Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Community: “Horror Fiction In Seven Spooky Steps”

Illustration for article titled Community: “Horror Fiction In Seven Spooky Steps”

The single biggest problem facing “Horror Fiction In Seven Spooky Steps” is that it airs right after “Remedial Chaos Theory,” an episode that’s fairly similar structurally but is also better. This is not to say that I didn’t enjoy “Horror Fiction”—indeed, I liked it a lot and found it very funny—but I suspect that it will play better five years from now, when this episode rolls back around in late October in the syndication package and it doesn’t air right after one of the best episodes the show’s ever done. Both episodes center on seven different stories that are nestled within a rough framing structure, and the basic structure of the episode is all about showing us different iterations of how the characters interact with each other. Where I think the episode ultimately breaks away from “Chaos” and becomes its own thing is that “Chaos” examined how the characters relate to each other, while “Horror” examines how they see each other and themselves.

The basic conceit is maybe a little strained. The natural worry when you hear that an episode is going to center on a bunch of characters telling each other scary stories is that it will just be a rehash of The Simpsons’ many immortal “Treehouse Of Horror” episodes. (Favorite segment: the one where Kang and Kodos replace Bill Clinton and Bob Dole, and humanity is forced to vote for one of them or risk throwing its vote away.) “Treehouse” is such an institution at this point that the show doesn’t bother with framing structures anymore, but in the early days of these episodes, there would be something about the kids gathering together to tell each other scary stories or the characters having nightmares or something. (Indeed, the name of the episodes comes from the very first, which involved the kids telling each other scary stories in the treehouse. But you knew that. Just padding out the word count. Don’t mind me.) So this episode has a need to say, “Here’s how we’re doing this so we’re not like The Simpsons,” and I’m not sure, “Britta fears one of the group might be a psychopath” is the best possible way to get into the storytelling.

But whatever. It’s a Macguffin. It’s an excuse to get to the terrific heart of the episode, which is pretty much just unadulterated awesome. The whole center of this episode involves six of the characters telling a scary story that slowly morphs from Britta’s original—which is a rough take on the “Hookman” urban legend that’s probably the most famous of campfire stories—into a tale of the Rapture arriving and Shirley heading off to Heaven after expelling the Devil Dean from the cabin in which the hedonists left behind on Earth party out the rest of their lives. What’s great is the way the tale evolves, ditching some elements and gaining others, with everybody doing their own spin on certain horror tropes. Abed offers a basic slasher setup. Annie gives us a weirdly lurid spin on books like Twilight—that offers a surprising amount of gore. Troy’s got a mad scientist tale, while Pierce’s isn’t really scary at all and is, instead, another riff on how awesome he is. Shirley’s tale gets to the roots of horror in the popular apocalyptic tales of the Middle Ages.

All of these little vignettes are very funny. In particular, I loved the scene where the radio announcer was clearly speaking in Britta’s voice about how the guy with the thingy on his hand—a hook or whatever—was lurking in the darkness and should be looked out for. But I also really enjoyed seeing Abed’s strange vision of what being in a relationship with Britta might be like. (It apparently involves listening to the entirety of a song on the radio—a song Abed’s humming in real life with accompaniment from Troy.) And, of course, the montage of damsel-in-distress Annie teaching Vampire Jeff how to read was hysterical as well. Even the somewhat strained Shirley story offers up Britta dumping marijuana all over herself (since Shirley, obviously, was deeply affected by seeing Britta smoking weed in “Chaos” and isn’t quite sure how all of that works) and the Dean’s entrance as the Devil, which is both a perfect use of the character and hilarious. There are big laughs in every single little vignette, and that’s not easy to do in the small amount of time each vignette has to set itself up.

The show, of course, knows how to use the rules of genre fiction against us. We already know the story of the Hookman, so there’s no real read to fill us in on the rest of it. We already know what happens in a mountain cabin, and we already know werewolves and vampires hate each other for some reason. As soon as we get to the idea that we’re going to be telling scary stories, we have a pretty good idea what’s going to be involved, and the episode relaxes into telling these stories in a way that’s more character-illuminating than anything else. One of the things that makes Community so great is that it primarily uses its genre parodies and “theme” episodes as a way to further examine its characters, but that’s also one of the things that necessarily limits its audience, as more casual TV viewers may find themselves wondering what the fuck is going on when they look up at their TVs and see a bunch of people cringing from a pansexual version of the devil in a mountain cabin, one covered in marijuana. That’s just not something you can slot into a comfortable box, and it requires both a working knowledge of the show’s characters and a variety of cultural touchstones to even begin to make sense of. Is it any wonder so many “spot the reference” shows work so hard to say, “HEY, THIS IS WHAT WE’RE REFERENCING!”?

This is a total sidebar, but since this is an episode goofing on horror fiction, I’ll try and pretend it’s organic. One of the biggest things fans of the show argue about is which show it’s the “new” version of. Is it the “new” Arrested Development because both shows share a gag-a-second pace and strange elements of satire? Is it the “new” NewsRadio or Cheers for its deep, exceptionally well-used ensemble? Or is it the “new” The Simpsons, simply for how it works genre parodies into the midst of more character-based stories? And while I think the arguments in all of those directions make some degree of sense, the show that it has the most in common with, to me, is Buffy The Vampire Slayer. Like that show, Community has a wild, weird mash-up of tones. Like that show, Community is in conversation with previous series in its own genre. And like that show, Community does all different kinds of episodes, trying out all sorts of spins on different genres and TV episode types, just as Buffy tried out silent movies and musicals and art films with minimal dialogue and scoring. (The two are also focused on tight groups of friends who end up feeding into each other’s dysfunction as much as anything else, and I’m sure I could think of plenty of others if I really tried.)


The larger point of all of this is that where something like “Hush” showed us Buffy’s feelings of alienation and powerlessness in a simultaneously subtle and completely obvious or “Once More With Feeling” expressed the problems that can arise when people are truly honest with each other, Community uses its so-called “theme” episodes, at their best, to talk about who these people are to each other. And the reason the vignettes in “Horror Fiction” remain so delightful is because they’re used to show how, say, Annie finds Britta a vaguely threatening figure for having had sex with Jeff or how Shirley can’t believe the group won’t listen to her about God (though I wonder if this episode didn’t tip a bit too much toward condescending to the character) or how Abed puts making sure the story is realistic and follows the proper rules above the feelings of Britta, even in his own story. Where “Chaos” examined what happens when you remove certain elements, this episode examines what happens when you enhance them, when you filter everybody else through the point-of-view of one character. It’s a kind of riff on the Rashomon episode, without completely indulging in that episode type’s habit of viewing the same event through a bunch of different perspectives.

All of this should probably be leading up to my big issue with the episode, which is the conclusion. Put simply, the climax of the story wasn’t as funny as the rest of the episode and tried too hard to write itself out of the corner the episode Macguffin had put the episode in. Though I kind of liked the final twist of having everybody—but Abed—be insane (well, and since Jeff filled out the test at random, he could also be sane), the episode spent a lot of time trying to make us believe that the group would turn almost instantly murderous toward each other. And as much as I laughed at, say, Troy’s pencil fingers, I’m just not sure I bought that twist, even if I knew nobody was going to die. While I liked the episode undercutting Jeff’s refusal to do the test—he just doesn’t like doing stuff; God, lay off—and the series’ continued affection for mocking his big, climactic speeches (here, in the form of his own story, which ends with everyone hugging Chang, the killer who kills because he’s afraid), I just didn’t buy the sudden turn toward having everybody become convinced that Britta had determined one of them was a psychopath. It was a weak device already, and predicating the entire climax on it made it even weaker in retrospect.


And what’s disappointing here is that the episode is already building toward a pretty good way of turning the group against itself. This has been done so many times on the show that I sort of wish it wouldn’t turn to this trick so often, but one of the nice things about a Rashomon episode is that it allows the characters to realize how everybody within the group sees them. If the ultimate resolution had involved, say, the group falling apart because everybody realized that, shit, Shirley saw them as hellbound sinners or Pierce saw them as a buncha stupid kids, that would have been a repeat of many, many, many other episodes, but at least it would be in keeping with the episode as it developed. Returning to the initial core of the episode at the end just ultimately didn’t work.

But it’s hard to fault an episode that included such things as Pierce with feet for hands and Abed and Britta standing back to back in the middle of a cabin, holding knives. My quibbles don’t get in the way of the fact that this is a spectacularly funny episode with lots of great moments and lots of great character gags about how these people see each other. When this episode rolls around in the syndication package someday, I can’t imagine not stopping to watch it when I’m channel surfing, and there’s probably no higher praise than that. And removed from the afterglow of “Chaos Theory,” I suspect I’ll like this episode a lot more when watched again and again and again. In its own way, “Horror Fiction” captures the core of Halloween and how fun the holiday can be in the same way “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” captured that holiday. And while it’s not perfect, that’s something that will make the episode an evergreen.


Stray observations:

  • It must be said that this was a great episode for Britta yet again. Gillian Jacobs is killing it this season, and though I know she won’t be Emmy nominated, she should be.
  • My favorite scary story was Abed’s. I loved his adherence to rules of logic and realism that utterly killed the pacing of the story, and I loved the brief glimpse into what it would be like if he and Britta were married. (It would be awkward and hilarious. That’s what it would be.)
  • Pierce’s wig in his story—in which he is a man known only as Magnum—was a work of art.
  • My screener DVD had some fairly uncompleted special effects. I hope that what you got looked good and not cheesy.
  • Another great Pierce moment: his confusion over why his name was “Jango” in Shirley’s story.
  • Donald Glover line reading of the week: “Foot hands.”
  • I’ve alluded to this above, but I kind of hope we’re building somewhere with Shirley. She’s been the butt of everybody’s jokes this season, and it sometimes feels like she’s increasingly the butt of the writers’ jokes, which is something that’s rarely good to do to a character. Season three seems to be building toward something larger—notice how certain story threads and motifs (like Britta’s drug usage scarring Shirley) keep recurring and returning—and I hope we’re going to get some serious Shirley time somewhere in the very near future.
  • If the show must toy out the Jeff and Annie thing and not simply smush them together and see what happens, at least it’s doing so in a way that continues to let the shippers have their cake and eat it too, while also leaving room for non-fans of the couple to gag a little bit at their syrupy sweetness.
  • I suspect this episode—both because of how similar it is to “Chaos” and how the ending doesn’t quite work—will be divisive, so let’s hash it out. Anybody simply hate it? Anybody love the shit out of it?