Scary Good: TV's 15 Greatest Fright Nights
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.
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.
14. OUTER LIMITS (1963-1965)
Prime-time TV's first anthology series devoted solely to sci-fi lasted barely two seasons, but it profoundly influenced genre fans, writers, and filmmakers. Creator Leslie Stevens and writer-producer Joseph Stefano favored sober, thought-provoking tales: Alien visitors were prone to admonishing us barbaric, suspicious earthlings; scientists frequently suffered terrible fates after tempting Mother Nature with ill-advised experiments. Although the show failed to live up to ABC's expectations, it went on to succeed in perpetual syndication.
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.
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.