Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Halloween Comfort TV: Ghost Story

If you’re a classic TV fan you probably have a few go-to shows that are fun to pull up around Halloween.

Perhaps it’s a seasonal sitcom episode, like “Halloween Party” (The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet) or “The Ghost of A. Chantz” (The Dick Van Dyke Show). Maybe you prefer legit scares to Halloween humor, with something like “An Unlocked Window” (Alfred Hitchcock Presents) or “The Incredible Doktor Markesan” (Thriller).

I’ll watch some of those again this year, but I also wanted to check out something different. That’s what led me to Ghost Story, a short-lived supernatural anthology series that debuted on NBC in 1972. 

I was never a fan of scary stuff growing up, so watching this series at age 8 would have been out of the question. My appreciation for the genre has grown since then, as long as it’s not just maniacs chopping up teenagers with hatchets. At the risk of offending some of my readers, I can’t even begin to understand why anyone finds that entertaining.

So I was ready for my first look at this 47 year-old series, hosted by Sebastian Cabot as Winston Essex, owner of the elegant hotel Mansfield House. The introductions were shot on location at San Diego’s beautiful Hotel del Coronado, which I look forward to revisiting now to see if any of the interiors still look the same. 

“Ghosts somehow seem indigenous to yesteryear…grotesquely incompatible with the nuclear age. And yet, they still exist,” Winston tells us, as the camera pans to a young couple having dinner in the hotel restaurant. It’s David Birney and Barbara Parkins, who play newlyweds moving into a new house in a story appropriately titled “The New House.”

The script was by Twilight Zone veteran Richard Matheson – surely a good sign. It’s an exemplary haunted house tale where the wife hears footsteps and eerie laughter, while her husband and the housekeeper think her pregnancy is affecting her discernment. Eventually she tracks down a local historian who tells her the house was built on land once used to execute criminals 200 years earlier.

Yeah, that’s never a good sign. 

The story builds as these things inevitably do toward a money shot moment – and when it arrives it does not disappoint. “The New House” ends with a pretty scary scene that I found surprisingly potent for a prime time show, followed by a downbeat denouement that struck me as a gutsy call for a first episode.

“Will they all be this good?” I wondered.

The answer is no – but some of them were.

I also enjoyed “At the Cradle Foot,” starring James Franciscus as a man who has a recurring dream in which his young daughter, barely out of diapers, is murdered 20 years in the future. He vows to prevent that tragedy, even if it means making sure the man who kills her is never born.

“Time of Terror” is elevated by a remarkable performance from Patricia Neal as a woman who wakes up in a hotel to find her husband has disappeared. It’s a mystery that starts to telegraph its unsettling twist about halfway through, but Neal makes it worth your time. 

Another surprisingly grim episode is “House of Evil,” with Melvyn Douglas as a bitter grandfather who blames his son-in-law for his daughter having died in childbirth. When he pays a visit to the family he gives a special dollhouse to his mute granddaughter, played by Jodie Foster, which he coaxes her into using as an instrument of revenge. 

By now you’ve noticed the A-list names attached to these stories, which certainly help elevate the material. “The Concrete Captain” stars Stuart Whitman and Gena Rowlands as a couple who fall under the spell of a nautical legend. Would the story have worked as well with Bert Convy and Sally Struthers? Probably not.  

“Alter-Ego” stars the esteemed Helen Hayes as a beloved teacher who can’t understand why one of her quietest and kindest students has turned malevolent. It’s another example of a story that turns darker than I expected, but I enjoyed the climax, which was reminiscent of a classic EC horror comic. 

I also wished I enjoyed “Elegy For a Vampire” more than I did, with Hal Linden as the most tortured and reluctant bloodsucker since Barnabas Collins.

I was not as impressed with “Bad Connection,” featuring Karen Black as a woman terrorized by phone calls from her dead husband. Or “Cry of the Cat,” a western take on the classic film Cat People with Doug McClure and Mariette Hartley. And even Angie Dickinson couldn’t save “Creatures of the Canyon,” another evil animal story. 

Unfortunately, halfway through its first and only season Ghost Story was retooled under the new title Circle of Fear. Cabot was gone, and so were any supernatural elements in some of the episodes. One can only wonder what they were thinking with either of those changes, as they certainly didn’t make the series any better or more popular.

The show is available on DVD, which is surprising given its obscurity. 

If this were a Purchase or Pass blog entry I’d have to vote pass. But the show’s best episodes can be viewed for free on Halloween or anytime you wish, courtesy of YouTube. 



  1. I had recently watched this series, as it aired on GetTV, I think. It had some good episodes that left a spooky memory. The Helen Hayes one I liked, and the Jodie Foster episode. Wasn't there also one with a well in the basement of a house, and the lid kept coming off?

  2. Mr. Hofstede, do you know about the 1970s British anthology series "Thriller"? Various American actors (Christopher George, Lynda Day George, Gary Collins, and Stuart Damon among them) made guest appearances on that show. It is available for viewing on Tubi as well as on Amazon's Prime Video.

    1. Heard of it, but never saw it. Perhaps something to check out for next Halloween.

  3. I was 10 years old in 1972 & lived for this kind of stuff--how is it I never heard of this limited series? Thanks so much! PS. I was born on Halloween :)

  4. I sat up past 2am last night (I'm retired, so why not) and watched the first 3 episodes on Youtube (on my tv). This stuff is 70's GOLD, I'm going to watch every episode. Thanks again.

    1. Glad you enjoyed them! It's always fun to discover 'new' old shows to watch.

  5. Sebastian Cabot's role seems to resemble Boris Karloff's role in THRILLER. Did Cabot act in any episodes, as Karloff did in 5 THRILLER episodes?