‘Little House on the Prairie’: How One Episode Rode the Slasher Flick Craze of the ’80s

by Clayton Edwards
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When most people look back on “Little House on the Prairie” they think of wholesome family entertainment. However, in the later seasons of the series, Michael Landon took the show to some very dark places. The series dealt with murder, drug addiction, teen pregnancy, and a myriad of other darker subjects.

“Little House on the Prairie” ran from 1974 to 1983 and was incredibly popular. During that same period, slasher movies were also popular among moviegoers. Films like John Carpenter’s “Halloween”, “Texas Chain Saw Massacre,” and “The Town that Dreaded Sundown” were all massive hits. So, when writing and directing the season seven episode “Sylvia,” Michael Landon borrowed from popular horror movies. The result was an extremely dark yet wildly popular episode.

“Sylvia”: “Little House on the Prairie” Meets Horror

Before we get into it, just know that this episode gets very dark. According to a breakdown of the episode, it focused on a teenage girl named Sylvia Webb. It opens with some boys looking at the lingerie section of a mail-order catalog. After Mr. Olsen takes the catalog away, they decide to go peep on Sylvia. This is creepy enough. However, it gets so much worse. Someone else is watching the schoolgirl as well.

Later in the episode, a character sporting a harlequin mask and black leather gloves attacks Sylvia. She is alone in the woods when the masked assailant grabs her and pulls her deeper into the trees. While the rest of the attack takes place off-screen, it is clear what happened. Later on, “Little House on the Prairie” viewers learn that the attacker impregnated Sylvia.

In the end, the assailant, who turns out to be the town blacksmith, and Sylvia both die.

You would think that an episode with such dark and twisted themes would cause an outcry from fans. However, it was one of the most popular episodes of the season. In the breakdown, it is pointed out that the show was watched by over 18 million people. The conclusion of the two-part saga was the third most-watched show of the week. “Dallas” and “60 Minutes” were the only shows to top it.

Deep Horror Movie Ties

The nature of the attack, some of the cinematography, and what the assailant wears all point to where Michael Landon got the inspiration for the episode. They are all consistent with Italian Giallo films. These films are like proto-slashers. They are well-known for the close-up shots of eyes. Viewers are alerted to the assailant’s existence with one of these shots. Also, many Giallo films’ antagonists’ attacks are sexual in nature. So too, was the attack on Sylvia. Finally, the most telling connection is the gloves. The assailant in the “Little House on the Prairie” episode wears black gloves. One of the hallmarks of Giallo films is the assailant’s shiny, black, leather gloves.

The most popular films of the genre come from iconic Italian directors Mario Bava and Dario Argento. Movies like “Tenebre,” “Hatchet for the Honeymoon,” and “Bird with the Crystal Plumage” are classic examples of the genre. It would seem that Michael Landon was indulging in some great Italian horror cinema when he wasn’t working on “Little House on the Prairie.”

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