Only a Ghost of a Chance: The Forgotten Tale of GHOST STORY
By John C. Alsedek:
A decade after Rod Serling's trailblazing series The Twilight Zone premiered, Rod was back with a new anthology program: Night Gallery. A horror program as opposed to the fantasy/science fiction of The Twilight Zone, it premiered as a remarkable 90-minute TV movie in 1969 and joined the NBC schedule as a full-fledged series in 1970. And, just as The Twilight Zone had inspired other anthology programs such as The Outer Limits and Thriller, the early success of Night Gallery led to a brief renaissance of TV anthologies. Perhaps the best of them was a show all but lost in the archives of television history—and unfortunately so, as even today it stands out for its strong acting, writing, and direction. That show was Ghost Story.
The details of how Ghost Story came to be are a bit sketchy, which is unfortunate because of the star power of the duo behind the show: it was the brainchild of the "King of the Gimmicks," horror producer William Castle, and legendary horror/sci-fi author Richard Matheson. Like Night Gallery, Ghost Story began life as a one-off television movie; it aired on March 17th, 1972, as half of a two-hour double feature with Movin' On (NOT the Claude Akins trucker series, which was two years later). Penned by Matheson, "The New House" concerns a young married couple (Barbara Parkins & David Birney) who move into a home that they only later learn is built on the site where the town's gallows used to be. This is an important discovery, because one of the restless spirits ensconced in the house is trying to possess the couple's unborn daughter! Directed with aplomb by TV/film veteran John Llewellyn Moxey and solidly acted (Parkins in particular gives a remarkable performance), "The New House" succeeds in generating some nice chills—especially the rather disturbing ending. Clearly, audiences liked what they saw; the ratings were good enough that production company Screen Gems got the go-ahead to produce a full season, premiering in the fall of '72.
Having been a 7-year-old during its brief run, my memories of Ghost Story are pretty fragmentary. Because unlike The Twilight Zone and Night Gallery, which I watched, rewatched, and re-rewatched in syndication, I only ever saw each episode of Ghost Story once (that is, till now—I'm revisiting the series even as I write this). But one thing that remained firmly ingrained in my mind over the 40-plus years since then was the title sequence and narrator Sebastian Cabot. Cabot played Winston Essex, owner/proprietor of Mansfield House (played by San Diego's famed Hotel del Coronado); each episode would begin with the genial Essex introducing the subject of that evening's story and would end with Essex tying things up and introducing previews of the next week's tale.
And that title sequence—a night shot of the Hotel del Coronado with credits swirling and changing over the ethereal, lightly haunting theme of Billy Goldenberg—is one of my all-time favorites.
During its all-too-brief run, Ghost Story was frequently compared with contemporaries such as Night Gallery and the Gary Collins paranormal drama The Sixth Sense (more on them later). But to me, as I have rediscovered the show, it feels much more akin to Boris Karloff's Thriller due to the single-story-per-hour episode format.
It suffers a bit in comparison due to not quite having the spine-tingle factor of the creepiest Thriller eps, and it was shot in color rather than the hyper-atmospheric black-and-white of the Karloff series. Yet to me, the overall quality is every bit as good as Thriller because while it may not have matched that show's very best, it was a lot more uniform; there were no glorious trainwrecks like Thriller episodes "Mark of the Hand" and "Letter to a Lover." Ghost Story never drops below very watchable, and that’s because of the talent involved.
The first thing you notice when watching Ghost Story is the number of familiar faces that are paired up: Oscar winner Jason Robards & Stella Stevens in "The Dead We Leave Behind," Melvyn Douglas & a very young Jodie Foster in "House of Evil," Stuart Whitman & Gena Rowlands in "The Concrete Captain," or John Astin & Patty Duke in "Graveyard Shift." They were directed by some of the industry’s best, including Moxey, Richard Donner (The Omen), Leo Penn (The Dark Secret of Harvest Home), and Thriller alum Herschel Daugherty. But the best actors & directors in the world can’t save bad writing, which fortunately was not a problem! Scripts were contributed by such greats as Robert Bloch, Harlan Ellison, D.C. Fontana (Star Trek), and Hammer Films screenwriter Jimmy Sangster. The result? Great storytelling.
But great storytelling won't always get you ratings, and by the winter break of its first season, Ghost Story was in trouble. Part of it was the competition: the highly popular Room 222 and The Odd Couple were on ABC in the same time slot, while CBS aired its Friday Night Movies then as well. The other part? Most likely, its spot on the Friday night schedule in the first place. Teenagers and young adults, who were the most likely audience for a horror program like Ghost Story, were generally away from the television on Friday evenings. Then again, maybe the brief anthology renaissance that had come with Night Gallery had simply run its course; after all, that series had been cut from one hour to thirty minutes and would soon go off the air entirely.
In an effort to reinvent the show mid-season and maybe get enough ratings for a renewal, Castle and Screen Gems made sweeping changes. Ghost Story became Circle of Fear, the lovely title sequence was replaced with a bolder one that felt more like "A Quinn Martin Production," if you remember those. Sebastian Cabot and the host segments were dropped. On the bright side, the quality and content of the episodes themselves didn't change; on the other hand, neither did the ratings. Ghost Story/Circle of Fear survived for nine more episodes before it got the ax. With just 22 shows completed, there wasn't enough content for a syndication package; as a result, the series disappeared into the NBC archives for four decades. Thankfully, it finally got a much-deserved DVD release a few years back; if you're a fan of the anthology format or of horror in general, I'd recommend giving Ghost Story a chance (note: I normally don't recommend watching copyrighted material on YouTube, but if you want to see what Ghost Story was about before springing for the box set, there are some episodes available there).
Earlier, I'd mentioned that Ghost Story was frequently compared to contemporaries like Night Gallery and The Sixth Sense. Well, next time I'll be talking about how those two series—which ran on different networks—ended up becoming one show. Until then, thanks for tuning in!