Medium spooked by supernatural

'X-Files'

Although “X”-philes may be reluctant to believe it, “The X-Files” is hardly the first show in primetime to use the paranormal and the supernatural as a driving theme. It goes back to at least the mid-1950s and “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” and, a few years later, “Alcoa Presents” (better known by its syndicated title, “One Step Beyond”).

While not a paranormal series per se, “Alfred Hitchcock” offered more than its share of unexplained phenomena throughout the portly director’s long-running anthology, which began on Oct. 2, 1955, on CBS. And five years after Hitchcock’s death, he returned from the dead to host a new series when NBC premiered a new edition in 1985 complete with restored, colorized Hitchcock intros.

“One Step Beyond” (which ran originally on ABC from 1959-61), hosted by the earnest John Newland, featured actual case histories of supernatural phenomena and the occult, from haunted houses to unexplained instances of ESP. Being shot in black-and-white added to its unsettling allure.

Around that same time, Rod Serling’s “The Twilight Zone” anthology made its debut (on CBS in October 1959). It remains probably the most renowned of the supernatural-themed shows, though often it didn’t deal with anything particularly witchy at all. The only true constant in the series of morality plays (through its three incarnations) was irony. It was a Serling trademark.

“Twilight Zone” proved conclusively that a playwright like Serling could find success in the TV medium, and it also showed that the weird and the offbeat could win a mass audience in primetime. The effects and dialogue may seem cheesy today, but back in the early to mid-’60s it was a state-of-the-art scare.

The show also featured an impressive array of acting talent, including Robert Redford, Burgess Meredith, Burt Reynolds, Mickey Rooney, Agnes Moorehead, Buster Keaton, Charles Bronson, Jack Klugman and Elizabeth Montgomery.

Another creative forefather of “The X-Files” was “The Outer Limits,” which is enjoying a second successful life with a new edition on Showtime and in syndication. Its original run lasted just 2-1/2 seasons (1963-65, on ABC), but many viewers discovered it in syndication.

“Outer Limits” also was marked by special effects that were deliciously crude, though downright inventive for the time. And like “Twilight Zone,” it respected the audience enough to steer clear of the pat conclusion and risk leaving viewers feeling unsettled and unfulfilled. And how can we forget that it was on “Outer Limits” that a pre-“Star Trek” William Shatner starred as an astronaut on a fly-by mission to the planet Venus — a mission entitled “Project Vulcan”?

There was also Serling’s supernatural anthology followup to “Twilight Zone” in the early 1970s, “Night Gallery,” which has been described as a paranormal “Love, American Style.” And later, Steven Spielberg adapted his love for “Outer Limits,” “One Step Beyond” and “Twilight Zone” into the poorly received NBC fantasy anthology “Amazing Stories” (1985-87).

But when “X-Files” creator and executive producer Chris Carter discusses influences for his series, the show he singles out is “Kolchak: The Night Stalker,” a short-lived 1970s ABC occult drama. “Kolchak,” which started life as a TV movie, survived just a single season (1974-75), but its inspirational “X-Files” roots are clear enough. It told supernatural tales through the eyes of a wisecracking Chicago crime reporter named Carl Kolchak (Darren McGavin).

Kolchak was Mulder and Scully rolled into one. His world meshed fantasy and reality, putting him into regular contact with zombies, werewolves, vampires and even the occasional demon. Few believed him. But Kolchak knew that the truth was out there, even if he couldn’t quite put his finger on it.

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