Primer is The A.V. Club’s ongoing series of beginners’ guides to pop culture’s most notable subjects: filmmakers, music styles, literary genres, and whatever else interests us—and hopefully you. This installment: The wide-ranging world of horror on TV.
For decades, horror was the thing you were least likely to see on your TV. It came and went sporadically, occasionally with success, but more often it disappeared like a vanquished spirit. Part of the problem is the commercial break. More than any other emotion, fear needs to sustain tension to be effective. Anxiety over who the bachelor is going to choose in the final rose ceremony can be maintained during ads for Selsun Blue, because The Bachelor doesn’t need to keep viewers at the same emotional pitch in order to pull them back into its world. Fear requires momentum—when the pacing is broken, the sensation is lost. If it’s terrifying to discover what’s at the end of a long hallway a character has been steadily tiptoeing down, nothing will kill that suspense quicker than suddenly having that hallway replaced with chipper pieces of Cinnamon Toast Crunch.
As a result, horror has adapted to the strictures of the medium in very particular ways. In theory, it’s simply a matter of reworking scares into smaller, more bite-size beats, that (hopefully) add up to a greater whole. In practice, what this has meant is a subsumption of the genre into a variety of subgenres, each one developing its own set of tactics, tropes, and stories. This is most evident in efforts to take big-screen scares and translate them into small-screen ratings, MTV’s Scream being the most recent direct adaptation. These are often uneven productions, with far more misses than hits. (Paging Blade: The Series.)
One of the reasons for this is what viewers are willing to forgive in film horror—weaknesses that won’t work in a serialized story. Slasher films, for example, often feature young people meant to be disposable, the better to elicit whooping cheers from an audience when they’re dispatched in a variety of grisly ways. But for a story to catch the viewers’ attention, and make them come back for more, they have to be invested. Very few people want to tune in weekly for something that they usually enjoy only in small doses, while surrounded by a popcorn-munching audience. (As anthology series based on Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees discovered—and tried to compensate for by ditching their villains almost altogether, the former merely using its iconic baddie as a Crypt Keeper-like host.)
Much more effective have been the efforts to create a new form of horror on television, rather than aping what’s worked in theaters. (It’s no coincidence that the sole movie-derived foundational series discussed below, Buffy The Vampire Slayer, came from an unsuccessful film, rather than the other way around.) The medium has seen trailblazing efforts to shake up the conventional understanding of horror, and as such, it won’t be a surprise to learn that the category of TV horror is mostly composed of combined subgenres. Like Frankenstein’s monster, TV horror is sutured together from different parts of other styles, injecting much-needed DNA from various forms of television programming to create fascinating new beasts. And for all the breadth and depth of different programs out there, there are some key series—the ur-texts of horror television—from which nearly all subsequent shows can be traced.
1. The Twilight Zone
Rod Serling’s anthology series, which ran for five seasons in its original incarnation, is the alpha and omega for televised horror. Not because every episode was scary, or even included an element of horror—far from it. A large percentage of the original episodes were morality plays, wistful dramas, or even whimsical goofs. But Serling took the template for one of the most common TV formats at the time (the anthology series) and made it the basis for nearly every subsequent attempt at televised horror. (His later series, Night Gallery, is essentially the all-horror version of The Twilight Zone.) His scripts—sometimes rough, sometimes nearly perfect—were often master classes in efficiency, and even managed to sustain tension across commercial breaks.
This was most often accomplished by maintaining mystery at the end of each act, instead of relying on jump-scare tricks. Rather than the falling action that accompanies a viewer who’s just seen a scare, Serling would end acts on notes of ambiguity, or uncertainty, the better to deliver even bigger frights in the middle of an episode. (“Nightmare At 20,000 Feet,” maybe the most famous episode, uses one of his common tricks: making every commercial break a soap-style dramatic pause.) The self-contained format of his work meant that stories could deliver their scares and get out, no continuity or ongoing character development needed. It meant once a monster was discovered, or a mystery explained, or a twist revealed, the episode was over, and Serling and company could move on to the next one. Every anthology series that’s tried to deliver scares since owes The Twilight Zone a debt.
2. The horror procedural: Kolchak: The Night Stalker
Birthed from a surprisingly successful TV movie about a tough-talking reporter who discovers that monsters are real, the show gained more contemporary recognition after Chris Carter cited it as the inspiration for The X-Files. But the series has been around for decades, with many viewers coming to know it through its endless syndication reruns. Featuring Darren McGavin (the dad from A Christmas Story, for everyone else), the show lasted just a single season, but those 20 episodes became a model for numerous later series on how (and how not) to successfully keep a horror series on the air. By wedding a monster-of-the-week story to an ongoing narrative featuring the same characters, locations, and relations, Kolchak managed to deliver both the beginning, middle, and end of a spooky story, while still sustaining a compelling universe and giving audiences a protagonist to root for from week to week. It’s a model that’s still being used today. (See: Supernatural.)
3. The horror soap opera: Dark Shadows
For six years and more than 1,200 episodes, daytime television played host to a program so influential, misbegotten movies are still trying to recapture its magic. Dark Shadows was based on an incredibly simple idea: What if things that went bump in the night were subject to the same sudsy emotional dramatics as the average soap opera?But it claims a place of respect for an even simpler reason: It was the first one to do it. Having vampires, ghouls, and goblins tormented by the same knotty relationships and romances that ensnare mere mortals was perfect fodder for serialized television. It took everyday drama and heightened it to outsize proportions, but rather than the ludicrous theatricality of regular soaps, Dark Shadows had the absurdity baked into the very reality of its world, paradoxically making all the craziness seem much more relatable. Just as The Twilight Zone smuggled in social messages under the veneer of science fiction and fantasy, so too could the vampires and mystics of this series serve as a medium for unexpectedly complex and dark stories about the nature of morality, the failings of human behavior, and the bigger questions of life and death that often seem reductive or trite in everyday situations.
4. The weirdo: Twin Peaks
While it’s easy to see some of the wells Twin Peaks drew from in coming up with its universe—primetime soaps, cop shows, experimental oddballs like The Prisoner—it’s much harder to overstate how David Lynch and Mark Frost’s landmark series changed the landscape of television permanently. Almost single-handedly mainstreaming the previously rare and marginalized idea (on TV, anyway) of a “stranger in a strange land” narrative, the story of agent Dale Cooper and his hunt for a possibly supernatural killer definitively proved that audiences would tune in to see something incredibly risky on network television. A single episode could be ethereally surreal, brutally violent, and broadly comic in turns, and viewers would accept it and look forward to more. Every genre has drawn from it in the intervening years, from the dream-sequence expressionism on display in The Sopranos to the puzzle-box mysteries teased out across seasons of How I Met Your Mother. It’s hard to find a show on television these days without a showrunner who would admit to being influenced by the oddball denizens of the eerie little town. As critic Matt Zoller Seitz puts it, Twin Peaks made television “more hospitable to dreams.”
There are other categories that partake of the tropes of horror, too, such as comedies that borrow a surface veneer from the genre, most notably pioneering sitcoms The Addams Family and The Munsters. And there are children’s programs, like Are You Afraid Of The Dark? or Goosebumps, that brought low-level scares to the world of youth programming. Additionally, reality programming has made its own forays into horror, primarily since Syfy premiered Ghost Hunters back in 2004. But the primer that follows pushes these outliers aside to provide the fundamental building blocks to primetime TV horror, scripted series that did their level best to bring scares into people’s homes on a weekly basis, from the most fearsome to the most fantastical.
TV Horror 101
While creator Chris Carter has readily announced the influence of Kolchak, The X-Files defined itself right from the start as a show that had ambitions far beyond any of its source material. While the general structure of the series was that of a procedural—FBI investigators Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) explored a new case each week, as the agency’s much-maligned “X-Files” division, dedicated to the strange and unusual—audiences overwhelmingly began showing up for other reasons. In addition to dynamite chemistry between Duchovny and Anderson, there was a larger mythology the show was building, and seeing the richly shaded and relatable lead characters slowly uncover the pieces of this puzzle was far more alluring than the pick-it-up-anywhere nature of the monster-of-the-week premise.
Eventually, the series’ dense backstory and confusing plot machinations grew so complex that they overwhelmed the visceral thrills. Rather than wrapping up the series, Carter made the error every halfway-successful complicated-mythology show has since—from Lost to Fringe—bent over backward trying to avoid: He didn’t plan an endgame. Instead, the show crept on and on, first losing Duchovny, then Anderson, until suddenly even longtime fans found themselves exhausted by the endless narrative. Despite the cautionary tale of the final seasons, the first two-thirds of the series remains perhaps the best contemporary benchmark of how to blend scares and story into an ongoing television spook-fest. (The CW’s attempt at this kind of show, Supernatural, followed this map closely, even as it seems to be making the same mistake regarding a lack of an endgame as its progenitor—though that certainly wasn’t the original plan.)
But scares can also be incorporated in other ways, and when it comes to influential shows that borrowed the tropes of horror while often putting actual scares on the back burner, Buffy The Vampire Slayer is an essential part of the TV horror canon. If it was never specifically considered a horror show, that’s because it was always trying to be a horror/comedy/action/drama/everything else show. Joss Whedon’s brainchild was built on the simplest of premises: What if the innocent girl who meets an evil creature in a dark alley suddenly turns out to be capable of kicking that evil creature’s ass? But it pulled off a difficult balancing act, paying service to its hodgepodge of genre influences while still feeling like a coherent, original whole.
Another show that pulled off the trick of fusing a monster-of-the-week procedural to a larger narrative, Buffy doubled down on the soapy interpersonal romances and relationships between the characters, pulling the star-crossed human/vampire love story before Twilight was even a twinkle (only in sunlight, of course) in Stephenie Meyer’s eye. As a result, audiences tuned in more for the friendships and fights than for scares. But when the show went dark and creepy, it did so marvelously, with inventively unsettling monsters and chilling moments of terror, as in an episode that takes place almost wholly in silence. In later seasons, the monster-of-the-week was more or less abandoned, but right up until the end, the show never stopped trying to surprise its fans with bad guys that made the skin crawl.
Still, it’s impossible to talk about the fundamental building blocks of television horror without addressing the elephant in the room: The Walking Dead has effectively re-written the rules of TV, and not just for horror. If Buffy The Vampire Slayer poked holes in the conventional marginalization of the horror genre on TV, The Walking Dead took those conventions, blew them up into a million pieces, then brought them back to life just so it could rip them apart all over again. (Fitting, for a show about zombies.) It‘s easily the most successful standard cable show in history by any metric, with the season five premiere drawing 17.3 million viewers, making it the most popular show on television that isn’t a live football game. In their wildest dreams, AMC likely didn’t anticipate this kind of unprecedented success for a show that, on paper, probably looked like a hard sell.
The Walking Dead is a straight-up horror series, without exception. It centers around a group of hardscrabble survivors, trying to eke out an existence after civilization effectively collapsed in the wake of a zombie outbreak. With a troubled leader, former sheriff Rick Grimes, leading an ever-changing collective of folks from all walks of life, the show has slowly coalesced into a gripping and thoughtful meditation on the nature of existence, albeit one regularly punctuated by fast-paced, nerve-shredding explosions of violence from assaults by the undead. For all the critical pans and reappraisals the show has endured since its outset, it has maintained a remarkable fidelity to one thing above all else: It’s undeniably harrowing. As The A.V. Club put it, more so than any other show, the series creates “an endlessly oppressive mood of dread.” Dread isn’t exactly the same thing as horror, but it’s awfully close. And for a genre as nebulous and contested as horror, it’s the closest there is.
It’s still a little too early to tell what effect it will have, but Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story is making a similar play for rewriting the rules of TV horror, by pulling off a neat trick. Essentially, Murphy has tried to blend the best of both worlds, making every season of the show a self-contained story, yet maintaining a remarkably consistent stable of actors to play brand new characters each year. This was something it was previously assumed audiences wouldn’t go along with (at least, not since the heyday of recurring-cast television anthologies, like 1952’s Four Star Playhouse), preferring instead to see the actors we enjoy play the characters we like consistently, not resetting the chess board after each baker’s dozen of episodes. From the first season’s ghoulish and garish spin on the standard haunted house story, up through season four’s almost comically outsized 1950’s freak show setting, the series hasn’t shied away from outlandish and gonzo storytelling, to popular success and (hotly divided) critical acclaim.
This revue-style approach offers its own unique set of pleasures, as viewers can see Jessica Lange (AHS’ MVP thus far, though last season was reportedly her final bow) as she goes from a creepy next-door neighbor to a severe nun, or from an ageless witch to an aging cabaret vamp, depending on the season. While the show has been criticized for essentially collapsing into the same narrative mess year after year, others have argued that the series is actually performing a brilliant version of camp—it revels in the same kitsch again and again because that’s what it’s aiming for. It makes the soap-sized theatrics of Dark Shadows looks positively puritanical. Its influence is being felt most keenly in the proliferation of event-series TV, as one-off seasons become an attractive offer for actors not wanting to be tied to a seven-season contract. Murphy’s recent assertion that every season is actually connected—the fourth installment being the first to openly acknowledge such links—feels like a cheap stunt at this stage, but for a show that never met a plot twist too ridiculous to embrace, that might be the point.
Another descendant of Dark Shadows that follows a more traditional serialized vein is the recent Showtime series Penny Dreadful. The series does its title proud, telling pulp-filled tales of murder and the supernatural, cloaked in the elegant garb of a prestige premium-cable drama. It follows a loose team of monster hunters, including Timothy Dalton’s famed explorer, Eva Green’s messed-up mystic, an ice-cold take on Victor Frankenstein by Harry Treadaway, and Josh Hartnett as a gun-for-hire with a secret. The show has concocted a specific nemesis for each season, even as it maintains a larger arc about the devil and the fate of the world, which may rest in the hands of Green’s Vanessa Ives. Fitting, since Green is also the fiery and charismatic center around which the series’ success revolves. Her performance alone is worth the time investment the show requires, and Penny Dreadful improves as it progresses.
Showtime also played host to one of the most intriguing experiments in televised horror, the anthology series Masters Of Horror. The conceit was alluring: Hire some of the most iconic and innovative directors in horror cinema, and give them each 60 minutes to tell whatever story they want. The eventual roster reads like a who’s who of genre auteurs, including established legends like John Carpenter and Joe Dante, longtime horror mavericks like Stuart Gordon and John Landis, and new cult figures like Lucky McKee and Brad Anderson. (Many of these talents would go on to also direct episodes of the NBC spinoff/continuation of the show, Fear Itself.)
Unfortunately, the results were uneven. Rather than giving each director a budget and waiting for the results, Showtime decided to establish a set crew for the show, meaning each episode was more like a journeyman director jumping into an already-running machine, rather than a broad spectrum of mini-movies with the firm imprint of a visionary. Still, several directors bent the show to their will, creating some excellent tales of terror. McKee’s “Sick Girl” and Don Coscarelli’s “Incident On And Off A Mountain Road” are both superb, as are some blackly satirical installments by Dante and Landis. (But don’t watch the wrong Landis episode, because “Deer Woman,” his other offering, is awful and a little racist.)
For viewers looking to be comforted by the descendants of Buffy—i.e. young and attractive people dealing with relationship drama, who also happen to either be and/or fight monsters—there’s no shortage of programs available. The best of these fall on opposite sides of the spectrum, though on the same channel. The Vampire Diaries places its star-crossed vampire romance front and center, and though the quality has dipped in recent seasons, its first few seasons make for soapy fun. Supernatural, in contrast, leans hard into the procedural format, even as the first five seasons make a superb stand-alone narrative. It doesn’t do romance very often (or very well), but its complex sibling relationship and brilliant concept episodes have kept the show rolling well after the expected sell-by date.
For anyone with an HBO subscription in the ’90s, Tales From The Crypt was omnipresent. And, much like the channel’s goofball sex sitcom Dream On, the series took full advantage of its liberation from broadcast television’s Standards And Practices to deliver profanity, gore, sex, and generally anything considered too disreputable for mainstream television at the time. Based on a ’50s comic book of the same name, nearly every story was directly taken from that namesake or one of the other EC Comics titles in print during the same era.
The structure was gleefully retro—each episode begins and ends with the Crypt Keeper, a cackling reanimated corpse whose love for tales of terror was exceeded only by his love for groan-worthy puns (“Hello, boils and ghouls!” went a standard greeting). Despite the lowbrow source material, the show managed an incredible run of noteworthy guest talent, with directors like Walter Hill, Robert Zemeckis, and John Frankenheimer doing stints behind the camera, while stars like Kirk Douglas, Demi Moore, Bill Paxton, and Martin Sheen appeared in front of it. The quality varied from episode to episode, and some installments now come across more dated than an episode of Three’s Company, but there’s an undeniable sense of fun running through the whole series.
While a number of horror shows from Britain and elsewhere have periodically crossed the pond (or descended from up North, in the case of the Canadian-produced Goosebumps and Canadian-based Are You Afraid Of The Dark?), it’s rare for them to make much of a dent. Nonetheless, a few recent examples are worth mentioning. The U.K. version of Being Human (later adapted for a Syfy iteration) follows the Buffy formula by front-loading the humor and relationship drama, but still taking its monsters—and occasionally ghastly deaths—deadly serious. Focused on the attempts of a ghost, a werewolf, and a vampire to share an apartment and deal with life, such as it is, the show smartly balances pathos and absurdity, with an understated British wit.
Conversely, French series The Returned has thus far only produced one eight-episode season (though a second is on the way, with an October 31 return date on SundanceTV), and is notably short on laughs, but it compensates by being one of the most rich and beautiful single seasons of a show ever created. (Again, make certain you’re watching the original, not the A&E reboot.) The undead drama follows the return of a small town’s deceased citizens—walking, talking, and feeling—as they try and come to grips with their inexplicable return. Deeply solemn and ambiguous, it’s the rare series that manages to live up to every superlative awarded it, including the International Emmy for Best Drama Series. It’s the single best argument for incorporating subtitles into your TV viewing habits. (And if “deeply solemn and ambiguous” doesn’t trigger any must-watch impulses, don’t worry, there’s also a killer-on-the-loose in the mix.)
Since the unprecedented success of The Walking Dead, horror television has finally arrived as a staple of the small-screen landscape. Its tropes and tactics are bleeding into nearly every genre and style of show. Indeed, the idea of a primer on the concept as a whole is rapidly becoming untenable, much as the notion of where to start with, say, sitcoms feels like far too large a topic to even discuss, let alone undertake. Buffy began the bleed in earnest, but Robert Kirkman’s zombie apocalypse delivered the killing blow.
But there have always been outliers, odd little programs that partake in some of the tropes without anyone mistaking it for horror. Shows like Moonlight, CBS’ brooding vampire drama that was basically a grown-up’s Twilight, or that station’s Picket Fences, perhaps the most overt of the efforts to copy Twin Peaks in the wake of Lynch’s prominent series. The Prisoner, the landmark sci-fi show, had elements of the macabre in its weird mystery DNA. And the freshman series iZombie basically uses the quirk of brain-eating to give creator Rob Thomas another chance to do Veronica Mars. These are all smart, interesting shows that fall in the horror genealogy, if not necessarily the increasingly difficult-to-define borders. As the genre settles, after all these years, into a saturated and inescapable part of television, it may be time to let it collapse from a coherent category, and take its place among the broad categorical modifiers like comedy, drama, and action.
1. The X-Files
The series is still the best contemporary benchmark for serialized television horror. It maintains a sharp sense of mystery and pathos even while delivering monster-of-the-week spooks.
2. Buffy The Vampire Slayer
The most compelling show about teenagers killing vampires, hands down. If it weren’t so funny, the seven seasons of Buffy would be more rightly realized as a key mile marker of TV horror.
3. The Walking Dead
The best horror series currently on television, bar none.
4. The Twilight Zone/Night Gallery
It’s impressive how much Rod Serling’s groundbreaking series holds up, despite more than 50 years of TV progress in the interim. The stand-alone nature of the show allows viewers to jump in anywhere—there are several great lists of the best episodes, including The A.V. Club’s.
5. Twin Peaks
David Lynch’s deranged dream project makes for utterly compelling viewing, even when it’s difficult to discern why the things unfolding are happening. It should be watched, if only to understand how brilliantly bizarre television can get.