5. Kolchak: The Night Stalker (1974-1975)
Named for its protagonist wire service reporter Carl Kolchak (Darren McGavin), Kolchak: The Night Stalker ran on ABC for one glorious season. Over the course of 20 episodes, Kolchak investigates a series of mysterious crimes, each with its own supernatural/sci-fi twist resulting in one of the more entertaining horror tv shows. Proceeded by the two (incredible) TV movies, 1972’s The Night Stalker and 1973’s The Night Strangler, the ABC series dabbled in all manner of ookey spooky offerings from succubi to indigenous legends to a headless motorcycle rider. Though short-lived, Kolchak is an obvious and well-cited X-Files progenitor that holds its own against both its paranormal and procedural peers.
In addition to behind-the-scenes talent from Robert Zemeckis, Bob Gale, David Chase, Gil Mellé, and Jerry Fielding, Kolchak also boasts a reputable rogues’ gallery of top tier ’70s guest stars (including Scatman Crothers, Tom Skerritt, Richard Kiel, and Carolyn Jones). Intrigued? Looking for where to start? You can’t go wrong with the show’s inaugural episode “The Ripper,” which, you guessed it, sees the mysterious return of history’s most notorious serial killer. But my personal favorite is episode 9, “The Spanish Moss Murders,” wherein dream experiments produce a Cajun boogeyman covered in pernicious greenery. Hell. Yeah. (Meg Shields)
4. Hannibal (2013-2015)
I still think it’s a miracle we got three seasons of Hannibal. For a network television horror show, the extreme places Hannibal went are still shocking almost a decade later. The stylistic visuals, the over the top gore, the inventive ways characters die; Hannibal went for NBC’s jugular and horror TV is better for it. Shows like The Walking Dead pushed the boundaries of what type of extremes regular audiences were willing to see on the small screen, but Hannibal was able to do the same without any of the cover provided by premium television.
Bryan Fuller smartly injected a unique subtext to the relationship between Will Graham and Hannibal Lecter that elevated the show past Anthony Hopkins’ famous performance to represent something that original author Thomas Harris may have never intended: the emotional complexities of modern masculinity through an atypical love affair between two men. This relationship created a voracious base of Fannibals, hungry for more stories about these star-crossed lovers that they were more than happy to generate themselves through volumes of fanfiction. But Hannibal’s second life never distracts from its first: a show that pushed horror television to the brink, and then into the future. (Jacob Trussell)
3. Twin Peaks (1990-2017)
Before we all come to blows over whether The Return is a movie or TV show, let’s take some time to appreciate that Twin Peaks, as a collective entity, is nothing short of miraculous. Beginning in 1990 as a mystery show centering on the question of who killed homecoming queen Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee), over the years, Twin Peaks’ mythology has expanded and David Lynch has managed to weave together a truly horrific and philosophical tapestry. It sounds a little too broad and hyperbolic to praise the show for its portrayal of grief, the origin of evil, America’s history, and the function of narrative itself. But the show does all of this and more. Twin Peaks is content to leave a lot of its mystery undeciphered, allowing its mystery to not just be a series of clues to uncover, but an emotional journey that wraps dread and hope into a single experience. Individual interpretations of “what it all means” can vary wildly, but one thing we can all agree on is that Twin Peaks is unmatched, no matter what medium it’s part of. (Anna Swanson)
2. Tales from the Crypt (1989-1996)
Adapted from the EC Comics series of the same name, Tales from the Crypt ran for seven seasons on HBO starting in 1989 and concluding in 1996. Because it aired on premium cable, the series was able to push the boundaries and depict far greater violence and sexuality than seen in earlier horror anthologies. Each episode is introduced by the wisecracking Cryptkeeper (John Kassir) greeting boils and ghouls with a cackling laugh and a witty pun. Tales from the Crypt featured many high-profile A-list actors including Michael J. Fox, Christopher Reeve, Bobcat Goldthwait, and Whoopi Goldberg. The show also had plenty of star power working behind the scenes with episodes directed by Richard Donner, Robert Zemeckis, Walter Hill, Tom Hanks, William Friedkin, and Freddie Francis.
The show’s popularity resulted in two movies and two spin-off television shows for kids! That’s right, this bloody macabre horror series was so good they had to make two versions for children. Tales from the Cryptkeeper was a Saturday morning cartoon that was essentially the same show, just toned down and animated. The second was Secrets of the Cryptkeeper’s Haunted House, a children’s game show that saw teams compete in a series of events with the Cryptkeeper serving as the host. Heads I win, tails you ooze! (Chris Coffel)
1. The Twilight Zone (1959-1964)
Topping our list of television horror is The Twilight Zone. Created by Rod Serling and premiering for the first time in 1959, The Twilight Zone was not the first horror anthology series, but it did finalize the template for the format that has been mimicked and copied by countless shows since. As soon as those eerie guitar notes hit and you’re welcomed by the strangely calm voice of Serling, you know you’re about to enter The Twilight Zone.
The series plays on humanity’s greatest anxieties, often relying on current events of the day like McCarthyism and fear of nuclear war, to deliver self-contained episodes of morality tales with a twist ending. Megastars from William Shatner to Robert Redford to Peter Walk guest-starred on-screen, while scripts were penned by likes of Serling, Richard Matheson, and Charles Beaumont. It’s an iconic series that has spawned three follow-up TV shows (so far), a movie, theme park rides, and a slew of imitators. The Twilight Zone isn’t just the best horror tv show ever, it’s one of the best television shows ever, period. (Chris Coffel)
Related Topics: 31 Days of Horror Lists