What if the TV set could control what we watch?
That’s the bizarre question host Winston Essex (Sebastian Cabot) asks in “The Dead We Leave Behind, the second episode of the William Castle-produced horror anthology Ghost Story (1972).
In this tale, a forest ranger/sheriff named Elliot Brent (Jason Robards) lives in the mountains and grows increasingly irritated with his wife, Joanna (Stella Stevens). She is bored with life in the country and spends all day, every day, watching television. Worse, when she leaves the house at all, it’s only for sexual liaisons with local men.
When Joanna finally works up the nerve to leave Elliot for good, the spouses violently argue and Joanna is killed in a fall. Rather than inform the authorities of the incident, Elliot moves her corpse to a garden shed.
But now when Elliott turns on her beloved television again, he sees Joanna there…still arguing with him, still tauntinghim. After he kills one of Joanna’s lovers, Elliot’s visions on the boob tube grow even more disturbing. He sees his victims’ bodies rising from the ground…and heading towards his house.
Then he hears a pounding at the front door, and knows that the dead have come for him…
Anchored by a superb, surly performance by Jason Robards, “The Dead We Leave Behind” is a provocative and scary installment of this program. In fact, it forecasts much of the oeuvre of horror maestro Stephen King.
For instance, a key component of this tale by Richard Matheson and Robert Specht is a local legend – spelled out in dialogue — which insists that all dead bodies must be buried before winter comes, before the ground freezes. If corpses aren’t buried in time, they will come back to life wrong; possessed of both “life and death.”
If you’re an admirer of King’s novel Pet Sematary (1983) as I most assuredly am, this set-up will seem abundantly familiar.
If you glance at a few other elements of “The Dead We Leave Behind” — such as an obnoxious, loud-mouthed wife (Creepshow ), and a man’s slow descent into madness in an isolated location (The Shining [1977) — the King-like aspects appear even more pronounced.
Nobody can know for certain, but I wonder if King was impressed with and inspired by this episode of Ghost Story, because in his 1981 book Danse Macabre (on page 249, in the chapter “The Glass Teat”) he writes enthusiastically of a Quinn Martin’s Tales of the Unexpected episode in which “a murderer sees his victim rise from the dead on his television set.”
To the best of my knowledge, there’s no such episode in that particular series’ canon, which only consists of eight shows. Furthermore, that description fits “The Dead We Leave Behind” perfectly. Remember too, Ghost Story (1972) and Tales of the Unexpected (1977) were virtual contemporaries, as well as both hour-long network TV horror anthologies. Therefore, it’s easy to see how the two series might be confused. The same thing happens all the time with The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits. It’s all-too-easy to mis-remember one as the other. Nobody’s perfect. Believe me, I’ve certainly made my share of mistakes.
But if this indeed were the episode he wrote of, the insightful King would have been absolutely right to feel impressed with the creepy, unsettling qualities of “The Dead We Leave Behind.” It’s well-shot, well-acted and anxiety-provoking.
And from a certain perspective the tale could easily be interpreted as the story of a man losing his mind, responding to the sounds of his guilty conscience. The episode doesn’t come flat out and state it, but it is strongly suggested that Elliot has killed Joanna’s lovers before, and made it look like am accident each time.
We arrive in media res, then, as his grip on reality is already growing more tenuous. The episode begins with Elliot having a dream involving the television, a dream that reveals his anger, and his connection with a dead man.
The powerful idea expressed here is one of inevitability. The TV just won’t shut up, even after Elliot takes an axe to it. He can’t escape the television, just as he can’t escape the fact that he has committed murder. He has made a trap for himself, and very soon…it springs. As viewers, we both desire to see Elliott escape his pre-ordained fate and face punishment for his bad deeds.
I’m a big fan of E.C.-styled stories such as “The Dead We Leave Behind,” ones where the scales of cosmic justice are righted, and we get a final closing shot (or comic book frame) that reveals how the bad have been punished. In this case, Elliot’s corpse shares ground with Joanna and one of her lovers…all one big happy family…forever. Yikes.
Next week on Ghost Story an episode as bad as this one is good: “The Concrete Captain.”