AMERICAN HORROR STORY (2011-present)
Shall we start with the latex suit or the brains buffet? Just like Rubber Man, the cinema-worthy FX series takes no prisoners. Its first season alone featured an ax to the gut, oral sex gone terribly wrong, a Columbine-style school shooting, a Frankenbaby stitched together from the remains of a dismembered infant, and…well… do we really need to go on? Okay, we will! Asylum had a Nazi doctor experimenting on mental patients, another doctor who made lampshades out of human flesh, and a campalicious performance of ”The Name Game.” Coven showcased vagina dentata, near-fatal minotaur sex, a creepily doll-obsessed butler who necromantically ”played with” one of Miss Robichaux’s dead witches, an eyeball highball, and a sax-playing ax-wielding serial killer (what’s what all the axes)? So far, Freak Show has introduced us to what might be the scariest clown ever. That Ryan Murphy sure has a flair for the frightening.
With its pattern of gory opening scenes, Fringe was the go-to show for a good scare during its run. The Fringe universe, with its alternate reality, specialized bioweapons, and unusual abilities, featured new and creative ways to die (being trapped in resin, having all your orifices spontaneously seal up, disintegrating into ash) as it drew us deeper down the rabbit hole, wondering how Olivia (Anna Torv), Peter (Joshua Jackson), and Walter (John Noble) would end up.
THE TWILIGHT ZONE (1959-64)
To mimic Rod Serling’s introductory monologue to his groundbreaking anthology program: It lies in the pit of man’s fears (and hopefully somewhere in your DVD collection). This is a television show with imagination. It is a series that we call The Twilight Zone. The coordinates are a little sketchy: It’s in an alternative universe, a fifth dimension, somewhere between heaven, sky, and earth, a middle ground, off a highway exit, on the outskirts of a small town, around the block, or at the next stop … But the episodes are as familiar as the back of your hand: ”To Serve Man,” ”The Eye of the Beholder,” and that terrifying tale of air travel gone awry, ”Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.”
AMERICAN GOTHIC (1995-96)
Set in the small town of Trinity, S.C., American Gothic is about a sheriff, a schoolteacher, and a young boy. Sounds innocent enough, except that Sheriff Lucas Buck (Gary Cole) is the devil; the schoolteacher, Selena (Brenda Bakke), is his evil partner in crime/part-time lover; and the boy, Caleb (Lucas Black), is the sheriff’s son, conceived when the cop raped his saintly mother. Yeah, ”nefarious” doesn’t adequately describe this town’s seedy underbelly. It’s hard to decide what’s creepier: an almost too convincingly evil Gary Cole or the perpetually arched eyebrows on Lucas Black.
TALES FROM THE CRYPT (1989-96)
What would happen if there were Siamese twins, and one was good and the other was evil? Or if a serial killer was parading around dressed as Santa? Or if a cat gland was implanted in a homeless guy’s brain? Or if a radio-talk-show host committed murders for ratings? Or if an aging model killed her younger competition? Or if a vampire was fired from his job at the local blood bank? Just make your way through the door, down the hallway, and into the basement, then turn the channel to HBO, which allowed gore hounds Robert Zemeckis, Richard Donner, Joel Silver, and Walter Hill to hatch this wickedly adult anthology, inspired by the EC Comics of old.
THE X-FILES (1993-2002)
Fox ”Spooky” Mulder (David Duchovny) and straight-edge scientist Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) are FBI agents who have met their fair share of monsters, demons, and alien clones, but it’s the corrupt government that keeps them up at night. Mulder and Scully are crusaders into the unknown, but their nemesis doesn’t eat bodies for sustenance or elongate his body to fit through air vents. He’s just an old guy in a nice suit whose wrinkled face is constantly framed by an ominous cloud of smoke.
THE OUTER LIMITS (1963-65)
It has monsters and aliens and time travel and a witty opening monologue from a Control Voice that isn’t above begging and brainwashing to keep you tuned in. But what makes The Outer Limits special are the ethical dilemmas it poses. The flawed hero of the week often ends up in the same boat as the audience — feeling uneasy, alienated, or maybe just plain terrified. The series never quite recaptured the magic of its first season, but its mid-’90s revival addressed biochemical warfare, genetic mutation, artificial intelligence, and overpopulation. The Outer Limits is scary because it was a collection of fantastic scenarios that seemed not entirely outside the realm of possibility.
Long before audiences got Lost, there was Carnivàle, a series about circus freaks that was more cryptic than a catatonic fortune-teller. It had a plot that twisted like a charmed snake — revolving around two men, young Ben Hawkins (Nick Stahl) and Brother Justin Crowe (Clancy Brown), and an all-encompassing battle between Good and Evil — as well as a mythology bigger than a 400-pound man.
MASTERS OF HORROR (2005-07)
Here are a few of the creepsters that Showtime’s Masters of Horror would like you to meet: dead bodies that bar-dance, orgy-loving zombies, demonic babies, insect enthusiasts, soldier corpses with political savvy, and serial-killer hitchhikers who pick the wrong ambulance to ride in.
NIGHT GALLERY (1970-73)
After The Twilight Zone, Rod Serling set up shop in a poorly lit museum and took audiences on guided tours of works of art. But you didn’t have to be an aesthete to appreciate these paintings: The gallery wasn’t so much a nod to artistic talent as it was a way to introduce the week’s scary story.
POLTERGEIST: THE LEGACY (1996-99)
A secret society exploring paranormal anomalies and supernatural evil, the Legacy pledges to protect the innocent from whatever evil may be lurking in the shadows. Also on their to-do list: keeping friends away from vampires, taking down cult leaders, making sure the portal of hell isn’t breached…you know, the usual.
KOLCHAK: THE NIGHT STALKER (1974-75)
”Has-been big-city reporter” Carl Kolchak (Darren McGavin) isn’t afraid to do some of his own investigative journalism, even if it means losing the respect of his co-workers — or losing his job. But while authorities deny the existence of Native American bear spirits, headless motorcyclists, high-fashion witches, and giant lizards, for Kolchak, it’s just another day on the job. Though the series often veered from horror into black comedy, it still summoned up a few scares, and inspired its much more successful successor, The X-Files.
Frank Black (the gravelly voiced Lance Henriksen) is not your typical FBI profiler. He can put himself into the minds of criminals and see visions of the world through a killer’s eyes. The grim Seattle setting adds to the spookiness, as do the apocalyptical prophecies from the morally ambiguous Millennium Group. And this Chris Carter show gets bonus points for casting Terry O’Quinn before the Lost boys made it cool.
TWIN PEAKS (1990-91)
On April 8, 1990, audiences watched as Pete Martell, a lumberjack from the town of Twin Peaks, Wash., discovered the body of a young woman wrapped in plastic. And thus one of TV’s biggest cult hits was born. David Lynch’s series had everyone asking who killed the popular, sweet homecoming queen Laura Palmer. The town’s bizarre citizens, combined with Dale Cooper’s otherworldly dreams, gave this mystery thriller just the right amount of supernatural scare.
ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS (1955-62)
Hitchcock is the master of suspense, mayhem, and the macabre, and he grabs you right in the opening sequence. His droll greeting after the ”Funeral March of a Marionette” is teasing; he sounds quite pleased that he’s about to scare the bejesus outta you.
AMAZING STORIES (1985-87)
It’s a series titled Amazing Stories, with a superstar like Steven Spielberg at the helm, big-name directors like Clint Eastwood and Martin Scorsese, and notable guest stars including Kevin Costner, Charlie Sheen, and John Lithgow. Knowing all of that, you’d think Amazing Stories would have stories that were, well, a little more amazing. Not all episodes were winners (the one where the boy saves Santa from jail comes to mind), but some managed to find the perfect blend of horror and fantasy — as in the case of the psychic who contacts a serial killer, or the horror-film director whose monsters come to life.
FEAR ITSELF (2008)
With 13 stand-alone installments from masterminds like Mary Harron (American Psycho), Ronny Yu (Freddy vs. Jason), and Brad Anderson (The Machinist), this NBC anthology show unleashed serial killers, zombies, neighborhood conspiracies, and deadly secrets. For a short while, anyway, horror junkies got a weekly 40-minute fix of fear.