I had this coming, really. In my run-down of this month’s upcoming TV shows, I noted that even though it’s Halloween season, horror didn’t have much of a showing in the listings – and, crucially, that this perhaps isn’t so surprising. My reasons for this were that a lot of common horror tropes only have so much shelf-life, and stuff that audiences can tolerate through a two-hour film simply can’t be stretched over a ten-week series.
Obviously the jumpscare came in for particular criticism here – even over two hours it gets stale quickly, yet despite this directors seem to think it’s as integral a part of horror as kissing scenes are to romances. Successful horror is more about atmosphere than brief moments of hyper-stimulus. If The Blair Witch Project had been shot entirely during the daytime, nobody would remember the name, and if Freddy Krueger had been chasing teenagers around a bouncy castle he’d have devolved into a wacky comedy figure even faster than he really did, and all the sudden reveals and loud noises in the world would not have changed this.
Anyway, mere days after I’d put those words to press, the editorial round robin suggests to me ‘you know what would be good Halloween content? The ten best horror TV shows!’ In engineering this kind of process is most commonly known as Murphy’s Law. So off into the vaults I went to sort through TV’s history with horror – and to be fair there are actually plenty of examples, with TV having brought us nearly as many examples of the genre as it has shows about tough cops who play by their own rules.
1. Buffy The Vampire Slayer
Definitely at the campier end of the scale, this, but that by no means stops things from being horror (just look at the Hammer canon, or the Rocky Horror Picture Show). This is the one that propelled Joss Whedon into the media fuckoffosphere, through the short-lived but bright-burning Firefly, and ultimately into latter-day nerd royalty when he wrote and directed The Avengers, which really kicked off the MCU juggernaut.
Now usually, when a pretty blonde high-schooler turns up on your TV screen, they’re grappling with true-to-life problems like deciding whether to go to the senior prom with Brad or Chad or Thad or Gilead. Buffy also had this problem, except the hunk in question usually turned out to be a werewolf or something, which is objectively an improvement. And in a twist on the too-common horror trope of the ‘final girl’, here it’s the blonde cheerleader scaring the hell out of the monsters.
Whereas a lot of horror presents you with douchey protagonists you’re never all that sorry to see chopped up, Buffy flipped the script again. The central gang lay at various points on the spectrum between cool and dorky, but they were all likeable enough, and had a distinctive, self-aware, adorably bumbling style of dialogue – which you’re likely familiar with given that a) nowadays Whedon has the cachet to do literally any project he wants, and b) everyone else noticed how successful it was as a formula.
2. The Twilight Zone
In the wider world of eerie anthology series, Alfred Hitchcock Presents… came first. But while Alf may have been the master, The Twilight Zone was the daddy. With two revival series since, a third on the way, and an endless string of nod-and-wink imitations in other media, The Twilight Zone has left an enviable stamp on Western culture.
One of the Zone’s most defining features was offering direct – and often pointed – commentary on contemporary politics of the day. That may be unremarkable now in the day of observational comics blasting the President every night, but The Twilight Zone was airing in the shadow of McCarthyist purges of American media, when that sort of thing just wasn’t done. Since this was during the early days of the Cold War and the threat of nuclear armageddon, the show had plenty of terrifying raw material to work with – plus, this mix of social commentary and science fiction seems like the obvious progenitor for a little show called Star Trek.
Speaking of which, one of the Zone’s most iconic episodes, Terror At 20,000 Feet, starred a young Bill Shatner as a man trapped on a plane slowly being destroyed by a gremlin. This would later become part of The Twilight Zone’s film adaptation, and – possibly more famously – a classic Treehouse of Horror segment on The Simpsons.
3. The League Of Gentlemen
This is, technically, a comedy – but it’s about the only comedy you’ll ever find that has The Wicker Man as one of its major influences. It’s not quite your classic ‘town with a dark secret’, though, since to only have the one dark secret would be far too limiting. Pretty much everyone present has some kind of dark undercurrent, some more obviously than others. And some, too, are more classic-model horror than others – though it’s splitting hairs to think that a couple trapped in a loveless marriage who are starting to genuinely hate each other isn’t horrific.
A lot of the denizens of Royston Vasey were simply weird, but some bordered on full-on villainy – most obviously Edward and Tubbs, proprietors of the forbidding local shop, and town butcher Hillary Briss, with his sideline in unexplained ‘special stuff’. Over the years, monstrous minstrel Papa Lazarou emerged as the main antagonist, especially in his surprise cameo in the Christmas special – but this seems to have been a sop to his popularity with the audience, given that his first appearance ended with him fleeing the town after declaring to his band of circus misfits that ‘these people freak me out!’
Creators and stars Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton went on to create the similarly toned Psychoville and Inside No. 9 – and both of these were very strong in their own way, but couldn’t quite manage the knife-edge balancing act of comedy and horror that The League kept up throughout.
4. Castle Rock
Stephen King made New England scarier than H.P. Lovecraft himself, and turns out books like most people clip their nails. His full name is Stephen Kingofthehorrornovel. While he’s done TV projects before – including Kingdom Hospital, which seemed to be what Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace was taking the piss out of – Castle Rock is the culmination of everything he’s ever done, drawing on basically all his work and concentrating that distilled horror into a small town in Maine.
There’s plenty of tropes which Kingophiles will find familiar – not least the setting, but also the divided timeline showing the main character’s childhood and adulthood both, the arrival of a mysterious stranger, and reality functioning in ways somewhere outside of ‘normal’. On top of this, there’s also plenty of nod-and-wink references to King’s established canon, because there is after all plenty of classic bits to slip in.
Works of horror can often have diminishing returns as time goes by and values change. No less a thinker than Bart Simpson once noted that Friday The Thirteenth Part One is ‘pretty tame by today’s standards’. But that’s the slasher genre, whose only retreat is to throw yet more corn syrup at the screen. King is of a very different tenor, with greater staying power – the recent It remake freaked people out just as much as the original, even without the advantage of Tim Curry.
5. American Horror Story
Eight seasons in and still lauded by audiences and critics alike – in particular the latest season, ‘Apocalypse’ – American Horror Story is not just one of the stronger horror series of this decade, but one of the stronger series, period. While it’s billed as an anthology series, it’s only so in the strictest sense of the word. Instead of a fresh new story every episode, it’s every season, giving each plotline a lot more wriggle room. (Although there may be more continuity than we might have thought.)
More importantly, this lets each new season try its hand at an entirely different slice of scares. ‘Apocalypse’, as you might imagine, imagines a world after all the bombs go off, and many have reserved the highest praise for the second season, ‘Asylum’, set in a dilapidated old institution from the dark ages of mental health, and the only work of fiction to make the Singing Nun song genuinely spooky.
Like a lot of the finest horror works, American Horror Story isn’t afraid to borrow elements of real-life American horror stories. The killer clown from the fourth season is of course a reference to John Wayne Gacy, easily among the most iconic of serial killers, and the entirety of the third season takes the Salem Witch Trials as its background – or rather, takes the somewhat rambling version of events put forward by a town full of hallucinating puritans as its background.
6. Stranger Things
An own-brand Netflix sensation when it came out, Stranger Things borrowed gleefully and unrepentantly from pretty much every ‘80s horror movie going – most prominently It and Stand By Me, though it covered a huge amount of ground, so by the second series it wasn’t even that surprising to see it sway sideways and suddenly start doing Jurassic Park.
Traditionally, a child going missing is considered ‘adult fear’ territory, and Winona Ryder is excellent here as the distraught mother, but here the rest of the gang are doing the heavier lifting in investigating their pal’s disappearance – not least because they’re far more willing to accept that there are otherworldly gribblies roaming about in the woods. So, while the adults trip over their own tails and the teens confusedly explore each others’ bodies in classic horror fashion, it’s left to the kids to get on their bikes and ride, and ultimately crack the case.
The real horror, of course, comes when you consider that Millie Bobby Brown, who plays changeling-girl Eleven, has at the venerable age of 13 been declared a sex symbol by those parts of the media that simply don’t know right from wrong.
7. Tales From The Crypt
Another anthology series, this – I noted recently that this seems to be an intrinsically good format for horror, and the numbers are bearing that out. Like The Twilight Zone, it had the continuity of a consistent host – but instead of the sober figure of Rod Sterling, here it was the jolly figure of the Crypt Keeper, probably the most horrific puppet outside of An American Werewolf In London, with some horrific puns to match.
Its origins from the pulpy ‘50s era of horror comics showed throughout, with plots often erring on the side of wacky. However, it wasn’t bogged down by the comics code – airing on HBO in the network’s salad days, it had essentially no limits on what it could portray on screen. (Well, practically no limits – most networks that don’t have an X in the title still balk at full penetration.) Blood and guts alone don’t make something scary, but the Tales knew how to deploy them.
While the show had a fairly limited budget, it was working with storylines strong enough that this didn’t really matter. And, between the Cryptkeeper’s lighthearted nature and the celebrities it brought in – the fun ones! – it was never in any danger of taking itself too seriously, though watching late at night, the viewer might have been.
Despite only being onscreen in Silence of the Lambs for some fifteen minutes, Anthony Hopkins scooped the Oscar for his performance as face of sophisticated villainy Hannibal ‘The Cannibal’ Lecter. True to form, it was Lecter as a character that the franchise was built around – the various FBI agents who were by turns pursuing him, consulting him, and falling in love with him could only ever be second bananas to Hoppy’s sinister majesty.
Inevitably, audiences wanted more – and while the 2007 prequel Hannibal Rising was probably hubris in action, adapting the character’s first outing for hour-long TV drama hit just the right spot. Sans Hoppy, they turned to Mads Mikkelsen, an obvious choice given that like Archer’s Dr Krieger, the man simply has a naturally evil face.
Where Rising made the mistake of an unnecessary look into the character’s predictably tragic past, Hannibal-as-series showed us what we really wanted – the character in action, at the height of his charming-psychopath powers. Ever since the smash hit of Sherlock, people have loved watching masterminds to whom life is but a game at work – and in Hannibal’s case, the man’s literally playing with his food.
9. Twin Peaks
They do damn fine coffee in Twin Peaks…and damn fine cherry pie. Unfortunately, they do other things there as well.
David Lynch is notorious for taking things to unnerving places, and Twin Peaks is no exception. A common-or-garden murder investigation in an isolated Cascadian town quickly spiralled out of control as all sorts of other unsavoury and possibly otherworldly secrets bubbled up to the surface. Complicating matters further, the FBI agent whose unlucky lot it was to investigate all this started having intense, surreal dream sequences – which might just point towards the culprit.
A masterwork of complicated plotting, the seemingly endless strands of the story merged with Lynch’s surprise at getting a second series and the subsequent hasty orchestral-scale improvisation to make television history. Some years later, there was a film, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me that didn’t actually tie up any loose ends – and then, finally, last year there was a revival series on Showtime that served as final conclusion, such as it was.
10. Over The Garden Wall
This miniseries from Adventure Time co-creator Patrick McHale is of a distinctly different tone of horror, closer, if anything to ‘spooky’. It’s that kind of creepy, eerie, unsettlingly fantastical vibe that Guillermo del Toro nigh-on perfected with Pan’s Labyrinth, only this time without the Spanish Civil War b-plot – and takes place in a very similar wooded fairytale-ish netherworld.
The story is simple enough – it’s simply a couple of kids lost in the forest. Perfectly appropriate for a Cartoon Network production, or indeed a Brothers Grimm classic. You could almost forget that, again, one’s children going missing is up there with the worst of the adult fears, right alongside finding a malignant lump in a tender area.
One of the scariest parts of Over The Garden Wall is the mysterious villain of the piece, known only as The Beast and almost exclusively seen only in shadows, making full use of the tried-and-true concept that ‘nothing is scarier’ – in other words, that if you aren’t quite sure what’s going on you’ll find things more terrifying. Contrast the better-known trick of the jumpscare – which provokes, then immediately disappoints, like stripping the veil from over a cracked vase.
11. The Haunting Of Hill House
I must confess this was a relatively late addition, since it only came out about last week – but it’s already drawing rave reviews, including both the dubious praise that it’s so scary it makes people throw up, and a tip of the hat from Stephen King himself. King is, as you might well expect, also an avowed fan of Shirley Jackson’s original novel of the same name, and the show is based upon this – but loosely enough that if it wasn’t for the house, you’d never guess.
It kicks off with the familiar concept of a young family who’ve moved into an unnecessarily spooky house – and Hill House here is a real choice one, which presumably only came on the market when the Addamses packed it in and moved to Hollywood. But whereas most families who end up in this awkward situation have a scary couple of nights, the killer comes back for one last scare, and then they make a break for it in their station wagon. Here that’s just the start, with the plot flipping and flopping easily between their terrifying early years, and some twenty years later, when they’re all still living firmly in the house’s shadow.
Oh, the family’s tried to move on (except of course for the mother), in any number of ways – the eldest son wrote a exploitational cash-in novel, the youngest got into needle drugs, the father simply clammed up for two decades – but it still looms oh-so-large for all of them. And that’s before the youngest daughter goes back to the house, and things get really bad. It layers on the tension like so much wallpaper, and, like its Netflix sibling Stranger Things, seems to have finally nailed down how to get a decent day’s work out of child actors.
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