Quick quiz: What’s the most-watched original series on AMC? If you answered Mad Men or Breaking Bad, you’re wrong: Despite the critical acclaim those shows have received, the channel’s strongest performer has been its zombie epic The Walking Dead, which scored six million viewers for the finale of its debut season last year. Those are formidable numbers for a cable show of any genre, but they’re particularly surprising for a series from the horror genre, which throughout TV’s history has consistently taken a back seat to drama and comedy. (Or, perhaps, been tied up in the trunk.) In light of this accomplishment, it’s time to take a look back at the challenges the small screen has posed for horror over the years—and at the shows that have overcome those challenges to become beloved pop cultural landmarks.
The primary disadvantage of horror television, which has traditionally struggled to maintain a strong presence on the airwaves, as compared to horror movies, which have been plentiful and popular (if not always respected) since the birth of cinema, is visuals. They don’t call film the “big screen” for nothing; it gives directors and cinematographers a large canvas on which to paint, allowing the more demented among them to immerse the audience in nightmare landscapes of light and shadow. That kind of craftsmanship is wasted on TV—or was, at least in the medium’s early days—and many viewers are so accustomed to programs shot on flatly lit studio sets that they think nothing of “watching” TV by listening to its audio while washing dishes in another room. To compensate for this handicap, early horror shows ignored the movies and turned for inspiration to a medium with no visual component whatsoever: Radio.
Radio horror shows were popular in the mid-20th century, and although you may never have listened to one yourself, you can probably imagine what they were like: Self-contained tales of the macabre brought to life through quavering narration, creaking footsteps and cracks of thunder. Various radio shows featuring this atmospheric, low-key style were adapted for TV, including Lights Out, which aired on NBC from 1946 to 1952, and Inner Sanctum, also on NBC, which ran for one season in 1954. The shows’content was often toned down after the transition, though, partly for budgetary reasons and partly because while hearing someone’s arm get torn off is unpleasant, watching it happen is something else entirely. As a result, these early shows (including the classic Alfred Hitchcock Presents, which ran from 1955 to 1962 but was not itself a radio adaptation) often skewed toward the gray-area genres of “suspense” or “thriller”; in fact, there were actual shows entitled Suspense (1949-1954) and Thriller (1960-1962).
However, these early attempts to televise fear quickly birthed a new breed of program, one which would eventually bring TV horror back to its supernatural, blood-spattered roots:
The Twilight Zone, which premiered in 1959 and lasted until 1964 (not counting two reboots in later decades), took the anthology format established by the radio-based shows and exploded it, in the words of the show's opening narration, into “a land of both shadow and substance, of things and ideas”—and, most importantly, of imagination. Horror TV had previously consisted mainly of intriguing but formulaic stories of murder and revenge; The Twilight Zone expanded the genre's repertoire to include aliens, time travel, alternate realities, and pretty much anything else a writer might be capable of dreaming up.
Of course, while Zone had many chilling moments, its tone wasn't exclusively frightening; many episodes played out as straight-faced morality plays or even goofball comedies. Its most similar contemporary, The Outer Limits (1963-1965), also branded itself more as science fiction than as horror. However, those shows' wholehearted embrace of the supernatural and paranormal paved the way for the emergence of true horror anthologies, which remain horror's purest TV incarnation. Appropriately enough, Night Gallery (1969-1973), one of the earliest examples of this format, was brought to life by Twilight Zone showrunner Rod Serling. Gallery's ghastly spirit was kept alive through various other programs in the decades that followed: Zombie auteur George A. Romero took a stab at it with Tales from the Darkside (1983-1988); HBO, taking full advantage of the liberties of premium cable, served up nudity- and gore-filled shows like The Hitchhiker (1983-1991) and Tales from the Crypt (1989-1996); and American children of a certain generation were traumatized by junior anthologies like Nickelodeon’s Are You Afraid of the Dark? (1991-1996) and the book adaptation Goosebumps (1995-1998). This style of program may have reached its peak with Showtime’s Masters of Horror (2005-2007), which featured episodes directed by legendary horror filmmakers like John Carpenter, Tobe Hooper and Dario Argento.
And speaking of film, there was another strain of horror TV that emerged around the same time as the rise of anthologies:
As memorable and influential as shows like The Twilight Zone have been, the history of televised horror doesn’t consist only of original programming: We’d be remiss not to mention the grand if outdated tradition of the late movie.
Today the idea of watching horror movies on television, with all the gore and nudity replaced by commercials, often seems pointless compared to the convenience of streaming video and DVDs or Blu-rays. Until the 1970s, though, there was no such thing as “home video.” If you missed a movie’s theatrical run, you’d probably never get the chance to see it again, and if you didn’t want to pay for a ticket to a screening, you wouldn’t get to see any movies at all—except, that is, for whatever happened to be on the tube. All types of movies were aired, of course, but horror films seemed to be surrounded by a certain distinctive ambiance: They often aired late, in a time slot that matched their eerie tone, and were introduced by on-air hosts (the most famous being Vampira, of Los Angeles’s The Vampira Show, 1954, and Elvira, of Movie Macabre, 1981-1993) who relished their roles as gatekeepers of fright. Like radio horror, these showcases may have been lost in the technological shuffle, but they remain a beloved part of our pop cultural memory.
A more resilient cross-breeding of horror TV and film is the TV movie or miniseries. Notable examples of this format include England’s Quatermass serials, the first of which aired in 1953, and various adaptations of the work of author Stephen King (including The Shining, the 1997 TV version of which remains a controversial after-effect of King’s dissatisfaction with Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 big-screen version of that novel). To some extent these productions are hamstrung by the broadcast medium’s content restrictions, but on occasion those restrictions can be a blessing in disguise; the 1981 TV movie Dark Night of the Scarecrow, for example, necessarily focused more on subtly building atmosphere and tension than on special effects or gore, and, because of that emphasis, retains a cult following today. And if you prefer your horror as campy and cheap as possible, Syfy continues to pump out masterpieces like Dinocroc Vs. Supergator (2010) and SS Doomtrooper (2006).
However, TV does have one big advantage over movies of any sort, an advantage that the horror genre has utilized quite frequently over the last twenty years: The opportunity for long-form storytelling.
Don’t worry, horror geeks, we haven’t forgotten about Dark Shadows (1966-1971)—which, for the unitiated among you, was a gothic soap opera that eventually incorporated vampires, werewolves and other supernatural elements into its story. That story, which unfolded continuously over the course of the series, made the show stand out in an era in which almost all horror shows used the anthology format. (Exceptions included England’s Doctor Who, 1963-1989, which wasn’t always horror-oriented, and the short-lived Kolchak: The Night Stalker, 1974-1975.) Dark Shadows had its fans, and still does, but for a long time it remained an oddity without precedent or clear influence.
That all changed in the 1990s with the explosive commercial success of The X-Files (1993-2002). Like many of its genre predecessors, The X-Files was more sci-fi than horror, but it could be creepy as hell when it wanted to be. More importantly, just as The Twilight Zone introduced the paranormal and supernatural to the anthology format, The X-Files proved that those elements could be used successfully in shows with continuing, serialized plots, thereby paving the way for series like Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003), Supernatural (2005-present), True Blood (2008-present), Fringe (2008-present)—and, of course, The Walking Dead.
Every victory, of course, comes with a trade-off. Serialized, soap opera-style plots have kept horror tropes on the air, but they often fail—or don’t even bother to try—to keep those tropes scary. While shows like Buffy and True Blood may be chock-full of inhuman monsters, calling them “horror” is to mistake content for tone; at heart they’re basically dramedies. This is partly because a continuous story usually demands continuous revelations about the characters and their predicament, and, as H. P. Lovecraft would tell us, the more you know about something, the less it scares you. In fact, Twin Peaks (1990-1991) may be the only serialized program to maintain a consistently unsettling tone, and the fact that it was cancelled before all of its central mysteries could be resolved may have something to do with its enduring cult legacy.
Still, while most of the shows produced during the vampire/zombie boom won’t have viewers cowering behind the couch, they do represent one more distinct chapter in horror’s cultural history. With television often being cited as having become more innovative and intelligent than mainstream cinema, fans of good horror TV should have nothing to fear from the future—or, that is, plenty.