We had three channels, the national network channels: CBS, NBC, and ABC. And then one day we had four. A new channel suddenly appeared, a local, independent channel: WTTE TV-28 Columbus. This channel would eventually become FOX (which is a story in itself) and would carry FOX programming. However, before that happened, it carried it own programming, idiosyncratic first-run syndication shows that would never make it on the networks. One of these shows was called Tales From The Darkside.
Tales From The Darkside was a George Romero-produced horror anthology show that WTTE aired late on Saturday evenings. And it had what was then and what still is the greatest opening of any such show. Each episode began with various shots of a rural countryside: a barn, a field of week, a grove of trees. Now these shots were filmed in the broadest daylight possible, and yet there was something palpably unsettling about them. Then the music, four little staccato notes played over and over, one after the other, started. And then, on top of that, the narration began, narration that I would soon learn by heart and be able to recite not only verbatim but with the exact same pauses and inflections as the unseen narrator:
Man lives in the sunlit world of what he believes to be reality.
But… there is, unseen by most, an underworld,
a place that is just as real, but not as brightly lit…
At this point, the rural shot would be flipped to its negative, making it infinitely more unsettling than it had been before, and that episode’s tale would begin.
Now that opening itself was enough to convince me that Tales From The Darkside was the creepiest thing I had ever encountered in my short life. What made it infinitely more creepy, though, and what earned it a perennial spot on my “The Absolutely Most Messed Up Things Of All Time” list was the first episode of Tales From The Darkside that I ever saw. This episode was called “Anniversary Dinner”. In it, an old couple living in the woods invites a young female hiker to stay in their home. During the course of this hiker’s stay with the couple, they convince her to get into their hot tub. As she is in the hot tub, they give her a glass of wine. Soon after that, they toss vegetables into the water. This causes the hiker to laugh. But then the drugs in her wine take effect, and she passes out and sinks below the water. The old woman then proceeds to pull out a huge wooden spoon and stir the hot tub water while telling the old man to “add the wine”. With that, the couple’s nefarious plans becomes obvious: they are cannibals and they are turning the hiker into a stew! It didn’t stop there, though. After getting the hiker stew going, the couple then makes a reference to their “children” and proceeds to open a locked cabinet, revealing a set of skulls. The woman says, “I loved having the children for dinner,” leading us to the realization that they are not only cannibals but that sometime in the past they ate their own children! With that, the episode ended and Tales From The Darkside became legendary, not just for me but for my entire school.
Now there were many similar anthology series that came out around that time. Amazing Stories, The New Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Monsters, The Hitchhiker, etc. But Tales From The Darkside beat them all, at least in terms of scariness. There was something about Tales From The Darkside that seemed like the real deal, like it really did come from a dark and otherly place. Unfortunately, it didn’t stay that way for long. The original scariness of Tales From The Darkside, a scariness that was enhanced by being shown on a creepy independent station, was soon replaced with goofiness. Later episode of the show didn’t come anywhere close to being what “Anniversary Dinner” was. In fact, many became simple gags or morality tales, and some didn’t have any scare elements at all. I lost interest in Tales From The Darkside at about that time. But I never lost interest in that opening. I still think about it when I’m out in the country alone. I still hear those four staccato notes. I still remember that there is, “unseen by most, an underworld…a Darkside”.