Tremble with these ten terrifying television shows this Halloween
It is dashed hard to make horror for television. The viewer controls the lighting, the time of day, and, crucially, the volume. This is the reason Hindi horror films provoke mere giggles at home. Small screen scares, however, have become increasingly sophisticated and, as with all television in this golden age, are now more likely to buck expectations and subvert clichés.
Settle in, then. Here—I say right after Halloween in my most comforting Vincent Price voice—are nine distinct kinds of serialized horror you can dive into. I daresay they are all more interesting than Stranger Things, the Steven Spielberg cover version that is the flavour of the month. And scarier. Enough to make your remote finger tremble.
The gorgeous: Penny Dreadful
The sensationalist twopenny paperbacks from which this elegant series derives its name weren’t known for their production quality, but Penny Dreadful showcases its lurid roots with verve and imagination. The show features an all-star cast of horror icons—Dracula, Mina Harker, Van Helsing and Dr Henry Jekyll all show up—and boasts of actors like Timothy Dalton, Simon Russell Beale and, above all, the mesmerizing Eva Green. It is a grand and frequently jaw-dropping series, where the fierce storytelling only gets better. The third season, in particular, is a thing of dazzling, morbid beauty. (Netflix)
The gory: Hemlock Grove
Produced by Hostel director and all-round cinematic sicko Eli Roth, Hemlock Grove is as nauseating as it gets and yet manages to surprise. It looks familiar enough on the outside—horrible murders in a small town—but there is a refreshing amount of the supernatural coupled with an impressive avoidance of cliché. You would be best advised not to watch on a full stomach, of course. Also, here be werewolves. (Netflix)
The tabloid: American Horror Story
The first victim in Ryan Murphy’s anthology horror series is subtlety. This is a shock-value series, revelling in excess and piling it on without care or consistency. There is, frankly, little to applaud besides the actors—this is the series that gave the great Sarah Paulson her rightful pedestal in the television pantheon—even though the very first season, Murder House, was pretty solid. Everything since, including the current season Cult—set promisingly around the 2016 US election—has been shock for the sake of shock, an endless B-movie made on a giant budget (then again, that doesn’t sound so bad). (Hotstar)
The buddy-comedy: Crazyhead
I started watching Crazyhead because I expected a sort of Absolutely Fabulous with a sprinkling of the undead, an absurd (and obviously British) comedy with two feisty girls coming to grips with supernatural powers, but this delicious show—lasting only six episodes, with no second season in sight—is so much more. There are demons around every corner and the stakes get preposterously high, but at its core this is a show about friendship with two crackerjack actors keeping things real and hilarious. (Netflix)
The classic: The Exorcist
Making a sequel to a classic horror film is a tall order, but there’s something wonderfully old-school about The Exorcist, a show that hews rather closely to the William Peter Blatty book of the same name that inspired William Friedkin’s 1973 film. I started watching this sinisterly photographed show because of Geena Davis, but soon found myself sucked into the psychological thriller that also happens to be a compelling family drama. (Hotstar)
The backstory: Bates Motel
What could be more suicidal than adapting a horror film for the small screen? The answer: adapting the most iconic horror film of all time, and trying to give its frightening protagonist a backstory. This surprisingly powerful show, trying to unravel the shower-stabbing villain from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, sounded gimmicky but became its own beast, propelled by a superlative performance from Vera Farmiga as Mrs Bates. Masterful. (Netflix)
The cover version: Stranger Things
There’s a lot to love about Stranger Things, a show that remixes a lot of 80s Steven Spielberg and Stephen King, and tosses it up in a wonderfully engaging way with a bunch of highly likeable kids—and Winona Ryder! The plotting is far too simplistic, though, and there is more nostalgia than cleverness. The show follows cliches and tropes so loyally it stays predictable and if I wanted to watch something I already know the end to, I’d rather watch The Goonies again. (Netflix)
The too-real: Black Mirror
Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror is that rare and alarming thing, a dark satire that is seeing itself come true. The show is set in a recognizable future where the technology is ahead of ours—but plausibly so—and this leads to complications. Which, unfailingly, make us question our own reliance on technology. It’s essential viewing, to watch and to debate, but bingeing on this could lead to crippling misery. (Netflix)
The grotesque: The Strain
Guillermo del Toro creates creatures with personality, and this show—which adapts a trashy but evidently juicy book he co-wrote with Chuck Hogan—gives us vampires like we’ve never seen before. There’s no exaggeration there. The storytelling is pulpy but, like the best horror pulp, it sinks its fangs in deep and doesn’t let go. If you like your horror served bloody, this is worth a bite. (Hotstar)
The greatest: Hannibal
Bryan Fuller’s irresistible TV show about a character who eats characters surpasses not just the films and novels that birthed it, but also leapfrogs expectations in the most graceful way. This is a breathtaking series, one that seductively draws in the viewer with style and beauty. I came for the aesthetics and ended up staying because I had tasted blood. This one haunts me because of how exquisite it is. A perfect accompaniment to fava beans and a nice Chianti. (All three superlative seasons of Hannibal are available on DVD).
Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online.