The Horror “Revolution” Has Missed Its Television Mark

Even as shows like 'The Terror' and 'Castle Rock' garner strong reviews, horror television is still waiting for its breakout moment.

Every now and then, the nightmarish hellscape that is Twitter does lead to some pretty good conversation starters. Such was the case this weekend when Bloody Disgusting editor-in-chief John Squires asked his audience a surprisingly challenging question: why don’t horror film fans also support horror television shows? Given the plethora of good television series available these days, it seems like at least one title should’ve been claimed major success with horror fans and maybe even achieved popular success as a result. However, as Squires noted in his thread, the television horror content does poorly when compared to its film counterparts. So why is that the case?

Let’s start with the idea of horror shows themselves. It’s not like there has been a shortage of quality series over the past few years. Even setting aside stalwarts like The Walking Dead and American Horror Story, plenty of mainstream shows — shows available as part of a not-too-premium cable package — offer something for every type of horror audience. You want something stylish and modern? Hannibal is your pick. Gothic and grotesque? Try Penny Dreadful. Conventional over-the-top splatter? As long as there are seasons of Ash vs. Evil Dead on Netflix, you needn’t search too far. This doesn’t even include some of the smaller shows or foreign imports that lean towards the horror genre in either tone or aesthetic, or the bigger shows that dabble in horror elements before retreating to the more safe confines of science-fiction (Stranger Things) or fantasy (Game of Thrones).

And yet, while these shows have their dedicated audiences even post-cancellation, they have failed to give horror television its crossover hit. Part of this is the lack of award season recognition, something that can, as we’ve seen with horror movies like Get Out, reposition titles as something accessible to a larger swath of audience members. Once more setting aside titles like Walking Dead and American Horror Story, which have historically cleaned up with the technical Emmys and performed considerably worse among the performer and series categories, HannibalPenny Dreadful, and Ash vs. Evil Dead, garnered a grand total of one Emmy nomination and one Golden Globe nomination (no wins) for all nine of their combined seasons.

This kind of critical evaluation is important, because much like their feature counterparts, horror television shows are also often caught between diehards on both sides of the spectrum. Back in 2017, horror critic Matt Donato gave voice to the frustration of many genre fans when he definitively stated that Stephen King’s It was indeed a horror movie. “There’s still a misconception that horror is just gratuitous tit-shots and bloody carcasses,” he wrote. “There are still critics who’ll never give the genre proper regard. Horror will always be the most accepting, malleable cinematic vessel.” And while Donato was clearly discussing film, the same logic can be applied to television shows. If they’re entertaining, they’re too popular to be horror. If they’re smart, they’re too prestigious to be horror. And if they’re both, odds are they’re on Shudder and thus have yet to break through to the mainstream.

Take The Terror, a brilliant horror television series that wears its crown with extreme unease. Back in March, when noted Terror scholar Karen Han sat down with the showrunners to discuss their first season, the resulting conversation was so focused on walking back the idea that The Terror might be a horror show that the article published under the headline, “The Terror, TV’s Scariest New Series, Isn’t Really a Horror Story.” In the interview, David Kajganich described his “allergy” to conventional horror tropes and expressed his desire to make something unlike a traditional horror film; in hindsight, Kajganich’s comments served as a precursor for his scathing comments about the “lazy, cynical horror films” of the past decade in a recent Hollywood Reporter article. Horror or not, The Terror was shut out of this year’s Emmy nominations.

Or take Castle Rock, the ongoing Hulu series that gives Stephen King’s literary universe an anthology spinoff. My own thoughts on the series aside — even the standout Sissy Spacek episode failed to set the hook for me — Castle Rock has been a solid hit with critics, garnering an above-average score on Metacritic and some serious award buzz for its sexagenarian star. Still, questions linger about its quality as a horror series proper. Even favorable reviews are prone to calling out the show’s lack of overt scares, leading some to categorize it more as a Lost-esque thriller than a horror series proper. Even if you are inclined to defend the show’s more metaphysical take on scares, its surprising reluctance to be pinned down into any type of conventional horror narrative makes it a difficult proposition for diehard fans and casual fans alike.

And while all of this speaks to the popularity of these shows in a vacuum, it fails to answer the specific question: why haven’t these shows been championed by horror audiences in particular? For one, it’s a question of volume. Unlike most other genres of film, odds are that you can find a new theatrical or VOD horror release nearly every weekend of the year in the horror genre; when faced with this output, devoting yourself to a dozen hours of some half-popular television series may seem like a poor use of time. For another, television remains a democratic medium, more prone to collaboration and less prone to the kind of auteurist driven projects that get horror fans excited. I cannot speak for all other fans, but those who lived through the late-’90s desert of mainstream Hollywood horror releases likely learned to find value in individualistic vision.

Finally, anyone who has ever attended a major genre festival — or at least a festival with a good Midnight section — will tell you there’s an element of cultural connectedness that feels lost on the smaller screen. Part of the reason horror film festivals are thriving this decade is that horror fans value the opportunity to seek out films that might not otherwise get widespread distribution. While television shows can deliver much of the same aesthetic experience of horror movies, they cannot replace the communal aspect of seeing a movie in an environment where what people have seen, and with whom, plays an important role in their sense of community. Without these communal experiences, television will remain the curio of the horror fan universe.

Matthew Monagle: Matthew Monagle is an Austin-based film and culture critic. His work has appeared in a true hodgepodge of regional and national film publications. He is also the editor and co-founder of Certified Forgotten, an independent horror publication. Follow him on Twitter at @labsplice. (He/Him)