Anyone who knows me is aware of my love for scary movies. From thrillers to slashers, critical darlings to under-appreciated gems, I can’t watch enough horror films, and the same can be said for spooky TV shows (and games) as well. Unfortunately, the genre hasn’t flourished on the small screen quite like it has in theaters. It’s hard enough for many filmmakers to ensure a two-hour movie is consistently frightening, and even a single season of an anthology series is much longer than that, thus requiring even more care. That doesn’t mean there aren’t any worthwhile horror shows though, as the one’s I’ve compiled here match – or surpass – films in the same sub-genres. With a wide range of styles, lengths, and types of scares, I’m sure every horror fan will enjoy at least a few of the following series.
Number 8: Slasher: Executioner
The first season of this Canadian anthology horror series is far from the most original show on my list – it definitely has a few surprises in store for even the biggest horror acolytes though – but it uses the classic slasher story format and tropes to great effect. It also spends a good chunk of its longer-than-a-movie runtime to flesh out most of the characters before they meet their untimely, gruesome demises, and gives the villain, who is terrific by the way, a solid backstory. If you enjoyed the likes of the original Friday the 13th, Halloween, or Scream, Slasher: Executioner will almost definitely hit all the right notes for you.
Number 7: Ash vs Evil Dead
Bruce Campbell’s chainsaw-handed Ash Williams is one of the most iconic horror heroes of all time, but time and long-awaited sequels aren’t usually kind to horror franchises or their characters. Luckily, Ash didn’t lose any of his charm between his last film, 1992’s dark fantasy horror comedy Army of Darkness, and Ash vs Evil Dead, which continues the character’s story over two decades later. Ash vs Evil Dead embraces everything that made the Evil Dead film trilogy so memorable – tons of practical effects, hilariously over the top gore, and an almost supernaturally charming protagonist – and places them in the forefront while expanding the history of the Necronomicon, the deadites, and introducing fun new characters who make their own bloody mark on the series. I remember being frustrated by the fairly open ending of the final season at first, but after some time I realized that I actually love it. Ash will continue the fight until he’s dead or all of the servants of Evil are, and it’s pretty clear that Ash is just too stubborn to die.
Number 6: American Horror Story: Murder House
American Horror Story’s original outing set such a high bar for the following seasons that they look weak in comparison. The first episode is full of creepy moments that’ll have you asking “what the fuck is going on?” over and over, and the scares only build as it continues, but everything becomes clear as the final episode closes, answering the questions you have and ending all the characters’ arcs in a fashion that’s equally intelligent and eerie (until the Apocalypse season messed it up, ugh). Murder House also has the best cast the series has seen so far, with established actors like Connie Britton and Dylan McDermott in roles unlike any they’d ever done before, relatively new talent such as Taissa Farmiga and Evan Peters catching their big breaks, and Jessica Lange cementing herself as the face of AHS.
And although they aren’t as amazing, seasons 2 (Asylum), 3 (Coven), and 6 (Roanoke) are worth watching too.
Number 5: Haunting of Hill House
Half poignant family drama, half chilling ghost story, Haunting of Hill House is incredibly effective at both scaring you senseless and crippling you emotionally. The story takes place in three different periods of time in the lives of a family that were forever changed after living in the titular home, and puts in a great deal of effort to ensure that you care about them, making the terror that surrounds them even more impactful. It also has significant rewatch value because of the ghosts hidden in the background of almost every other scene. I remember nearly jumping out of my seat the first time I saw one, and made an effort to find as many as possible on my first viewing, but I still missed the vast majority of them. Haunting of Hill House is unquestionably the scariest Netflix original to date, but it isn’t the best. That honor goes to something else on my list…
Number 4: Bates Motel
Even though you probably already know how the Psycho prequel/remake series is going to end before it even begins, watching it slowly unfold over its five-season run is still an incredibly harrowing, emotional, and unsettling experience. Freddie Highmore and Vera Farmiga’s performances make you truly care about their characters, Norman and Norma Bates, and despite their disturbing relationship you hope to God they meet a different fate than the one you know they’re heading towards. In my opinion, that’s why it’s such a great show: you can only watch in horror as a kind, caring, but unwell young man is gradually and unintentionally transformed into a deranged killer by the person who he loves – and who loves him – more than anything or anyone else.
Number 3: Penny Dreadful
Penny Dreadful tells a delightfully dark, atmospheric story with characters and themes that are essentially a melting pot of classic horror legends. Vampires, witches, Dorian Gray, Frankenstein (both creator and monster) and more show up, and all of them have their moments – sometimes entire episodes or arcs – to shine in this gothic horror series. Sitting at the center of the macabre tale is Vanessa Ives, played to perfection by Eva Green, who is the unwilling prize in a shadow war between the biggest bads of all. When Universal announced their (already dead) Dark Universe, a film series that would bring their horror icons together back in 2017, part of me felt it wasn’t necessary because I already had my ideal version of it.
Number 2: Stranger Things
The Duffer brothers’ smash hit on Netflix weaves a compelling, hilarious, frightening narrative that combines the best qualities of a classic coming-of-age story with Stephen King-like horror while somehow feeling wholly original at the same time. The child/teen actors are the best that I’ve seen in any movie or show, the adults are equally fantastic, and the inter-dimensional monsters from the dark world of the Upside Down are pretty damn scary. All of that is elevated even further by the stellar writing, strong direction, and killer soundtrack that give the setting and characters of Stranger Things a unique feel that sets them apart from anything else on television. It may not be the scariest show on my list – although it definitely has a few moments here and there that make a good case for it – but it’s certainly one of the most memorable.
Number 1: Hannibal
My brother and I were both surprised when we first heard that NBC was planning to bring Hannibal Lecter to the small screen almost eight years ago. We thought “Who could possibly hope to successfully follow Anthony Hopkin’s portrayal of the iconic, cannibalistic killer?”
Then we heard Mads Mikkelsen was cast in the role, and instantly got on board.
Hannibal’s TV outing isn’t on par with the Oscar-winning film, The Silence of the Lambs, it’s even better. The reimagining of Thomas Harris’ novels – which the films are based on as well – adds an unsettling flavor and flair to the grotesque violence you’d expect, and combines an engrossing, disturbing freak-of-the-week format with overarching mind games between Lecter, the FBI, and the man who would eventually catch him, Hugh Dancy’s Will Graham. Mikkeslen and Dancy’s impeccable performances sell every part of the shared, twisted obsession their characters have with each other and almost made me wish they could go on forever. However, Hannibal was cancelled after three seasons, but it managed to close on a brilliant, brutal, gory, glorious, and ultimately perfect note that highlights everything that made the series just so damn great. If you have a relatively strong constitution, I cannot recommend Hannibal enough. It’s the greatest horror TV show out there, and my favorite show in any genre for that matter (sorry, Breaking Bad).