❉ The CBBC anthology series is one of the timeliest and bravest genre TV shows to come along in many years. Michael S. Collins tells us why.
Have you heard of a creature called The Curious?
Roald Dahl once noted, “Every writer worth their salt wants to write a book for children, but most of them would anesthetize any child within 2 sentences.” And, as one of the greatest writers of children’s fiction who ever lived, Dahl has a point here. Repeatedly, efforts to write for children show how difficult it is to do that effectively.
Therefore, when someone comes up with the idea of doing The Twilight Zone for kids, then the concept is genius. However, if everyone could translate that concept as well as RL Stine, we’d all be making RL Stine level money. The concept is one that would run into torpedoes with all but the most skilled communicators.
And this is why I am delighted to talk about Creeped Out, a recent anthology series shown on CBBC, as part of a co-production between CBBC Productions and DHX Media from Canada. It is The Twilight Zone for kids, right down to the moral of the tale, as well as the fact that the good and the repentant get a second chance at the end. Well, usually…
Creeped Out has a simple premise. A 20 minute horror tale for 10 year olds, bookended by a character called The Curious (wonderfully played with a dose of uncanny valley by William Romain) who collects scraps from each tale for his collection. The stories combine older horror tropes but use modern technology to tell them, and mix in a subtext of real life worries and horror. For example, Trolled retells Norse mythology in a story of internet trolling with a subtext of real life school bullying. In this way, Creeped Out actually becomes one of the timeliest and bravest genre TV shows to come along in many years.
The first series brought many memorable episodes. The Call is a spin on a legend older than the printing press, but the twist (you are initially lead to believe it invokes another legend) came as such a surprise to my folklorist wife that I’ll keep it secret here. Kindlesticks sees the babysitter from hell come face to face with her own equal match in a poltergeist. Cat Food is about the game of chance, and how it’s best not to pry on the creepy little old women across the street. Poor Kelly, that’s all I’m saying. And in Slapstick, we get a retelling of the talking doll horror story, as seen in the actual Twilight Zone, and in the best selling Night of the Living Dummy series. This episode’s directorial touches reminded me of a Sarah Jane Adventures episode, to the point where, even accounting for the obvious setback here, I was hoping Lis would show up at the last minute to save the day. The twist reminded me of The Engelmayer Puppets by Mary Danby, a writer who specialised in writing horrible tales for kids!
But let’s focus on two stand out episodes, from a stand out series.
One story that stood out for being creepy to this adult viewer was the episode Marti. In this story, our main character Kim (played with remarkable levels of skill and depth by young Tiffany Elefano, one to look out for) is a young teen who feels isolated at school and longs to be popular. This all threatens to change when she gets a new smart phone with inbuilt AI, which promises to rebuild her life and make her the most popular girl at school. Yes, this is an evil AI story. However, turning Hal from 2001 into a talking smart phone would be a clever enough framing device, but the story takes a much darker tone. The phone quickly gaslights Kim (no, really) from her actual friends, and threatens her when she doesn’t want to do what it wants. It gets jealous of her real life love interest. It tries to isolate her so that the phone and only the phone can be with her. Incidentally, the voice of the AI is an older male, but I suspect you twigged this already. I don’t need to go into detail, but I was astounded and shocked how full throttle they added this subtext to the episode. Even in the midst of the fantatastical, the spectre of real life is the biggest terror of all. This thirty-two year old was suitably creeped out to all hell, and I laughed at The Exorcist.
The other stand out episode is an attempt at doing a zombie feature, for 10 year olds. Impossible, surely. Oh, but it works. A scout patrol camp out in the forest, near where a previous scout team disappeared 40 years previously. I don’t wish to spoil it in advance, but this episode contains, via the use of binoculars and a quick back and forth over a particular area, a jump scare of such sublime magnificence that I nearly leapt out of my own seat. For you see, one doesn’t expect that verve and nerve in a CBBC show! Oh, but I’m glad it was there. This story is a real ear worm…
And really, that was part of the joy of Creeped Out. It told children’s horror stories without dumbing them down. I could take as much enjoyment from the story as its ten-year-old audience, even if in some episodes, if you read the CBBC feedback, the younger audience were getting scared on a different level to the adult. In the case of Marti, thank goodness!
Creeped Out is returning with a second series soon, great news for all of us genre fans. Even better news is that is that the first series will be on Netflix in a few weeks time. So if you missed out on broadcast, it’ll soon be widely available again.
For those of us of a certain age, Creeped Out is the finest genre kid’s show since Round The Twist. And those of you too young or otherwise to get that reference, well, consider that two recommendations for the price of one.
❉ Michael S. Collins, who lives in Glasgow, is the editor of Other Side Books. A former Fortean Times book reviewer, Michael was editor of The 40p website, as well as two editions of The Christmas Book of Ghosts. His horror fiction can be found in magazines such as Diabolic Tales and Stupefying Stories, among many others. He has no pet dragons. Honest.