In the days leading up to Halloween, Primetimer is plumbing the depths of television's past to come up with the scariest TV episodes we've ever seen. And we're not just talking the usual suspects for horror — Buffy, The X-Files, The Twilight Zone — we're talking about shows that weren't usually out to frighten their fans. Because sometimes TV can get really weird. And unsettling. And straight-up terrifying.
Dawson's Creek creator Kevin Williamson wrote the screenplays for Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer, so it's hardly surprising that his titular movie-obsessed TV teen character also shares his love of horror classics. In the Season 1 episode "The Scare," Dawson (James Van Der Beek) used his favorite day of the year to torment his friends with a variety of scary movie-based practical jokes. No, actually we're not talking about Halloween. Instead, Dawson chose Friday the 13th as his own personal scary holiday. The creepy stakes of this episode were elevated by news of a serial killer known as "The Lady Killer," who was reportedly operating within the vicinity of Capeside.
There are several nods to horror movie franchises, including Halloween, Friday the 13th, and even Williamson's own work in this genre — the episode opens with Dawson and Joey (Katie Holmes) watching I Know What You Did Last Summer. For the record, the episode was written by Enlightened creator Mike White, not Williamson himself, although it's clearly influenced by his past work. As with Scream, humor and scares are well balanced, and while no one is sliced and diced or involved in a gruesome garage door death, there's an undercurrent of terror running throughout. Yes, I 've seen this episode multiple times and, just like every scary movie I love to rewatch, it still makes me jump.
Where I grew up in the UK, Dawson's Creek aired as part of Channel 4's teen-oriented daytime weekend programming block, a time at which this particular episode was deemed too scary to air. Instead it was held back by nearly three months, and given the spookiest timeslot available: just before midnight on Halloween. This was a "missing episode" for UK viewers, which made its Halloween scheduling even more enticing, especially for this particular 16-year-old, who was obsessed with both Scream and Dawson's Creek. Debuting the episode on the cusp of the witching hour may have been overkill (a network teen drama was never going to be a bloodbath), but staying up late to watch it was part of the thrill. And although it may be tame in comparison to what the serial killers on Riverdale do today, just like the horror classics, Dawson's Creek still has some scares up its sleeve.
Dawson's preferred method of frightening his friends included hiding under the bed wearing a Jason Voorhees mask, fake severed finger fries, and locker jump-scares. Considering how much Dawson loved horror, it was all pretty PG. Jen (Michelle Williams) got left out of the jokey antics, as she and Dawson had just broken up, plus there was a new guy who had taken an interest in her. (Watching this episode out of sequence in 1998 made all of this relationship drama even more confusing!) Future Scream 3 killer Scott Foley played Cliff, a jock who wanted to be more like Dawson — your guess as to why is as good as mine — so he got involved with the pranks. But there's a big difference between a rubber snake and sending someone a death threat, particularly with everyone on serial killer high alert. Like Winston (Lamorne Morris) on New Girl, Cliff is very bad at knowing where the line is.
I knew all the scary movie camera tricks back then, but anticipation is part of the horror experience, and "The Scare" sprinkled these moments throughout. The most effective occurring when Jen received a creepy phone call while was essentially home alone (her sick grandpa is sleeping). No, it was not hard to make out Foley's voice on the other end of the line, but there was a hint of menace in his breathy delivery. As with Casey Becker (Drew Barrymore) at the start of Scream, this conversation begins with a guy thinking he is being cute and flirtatious. Jen thought it was Dawson, so she told him she had already seen this one (referencing a Williamson movie within a Williamson TV show), asking "What's your favorite scary movie?" Then she grabbed the nearest kitchen knife before running to check her grandfather's room. With the curtain billowing in the wind, Jen checked under the bed, that's when her grandfather's hand innocently flopped down on her head and I nearly jumped out of my skin.
Jen's creepy caller sequence was the quintessential scary movie homage, right down to the dolly zoom. However, it was a seemingly innocent encounter that Joey experienced while on a snack run for Dawson's seance that is, in retrospect, the scariest moment. While she waits in the car, a man approaches and tells her he's lost, then starts asking personal questions. Before she can answer, Dawson returns. Joey naively assures him it was fine, but when an adult man starts asking a teen girl where she lives, alarm bells should go off, regardless of the current serial killer activity. Cut to the final scene when instead of a scary movie, they watch the news: The Lady Killer has been caught, because Capeside can spot a creep even if Joey can't. This reveal is very silly, but it wouldn't be a horror episode without an actual killer.
Dawson's Creek's "The Scare" may not have truly warranted a late-night airing, but it was a Halloween experience I remember vividly. Just the way Dawson would want it.
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Emma Fraser has wanted to write about TV since she first watched My So-Called Life in the mid-90s, finally getting her wish over a decade later. Follow her on Twitter at @frazbelina.