While researching my article on this spring’s horror TV debuts, I was struck by the volume of new programs. Six new horror shows joining a field already somewhat dense with genre series felt unusual.
I wondered whether there were other periods in televised horror that offered as deep a roster of shows. There were a few, but my research also uncovered that this may be the best all-time era for horror television in the U.S. (which, these days, includes imports from the UK, thanks to BBC America and Netflix).
I broke my findings into 6 eras, each clustered around shows that aired during roughly the same years. As a result, the eras map to rich creative periods, not decades. I counted only original television series, not made-for-TV movies, series that show theatrical movies (which removed all the classic horror host/creature feature series from the running), or online series.
I also roughly sketched tiers of quality running from all-time great (true classics of both the medium and the genre) to a second tier of greats (classics of the genre, but perhaps not the medium) through average to mediocre to terrible. There’s no scoring system or other similar quantification. This is an eyeball test: you know the best era when you see it. With that said, here are those eras as I see them.
Night Gallery 1970-1973
Dark Shadows -1971
Kolchak: The Night Stalker: 1971, 1973, 1974-1975
A surprisingly small amount of horror TV in the early 70s, though removing made-for-TV movies may have been a mortal wound. Night Gallery, of course, is a great series (though below the top tier of all-time greats occupied by its predecessor, The Twilight Zone), while reactions to Dark Shadows and Kolchak vary widely, probably depending on whether you saw them when they first aired (my reaction, for instance, to both: desolate boredom).
Tales from the Dark Side 1983-1988
The Hitchhiker 1983-1991
The Twilight Zone 1985-1989
Friday the 13th: The Series 1987-1990
Freddy’s Nightmares 1988-1990
Tales from the Crypt 1989-
The ’80s offer more volume than quality. Tales from the Dark Side is pretty terrific, and many feel the same way about Tales from the Crypt, while this Twilight Zone revival had some solid moments. This era, though, is dragged down by the cash-in creations trading on the Friday the 13th and Freddy Krueger names without offering any connection to the movies. I’m fairly sure I’ve never seen The Hitchhiker, but that’s a long run and it was on HBO before it was known for its original programming.
The Twilight Zone 2002-2003
Buffy the Vampire Slayer -2003
Masters of Horror 2005-2007
The first half of the 2000s acquits itself well, thanks to two all-time greats: Buffy and Angel. This period has all of Angel’s best seasons (the last two and a half), and many of Buffy’s best individual episodes (Fool for Love, The Body, Once More with Feeling). The Twilight Zone reboot was quickly cancelled, though, while Carnivale petered out and Masters of Horror was frustratingly inconsistent (and had only one truly indelible episode: Takashi Miike’s Imprint). I don’t love Supernatural the way some people do. Dexter has had its moments, but they ended years ago, so a final judgement of that series will likely assess it as middling.
True Blood 2008-present
Being Human 2009-present
The Vampire Diaries 2009-present
The Walking Dead 2010-present
American Horror Story 2011-present
Upcoming: Bates Motel, Hannibal, Hemlock Grove, etc.
Exactly where our current era ranks depends on how the recent crop of shows pan out. If one or more of them is creatively successful over a number of seasons (and the word on Hannibal, which I haven’t been able to catch yet, is ecstatic), it could move up. As it stands, it contains two major cult hits in True Blood and American Horror Story, as well as The Walking Dead, a popular and critical smash. It’s premature, of course, to guess where these series will place in the all-time ranking, but this is an impressive slate.
The Twilight Zone 1959-1964
Boris Karloff’s Thriller 1960-1962
The Outer Limits 1963-1965
The Munsters 1964-1966
The Addams Family 1964-1966
Dark Shadows 1966-
Enter the heavyweights. The Twilight Zone is more than an all-time great horror/SF series (perhaps the greatest), it’s one of the foundational shows for the entire medium, which is saying something given that it’s been 50-plus years since it went off the air. The Outer Limits is a strong show, but perhaps a second-tier effort, while the others are horror-in-look-only (Munsters, Addams) or only just getting started (Dark Shadows).
American Gothic 1995-1996
Tales from the Crypt -1996
Poltergeist: The Legacy 1996-1999
The Hunger 1997-2000
Buffy the Vampire Slayer 1997-
I’m hesitant to anoint late the ’90s/2000 the greatest era of American horror TV. There are two greats in Buffy and Angel, interesting if uneven efforts in Millennium and The Hunger, and the conclusion of the long-running and popular Tales from the Crypt. But there’s also the lesser Poltergeist:The Legacy and American Gothic, a series whose promos (“someone’s at the door”) exceeded any of its episodes.
Still, this period has two all-time greats, and a deeper set of second-trier shows. While The Twilight Zone/OuterLimits combo is formidable, Buffy and Angel, plus Millennium, The Hunger, and Tales from the Crypt outclasses it.
It’s all fairly subjective, of course, and no doubt some of you will feel I’m wrong. Readers: what do you think?