The Top 20 Scariest TV Anthology Series
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Good evening, boils and ghouls! Gather around, will you? Take a look outside. See how the leaves have fallen? How the pumpkins have been carved? How everyone's suddenly become weirdly cool with children accepting candy from strangers? No, this isn't The Twilight Zone... It's All Hallows' Eve, upon us at last!
This year on our top list of scary things to watch, we're going to take the focus off from the movies (who always hog all the glory this time of year) and, instead, focus only on the top scares of TV. Not just any boob-tube scares, though, mind you, but rather TV's most successful medium for telling tales of terror and suspense: the anthology series'.
For those poor souls not already in-the-know, an anthology series is one which presents us with a different story and a different set of characters with each new episode (or, in special circumstances, with each new season). Where each episode, in a sense, is its very own self-contained short story. Oh, sure, occasionally you'll have a host (sometimes even a rotting, decomposing host) that will introduce and conclude each episode, but that's about it as far as reoccurring characters go. This means you'll find no serialized series such as The Walking Dead, Kolchak, or Dark Shadows here, horror fans. Sorry. We still love them too... They just don't fill the bill for what we're looking for at this time.
The decision to stick only to anthologies was due to the simple fact that when you take a good, hard look at all the greatest scary TV shows throughout history, it's the anthologies that always have a tendency to dominate the whole list! Why? Who the hell knows. They just do. So, since they're clearly the best of the best, the conclusion was clear: give them the limelight. And that's just what we've done.
So turn off the lights, lock the doors, tell the trick-or-treaters to screw off, and sit back and relax. Here are the Top 20 Scariest TV Anthologies.
20.) The Hitchhiker (1983 - 1991)
Many may not remember this, but before bestowing upon us one of TV's most beloved immoral gorefests, Tales from the Crypt, HBO had first tried its hand at the horror anthology genre with this fun attempt at a more modern take on The Twilight Zone; where each sordid, bloodbathed episode was introduced and concluded by a mysterious wanderer known only as -- you guessed it -- The Hitchhiker.
The Hitchhiker was no Twilight Zone though. For one thing, its host, a mullet-having weirdo in tight jeans and a leather jacket, was a pretty far cry from Rod Serling; and his opening and closing monologues were about as insightful as Jerry Springer's "final thoughts" (well, maybe not that insightful). And the episodes themselves, while not bad, were equally without class or depth.
With all that being said, the tales told to us did succeed in one very important respect: they were scary. And, really, when you've got good scares (and a little gratuitous gore and nudity thrown into the mix) who needs class and depth anyways?
19.) Monsters (1988 - 1991)
Perhaps the most bizarre series on this list, Monsters was originally released as being a more humorous successor to the 1983 anthology series Tales from the Darkside (which ended its run during the same year in which Monsters premiered). Nevertheless, as funny, and oftentimes campy, as the show may have been, it was still pretty darn eerie and disturbing; and, as hinted at by the title, it featured the added bonus of having a new (and usually grotesque) monster with each new episode. Those episodes were admittedly hit or miss, though, and the ones that got it right are only for an acquired taste. But if you happened to be one with that taste, you, sir or madam, are in for some fun.
Also, there's just no denying the creativity that goes into a show with episodes where girls start romantic relationships with zombies and bloodsucking plants; and where a creepy-looking, foul-mouthed, animatronic puppet (that looked like something from the equally disturbing The Garbage Pail Kids) goes on vicious killing sprees.
UNFORTUNATELY, Monsters isn't yet available on DVD. But for those of you who are internet savvy enough, you should be able to find the episodes pretty easily online.
18.) Are You Afraid of the Dark? (1991 - 2000)
Yeah, yeah, it's a kids show. I know. But for those of us who grew up with this rare anthology horror series for children, it was our first taste of what that great and glorious genre of storytelling had to offer. And, furthermore, it was absolutely terrifying to us!
Rewatching it today, of course (from our rocking chairs), the show has admittedly lost a lot of that terror. But it's still a fun trip down memory lane, and a fun, Halloween-themed show just in general. So, for those more advanced horror fans out there who have never seen it before, this may not be for you. But if you've got kids and want to start them on the anthology medium for the first time (or if you're just a past viewer who wants to relive the good old days) it's totally worth the watch.
[NOTE: If you're into this, also worth a look would be the similar horror anthology series for kids, Goosebumps (1995 - 1998), that was based on the popular R. L. Stine children's books of the same name.]
17.) 'Way Out (1961)
This very weird and quirky short-lived series was, as the title states, way out there.
Based on the stories of Roald Dahl, who also hosted the show, 'Way Out wasn't very unlike most anthology series as far as the basics were concerned. Dahl, as host, would open and close each episode, and each story within would involve the regular formula of strange-thing-happens-to-normal-person-then-comes-a-twist. The biggest difference that made the series stick out from the rest, though, was that 'Way Out also happened to incorporate a very wicked and ironic sense of humor into its episodes that was way ahead of its time (somewhat similar to the black humor that shows like Tales from the Crypt would have much later).
Also, with episodes which revolved around such things as a dying man who is contemplating having his brain (and one eyeball) kept alive in a jar ("William and Mary"), a woman who's strapped to an electric chair with a light bulb in place of her head (Side Show), and a man who has his face erased (Soft Focus), the show was unusually bizarre for its time (or anytime, for that matter).
(Incidentally, this writer has only seen 5 of the 14 episodes of this series; including, sadly, only one of the episodes mentioned above. This is due to the fact that since its cancellation, the series has never been rebroadcast or put on DVD. And while the entire series is available to watch at The Paley Center for Media in New York and Los Angeles, only 5 are available to watch online (links available below). Due to this, 'Way Out isn't getting as high a spot on this list as it probably deserves.)
16.) One Step Beyond (1959 - 1961)
Like the never broadcast, Boris Karloff-hosted The Veil (1958), and the much later series Beyond Belief: Fact or Fiction (1997-2002), the anthology series One Step Beyond (or as it was also known, Alcoa Presents: One Step Beyond -- back in those golden days of TV, when shows could be funded by just one sponsor) featured stories which were allegedly based on actual events of the paranormal, the mysterious, and the unexplained.
As far as actually being based on "true events" that's, well... questionable. Regardless of that, the episodes are still very frightening at times and always contain a good dose of mysteriousness that keep you on the edge of your seat. The endings were often much more upbeat and hopeful than a lot of fans of this genre would probably prefer, but, hey, the ride to get there was always fun.
15.) American Horror Story (2011 -)
Unlike all other series' mentioned on this list, American Horror Story is actually just barely bordering on the edge of being an anthology series at all. This is due to the fact that instead of having an all new story with all new characters per episode, American Horror Story gives us an all new story with all new characters per season (making each season, essentially, a miniseries of its own). So I suppose that maybe it could be considered as cheating by tossing it onto our list here... but who cares? We have very few modern horror anthologies to chose from in this new, modern era. These guys are more or less the only ones left keeping the genre alive. It would seem rude not to at least give 'em a mention.
The first season consists of a horror favorite: the haunted house story. Without going into detail about the plot, let's just say that it's as warped, weird, surreal, mysterious, and as stylish of a tale as a horror buff could ask for (a sort of strange mix between The Shining, Amityville Horror, and American Beauty; with maybe a little Shutter Island thrown in there to keep things interesting). And speaking of Shutter Island, the second season (entitled Asylum) takes place in yet another favorite setting for horror: the insane asylum.
14.) Masters of Horror (2005 - 2007)
The basic idea behind Masters of Horror, where you'd pair together top genre directors with top genre writers to make short, weekly "movies", was by no means an original one. It was done various times before in a whole line of TV programs (including some on this list) and it'll probably continue being done well into the future. But when it was done here, the directors were really put into the limelight, and their hour long "movies" actually looked like real, feature films (with the assistance of being aired on the premium cable channel Showtime, of course, where the lack of censorship gave each episodes directors complete freedom to throw in as much gore, boobies, and foul language as needed).
For any Wes Craven or John Carpenter fan, you pretty much know what you're going to get here. These are the kind of bloody slasher films, monster movies, ghost stories, and journeys into the supernatural that we all grew to know and love in the 70's and 80's. They're raunchy, overrun with gratuitous sex and violence, and oftentimes are the very definition of "so bad it's good". And due to this, Masters of Horror is as those old favorites continue to be: AWESOME!
[NOTE: If you enjoy Masters of Horror, also check out NBC's Fear Itself, which many consider as the short-lived shows unofficial continuation.]
13.) Tales of Tomorrow (1951 - 1953)
In many ways, Tales of Tomorrow looked and felt like an amateur's version of Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone (which wouldn't come around for another eight years). And while The Twilight Zone (and later The Outer Limits) would soon grow to overshadow this groundbreaking series, it was really Tales of Tomorrow that paved the way for them all. It's quite literally the great grand-daddy of serious science fiction anthology shows; the oldest, not only on this list, but in all of television history. And, best of all, it still holds up to this day!... well, sorta.
Filmed in lo-fi black and white, with a budget of practically nothing, very limited resources to make even the most basic of special effects, and shot and broadcast live, with no chance at hiding mistakes, it's frankly astounding that the show was ever watchable at all; let alone still watchable now. But with some very well written stories taken from some very clever writers (including Arthur C. Clarke and H.G. Wells) the episodes usually manage hold their own as far as the sci-fi/horror anthology genre goes; even if they didn't look pretty. They also showcased some pretty big names and soon-to-be names, including James Dean, Rod Steiger, Paul Newman (in his first screen appearance), Boris Karloff, and Lon Chaney (who gave an infamous drunken performance as Frankenstein's monster).
As for this whole "not being pretty" stuff, though, don't let it get you down. It should be remembered that a grainy picture and a shoestring budget doesn't always mean a lack of quality when your intentions are to be scared. It's in the opinion of many, in fact, that such qualities actually add to the creepy and ominous atmospheres of what we're watching. Not buying it? Try watching the original Night of the Living Dead or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and imagining them in a crystal clear picture; or, even worse, watch their remakes. Now that'll make you shudder.
12.) Amazing Stories (1985 - 1987)
When you have a big budget fantasy/sci-fi/horror series created by one of the worlds leading filmmakers, Steven Spielberg, with a collection of nearly 50 episodes written and directed by such film legends as Martin Scorsese, Robert Zemeckis, Tobe Hooper, Clint Eastwood, and Spielberg himself (not to mention starring more A-list actors than you can shake a golden statuette at), suffice it to say, it's difficult to go very wrong.
Like many of the projects Spielberg has dipped his toes into in the past, though, each episode of Amazing Stories had that incomparable Spielberg-ian feel to it, whether the revered filmmaker had actually written or directed them himself or not. There was just something about each stories perfectly balanced juxtaposition of wholesome charm and terrifying (oftentimes comedic) thrills which simply screamed Spielberg's involvement was more than meets the eye (not very different from the Spielberg produced Poltergeist, where you could swear the man had directed the movie himself). Not to degrade the collaborations from Scorsese (who directed one of the series' most truly scary episodes) or any of the other writers or directors, of course, but it's crystal clear whose baby Amazing Stories really was.
Granted, the scares never reached that pinnacle level of pee-your-pants terror that came from some others shows on this list, and it never gave us the blood-and-guts guilty pleasures that shows like Tales from the Crypt did (Amazing Stories was a bit too family friendly for that), but it did have moments of fright that were completely undeniable. And as far as sheer quality of plots, writing, acting, and directing goes, Amazing Stories was top notch in all respects.
11.) Night Gallery (1970 - 1973)
Five years after the cancellation of The Twilight Zone, that shows producer, writer, and host, Rod Serling, came back to TV to become the host and sometimes-writer of this weekly anthology series, where he played the curator of a dimly lit museum who would introduce tales of horror and the macabre.
Although, while Serling was the host of Night Gallery and had written over a third of the series' scripts, he had none of the creative control over it that he had with The Twilight Zone. So while they're always inevitably compared due to his involvement, the two are really completely separate entities. While Zone had a deeper message to convey underneath its scares, Night Gallery was only interested in the scares themselves. And, more often than not, it did a great job at delivering them.
10.) The Veil (1958)
The Veil was hosted by monster movie legend Boris Karloff, who would not only introduce each episode, but also acted in all but one of them (sometimes big parts, sometimes small). The episodes themselves were purportedly based upon real-life reports of supernatural happenings and the unexplained (somewhat similar to the idea behind a pretty creepy anthology series that would come along about 40 years later called Beyond Belief: Fact Or Fiction) and each gave us an eerie and intriguing tale full of the kind of big twists and surprises that we would see in the much more polished (as far as production values go) The Twilight Zone a few years later.
Touted by many as being "the greatest television series never seen", this Boris Karloff-hosted show was never actually broadcast on television at all though; so don't worry if you've never seen or heard of it. Due to troubles and complications within the studio that was backing The Veil, it was cancelled after only 10 episodes of its first season had been filmed. Luckily for us, they're all now available on DVD, at least. And horror fans everywhere seem to agree: this would've been some great TV.
9.) The Twilight Zone (1985-1989)
Out of all of the modern Twilight Zone remakes and imitators (a few of which, I've mentioned above) it was this 1985 revival, when at its best, that was the most reminiscent of original series.
The stories, while admittedly lacking in the cinematic style, eloquence, and depth of the originals, were cleverly written, had many of the kind of twists and turns you'd hope for, and had a certain kind of innocent charm that, unlike the previously mentioned Amazing Stories, didn't continuously overshadow the dark, ominous atmospheres that made you jump (in defense of Amazing Stories, though, when they over did it on the charm and touching moments, it usually fit well with the episodes... it just wasn't always very scary).
And while the show probably had more turkeys in its short 3 seasons than the original had during its entire five-year run, and it was completely devoid of the moral and social commentaries we were use to from it, there were episodes of this 1980s revival that were very worthy of that prestigious Twilight Zone title -- something which can't be said at all for the 2002 revival.
8.) Beyond Belief: Fact or Fiction (1997 - 2002)
Certainly the most interactive series on this list, Beyond Belief: Fact or Fiction not only told you weird and creepy tales of the unusual and unexplained, but it also had the added gimmick of letting the viewer guess which of the stories presented was based on actual events and which were just made up by the shows writers. There would be about 3 or 4 of these stories per episode, and it wouldn't be until the very end of the show until you got to find out which was fiction and which was "fact".
The host of the show (James Brolin in its first season and Star Trek's Jonathan Frakes for the remainder of the series) introduced each story in an unnervingly ominous or mysterious tone that always had you thinking; very similar to the delivery used by Robert Stack in the equally creepy series, Unsolved Mysteries.
In fact, due to the knowledge that some of these stories were supposed to be true, and with the help of the eerie narrations during the stories themselves (sometimes done by the host, sometimes by a character within the story), the show actually felt like an episode of Unsolved Mysteries during the majority of the time. And it's that feeling that these stories may have really happened (a feeling you seem to get, even if you're like me and don't believe in ghosts or the supernatural) that make this show just that much more scary.
7.) Tales from the Crypt (1989 - 1996)
With stories ripped directly from the pages of the notorious E.C. horror comics of the '50s, Tales from the Crypt was a bubbling cauldron of the kind of no-holds-barred blood, guts, gore, black-as-coal comedy, and big scares that those infamous books were known and adored for.
One of the coolest aspects of this modern horror classic, other than its lovable, rotting, pun-making, ghoulishly charismatic host, the Crypt Keeper, was that a great number of its episodes were either written by, directed by, or starring a whole cornucopia of A-list actors and filmmakers; including Kirk Douglas, Brad Pitt, Demi Moore, Tom Hanks, and acclaimed director Robert Zemeckis (who also produced the series). And to add to the fun, since the show aired on the premium cable channel, HBO, each episode was allowed free-range to explore all there was in the ways of gore, raunchy language, and sex... MmmMmm.
Sick, trashy, tasteless, and oozing with fun, Tales from the Crypt continues to remain as the one guilty pleasure that boils and ghouls everywhere don't have to be ashamed of.
6.) Hammer House of Horror (1980)
Keeping true to their title, the British anthology series Hammer House of Horror stuck strictly to the horror genre (sorry sci-fi fans), with episodes revolving around such spooky favorites as werewolves, demons, witches, voodoo dolls, haunted houses, and serial killers (with the occasional cannibal and Nazi thrown in to keep things interesting).
Like the previously mentioned Masters of Horror (number 14 on this list), each of the 13, hour-long episodes of Hammer House of Horror had an engaging cinematic value to them that allowed them to pull off that magical feat of coming across more as well-crafted mini-movies rather than an actual episode in a TV series (a feat strangely elusive to most other anthologies on this list) which really adds to the fun.
Also, this is another uncensored anthology full of dirty talk and nakedness, by the way, so prudes beware.
5.) Alfred Hitchcock Presents / The Alfred Hitchcock Hour (1955 - 1965)
The screen fades in on the title, with a simple line-drawn caricature of Alfred Hitchcock behind it and the sinister theme of Charles Gounod's "Funeral March for a Marionette" beginning. The bulbous silhouette of the revered filmmaker himself then slowly steps into frame (doing a little funeral march of his own) and with that, the tone has been set for the thrilling tales to come.
When the opening title sequence alone is enough to give you goose bumps, you know you've got something special on your hands. And Alfred Hitchcock Presents (later retitled The Alfred Hitchcock Hour) certainly was something special. It may have not had the cool, film-noir-esque use of shadows and camera angles that shows like The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits utilized to add style to their stories, but with Hitchcocks droll and witty presentations (coming off as a sort of Rod Serling and Crypt Keeper amalgam) and one intelligently written script full of twists, turns, and surprises, after another, it had a style all its own.
And unlike most of the other anthology series mentioned on this list, these short and chilling tales, presented to us by the master of suspense, didn't need the overt assistance of ghosts, ghouls, aliens, monsters, or journeys into the supernatural to enhance their scares. The stories, which typically revolved around murder, mystery, and intrigue, were of a more down-to-earth nature. Not unlike Hitchcocks Psycho, it was through sheer ironies, shocks, and tragedies that each episode managed to gain its terror.
4.) Tales from the Darkside (1984 - 1988)
"Man lives in the sunlit world of what he believes to be reality.
But... there is, unseen by most, an underworld, a place that is just as real.
But not as brightly lit... a DARKSIDE."
Shudder. With the foreboding introduction above, coupled with a montage of creepy images (beautiful forests and countryside mostly, but they looked more like crime scene footage in the context they're shown), and the scariest opening theme you'll ever hear on TV (or anywhere else, for that matter), Tales from the Darkside was a show that could give you nightmares just from the opening credits alone.
The show was created by none other than the Zombie King himself, George A. Romero. Coming along directly after the success of Romero's classic Creepshow, Tales from the Darkside was designed as being a sort of TV spinoff to that film; only without the trappings of being restricted to only a comic book style of storytelling (it would be the series Tales from the Crypt, five years later, that would delve into that territory).
Like both Creepshow and Tales from the Crypt, Tales from the Darkside took its inspiration from the classic EC comic books of the '50's. Unlike them, though, Tales from the Darkside made a point of taking itself a lot more seriously (most of the time) by taking it easy on comic-relief and putting the focus on bone-chilling scares.
3.) Thriller (1960 - 1962)
While Thriller may have slipped through the cracks of the public's memory, this spine-tingling horror series, hosted by none other than Frankenstein's monster himself, Boris Karloff, left us with some of the most chilling and bloodcurdling tales ever to be put on TV.
While the earliest episodes were more on par with the down-to-earth thrills and suspensefulness that Alfred Hitchcock did so well (with stories often revolving around revenge, crime, murder, and the like), it wasn't until the show began to dive into the world of ghosts, ghoulies, and the supernatural that it really began to find it's stride.
Like the Universal horror films from the 20's to the early 60's (where Karloff gained his legendary status from) the episodes of Thriller were straightforward with their intentions; and those intentions were simple: to scare the everloving pants off from the viewer. And at that, it was a success.
2.) The Twilight Zone (1959 - 1964)
Without question the most influential and groundbreaking show mentioned on this list, Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone managed to fit into its episodes a lot more than just scares -- although, believe you me, there were plenty of those as well.
Serling, the shows host, creator, and writer of over 90 episodes, found that he could get away with saying a whole heck of a lot about society as long as he just cloaked his deep and controversial messages under the guise of "it's just make believe". Or, as Serling himself once stated, "I have no interest in a series which is purely and uniquely suspenseful, but makes no comments about anything." Among such themes, The Twilight Zones parables and morality tales typically addressed such things as totalitarianism, war, dealing with death, racial issues, fear of the unknown, and the fears that you can't share with others.
Luckily for us, Serling's messages about society never distracted from The Twilight Zones entertainment though. Whether it was through science fiction, fantasy, or horror tales, the majority of the series episodes were a galore of creepiness.
(Among its plethora of spooky stories, some of the scariest of the bunch included "The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street", about neighbors on a quiet suburban street that suddenly turn against each other after strange and mysterious happenings stroke their paranoia; "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet", where a man on an airplane believe he sees a monster on the wing; and "The Hitch-hiker", where a girl driving across country keeps passing the same mysterious man on the side of the road, no matter how far she drives or where she goes.)
1.) The Outer Limits (1963 - 1965)
Often compared with the sometimes-similar The Twilight Zone, these two scary and philosophical series' actually had a lot of differences. While The Twilight Zone episodes were typically a mixed bag of nuts, as far as moods and genres were concerned, The Outer Limits took a more straight forward approach in its intentions, and had more of a clarity of concept. Unlike Zone, you'd never come across the occasional comical or upbeat episode. Each of The Outer Limits episodes were just as dark, moody, and frightening as the last -- They were designed to scare every single time.
The show was nominally (and understandably) classified as being science fiction, but, really, most episodes seemed more like straight horror tales; complete with a cornucopia of monstrous creatures, mad scientists, and dark, foreboding atmospheres that always made you jump. Meaning that while The Twilight Zone may have been the better series as a whole (although they're both great), it was The Outer Limits that took the cake when it came to straight scares in general.