Horror genre thrives on the small screen

By Kevin Romani


When looking at the most successful television series in the medium’s history, there is a clear pattern of style; most are either situational comedies or dramas set within the real world. The horror genre is completely absent from any “top” lists of television series, and has been rarely seen on television at all. There are exceptions, such as the hugely popular “The Twilight Zone,” however, that program was more psychological thriller than scare factor. The only other major horror success was “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” from television mastermind Joss Whedon.

It is understandable why horror has not been seen on television often; logic tells studio executives that horror could not work. Horror stories are designed to install fear in its audience, and over the span of a lengthy television series, the scares would inevitably start to dwindle over time. A miniseries or something of the like would be one thing, but it would be another to green light a show with aspirations of running for seven seasons while continuing to be scary and relevant.

Over the past decade, there has been an undeniable shift in quality between film and television. Television series used to be considered to be the weaker of the two visual storytelling devices, but that seems to have changed. With the concentration on captivating series on the premium channels HBO and Showtime as well as the basic cable channel AMC, coupled with diminishing quality coming from Hollywood, television seems to be where the best stories can be found.  There are still of course several great films coming out of Hollywood annually, but the number of quality movies seems to be dwarfed by the quantity of awful ones. Hollywood productions are becoming increasingly louder, dumber and familiar. Television, on the other hand, is smarter and more imaginative.

Both actors and writers have noticed this trend, as established film stars and authors have made the move to the small screen. Performers like Kathy Bates, Steve Buscemi and Jim Caviezel have all settled in leading roles on television. J.J. Abrams continues to create television series even after proving himself as a successful filmmaker with “Star Trek” and “Super 8.” Frank Darabont halted any further film productions to develop “The Walking Dead” for television. It is obvious why the television industry is so attractive to these actors and filmmakers. Besides the risk of cancellation, the medium provides a safer environment that does not require constant searches for new projects. Working in television is an easier and potentially more lucrative enterprise for cast and crew alike.

This recent shift in quality between television and film is not limited to just actors and writers, but to genres as well. Science fiction and fantasy-themed series have been popular in the past decade. What has been most interesting, however, is the rise of horror-based stories on the small screen. Studio executives are very aware of the recent interest in narrative television genre series, and have been more willing to say yes to horror themed programs.

Perhaps this has more to do with the popular – and mostly misguided – trend of vampire stories, but several vampire-led programs have found their way on television. These programs may be more fantastical and cheesy than actually scary, but vampires are a part of the horror genre nevertheless. The most popular of these programs is “True Blood,” which has earned a loyal following during its run. The series is preparing its fifth season, and was even nominated for Outstanding Drama series by the Emmy Awards after its third season.

A quiet but successful hit from the CW is “Supernatural,” which is remarkably in its seventh season. In this series, two brothers fight off – as the title may suggest – supernatural, evil forces. The show has included all sorts of fearful monsters, including vampires, werewolves and demons. Lucifer himself – played by the outstanding Mark Pellegrino – has even made an appearance on the series.

Just recently, “American Horror Story” premiered on FX, and looks to be a major hit. The series has had a ton of buzz surrounding it since previews began airing in the summer. The mood and atmosphere of the series both look outstanding, and the program has received mostly positive reviews. “Horror Story” looks like it will provide a strong blend of fear with compelling characters, highlighted by a family of three that move into a supposed haunted house.

The real standout thus far in the horror genre on television is AMC’s “The Walking Dead,” which has broken several television boundaries already in its short run. The series has proven that a television series can both be scary on a week-to-week basis as well as provide genuine emotional depth through its characters. “The Walking Dead” has proved to be working, as the season two premiere set basic cable records in both the 18-49 and 25-54 age demographics. Its total numbers were up 38 percent from the series premiere from a year ago, thus showing the viewership increasing dramatically.

These programs are just a taste of the successful horror-themed series that have aired in recent seasons. The numbers do not lie, and it would be no surprise if more horror programs find themselves on the small screen in the near future. As long as the focus is on character and story instead of blood and guts, horror stories may have found a long-term home on television screens.


Kevin Romani can be reached at [email protected]. Follow Kevin Romani on twitter @KevinRomani.