace to be found in the story’s eerie ending.

Beyond Belief: Fact or Fiction (1997-2002)
Morning Sickness

Over the course of four seasons, Beyond Belief: Fact or Fiction adapted multiple urban legends of varying popularity. One of the more obscure but crawly myths involves a certain oceanic critter. “Morning Sickness” aired as part of the third season’s premiere, but this segment’s basis goes as far back as the 1930s. 

For one family, there is only one reason when the teenage daughter, Marissa (Heather J. Miller), exhibits pregnancy-like symptoms; she has stomach pains, intense cravings, and morning sickness. Her parents (Mary Cadorette, Don Gettinger) are convinced she and her boyfriend Jason “made a mistake,” but Marissa rebuffs their accusation and even takes a pregnancy test to prove them wrong. A negative result and a mysterious movement in Marissa’s abdomen lead to emergency surgery. What doctors assume to be a cyst turns out to be something else altogether. Something “denied by the medical community” after all these years.

Jan Harold Brunvard succinctly sums up this absurd myth in Encyclopedia of Urban Legends: “Years ago a young woman complained about gripping pains in her stomach. When operated upon, a young octopus was discovered. The explanation? She swallowed an octopus egg while swimming.” This exact outcome is used in the Beyond Belief episode. Other variations of the legend have the young woman ingesting frog, lizard, or snake eggs. Logic automatically debunks the story — stomach acids would intervene long before anything has a chance to hatch — but the fun is in the details. While this particular legend is not in circulation as much as it used to be, there are occasional resurgences in the news. 

Historically, this story has much to do with a fear of pregnancy; specifically unwanted ones. As a form of entertainment, it falls squarely into the enduring category of body horror along with baby spiders erupting from someone’s “pimple” and earwig infestations.

Monsterland (2020)

Contrasting the likes of Ariel are the more fearsome interpretations of mermaids that would make Hans Christian Anderson shiver. Movies like Sebastian Gutierrez’s She Creature and Milan Todorović’s Nymph, along with the TV series Siren, serve up these sea-maidens as monsters in disguise. The mermaid and siren’s mythologies are conflated these days with more emphasis on the former’s, but Monsterland strictly uses the word “mermaid” in the episode ‘Palacios, TX.”

Nicolas Pesce, the director of The Eyes of My Mother and Piercing, helms this story written by Mary Laws. A few Monsterland episodes are original and not based on anything from Nathan Ballingrud’s book North American Lake Monsters, and this is one of them. In “Palacios,” a former fisherman nicknamed Sharko (Trieu Tran) makes the greatest discovery; he brings home a sick mermaid (Adria Arjona) stranded on the beach. His attempts to rehabilitate her are then disrupted by locals who want to sell her.

Darker mermaid stories have a common theme; these creatures cannot be tamed, and if so, not easily. Here, Sharko is enamored with his catch to the point of fantasy. He endures the long-term health effects of an oil spill and can no longer do what he loves. With the mermaid, however, he can be himself again.

Sharko, the son of an immigrant who experienced racism during his acclimation, pours his heart out to the mermaid and reveals how he too is a fish out of water. In addition, Sharko is very much a prisoner of his own small tank; he feels trapped because of his poor health and depression. So how this dreary episode ends only makes sense given the foreboding line of “I wish I’d drowned [that day].”


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