With all due respect to Poltergeist (They’re her-rrrre!”), you don’t need to live in a haunted suburban house to get sucked into the terror of your television. From the short-story-like psychological shocks of Sixties name-brand anthology shows to today’s cable-abetted blood-and-guts extravaganzas, many of the medium’s most memorable series have centered on things that go bump in the night. With Halloween approaching, we’re counting down the top 25 horror shows in TV history. Vampire slayers and sexed-up bloodsuckers, brainiac serial killers and brain-chomping zombies, paranormal activities and portly auteurs wishing you “Good ev-eee-ning” — they’re all present and accounted for. Don’t dare touch that dial.
“Submitted for the approval of the Midnight Society, I call this story The Tale of…” — we’ll finish the sentence: the show that provided high-octane nightmare fuel for Nineties kids everywhere. A staple of Nickelodeon’s Saturday night SNICK lineup, this Canadian import featured a group of tween storytellers who told each other scary campfire stories with enough moldering corpses and maniacal clowns to traumatize a generation. But you never forget your first, and for many viewers, that initial experience of seeing something so scary you just had to see it again demonstrated the dark allure of horror as well as any grown-up classic ever could.
Ah, the pleasures of watching hot young people take off their shirts and rip out each other's hearts. That's the recipe for the success of practically every CW show; The Vampire Diaries just made the metaphor literal. Sexy, funny, and often shockingly violent for a teen soap, TVD has all the lust and angst you'd expect. But it also boasts a surprisingly complex mystical mythos that the characters reveal one lethal layer at a time. And the show features a trio of beautifully brooding lead performances: Nina Dobrev as both an innocent high schooler and her vampire doppelgänger; Paul Wesley as the reluctantly undead Stefan Salvatore; and the perpetually smizing Ian Somerhalder as his bad-boy brother.
"Hello, boils and ghouls!" Many a monster would parade past viewers during the seven-year run this notorious anthology series, but the Cryptkeeper's puns may have been the scariest part of the show. That, however, was partially the point: When Hollywood heavy-hitters like Robert Zemeckis, Joel Silver, Walter Hill, and Richard Donner teamed up with HBO to adapt the infamously gruesome horror stories of legendary 1950s publisher EC Comics, the goal was simply to have a damn good time. Taking full advantage of the cable network's free rein with violence and nudity, Tales from the Crypt was a celebration of horror's pulpy past; the fact that it attracted stars from Demi Moore and Arnold Schwarzenegger to Joe Pesci and Whoopi Goldberg was simply blood-red icing on a creepshow cake.
"There is nothing wrong with your television set. Do not attempt to adjust the picture. We are controlling transmission. We will control the horizontal. We will control the vertical." The words that began each episode of the Sixties anthology series were an opening monologue than a declaration of aesthetic warfare. Today the show is remembered largely as "the one that wasn't The Twilight Zone," but its tone was in some ways more confrontational, both visually and morally. Credit Psycho writer Joseph Stefano, who produced the first season and wrote more episodes than anyone else.
Long before Mulder and Scully were so much as a glimmer in Chris Carter's eye, a different dogged investigator was cracking the cases too strange for the straight authorities to solve. That man was Carl Kolchak, Chicago reporter, whose dealings with the dark forces and crimes that the cops wouldn't touch helped inspire The X-Files two decades later. Kolchak starred in two TV movies about serial killers with supernatural origins (The Night Stalker and The Night Strangler), as well as the 1974 series that sprang from their success. Its monster-of-the-week format eventually made McGavin miserable, leading to the cancellation of the show before it could finish a full season. But the period-appropriate paranoia — there really were sinister, supernatural happenings that were all around us — had a lasting impact on horror's conspiratorial side.
Okay, so as scientists the crew from TAPS (The Atlantic Paranormal Society) won't be winning the Nobel Prize anytime soon. As horror-television visionaries, though? Give Jason Hawes, Grant Wilson and company any trophy they want. Knowingly or not, this dogged crew of pro-am paranormal investigators has made spooky small-screen magic out of their ad-hoc explorations of haunted houses by tapping into a key component of every successful scary story: the willingness of the audience to believe. It's Blair Witch or Paranormal Activity after being given a reality-TV makeover. Jumping at shadows has never been so much fun.
When the dead rise from the grave, there's usually little doubt that hell follows with them. This French series took a very different approach: What would happen if the deceased reappeared pretty much the way they were before? Yes, the mysterious supernatural forces that caused the late residents of one small town in France to return and attempt to get on with there lives were often frightening. But the series was at its darkest when it explored how the community adjusted — or failed to adjust — to people they'd learned to live without, often with lethal consequences.
Supernatural soaps of all stripes can all trace their roots back to Barnabas Collins, the vampire (played by Jonathan Frid) who made Dark Shadows a bright spot on the daytime dial. He didn't even show up on the series until 1967, a year into the atmospheric ABC soap's five-year run, but after being unchained from a coffin, his arrival transfixed the show's young-skewing viewers. From then on, the afternoon serial went from a mildly Gothic story to a full-fledged paranormal romance, mixing witchcraft and werewolves into its sudsy storylines about lost love. It's now the definition of a cult classic.
Don't let the disastrous later seasons distract you: For a few years there, Six Feet Under showrunner Alan Ball was the ringmaster of the sexiest, goriest show on earth. His adaptation of author Charlaine Harris' Southern Vampire Mysteries — centered on telepathic watiress Sookie Stackhouse, her vampire suitors Bill Compton and Eric Northman, and various other resident beasties — may never have delivered on the sin/sex/salvation promise of its opening credits. But, man, did it offered softcore thrills and bloody spills of the highest horror-TV order. Meanwhile, it gave vampire fans bored with the decidedly PG-13 antics of the Twilight teens an undead romance with a bit more bite. It's no stretch to assert that neither the Louisiana Gothic of True Detective nor the sensual slaughter of Hannibal would exist without it.
Take one look at the veritable who's-who of talent involved with this Showtime series — John Carpenter, Joe Dante, Tobe Hooper, Dario Argento, John Landis — and it's hard to claim that the anthology show did not live up to its name. Conceived by director Mick Garris as a rotating showcase for the genre's best screenwriters and filmmakers, the show gave us a number of short-story–style chillers, including Carpenter's eerie "Cigarette Burns" (starring pre-Walking Dead Norman Reedus as a cinephile hunting for a cursed film) and Dante's no-holds-barred antiwar zombie freakout "Homecoming."
The creepy theme song, the striking silhouette, the slowly, slyly delivered "Good eve-eee-ning" — when Alfred Hitchcock migrated from the big screen to the small in order to make a weekly series, his personal brand was the main attraction. In addition to using his hosting gig to become an embodiment of horror (a characterization Tippi Hedren would no doubt find appropriate), Hitch further honed his directorial skills on nearly 20 of the series' episodes, garnering two Emmy nominations. But perhaps the show's' greatest contribution to the genre was Hitchcock's use of much of its crew — cheaper hires than the usual Hollywood suspects — to shoot a little movie called Psycho.
There are two kinds of horror TV viewers: those who look at a reenactment-driven paranormal series on a Top 25 list and think "huh?", and those who rapidly nod in solemn, wide-eyed agreement. Frequently drawn from the case files of Amityville Horror investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren, this Discovery Channel series dramatizes (allegedly) real-life encounters with ghosts, demons, and poltergeists with jump scares and face-in-the-mirror menace. But by tying its terrors to stories of suburban dislocation — seemingly every episode begins with a divorcée looking to "make a fresh start" in an old dark house — serves as a 21st-century portrait of How We Fear Now.
From Philip José Farmer and Alan Moore to Abbott & Costello, artists have been making mash-ups of their favorite heroes, villains, myths, and monsters for ages. What, then, could this Showtime series that combines characters from Frankenstein, Dracula, Dorian Grey, and Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, have to offer that we haven't seen before? Plenty, including charismatic performances (notably from Eva Green and Josh Hartnett), Gothic production design that's lush even by prestige-TV standards, and countless other supernatural elements that add an atmosphere of, well, dread. But mostly, it has a willingness to treat the fears and desires of its characters as seriously as Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker, and Oscar Wilde did back in the day, and that makes all the difference.
You’ve already defined speculative, intellectually complex genre TV for a generation of viewers. What do you do for an encore? If you’re Rod Serling, the answer is simple: You tap into psychological horror and double down on the darkness. The TV auteur’s Nixon-era series presented short, sharp, scary vignettes (as many as four per episode) that were fueled by murder, guilt, revenge, hauntings, undead predators, and the untapped powers of the mind. By adapting works by such weird-fiction godfathers H.P. Lovecraft, August Derleth, Clark Ashton Smith, and Fritz Leiber, Serling further made the case for his own legendary status. And did we mention that Steven Spielberg made his directorial debut in the pilot?
Before he helped kick off an art-house revolution and his incorrigible outbursts at press conferences made him cinema's greatest troll, Danish director Lars Von Trier made a TV show with a simple goal: creep people out to the Nth degree. The two four-episode series he made for Danish TV (he had planned a third, but abandoned it because too many key cast members kept dying) chronicle the lives and afterlives of doctors and patients at a nightmarish Copenhagen hospital. Its storylines stitch ghosts, body horror, and all-around avant-garde oddness together into one of the medium's most unique hybrids.
If there's an Achilles heel for horror as a genre, it's the wafer-thin characters: Why bother crafting the next Jane Eyre if she's just gonna get chainsawed in half? But no TV series can survive if no one cares about your heroes and villains, and this CW show has taken that lesson to heart. The saga of demon-hunting brothers Sam and Dean Winchester is driven almost entirely by their emotional connection, courtesy of engaging performances by Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles. Yes, creator Eric Kipke's initial goal of "scar[ing] the crap out of people" is achieved on a weekly basis, but even when the stakes are outright apocalyptic and the monsters all but unstoppable, it's the ties that bind these bros that have made this show a fervently loved fan-favorite.
In its original form, as a zombie comic book by writer Robert Kirkman and artists Tony Moore and Charlie Adlard, The Walking Dead was the little series that could: an independent, black-and-white horror story that slowly but surely eclipsed all but the biggest full-color corporate superhero comics in popularity. As a television show, TWD’s success has been almost as unlikely. It started, courtesy of Shawshank Redemption director Frank Darabont, as horror’s stab at a prestige drama worthy of sharing AMC airtime with Mad Men; several showrunners and tens of millions of viewers later, it’s a ratings juggernaut that showcases man’s inhumanity to man with at least as much gory gusto as the cannibalistic attacks of the undead.
Ryan Murphy's FX series has been a showcase for some of the most treasured tropes horror has to offer as a visual genre — killer clowns, demonic nuns, haunted hotels, you name it. But every carnival needs its barkers, and Murphy has hired a murderers' row of actresses to fill that role, from Kathy Bates to Emma Roberts, Glenn Close to Lady Gaga. And in an era where the big-screen's genre offerings are still driven by found-footage minimalism, AHS's more-is-more attitude is a throwback to the days of the Grand Guignol. It's horror for the animated-GIF era.
If you need to sum up British satirist Charlie Brooker's internationally acclaimed anthology series, Twilight Zone: The App is as good a description as any. Like Rod Serling's seminal show, this British show's star-studded episodes use horror and science fiction elements as a lens into contemporary anxieties — with the focus on technology and its alienating, dehumanizing potential. Its best installments (the stomach-churning "The Entire History of You,"the pitch-black, go-for-broke satire of "The National Anthem") demonstrate that the era of selfies and social networks has simply given us new tools with which to do the same damage to one another we've always done. And the second series' highlight "White Bear," in which a woman awakes in a strange house with no idea how she got there, is as warped and eerie a take on crime and punishment as TV has ever delivered.
Forget, for a moment, the HBO anthology series’ LA-noir second season, a horror show of a different nature; concentrate instead on Carcosa, the Yellow King, and the fact Nic Pizzolatto and Cary Fukunaga had a nation of viewers sounding off like a cross between H.P. Lovecraft and a paranoid schizophrenic. The Matthew McConaughey/Woody Harrelson–starring first season of this supernova crime drama drew its strength from its occult overtones, a surreal vibe, and scary-as-fuck story of backwoods serial killers backed of a powerful political machine. In the end there was nothing supernatural about any of it — but who cares? The journey was truly nightmarish enough.
High school is literally hell on earth — beat that for a high concept! The genius of Joss Whedon's star-making series was taking a metaphor for adolescent angst, giving it fangs, and handing its heroine a wooden stake. Buffy Summers and her Scooby Gang faced down more than their fair share of menaces from beyond, but like Twin Peaks before it, Buffy realized that great horror was rooted in human experience; the death of Buffy's mother was as harrowing as TV has ever gotten, with nary a demon in sight. That said, there are few more nightmarish TV moments than watching the "gentlemen" of the show's "Hush" episode float by, silently smiling as they steal voices and hearts (literally, in both cases).
"The Truth Is Out There"— the truth being that Chris Carter's sprawling science-fiction conspiracy thriller was also crackerjack horror television. In between "mythology" episodes that chronicled FBI Agents Mulder & Scully's journey through a maze of government and extraterrestrial shenanigans, The X-Files frequently stopped to scare the pants off its viewers. From the Arctic isolation of its first-season standout "Ice" to the still-controversial, Texas Chainsaw Massacre–referencing inbreeding freak-out "Home," the show's best creepy, skin-crawling episodes have lost none of its power to disturb all these years later.
How the hell did a show as visually audacious, narratively perverse, and mind-bogglingly gory as Hannibal wind up on the Peacock Network? Before its unceremonious and unfortunate third-season cancellation, Bryan Fuller's adaptation of Thomas Harris's series of serial-killer novels — starring cannibalistic psychiatrist Hannibal Lecter and his arch-frienemy, FBI profiler Will Graham — was nothing short of a horror lover's fever dream. It treated murder as performance art, peeling away the flesh and gristle of the human body in sensuous, spectacular slow motion to expose the heart of darkness within. In the process it made pretty much every other Prestige Drama look like a student film. As the Phantom of the Opera once said: Feast your eyes, glut your soul.
While most TV promised little more than an entertaining diversion between commercials, there was one show that billed itself as a journey into another dimension. Rod Serling's genre-defining anthology series drew its stories from a who's-who of the finest genre writers in the world, creating a an endless stream of stand-alone episodes that were equal parts spine-chilling and thought-provoking: the nuclear-apocalypse cautionary tale "Where Is Everybody?"; the telepathic terror of "It's a Good Life" ("Wish it into the cornfield!"); the alien-invasion irony of "To Serve Man" ("It's a cookbook!"); the airborne breakdown-cum-showdown of William Shatner and his little friend in "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet." Its best stories used horror, sci-fi, and fantasy as doorways into the shadowy hopes and fears that drove a nation in transition. A full four decades before the New Golden Age, The Twilight Zone was already making high art out of low culture.
"Who killed Laura Palmer?" It was the driving question behind David Lynch and Mark Frost's small-town murder masterpiece, but the answer was never going to be a matter of a simple whodunit. Laura's death, like her life, concealed an ocean of evil beneath the surface — specifically, a group of terrifying supernatural entities hailing from another place called the Black Lodge. They were personified by a being called Bob: Played by set dresser turned actor Frank Silva, this cackling, shrieking demon's long gray hair and denim jacket gave him the appearance of a metalhead crank dealer — the sight of him crawling through the Haywards' living room toward the camera is the single scariest scene ever shown on television. (Try not to cringe away from your screen as you watch it. You can't.) But through all the surreal, red-curtained quirkiness, Lynch and Frost never lost sight of the human suffering at the heart of the horror. It's what continues to make Twin Peaks the all-time television terror champion.