The Evolution of the Television Horror Anthology Series

The horror anthology may seem like a relatively new phenomenon for television with the advent of American Horror Story and now FOX’s new anthology series, Scream Queens. Yet before these shows are declared original conceptions, it is important to acknowledge and reference the former anthology series that paved way for such shows to exist for contemporary audiences. While anthology series such as American Horror Story have been revolutionary and uniquely their own, they have undoubtedly been influenced by precursors who laid out the foundation and conception of the horror anthology.

The man who ought to be primarily acknowledged for the birth of the television horror anthology is Alfred Hitchcock. Hitchcock already was an iconic figure within the film industry, dubbed the “the master of suspense” for providing audiences with movies that broke outside of the normative film structure. What especially helped Hitchcock’s iconic image was the movie trailers for his films, which clearly evidenced his pride in his work, and where he would take his prospective audience on a “tour” of his upcoming film. This was something no other director did, furthering Hitchcock as being easily identifiable within Hollywood during this era of filmmaking.

Therefore it was no surprise Hitchcock would integrate himself within television as it became more accessible to the public in the late 1950s. Television was still at an experimental phase with its programming, which gave Hitchcock enough flexibility to insert himself into his own show. For Hitchcock, this was an opportunity to make himself more available for a wider audience, Alfred Hitchcock Presentswhile also redefining what was considered “entertainment” with television programming. Networks didn’t complain since Hitchcock was willing to direct a handful of episodes, a notion they were thrilled about. This was because it was relatively unheard of during this time where a big-name director would willingly direct episodes of television, which was considered by many a demotion for a film director, which was a sentiment Hitchcock contradicted when he involved himself in the television process. Thus Alfred Hitchcock Presents was introduced as the first horror anthology for television, though it can be argued the show bordered more on suspense than horror. Nonetheless, the show is still well-known, especially for its iconic main title sequence that featured Charles Gounod’s “Funeral March of a Marionette” and the now-famous Alfred Hitchcock silhouette.

Episodes worth watching from Alfred Hitchcock Presents:

The Case of Mr. Pelham (Season 1, Episode 10)

Mr. PelhamOne of the best episodes Hitchcock directed himself. The episode features a man who is being stalked by a man who is identical in appearance and may be slowly stealing his identity.

Lamb to the Slaughter (Season 3, Episode 28)

Lamb to the SlaughterFeaturing Dallas star Barbara Bel Geddes, she stars as a wife who murders her cheating husband with a frozen leg of lamb and then calls the police to report her husband having been murdered by an intruder.

The Glass Eye (Season 3, Episode 1)

The Glass EyeFeaturing Hollywood and Broadway legend, Jessica Tandy, she stars as a woman infatuated with a ventriloquist who may not be exactly who he seems to be.

When it comes to the pioneers of television horror anthologies, the other forefather who deserves mentioning is Rod Sterling. Having built up his credentials as a tremendous writer of television during the 1950s, Sterling had enough clout to produce and create The Twilight Zone in 1959. It was Sterling’s close association with the anthology series that kept the show up to a specific standard with him writing two-thirds of the show’s overall episodes, which was an unheard thing to do at the time, but is commonly done now with contemporary television programs. Despite being another anthology series, there were only minimal similarities between The Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents, mostly in format, such as incorporating big-name celebrities into episodes, which boosted viewership appeal, and the episodes being episodic and non-related.

Yet the fundamental differences between the two shows was Rod Sterling successfully introducing to American audiences a newfound fascination with supernatural, fantasy, and science-fiction motifs. These motifs stretched the stories outside of narrative realism, which demanded the show viewer to suspend disbelief and allow themselves to be absorbed into a world The Twilight Zonewhere unspeakable horrors were possible. This aura provided a new viewing experience that transcended outside of suspense and veered towards the macabre, thus giving its audience scares and thrills. This was a notion that was continually reinforced to viewers with the show’s famous main title sequence reminding viewers that they were about to “enter a new dimension.” What further sold this series was the show’s unapologetic storytelling style, which refused to give into common tropes, such as “the happy ending,” and often left viewers with an unresolved or bittersweet ending. It is for these reasons why The Twilight Zone was a critical success and continues to be a beloved series by television fans.

Episodes worth seeing from The Twilight Zone:

Nightmare at 20,000 Feet (Season 5, Episode 3)

Nightmare ShatnerPerhaps one of the most famous episodes from the series features William Shatner aboard a plane flight, who witnesses aNightmare Lithgow “gremlin” on the wing who may be trying to crash the plane, yet he cannot get anyone else to see it, or even believe him. In 1983, a Twilight Zone movie was produced that remade this famous episode and starred John Lithgow in the main role. This segment of the movie is just as worthy of being seen as the original episode from the series.

Time Enough At Last (Season 1, Episode 8)

Burgess MeredithEven though he had a lengthy career as an actor, Burgess Meredith will be forever immortalized in this Twilight Zone episode as a man who solely wants to be left alone so he can enjoy a book in silence. He is granted that wish when he is the only survivor from a nuclear attack, only to break his glasses the moment he gets exactly what he wants. In many regards, this episode is one of the finest episodes of television ever created.

Living Doll (Season 5, Episode 6)

Living DollHollywood big-name Telly Savalas starred in this episode as a father who becomes terrified and fearful when he suspects his stepdaughter’s talking doll is alive and seeking to kill him.

After both Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Twilight Zone concluded, the horror anthology temporarily fizzled away. There were instances of attempted revivals, but most did not reach the caliber or popularity of the former horror anthology shows. Yet there was one horror anthology series that benefited from the horror film influx of the 1980s and maintained popularity through the majority of the decade; That was George R. Romero’s Tales from the Darkside. With the success of Friday the 13th, An American Werewolf in London, and The Shining in the early 1980s, it was evident that filmgoers had a renewed interest in the macabre. However, what was most influential to the anthology’s conception was 1980’s Creepshow, which Tales From the Darksideinvited the idea of a new horror anthology for television. The George R. Romero (Night of the Living Dead) and Stephen King collaboration was a successful film that was formatted as an anthology film featuring five separate horror stories that were tailored as homages to the old DC horror comics of the 1950s. Romero initially intended for Creepshow to be adapted directly as a television show, yet couldn’t succeed in attaining the rights for its title, thus Tales from the Darkside was the title presented to television audiences. Premiering in 1983, Tales from the Darkside adopted the typical framework of previous horror anthologies of episodic narratives that featured a singular plot and one-time characters. Also like its predecessors, Tales from the Darkside hinged on the idea of the “normal” being more sinister than realized, that evil hides in plain sight. This sentiment was especially insinuated in the show’s main title sequence that featured quaint countryside imagery that was juxtaposed with ominous music and a narrator indicating that nothing is as it seems.

It ought to be noted that there were two fundamental differences between Tales from the Darkside and its predecessors, thereby indicating a evolution shift for the horror anthology. The first was its lack of big-name actors. While some major celebrities did star in episodes, it was more scarce than the previous anthology series. In replacement, what Tales from the Darkside used to its advantage, clearly by being in association with George R. Romero, was luring major horror writers to script episodes of the show. Among these writers were Stephen King, Clive Barker (Hellraiser), Michael McDowell (Beetlejuice), and Robert Bloch (Psycho). This ensured that the show, while not at the same level of The Twilight Zone or Alfred Hitchcock Presents, was at least fresh in creative content. Tales from the Darkside also had another fundamental difference, which was the tone of the show. The show’s tonality veered away from social commentary and solely focused on the horror aspect of the narrative. Yet even within that narrative type, it primarily mirrored the horror-satire aspect of Creepshow. Therefore, Tales from the Darkside is deliberately overdone, especially in the context of acting. This indicated that while the show’s aim was to scare its audience, its main goal was to entertain its audience by exaggerating its audacity.

Episodes worth seeing from Tales from the Darkside:

Seasons of Belief (Season 3, Episode 11)

Seasons of BeliefFlipping the usual narrative style of a “Christmas episode,” two mean-spirited parents tell their kids who don’t believe in Santa Claus a different tale that features a terrifying monster called a “Grither.” Click HERE to view the episode.

Halloween Candy (Season 2, Episode 5)

Halloween CandyIt’s a revenge fantasy against an older male named Mr. Killup who hates kids and uses Halloween as opportunity to shame them for asking for candy, However, this one particular Halloween finds this Mr. Killup enduring a torment of his own when a villainous goblin terrorizes him for candy. Click HERE to view the episode.

Inside the Closet (Season 1, Episode 7)

Inside the ClosetA young graduate student rents a room from a veterinary professor and almost immediately she is confronted with the issue of something being inside the closet of the upper level of the house, which seems to be getting more sinister as time progresses. Click HERE to view the episode.

Tales from the Darkside concluded in 1988, which immediately paved the way for yet another type of horror anthology: Tales from the Crypt. Tales from the Crypt was a full embracement of the macabre with the intention of horrifying and mortifying its viewers, which again, is indicated from the show’s gothic and bleak main title sequence. Despite Tales from the Crypt being considered a contemporary show, it too, had a connection with its horror anthology predecessors. The show’s content was adapted from the EC Comics of the same name that ran from 1950-1955. This indirectly places Tales from the Crypt within Tales from the Cryptthe same era of horror anthology that coincided with Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Twilight Zone, adhering to a certain style of horror that was perfect for television programming. Additionally, Tales from the Crypt adopted the similar style of the former anthologies by having non-related episodes and starring cameos from big-name celebrities and directors. What actually separated Tales from the Crypt from these shows was its being produced by then-new cable channel, HBO. Since Tales from the Crypt was not a network TV show, it wasn’t subject to strict censorship rules, which allowed for the show to incorporate graphic violence, profanity, nudity, gore, and sexual situations. This created a tremendous appeal for the show, which emphasized genuine horror that merged both situational and graphic horror into one entity.

Episodes worth seeing from Tales from the Crypt:

Death of Some Salesmen (Season 5, Episode 1)

Death of Some SalesmenIn an episode that was truly gruesome, a con-man posing as a salesman knocks on the door of the Bracket family and endures a sea of horrors he never anticipated. What especially makes this episode remarkable is that all three Bracket family members are solely acted by Rocky Horror Picture Show’s Tim Curry, who was deservedly nominated for an Emmy for his performance. Click HERE to view the episode.

Carrion Death (Season 3, Episode 12)

Carrion DeathTwin Peaks’ Kyle MacLachlan stars as a serial killer who is apprehended in the middle of the desolate Texas desert and manages to kill the cop he’s handcuffed to. However, in the cop’s final seconds of life, he swallows the keys to the handcuffs, leaving the serial killer with the dilemma of trying to leave the desert while dragging a body he is now handcuffed to. Click HERE to view the episode.

What’s Cookin’ (Season 4, Episode 6)

What's CookinFormer Superman actor, Christopher Reeve, stars in this episode with Bess Armstrong as a couple whose failing restaurant is rescued when a stranger gives them a recipe for a steak sauce that becomes exceedingly popular for the restaurant clientele…only it’s made from human flesh. Click HERE to view the episode.

While Tales from the Crypt was groundbreaking in television horror, it placed too much of a focus on its macabre tonality and setting, which diminished the other aspects of the show, especially in the context of acting. Tales from the Crypt may have attracted big-names to its episodes, but due to poor directing and writing, the performances from these actors were typically stale and bordered on being campy. Tales from the Crypt lasted for seven seasons, but by its final season in 1996, the show had lost so much of its former glory that the show had become a caricature of itself, thus temporarily diminishing the potential for another anthology series.

It wasn’t until 2011 that the horror anthology was reawakened in the form of Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story. In contrast to its predecessors, American Horror Story adopted the frameworks offered by both Alfred Hitchcock Presents and American Horror StoryThe Twilight Zone, while also instilling elements of the macabre into its format as well that were undoubtedly inspired by Tales from the Crypt. Yet what made American Horror Story a reinvented version of the horror anthology was its complete deviation from the typical format and redefining it in a context that made the horror anthology canon appear fresh and new to viewers. Rather than the show being episodic, American Horror Story adopted a single narrative for each of its seasons that spanned the entirety of its 13-episode season. It is because of the lack of narrative Freak Showconnectedness between seasons that allowed for the show to be classified as an anthology, opposed to being labeled as a mere horror program. This also allowed for the show’s writing to have better continuity between episodes and also gave its cast an opportunity to deliver performances that were denser and more worthy of the talents of the actors, opposed to them being relegated to a single episode. Yet it was with American Horror Story’s cast that the horror anthology truly changed in format: The cast was recycled each season into new roles that bore no relation to their previous performances. Anchored in the middle of this recycled cast, at least for the show’s first four seasons, was a dominant performance from Jessica Lange, to which the content of the season primarily revolved around her character. This allowed for American Horror Story to adhere to the foundational work of being a horror anthology, while making itself exclusively its own entity amongst the canon. (Click HERE to further read “How American Horror Story Revolutionized Television”).

The American Horror Story seasons:

Season 1: Murder House

murder houseThe Harmon family (Dylan McDermott, Connie Britton) moves into a new home in Los Angeles unaware of the murderous past the house possesses and the ghosts who still reside within its walls.
Main Title Sequence

Season 2: Asylum

asylumLana Winters (Sarah Paulson) wants to uncover the truth about a serial killer institutionalized within the Briarcliff Mental Institution, only to get herself committed by the institution’s authoritarian administrator (Jessica Lange). What ensues is a mixture of insanity, demonic possession, power-plays, murderous intentions, and the supernatural.
Main Title Sequence

Season 3: Coven

covenWelcome to Miss Robichaux’s Academy for Exceptional Young Ladies, which is a school for young witches run by Cordelia (Sarah Paulson). This school is upended when Cordelia’s mother, Fiona Goode (Jessica Lange), arrives and declares war on the nearby voodoo occult led by Marie Laveau (Angela Bassett).
Main Title Sequence

Season 4: Freak Show

freak showIntroducing Frauline Elsa’s Cabinet of Curiosities in Florida led by Elsa Mars (Jessica Lange), whose freak show is threatened by jealousy, outsiders seeking to profit off her freaks (Denis O’Hare), and a vicious serial killer nearby (Finn Wittrock).
Main Title Sequence

Season 5: Hotel

AHS Hotel CastThis season begins October 7th. Click HERE for Hotel’s trailer. Click HERE for Hotel’s Main Title Sequence.

The horror anthology spans 60 years and in those six decades, the framework has remained the same with such shows challenging the normative programming, inviting big-name celebrities to provide performances outside of their typical work, and offering audiences an opportunity to be scared willingly. What these shows have definitively proved is that the horror anthology formula can be continually shifted to accommodate the changes in generational television, which suggests the horror anthology will not only continue to be a part of the overall television canon, but it also has the capacity to evolve even further in due time.

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