Horror can be a very difficult genre to bring to TV. Typically, the longer a story goes on for then the harder it is to provide a worthy scare at the end. This can be problematic for long-running shows as shocking the same characters week in week out will eventually wear thin on audiences who are looking for some sort of resolution or pay-off which doesn’t just happen during the last 5 minutes of the episode. However, some TV shows do make it work. The anthology format is one of the most popular ways to approach the genre (a different story each episode), but some other shows have found inventive and successful ways to bring horror to the small screen.
10. Masters of Horror (2005 – 2007)
Masters of Horror was an ambitious horror anthology series which promised a series of unrelated, 60 minute stories from some of the biggest names in horror. However, the result was a very mixed bag to say the least. Sadly, genre legends like John Carpenter and Tobe Hooper are responsible for some of the worst episodes from the series and their efforts are damning proof as to why they are no longer making big budget movies. However, other ‘masters’ like John Landis and Dario Argento (as well as underrated horror directors like Stuart Gordon and Brad Anderson) did manage to create some genuinely thrilling and terrifying episodes. The standout effort of the series by far is Takeshi Miike’s ‘Imprint’. Banned from television broadcast for it’s graphic content (it was only released when the series came to DVD), the episode takes place in 19th Century Japan and follows an American journalist looking for his lost love. However, in true Miike fashion, this leads to extended scenes of torture (including lingering shots of needles being pushed under fingernails and into gums) and shots of bloody foetuses and abortions.
9. The Outer Limits (1995 – 2002)
Although it relied a little bit too much on rushed final act twists, the 90s revival of anthology show The Outer Limits produced some solid episodes of sci-fi horror. While the show was typically less successful at its attempts at social commentary (although it did try at times), The Outer Limits always delivered on some good old-fashioned scares and a creepy foreboding atmosphere.
8. Are You Afraid of the Dark (1991 – 2000_
Not all horror TV shows are aimed at an adult audience. Over the years, younger viewers have been able to get their horror fix from shows like Goosebumps, Going Round the Twist and Eerie Indiana, but by far the best of the bunch was Are You Afraid of the Dark. The innovative premise saw children of a group called the Midnight Society telling a spooky scary story around a campfire each week. Typically, these stories were kid-friendly versions of urban legends or classic fairy tales, but they were still surprisingly creepy for a kid’s TV show. In an interesting twist on the anthology format, each member of the Midnight Society had their own style of storytelling. Some characters relied on the same horror tropes and themes when they told their stories (the imaginative Betty Ann always included some sort of extraterrestrial or supernatural force in her stories) while others projected their personality into the tales they spun (the introverted David typically told stories about characters who harboured a deep secret or dark nature).
7. Supernatural (2005 – ?)
Outside of the anthology format, most horror-based TV shows struggle to maintain ongoing storylines. This explains the short-lived nature of even some of the most popular and critically acclaimed horror shows, but Supernatural is one of the few exceptions. Now in its 10th season, the continuing adventures of the demon-hunting Winchester brothers still retains a diehard fanbase which tunes in every week. Although the show has suffered from varying levels of quality throughout its run, the series has always had a spirited energy and completely embraces its horror roots. Although the Winchester’s most recent encounters with Angels, Leviathans and time travel have raised the eyebrows of even the most dedicated fans, many of Supernatural’s ‘monster of the week’ type episodes are creative and fresh takes on urban legends and horror folklore.
6. Tales from the Crypt (1989 – 1996)
Based on the popular EC horror comics from the 1950s, Tales from the Crypt was a pulpy anthology show with gore, cheesy stories and plenty of fun. The show is probably best known for the character of the Cryptkeeper who introduces and closes each episode with a twisted humorous monologue (the character became a bit of a cult horror icon and he even got his own Saturday morning cartoon). It was a tongue-in-cheek show which riffed on the most popular types of anthology tales and it was perfect for anyone who wanted a quick blast of horror fun.
5. The Walking Dead (2010 – ?)
Zombies have been enjoying a pop culture revival for more than a decade, but it was the success of The Walking Dead which really propelled the horror legends into the mainstream. Based on the popular comic book series of the same name, The Walking Dead follows a group of survivors trying to make a new life for themselves after a zombie outbreak. Although zombie scenarios are at risk of being ‘played-out’, the series injects new life into the premise with its pessimistic (but probably realistic) views of humanity and morality. The Walking Dead also has some truly spectacular and visceral gory special effects for any horror fans who just want to tune in to see people being ripped apart and zombies getting shot in the head.
4. American Horror Story (2011 – ?)
American Horror Story is such an off the wall, bizarre mix of so many different horror ideas and concepts that it’s difficult to neatly explain exactly what it is that the show is about. Each 13 episode season has a different ‘classic horror’ setting and story (haunted house, asylum, witch’s coven), but the show has already used ghosts, zombies, mutants, evil spirits, demons and even aliens during it’s relatively brief three season run. It does at times feel like the showrunners are just throwing everything they can think of at the screen in the hope that some of it sticks, but that’s part of the weird goofy charm of the show. There’s never a dull moment when watching American Horror Story, even if it doesn’t make sense most of the time.
3. Black Mirror (2011 – ?)
British journalist Charlie Brooker scored a surprise hit with his reality-show-meets-zombies TV series Dead Set, but his follow-up project was even more ambitious. Each self-contained episode of Black Mirror has a contemporary setting (though sometimes with more of a futuristic twist) and each story takes aim at some of the darker sides of the modern world. Whether he’s looking at mob justice, technology gone wrong or mass media frenzy, Brooker deftly weaves his satirical social commentary with dark and truly terrifying consequences.
2. Twin Peaks (1990 – 1991)
Cult filmmaker David Lynch isn’t the type to ever follow convention, so his creative participation in a TV show about a small town murder mystery was never going to result in a formulaic, procedural cop show. Although it only ran for two years, Twin Peaks was a hugely popular phenomenon when it was broadcast in the early 90s. Millions tuned in each week to unravel the mystery of who killed Laura Palmer but the weird psychological horror of the series often raised more questions than it answered. With it’s creepy characters, bizarre dreamlike visuals and disturbing imagery, Twin Peaks was one horror TV show which really got under the skin.
1. Twilight Zone
The Twilight Zone was a truly ground-breaking blend of sci-fi and horror. The undisputed king of the anthology format, each weekly instalment brought a cautionary tale or a complex take on society and humanity. In fact, many of the ‘twists’ and story ideas featured in the Twilight Zone are still commonly used in fiction today. Under the watchful eye of series mastermind Rod Serling, the series was a platform for some of the most successful horror and science fiction writers such as Ray Bradbury, Charles Beaumont and Richard Matheson. Some episodes were masterful examples of tension and suspense while others shocked the audience with daring and unexpected last-minute reveals. Still shocking and relevant to this day, the Twilight Zone has proved itself to be one of the smartest and most thought-provoking takes on the horror genre.