“We are each our own devils, and we make this world our hell.”
So said Oscar Wilde, reportedly. So said Oscar Wilde to Dorian Gray—or, at least, so he did in the first episode of The Confessions of Dorian Gray. The series, a creation of the British audio drama company Big Finish Productions, imagines that Dorian Gray was real and immortal, friends with Oscar Wilde, and Wilde made The Picture of Dorian Gray by fictionalizing Gray's life. In Confessions, Wilde says the words when his old (but still young-looking) friend visits him on his deathbed. And though Wilde passes by the end of the episode, his words haunt the title character throughout the 20th century and into the 21st.
It's those words that help make Confessions such a terrifying series. On the occasion of Confessions' Halloween special, the show is well worth checking out as an example of what makes horror work—and should provide new kinds of scares to anyone used to rewatching classic slasher flicks each October 31.
Confessions, the creation of director Scott Handcock, follows Gray's adventures and excesses, as well as his encounters with the supernatural. It's a world with demons, potions, possession, and the undead. But it isn't Dorian Gray, demon-slayer. By setting each episode in different eras—from Edwardian Paris to 1960s mods-and-rockers Brighton—Confessions is more of a look at an immortal man's descent into depression and guilt as his friends and world disappear. Most importantly, it’s a look at how his actions keep coming back to haunt him.
And that's something that is now often missed from interpretations of The Picture of Dorian Gray. It isn't a romp about escaping mortality, but a horror story of remorseless hedonism and the effects that guilt can have on the human psyche. It's about the destruction of an innocent man, and his own selfish cruelty towards others. The frights didn't come from Dorian's increasingly terrifying portrait, but from the amorality of his actions in the context of a moral framework.
Isaac Asimov brilliantly said that “Individual science fiction stories may seem as trivial as ever to the blinded critics and philosophers of today, but the core of science fiction, its essence, has become crucial to our salvation, if we are to be saved at all.” That's true, and a similar idea is true for horror. From base fears such as death to more existential concepts of corruption or isolation, horror reflects human nature and behavior. By focusing on guilt and loneliness, Confessions works as one of the more effective horror stories in recent memory.
And that's not to say that Confessions diminishes its title character in the name of its themes. Like Wilde's novel, Dorian is central; he isn't just a window into the tales, he's often the instigator. As Gray, Alexander Vlahos is excellent. He's a conscience-free charmer, smoothly switching from wooing innocents towards debauchery to brutal self preservation. As the narrator, Vlahos can set a tone rather well, and Gray's confessions, along with who he is confessing to, make an alluring thread that weaves through the two seasons. The music, haunting and classical, paints an unsettling atmosphere.
Even the choice of using Gray's immortality to have him live more than a hundred years adds to the horror. By bringing Dorian Gray into the 21st century, Handcock sneaks in a bit of cultural commentary. As the antagonist of the second season's finale says, “Now everyone's a Dorian Gray. Hedonists, living forever, wrecking their bodies. And you, you're not unique anymore. You're just a sheep like all of the others. For the first time in your life, there are people exactly like you.”
And perhaps that's why the series is even more effective around Halloween. What have the celebrations become if not something Dorian Gray himself might enjoy? Outside of the recent glut in ultra-violent, "torture porn" movies, Halloween is mostly defanged. It's become an excuse to let go of inhibitions. Costumes are scandalous, silly, or unfortunately offensive. Debauchery reigns. And that only adds to Confessions' horror: Are we now as reckless as the immortal man without a soul?