The world is loud, and it is only getting louder. Escaping the noise outside can seem impossible, especially when living in an urban environment. But as anyone who frequents them knows, libraries are a haven from all the bustle.
While they have evolved to be more like community centers, libraries still encourage guests to keep their voices down. Near silence is preferred, yet sometimes being too quiet and too alone is unnerving. Maybe even scary. At the wrong time of night, a library takes on a whole other identity.
These five episodes from TV anthologies show strangers hiding among the bookcases, patrons in peril, and librarians struggling to survive.
Journey to the Unknown (1968)
Matakitas is Coming
In the late 1960s, Hammer Film Productions and 20th Century Fox Television teamed up on an anthology called Journey to the Unknown. And like 1973’s Thriller series, both American and British actors were cast in the roles. In America, eight of the seventeen episodes were chosen for four made-for-television features; one of these includes the fan-favorite, “Matakitas is Coming“.
Neither Hammer nor 20th has made the effort to re-release the series today. So the show’s lost-to-time quality seems appropriate for this episode, which is about a woman who has been trapped in the past. Vera Miles of The Birds fame plays a determined criminologist named June Wiley. On a fateful night, Wiley researches the 1927 murder of a librarian at the very place she died. Sometime during the evening, Miles’ character is then transported back to the night of the crime.
June is not alone in her time-slip misadventure; she is joined by a librarian named Sylvia (Gay Hamilton). The company inside an otherwise empty and creepy library is welcome because the victim in June’s research died on this day. Which only means the killer, Andros Matakitas (Leon Lissek) is lurking around.
The limited location is not a hindrance; director Michael Lindsay-Hogg makes great use of the setting. Every footstep is menacing, as are the shadows on the wall. He plays into the innate eeriness of libraries after closing. “Matakitas” builds a good deal of suspense before finally delivering a big jolt at the end.
File It Under Fear
The library in this episode of the British anthology, Thriller, attracts a lot of people from different walks of life. While most check out books, one patron checks out potential victims. Someone in “File It Under Fear” is a killer, and the one clue to their identity so far is their library card.
At the start of the episode, a pedestrian is strangled to death while walking alone at night. This signals a new spree of female victims, all disposed of in a similar manner. The only thing tying them together is their youth; they are all in their twenties. The local coppers are stumped, but the audience is handed a few suspects as the protagonist, the head librarian at Penbury Public, is introduced. Miss Liz Morris (Maureen Lipman) is surrounded by suspicious men. The assistant librarian, George (Richard O’Callaghan), resents Morris for not giving him a key to the library, and Liz’s mother’s boarder, Steve (John Nightingale), showed up not too long after the original murders began. The most obvious choice, though, has to be the shady police officer who frequents the library. It stands to reason a homicidal cop could easily evade his peers.
The killer’s preference for twenty-something women rules Liz out, seeing as she has aged out of the target demographic. Everyone reminds Liz of that fact. Something often held against her is now somehow a benefit. Being “immune” to the culprit is a cold comfort, yet for Liz, it ultimately makes her feel even more undesirable. She recoups some of her power by putting George in his place after he preyed on her vulnerability earlier on.
Prolific TV screenwriter Brian Clemens casts so much doubt on several side characters, the sleuths at home will naturally want to disregard them. Surely the story is trying to conceal the true murderer with these red herrings. Maybe, maybe not. Trying to figure out the killer will require reading between the lines.
Tales from the Crypt (1989-1996)
Maniac at Large
Tales from the Crypt fans have their favorite episodes, many of which come from the earlier seasons. However, Season Four’s “Maniac at Large“, directed by the late John Frankenheimer, has gone unnoticed over the years in spite of its beginning-to-end suspense and terrific setup. On top of that, Blythe Danner and musician Adam Ant headline this tense and isolated thriller set inside a city library.
The episode draws its plot from EC’s Crime SuspenStories, and little of the source material is changed. “Maniac at Large” illustrates how troubles from the outside eventually come inside. Misbehaving youth, social problems, and other local undesirables find their way into this public domain of knowledge.
Danner’s character, Margaret, thinks the library is a hideaway from the big bad world, but all that changes once news of another murder, the seventh so far in a series, occurs in a nearby park. Margaret’s panic soon come out at her new job, and she does not have a moment of peace until closing time. Or so she thought. The bossy Mrs. Pritchard (Salome Jens) has her new employee stay late, and Margaret’s anxiety only intensifies.
The episode being restrained to one locale is an advantage because this lair of literature is also an ideal center for paranoia. Once Frankenheimer establishes dread, it never goes away. It is also clear how much fun the cast is having with their roles in “Maniac at Large”.
Are You Afraid of the Dark? (1990-2000)
The Tale of the Quiet Librarian
The kids are not all right in “The Tale of the Quiet Librarian“. Kiki (Jodie Resther) gives both her fellow Midnight Society members and young people everywhere a reason to scream when she tells a story about what happens to loud children in libraries.
In this episode from the penultimate season of the original Are You Afraid of the Dark, a library is haunted by a voice-stealing spirit. Her next victims, Laurie (Shannon Duff) and Jace (Aaron A. McConnaughey), butt heads when they are partnered for an assignment. She has no time for fun, whereas he likes to goof around. So when Jace forgets a book they need in the library basement, both kids sneak in after hours. Big mistake because the library’s “silence is golden” rule is still in place.
Libraries are commonly seen as safe places, particularly for young people. This episode plays on that belief by imagining what happens when children become trapped in an everyday destination and hangout. Solitude and stillness make libraries a fertile setting for terror. And for the most part, this story conveys that idea despite the obvious constraints involved.
The audio design plays an important part in this story’s success, and the idea of a box stealing and storing sounds is clever. Not explaining Mercy MacGregor’s origin was also wise. The ending is rather bittersweet once viewers remember Laurie and Jace got lucky. It is obvious countless other kids did not fare so well when up against the Quiet Librarian.
The Girl Who Cried Monster
This Goosebumps story, originally published in 1993 before its television adaptation, is yet another spin on “The Boy Who Cried Wolf”. Like in Aesop’s fable, a young person has a habit of bending the truth for his or her own entertainment. Lucy Dark (Deborah Scorsone) makes it her life’s work to prank her gullible brother, much to her parents’ dismay. It is only when she starts telling the truth does no one believe her.
Lucy annoys everyone, and she tends to get away with her mischief. That changes once the local librarian, Mr. Mortman (Eugene Lipinski), reveals his true form when he thinks no one is looking. Lucy gets a glimpse at the real Mortman; the librarian is actually a bug-eating monster. No one buys into the girl’s claims, and that is only because she has lost their trust. So, Lucy decides she needs proof to back up her allegation.
There is something to be said about “The Girl Who Cried Monster” and its less obvious themes. Apart from the moral takeaway of why lying is bad, this story grotesquely explores assimilation. When Mr. Mortman fails to fit in, he is punished. Meanwhile, those who have learned how to better conform to their current environment are evidently better off for doing so. Then, there is the aspect of flawed victims, whose past behavior is held against them.
Luckily for Lucy, her parents do end up believing her. The book and episode vary in how this comes to pass, but the outcome is the same. What is even more fun is all the scene-chewing in the TV interpretation.
Series of Frights is a recurring column that mainly focuses on horror in television. Specifically, it takes a closer look at five episodes or stories — each one adhering to an overall theme — from different anthology series or the occasional movie made for TV. With anthologies becoming popular again, especially on television, now is the perfect time to see what this timeless mode of storytelling has to offer.