A dinner table discussion about television shows that scared us witless when we were children prompted this particular post similar in some ways to the Childhood Science Fiction: Television series from a while back now. What follows is my top 5 children’s shows I grew up with in New Zealand that genuinely played with horror alongside other genres and tropes. I’ve tried to limit it to shows purely aimed at children (rather than shows like Doctor Who or Sapphire and Steel which pitched to a wider audience).
I’m not sure these would get made today, though the move to more animated and CGI-generated children’s shows means it’s harder to compare these live-acted dramas with some of today’s offerings. Remember these were on at 4 pm in the afternoon and had no trigger warnings.
The first four are in no particular order, but the last one is definitely what I’d rank as one of the scariest TV shows I’ve watched taking into account my age when I watched it – sort of The Exorcist for under-12s.
Under the Mountain (1981, TVNZ)
Based on the 1979 novel by Maurice Gee, Under the Mountain features twins Rachel and Theo Matheson who are developing psychic powers and who are destined to defend the earth from a demonic alien force manifested in human form as the undertaker family, the Wilberforces. The production values were definitely budget, but with the budget they did have a genuine sense of horror – both immediate and impending – was achieved, made more so by it being set in contemporary Auckland, New Zealand.
I’ve got the DVDs for this and while the A/V transfer to disc isn’t great it still gives people the creeps when they watch it
You can watch a full episode on the NZ On Screen website: https://www.nzonscreen.com/title/under-the-mountain-episode-four-1981
The Moon Stallion (1978, BBC)
Drawing on English folklore and set in Victorian times, the series follows the adventures of a sister and brother, Diana and Paul respectively, who are called upon to defend the mystical moon stallion, a white horse connected to the goddess of the moon (represented by both an actual horse and a chalk horse on a hillside). There are those who seek to capture the horse for its mystical power, while others seek to destroy it for various reasons. The character of Diana is blind, but has a sensitivity towards the horse which draws it and the opposing forces to her. Those who are opponents, such as Todman, are genuinely scary, both from what they’re attempting to do and how they are going it. There is a palpable sense of threat at all times towards the horse and the children.
You can find episodes of the show on YouYube but there’s never been a VHS/DVD release that I know about. More details here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Moon_Stallion
Children of the Dog Star (1984, TVNZ)
Set in rural New Zealand, Children of the Dog Star features three children, Gretchin, Ronny, and Bevis who uncover alien technology hidden in the local swamp. The swamp itself is the focus of the community with a developer (Bevis’ father) wanting to drain it for development, but Ronny’s uncle is the M?ori guardian of the swamp and it’s under a form of r?hui to make sure what is buried there stays buried there. So in addition to the threat posed by what’s in the swamp, there’s also other tensions going on in the story at an adult level.
If I remember correctly the story doesn’t end with the usual all threads wrapped up with potential for further alien probe contact with Earth from Sirius to come.
More information and an epsisode can be found at: https://www.nzonscreen.com/title/children-of-the-dog-star-1984-bf7/series
The Tomorrow People (1973-1979)
The Tomorrow People was part science fiction, part horror (certainly early on) and part coming-of-age drama involving children hitting puberty and developing psychic powers. These included teleportation, telekinesis, telepathy, and some other psychic traits, as well as an inability to take human life. The show featured strong portrayals from male and female characters, a mixture of ethnicities, as well as dealing with various social issues as key parts of the story line (e.g. “The Blue and the Green” which has similarities to the blue-eyed/brown-eyed discrimination exercise performed by Jane Elliott).
Key story arcs that I remember as being particular adrenaline generating – esp. as I started watching it when I was 6, I think – included:
- All of series 1 – Slaves of Jedikiah, The Medusa Strain & The Vanishing Earth.
- Series 2’s A Rift in Time
- Series 5’s The Heart of Sogguth story arc comprising episodes Beat the Drum and Devil in Disguise
The show featured one of the most distinctive title sequences of its time with instantly recognisable music and visuals (similar in many ways to the more recent Fringe title sequence imagery).
Children of the Stones (1977, ITV)
Described by one source as an “ambitious mix of Quatermass, The Stone Tape, The Wicker Man, and classic Doctor” and another as feeling “more like a Lovecraft adaptation or vintage David Lynch than a lighthearted children’s programme“, Children of the Stones rates as one, if not the most, scary children’s television series every produced.
Parts science fiction, horror, druidic cultism, aliens, time loops, and so on there’s nothing here to provide a safe rock for the younger viewer to stand on. And, of course, we came back each week to devour the next episode before not sleeping for the next few nights. And not only that, the final moments of the show reveal that the protagonists’ efforts might all be for nought. Apparently, there was a novel set as a sequel which may mop some of those up (“Return to the Stones“). Both the DVDs and book on my to-buy list if they’re available.
Apparently, Netflix are producing the four-part series but “won’t be as brutal and scarring.”
I cannot remember any comparable TV shows around this time from the US on our screens. There were lots of them, but none with the sense of foreboding and horror that these and others from the UK and NZ had.