“Prestige horror” is a term thrown around a lot these days. From Toni Collette’s anguished howls of grief in Hereditary to the decadently rancid imagery of Brian Fuller’s Hannibal and the stark, frightening themes of Lynch’s Twin Peaks: The Return, horror’s foundational emotions have attained a level of cultural cachet previously reserved for drama alone. The roots of this trend are many and varied, but a not insignificant number can be traced to the beginning of the “Golden Age of Television,” in particular to David Chase’s mafia masterpiece The Sopranos. With its depictions of ghosts, hauntings, and especially its much-discussed dream sequences, Chase’s show quietly laid the groundwork for much of modern horror’s ultra-personal tone and lived-in aesthetic. Watched with a focus on its supernatural elements, it functions as a visual and thematic skeleton key for many of the most acclaimed works of horror media that followed.
The Sopranos is a show that wallows in death, its characters constantly circulating like gray water through a network of cemeteries, funeral parlors, nursing homes, and hospital rooms. Over the course of its eight-year run, as murder followed on murder these morbid fixations bled slowly from the realm of the quotidian into the paranormal. In “The Ride,” the sixth and final season’s ninth episode, a sleepless Paulie (Tony Sirico) sees the Virgin Mary (Tanya P.) hanging suspended in midair at the Bada Bing, the strip club from which the Soprano crime family conducts its business. It’s a terrifying moment, but its real import lies in the fact that before Paulie sees her, her reflection appears beside his in the mirrors lining the strip club’s walls. The technique of showing the audience a figure or monster which goes unseen by a character until too late is, of course, a staple of horror from Jaws to Alien.
The Madonna’s image in the non-observer surface of the mirror also communicates that she is “real” within the fiction of the show, that her appearance to Paulie is not a product of his imagination alone. Why she appears to him — as a consequence of his harsh words to his mother earlier in the episode, to pass judgement on his cost-cutting at a local church festival and the accident it caused — is an open question, but that she does at all has frightening theological implications for Paulie and his fellow mobsters. In the series finale Paulie seems to struggle with the gravity of his vision, confessing to Tony that he saw the Virgin in their club, but at the promise of more money and a bump up the ranks he shrugs his shoulders and burrows deeper into his world of violence and graft. In a show fundamentally about human resistance to change, a career killer going about his work after seeing the mother of God in person makes a brutal moral statement. Even held in the gaze of the divine, men like Paulie remain unwilling to face their own fundamental corruption.
The Virgin’s manifestation may be the climax of the series’ brushes with the supernatural, but it is by no means the only indication that something inexplicable churns beneath the callous violence and lack of self-insight which shape its characters’ lives. In the second season episode “From Where to Eternity” a resuscitated Christopher (Michael Imperioli) has a vision of what he believes to be Hell, an Irish bar called The Emerald Piper where every day is St. Patrick’s Day. In this bar his friend Brendan Filone (Anthony DeSando) and Filone’s murderer Mikey Palmice (Al Sapienza) play dominos together while Christopher’s father Dicky gambles, losing to the Irish every time, and each night endures the repetition of his murder as it happened in life. Christopher carries a message back from this interlude during his clinical death, telling Tony (James Gandolfini) and Paulie that Dicky said to tell them “three o’clock.”
Paulie becomes obsessed with the message, lying awake until three AM night after night in fear for his life. Finally, at his girlfriend’s suggestion, he consults a medium (Tom Cappadona) in hopes of finding relief from his anxiety. Notably, Paulie reacts to these dreams and to Christopher’s vision in a way he never does to his own encounter with the Virgin, perhaps because while she is silent, Christopher’s dream addresses him personally. While the medium at first seems to employ leading questions and confirmation bias to direct his clients toward the resolutions they want, when he reaches Paulie things take a dramatic turn. The medium first invokes the name of Paulie’s first ever victim, a hitman named Charles “Sonny” Pagano, and then conveys a message about poison ivy seemingly from Mikey Palmice, another gangster killed by Paulie. After the medium tells him that there are many other spirits following after him, Paulie flies into a terrified rage and storms out of the session.
This movement from the absurd into the terrifying maps directly to the seance in Hereditary and to similar moments in horror films about subconscious pain, like Audition and Possession, a crucial point at which unreality crosses into the real. This dramatic device functions to draw out subconscious anxieties and suffering like poison from a wound, revealing their full extent and power. Paulie’s fury at the medium’s revelations is only projection; his real anger is with himself, located in his repressed regrets about the way he’s spent his life and the bleak, paranoid emotional existence in which that life has left him stranded.
In the third season’s “Proshoi, Livushka” shortly after his grandmother Livia’s (Nancy Marchand) death A.J. Soprano (Robert Iler) is distracted from his homework by a noise. He steps out into the family home’s dark upstairs hallway. “Grandma?” he calls, his voice low and strained. Later in the same episode, the image of Salvatore “Big Pussy” Bonpensiero (Vincent Pastore) is briefly visible in a mirror while his friends and killers Tony, Silvio (Steve van Zandt), and Paulie confer in the hallway of a funeral home where Tony’s mother lies in state. Pussy is visible only to the audience, but Tony seems to sense something amiss and glances down the hall while the others talk, his expression uneasy. This incident would seem to converge with the medium’s observation that the spirits of a killer’s victims follow that person through life. Pussy appears when his murderers convene in a house of death.
Tony is often visited in his dreams by his own victims. Ralph Cifaretto (Joe Pantoliano), Pussy, and Gloria Trillo (Annabella Sciorra), his former mistress who committed suicide not long after the end of their relationship, make regular nighttime appearances. These visitations often explore Tony’s conflicting emotions, as when after Gloria’s death she appears to him in a dream and tells him that he can look either between her legs or under the scarf she’s wearing — presumably to conceal the ligature marks left by her hanging. The last time Tony sees Gloria he knocks her to the floor and nearly strangles her to death after an ugly verbal argument. She offers him a choice between the ways he touched her in life, and in the dream she seems to know that what he really wants is not to make love to her one last time but to gaze in morbid fixation at the bruised ghost of his last caress on her neck. He wakes just before she can remove her scarf.
Tony’s dream of his mother late in the fourth season episode “Calling All Cars” betrays a similar latent fear. In the dream, Tony arrives at an old country manor for a “masoner job,” a reference both to his grandfather’s work as a stonemason and, symbolically, his attempts to change through therapy, which he quit earlier in the episode. When he enters the house his mother Livia’s shade appears on the stairs, a dark, faceless figure backlit by the buttery light of sunset. Livia, whose abusive parenting style shapes Tony’s adult self perhaps more than any other single factor, echoes through the show even after her death, a nihilistic voice of despair and death called variously a “streg” (a witch in Italian folklore) and “the devil” by her children. Like Christopher’s vision of Hell and Paulie’s revelation at the house of the medium, this image is cautionary. If Tony lets the work of building a new self slip into disrepair, his mother’s life of bottomless misery, resentment, and curdled rage will swallow him whole.
The show’s images of prophecy and religious horror are deeply troubling when considered together. Pussy’s reflection and the Virgin Mary’s apparation at the Bada Bing in particular exist independently of any observer, pointing to their connection to some unknown force or world beyond the bounds of death. That these images appear at times of great stress and change serves as a repeated reminder to the show’s characters that their actions attract, in some form, the attention of an underworld much more mysterious and terrible than their own. Their repeated refusal to reckon with that world runs parallel to the show’s defining journey: Tony’s ambivalence toward therapy and, ultimately, his refusal to abandon his life of violence in pursuit of real personal change.
In spreading so much suffering, in killing so freely and for so little, Tony and his crew have created a world of blood and shadow in which they are the only living things. Contacted from beyond the grave, visited by specters and apparitions, even granted visions of Hell, they remain unaffected. Not a single man amends his behavior in the slightest after any of the events mentioned here, not even when those events left them terrified. The message that emerges is a frightening one. Perhaps the things in human nature which are most difficult to shift are also the most banal and cruel, not moral stances or ideologies at all but formless masses of entitlement, rage, and anxiety coiled around cores of reactive trauma. Perhaps Hell isn’t a place we go at all, but a trackless city of despair such people build up brick by brick around themselves, and never leave for fear that they might see their true selves in the world outside.