The Movie Waffler TV Waffle - A Short History of Horror TV | The Movie Waffler

TV Waffle - A Short History of Horror TV

Horror as the basis for a television series is a comparatively recent phenomenon. Historically, there have been a number of attempts at this and they seem to fall into three relatively distinct stages based on my observation. However, it seems to be only relatively recently that really effective horror based television series have become available in the media.

Before we look at where we are today, I think it is best to look chronologically at these three stages of horror series.  I will note that I am not going to be covering comedy or children's material in this overview.
The first stage of horror based television was stories within various anthology series.  This actually started with the series 'Climax!' in 1954, with a relatively unknown adaptation of 'The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde'.  Not a lot is known about this series due to its lack of availability today but this particular episode is one of only two of 'Climax!' currently available on DVD.  'Alfred Hitchcock Presents', which started a year later, occasionally dabbled in horror as well.  'The Veil' was a series produced in 1958, hosted by Boris Karloff, that was unfortunately never aired at the time but this, along with 'One Step Beyond' a year later, featured supernatural stories that some may consider horror, although I personally do not.  Both series present stories which are supposedly based on real events and tend to fall into the classic ghost story category.  The dryness of the pseudo documentary style of both series effectively neutralizes any attempt at horror content for me.  
Moving forward to 'The Twilight Zone' we get into the earliest effective horror stories seen on television. While 'The Twilight Zone' leaned more heavily towards science fiction, there were a number of memorable horror based episodes such as 'The Howling Man' (1960), 'Eye of the Beholder' (1960) and 'Nightmare at 20,000 Feet' (1963).  
The series '13 Demon Street' from 1959 was largely a suspense series but did also feature a few horror based episodes (also ghost stories, if I recall correctly).   The series 'Thriller' (the American one) in 1960 was, like '13 Demon Street', a mix of both suspense and horror episodes. While most people view 'The Outer Limits' as a science fiction focused series, a good number of the episodes featured an undercurrent of horror, with the stand out example episode being 'The Invisibles' (1964), which featured a creepy 'Invasion of the Body Snatchers' like story line.  
Horror themed anthologies would be rung in with Rod Serling's 'Night Gallery' in 1970.  This was followed shortly thereafter by William Castle's only foray into television with 'Ghost Story' in 1972, which would change its name to 'Circle of Fear' a little over half way through its only season.  After the short lived James Coburn hosted series 'The Darkroom' in 1981, horror anthology series would find a new and more accommodating home in the realm of syndication and cable networks. 
'Tales from the Darkside' began in 1984 and was co-produced by horror director George Romero. Originally envisioned as "Creepshow the TV series", 'Darkside' definitely has the feel of that film, with one first season episode in particular looking like it could have easily been a segment deleted from the movie. Another interesting event begins with the release of this series.  Running from 1984 to 1998, there would always be a horror based anthology series for fans of the genre to follow.  The year 1985 brought us the new 'Twilight Zone' (and again in 2002), which followed in the original's footsteps of the occasional trip into horror.  Both the series 'Monsters' (starting in 1988) and HBO's hugely successful 'Tales from the Crypt', which began one year later, would take over after 'Darkside's fourth and final season.  There were a few other series as well during this period such as 'Ghost Story' (1997), 'Freddy's Nightmares' (1988), which was hosted by Freddy Krueger himself, and finally Wes Craven's (following George Romero's example) 'Nightmare Café' (1992). 
The horror anthology series format finally sputtered out after the turn of the century.  It was this specific genre, however, that outlasted all other genres of anthology series.  The year 2001 brought us both 'Dark Realm' and 'Night Visions', the latter hosted by an uncredited Henry Rollins of all people.  Stephen King's 'Nightmares & Dreamscapes' appeared in 2006 but undoubtedly the most famous series would be Showtime's 'Masters of Horror' (2005), which would ultimately close out the horror anthology series with a return to network television in the form of the follow-on NBC series 'Fear Itself' (2009).
The second stage of television horror I would call the "monster on the loose" format, where the story focuses on some creature, usually but not always of supernatural origin, that is the source of the horror in much the same format as the classic Universal horror movies, except occurring in a contemporary setting.  Most people will likely think of 'Kolchak: The Night Stalker' as the first such series for television and, while this was the case for prime time, there was another series that pre-dated it by six years.  In 1966 a soap opera called 'Dark Shadows' premiered.  It was created by Dan Curtis who would also go on to produce the first two 'Kolchak' television movies that would ultimately lead to that series. While 'Dark Shadows' is still primarily a soap opera, it does have a heavily gothic style and several monsters, the most famous of which would be the vampire Barnabas Collins.  'Kolchak' is very much a monster of the week series with more of that Universal monster feel to it.
While 'Kolchak' only lasted one season, it would have a profound impact on television horror by being a direct inspiration for 'The X-Files' in 1993.  While 'X-Files' does have its monster of the week episodes, it also featured episodes that were part of an on-going story arc that was one of the first to be seen in network television, which had generally favored the episodic series format up to that time. 
Another entry in this type of series would be 1997's 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer'.  To me, 'Buffy' has always been a sort of nominal horror series, as it also has elements of super heroes and comedy as well. With supernatural dramas like this it is also to some extent a matter of taste as to whether something counts as horror or not.  For example, I have always viewed the series 'True Blood', a series about vampires but which is also awash in a veritable ocean of other supernatural creatures, to be fantasy with only the occasional touches of horror.  Examples of other series that I would describe as horror dramas of this format would be 'Brimstone' (1998), the 'Buffy' sequel series 'Angel' (1999), 'Freakylinks' (2000),  and most recently 'Supernatural' (2005).
The final stage of horror television series are what I would call "horror setting" series and are, for me personally, the closest to pure horror material.  These are shows that, while they do feature monsters, have a horror setting that contributes more to the overall atmosphere of the series.  While these are predominantly very recent series, the first one was not.  The show 'Friday the 13th: The Series' was originally to be called 'The 13th Hour'.  That was until some Paramount executive decided it would be a better idea to use the title from the then hot series of Jason Voorhees slasher flicks to try and sell the product.  This valiant attempt to kill the series aside, 'Friday the 13th: The Series' premiered in 1987 and ran for three seasons in syndication and featured a very horror driven setting and story.  Cousins Micki and Ryan inherit an antique shop from Micki's uncle Lewis Vandredi.  Unfortunately for them, Lewis made a deal with Satan to sell cursed antiques out of his shop and then tried to break the deal.  The devil reacts to this in the manner that anyone would expect with the added side effect of the curse now landing on Micki and Ryan as well.  The series focuses on the two characters as they attempt to collect all of the artifacts Lewis sold in an attempt to lift the curse and not follow uncle Lewis into his rather poor choice of afterlife.  I always felt the series was quite ahead of its time when it first aired.  
Most series that fall into this format would come considerably later with the onslaught of cable original programming. Examples include 'American Gothic' (1995), 'Poltergeist: The Legacy' (1996), 'The Walking Dead' (2010), 'American Horror Story' (2011) and, amazingly, a network attempt in the form of '666 Park Avenue' (2013). Something special needs to be mentioned about 'American Horror Story'. While it is a drama series, each season is its own unique story arc, thus making it a new sort of anthology series which, interestingly, brings us full circle to the origin of television based horror in the first place.
So, why was the horror genre so late to the television party?  There are potentially a number of factors.  The added expense of visual effects might have been a consideration but that kind of falls by the wayside when we have the examples of 'Star Trek' or the original 'Battlestar Galactica'. There seemed to be a belief amongst people making horror films at the time that television, being a much less immersive media, would be equally less likely to be successful at horror. While both of these may have been considerations, I think the core reason is that of government scrutiny. The US Broadcast networks had at the time, and to this day, fairly regular run-ins with congressional and FCC oversight related to their content.  As a result, the networks would want to avoid anything that invited controversy and the horror genre more so than any other seems to always be a magnet for this sort of attention.  This is especially the case with effective horror stories that have a genuine impact on people. I don't think it's a coincidence that both the 16 year run of dedicated horror anthology series as well as the appearance of the first horror setting series began with original for syndication programming. This perspective is further supported by the fact that the most successful of the current horror programs are available only on cable channels.  It is my belief that the greater freedom allowed through both the original syndicated series market and the less supervised cable networks has opened up television to the more edgy and controversial content which effective horror story telling requires.

I would like to thank Steve Sullivan for allowing me to call upon his 'Dark Shadows' expertise, which was exceptionally helpful in the writing of this article.

Nick Sauer
For more from Nick, visit his site 'Fantastic Television'.