What I learned about love from Tales From The Crypt

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Mar 3, 2018, 12:35 PM EST (Updated)

Love. Ever heard of it? It's kind of a big deal. Still, as famous as love is, it can be somewhat difficult to navigate. Most of us have all kinds of problems figuring it out. Fortunately for us, there's someone out there in this wild universe who gives great relationship advice, on whom we can always depend to guide us. That person is, obviously, the Cryptkeeper from HBO's Tales From the Crypt.

In the beginning, Tales From the Crypt was an ongoing horror anthology comic book, published by William Gaines from 1950 to 1955 through his company EC, or “Educational Comics.” While Tales From the Crypt initially sold well, comic books as a medium were, at the time, under attack in the United States due to several articles and one book by various clergymen and psychologists claiming that they were overly violent and promoted illiteracy and juvenile delinquency.

When congressional hearings occurred, William Gaines and EC seemed to be specifically under attack, while other publishers like DC and the company that would ultimately become Marvel agreed to allow for their output to be policed by the Comics Code Authority, a censorship organization similar to the Hayes Code in Hollywood. EC attempted to meet the demands of the Comic Code, but their output was almost entirely comprised of comics that the Code had been formed to put a stop to.

There were many far-reaching effects of these hearings, one being that, before the Code, there had been successful comic series about all kinds of different subject matter—but after them, the medium of comics narrowed its output to mostly superhero comics, a change that would last decades and continue to influence outside perceptions of the medium to this very day. Another was that Tales From the Crypt ended, and so did EC comics and Gaines' career as a publisher as he had known it. A tragic love story in and of itself, it's always very sobering to read of Gaines' once excitable attitude toward the medium after the hearings, where he felt that he specifically had been attacked and accused of corrupting the youth of America. While he went on to greater success with Mad Magazine, there is no question of the lingering effect the trials had on him, serving as one of the earliest examples of Jack Kirby's oft-quoted line: “Comics will break your heart.”

Despite the collapse of EC and the enforcement of the Comics Code, some horror comics still managed to sneak past critics off of technicalities. Anthologies like Creepy and Eerie thrived due to being printed in black and white, which meant that they were theoretically intended for an older audience and thus didn't have to adhere to the same rule system as full-color comics did. A decade or so after Tales From the Crypt and comics like it had been driven off the shelves, there was a series of eight editions of reprints done in black and white and changed to a paperback book format, and this marked the first attempt to reintroduce the series. While comics were more or less done with the concept for the moment, there was a British film version of some of the stories from the old series in 1972, marking the first of several adaptations.

The best-known version of Tales From the Crypt is, without question, the HBO television series that ran from 1989 to 1996, aired a total of 93 episodes, and featured dozens of cameos and appearances—from stars ranging from Patricia Arquette to Brad Pitt to a late Alfred Hitchcock. Due to the fact that the television series ran longer than the actual comic had, many of the stories are taken not just from the original Tales From the Crypt, but other EC series as well, such as Shock SuspenStories and The Vault of Horror. As recently as 2017, there were discussions of attempting a new movie based on Tales From the Crypt, until someone looked at the complicated ownership of the property, presumably got a sharp headache, and called it a day. Well, that's all fine and good, because there is a wealth of Tales From the Crypt stories already in existence. In order to discover the secret of love, all you have to do is look to that magical time known as the early '90s.

It's been observed that Tales From the Crypt was a show about sin, and the moralistic punishments doled out to those who give in to their baser instincts, but it assures us time and time again that if you pursue someone or play with their heart out of greed, vanity, or lust, there's bound to be a karmic backlash against you for your bad motivations. In the first season alone, nearly every episode is about the pitfalls people encounter when they play with someone's heart out of greed. "And All Through the House," the second episode of the series, is about a woman who murders her husband for his money, then spends Christmas Eve being terrorized by an ax-wielding man in a Santa costume. The fourth episode, "Only Sin Deep," features Back to the Future's Lea Thompson as an overly vain sex worker who attempts to barter her beauty for riches, murdering men who would use her for her looks. In "Lover Come Hack to Me," Amanda Plummer is the timid but rich wife of a man seeking to kill her for his money only to first seduce him and then surprise him with her own sexual appetite and murderous impulses. Through it all, the Cryptkeeper, typically delighted by the terrible fates that befall the characters in his stories, will wrap things up by hiking an eyebrow at the viewer and making a surprisingly sympathetic pun.

While there's no question that I was a bit too young to be watching this series as it was coming out, parents in the early '90s as a whole were generally a bit more lackadaisical with their children watching gruesome horror films than they tended to be either before or since, so watch it I did. Still, some good came of this. While the concept of karma has become more questionable to me later in my life, in my younger years Tales From the Crypt told me under no uncertain terms that when you act out of malice, you're sure to meet a bitterly ironic fate by the end of the episode—so you're better off just being honest in life.

Some of my earliest lessons in love came from Tales From the Crypt. I remember the episode “Loved to Death,” where a young man develops an unhealthy obsession with a woman who has no interest in him, only to cast a love spell that works too well as the woman quite literally drives him to his grave. Be careful what you wish for. Same goes for the episode “Spoiled,” in which a housewife begins an affair with a sexy cable man only to end up literally bound to him. “Talk about being stuck on each other,” smirks the Cryptkeeper as the episode wraps. Cryptkeeper, you really know how to drive a point home. Granted, I may also have taken a lot more profound meaning out of his puns than was intended, but here we are.

The series features career highlights from some actors who are typically either typecast or who struggled to find roles in Hollywood. Patricia Arquette's turn as a victim of abuse, who has a bizarre sexual fascination with a scarecrow in the episode “Four-Sided Triangle” is by far one of her best, most unsettling roles in a long career. Demi Moore as a woman who marries a man she's disgusted with out of her own greed in “Dead Right” is one of the few times I remember seeing genuine contempt onscreen when I was a kid. Carol Kane, the aforementioned Amanda Plummer, and Jessica Harper are just a few among many actors who had surprisingly memorable roles on the series, which was my introduction to many of them.

In short, Tales From the Crypt delves fully into the secret of love—if the secret of love is that it is bad, doomed, hopeless, ill-motivated, evil, wrong, not what you thought it was going to be, and that it will most likely lead you to a bitterly ironic end. That being said, these people were kind of jerky for trying to trick someone into loving them via arcane methods, marrying someone for their money, and/or attempting to seduce someone away from their spouse, and the list goes on.

Thanks, Cryptkeeper!

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