Generally speaking, TV is a less frightening medium than film. (Broadcast news notwithstanding.) Part of that’s the serialized nature of the format; it can be difficult to get really scared wondering whether Scully and Mulder will make it out of any given “X-Files” nightmare when there are 18 or so installments left in the season and you know the show can’t go on without its star characters. It doesn’t help matters that network standards have also kept horror TV decidedly tamer than anything found in R-rated horror efforts for decades; you just can’t put a Rob Zombie or Eli Roth joint anywhere.
And yet, in spite of those disadvantages, the genre has positively flourished on television as of late, with plenty of creepy limited series and spooky serialized dramas bringing terror to the small screen. Audiences curious about what caused this phenomenon can thank “American Horror Story,” a famously inconsistent show that was nonetheless a ratings sensation when it premiered on FX in 2011 and revitalized horror TV across Hollywood.
The success of the Ryan Murphy-helmed anthology seemed to make shows that delved into the macabre much more appealing to network executives. Series that specifically marketed themselves as horror projects, like “Hannibal” on NBC and “Bates Motel” on A&E, became much more common sights in the years after AHS aired. These shows got good ratings, leaning on strong direction and suspense to make TV as scary as it could possibly be. Streaming also helped to broaden the genre’s power in the medium as horror filmmakers, like Mike Flanagan, began pumping out multiple prestige horror adaptations for Netflix. These trends combined to bump the genre from rarely seen to practically omnipresent on television. But what, in this glut of horror shows, stands out as the best of the best?
To qualify for IndieWire’s list of the best horror TV of this century, the main criteria is that the show needs to have aired the majority of its episodes after January 1, 2000. So the “Buffy” spinoff “Angel,” which premiered in 1999 and aired most of its seasons in the 21st century, counts. However, “Buffy” itself does not and is excluded from this ranking — along with “The X-Files,” which aired all but two of its seasons in the ’90s (minus the revival, which we choose to forget about). Another exception is a certain revival season of another influential ’90s horror hit, “Twin Peaks,” which came out years after the original series concluded and is too important and influential to ignore.
There’s also the matter of what defines horror, which is a trickier proposition. Is anything with vampires or werewolves in it inherently a horror TV show? We decided not. Series, such as “The Vampire Diaries,” which never aimed to scare their audiencse despite featuring monstrous characters, do not qualify. What about other fantasy shows that often thrilled and scared, like “Lost” and “Game of Thrones?” Those series had other priorities beyond pure horror, so we left them off for now. Instead, we focused on shows that truly made the gruesome and the depraved their bread and butter, from “American Horror Story” to “Bates Motel.”
Read on for IndieWire’s list of the 11 greatest horror series of the 21st century. Entries are unranked and listed in chronological order. For now, we’ve implemented a one-project-per-auteur rule (sorry, Flanagan!) and will not include TV movie anthologies (sorry, “Into the Dark”!) With that in mind, honorable mentions include “The Haunting of Hill House,” “The Haunting of Bly Manor,” “Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities,” “Monsterland,” “Yellowjackets,” “Chucky,” “iZombie,” “The River,” and “Dead Set,” and “Black Summer.”
With editorial contributions by Marcus Jones and Ben Travers.
Like “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Angel” is a series that’s hard to revisit with the full knowledge of Joss Whedon’s on-set misbehavior; just the controversy between Charisma Carpenter and Whedon leading up to her dismissal from the series in Season 4 is enough to make revisiting the show a tough stretch. On the other hand, the generally sunnier and funnier “Buffy” suffers more than “Angel” from viewers knowing how much of a struggle the series was for the young cast making it. The cognitive dissonance is less difficult with “Angel” because it was always the older, darker brother to the original flagship teen show.
The spinoff focuses on the adventures of the titular vampire Angel (David Boreanaz, whose improvement to “pretty good” actor after his wooden work on “Buffy” is genuinely impressive to witness) as a private detective in Los Angeles. The five-season saga pits Angel and his friends against hellish demons and has much bleaker stakes than the original’s pseudo-Scooby Gang ever dealt with. The show was willing to put its characters through the ringer, rotating new allies in and out as familiar faces die while others — like Carpenter’s Cordelia and Alexis Denisof’s Wesley — go through dark, traumatic transformations. “Buffy” ultimately had the scariest episode between the two shows (“Hush” still terrifies today), but in terms of overall thrills and scares, “Angel” has its predecessor completely beat.
“Masters of Horror” (2005-2007)
There’s no false advertising here. “Masters of Horror” ran for two seasons on Showtime. In that short 26-episode run, the anthology series got some of the biggest and best artists in the genre to direct episodes, including Stuart Gordon, Tobe Hooper, Dario Argento, Joe Dante, John Landis, John Carpenter, Takashi Miike, and many more. As with any anthology series, “Masters of Horror” has its hits and misses. But with such a stacked lineup of horror visionaries, the hits hit harder than usual.
“American Horror Story” (2011-present)
Serious horror fans may take issue with this “terrifying” classification, given the whacky places the landmark Ryan Murphy series has gone in ints later seasons. But those frightening first two tales — “Murder House” and “Asylum” — changed horror TV forever. Being an anthology, the series offers many different flavors of the horror genre, and tears through them at such a speed it’s tough to name many horror concepts it hasn’t attempted at least once. Almost every season brings one memorable moment (or more!) that will haunt viewers for the rest of their TV-watching days, but if someone can make it through all 12 seasons of the FX series, they should be able to sit through most scary movies. —MJ
“The Returned” (2012-2015)
“The Returned” unsurprisingly inspired an American remake, but the swiftly canceled A&E series doesn’t hold a candle to how genuinely great the French original remains. Based on the 2004 film “They Came Back” and created by Fabrice Gobert, the show is an unconventional zombie story in a small mountain town. One day, several citizens of the town who died gruesome deaths abruptly appear alive and well, including Camille (Yara Pilartz), a 15-year old girl killed in a bus accident. As she and her family readjust to her presence in their lives, strange incidents seem to point to a darker reason for her and the other returneds’ resurrection. A bit of a predeccesor to “The Leftovers” in its exploration of mortality and human nature through a mysterious supernatural prism, “The Returned” is chilly and deliberate, trading surface-level thrills for a tone that’s far more unnerving and likely to get under your skin.
“Bates Motel” (2013-2017)
It seemed doomed from the start: a modern day prequel of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” with Vera Farmiga giving life to the legendarily dead Norma Bates and the kid from the bad “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” movie replacing Anthony Perkins as Norman? Truly, “Bates Motel” seemed like a misbegotten project from the start. But remarkably, the A&E series managed to distinguish itself as a gem, featuring sharp directing and wonderful acting from Farmiga and Freddie Highmore, who make the twisted familial dynamics genuinly intriguing. “Bates Motel” was good enough that a final season retold the events of “Psycho” with Rihanna as Marion Crane.
It’s a mark of greatness for “Hannibal” that while watching it you may forget about Anthony Hopkins’ “Silence of the Lambs” legacy entirely. The three-season NBC cult classic may feature Mads Mikkelsen as the titular serial killer that Hopkins won an Oscar for portraying, but Mikkelsen’s sexy, alluring, and reptilian portrayal of the world’s most sophisticated cannibal stands purely on its own. As does his relationship with his main foil in the series: Hugh Dancy’s Will Graham. Their cat-and-mouse relationship is so sexually charged and dynamic that it’s worlds away from Hannibal’s future relationship with Clarice. And the show around them is so slickly directed and unforgettably gory that it stands apart from Jonathan Demme’s “Silence of the Lambs” as a different kind of disturbing. “Hannibal” doesn’t just escape the shadow of the more famous Hannibal Lecter adaptation; it’s arguably even better.
“Penny Dreadful” (2014-2016)
Sometimes you want your horror to be a little ridiculous. And if you want ridiculous, “Penny Dreadful” is the show for you. The Showtime series is a bit of an Avengers for horror characters situation, focusing on a cast of characters from Gothic fiction teaming up to fight other monsters from Victorian era-Gothic fiction. In the cast is Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney), Frankenstein’s monster (Rory Kinnear), and, of course, Dracula (Christian Camargo). The geeky crossover premise of the show is fully embraced by the series, which is more fun than it is scary while still serving up suspense and drama in equal measure. It helps that the show has a great lead in Eva Green, portraying main heroine Vanessa, whose movie star charisma keeps the entire ridiculous enterprise comfortably afloat.
“Twin Peaks: The Return” (2017)
When “Twin Peaks” The Return” came out in 2017, there was some debate about whether or not the show, which David Lynch shot continuously before editing it into episodes, was film or TV. The answer can obviously be both, but the thing about Lynch’s return to the world of “Twin Peaks” is that so much of its strength comes from its serialized nature. Think of the now-legendary Part 8, which departs from the already loose structure of the rest of the series in favor of a surreal, nightmarish flashback that continues to beguile and astonish over five years after it aired. Or how much of an effective troll job it was on Lynch’s part to stretch out the reemergence of Kyle Machlachlan’s Dale Cooper for the majority of the series — instead having Machlachlan play two copycats of the legendary FBI agent in most of the episodes. Or how the show, for all its experimentation and diversions, still manages to close the loop on many of the beloved original cast’s stories, from Norma (Peggy Lipton) and Big Ed (Everett McGill) finally getting together to the sweet tribute to Catherine E. Coulson’s Log Lady. “The Return” might be weirder and more experimental than the already famously weird and experimental “Twin Peaks,” but it’s still a TV show through and through. And in the history of horror television, there’s maybe never been a show better than it.
“Castle Rock” (2018-2019)
To say much of anything about “Castle Rock” teeters on the precipice of spoiler territory, since so much of the Hulu anthology series is inspired by preexisting properties, each with their own devoted fandom. Within the first few scenes of the premiere, there are enough references to Stephen King’s oeuvre to keep Jack Torrance typing “all work and no play” until the homicidal maniac actually becomes a dull boy. Said references will go unidentified here (no, “The Shining” allusion isn’t meant as a hint), but known characters, events, and most prominently, settings, keep coming back up throughout four utterly absorbing episodes.
So it should be doubly encouraging to know what’s best about Sam Shaw and Dustin Thomason’s follow-up to “Manhattan” is what’s new. The original stories told within Castle Rock — King’s oft-visited Maine town from novels like “The Dead Zone,” “Cujo,” and “Needful Things” — are mysterious and haunting; they can be unsettling and bloody; there are images ripped straight from nightmares, but not any nightmares you read in the ’80s or saw in a Frank Darabont film. —BT
Read IndieWire’s review of “Castle Rock” Season 1
“X-Files” but weirder, funnier, and scarier, “Evil” brings the deranged spirit of creators Robert and Michelle King’s “The Good Fight” to the horror genre. Our Scully is Kristen (Katja Herbers), a forensic psychologist and mom who gets roped into serving as a consultant for priest-in-training David (Mike Colter) who assesses case of potential demonic possession for the Catholic Church. Together with tech expert Ben (Aasif Mandvi), the two take on cases of the week while also chasing after a bizarre, cryptic conspiracy involving the equally bizarre Leland Townsend (an electric Michael Emerson). Each episode delights in putting the crew on the weirdest cases possible, from haunted elevators to a demon in a VR game. The performances ground the insanity from ever going too far off the rails, but half the fun is watching to see if the show can stay on track; when the episodic plots are so freaky and creepy, the overarching mythology is just an extra bonus.
“Midnight Mass” (2021)
Mike Flanagan has made a career out of horror limited series on Netflix, and his style (big ensemble casts, family drama, and a lot of monologues) can make his efforts a little hard to distinguish from one another. But easily his best — and only pure original series — is 2021’s “Midnight Mass.” Set on the tiny Crockett Island, the series unspools its mystery slowly, as alcholic Riley (Zach Gilford) investigates a strange conspiracy occurring in his hometown’s small but influential church. The show has many of Flanagan’s typical problems, with absurd speeches and overly sappy melodrama, but distinguishes itself with a solid original story and interesting examination of religion. It succeeds largely because of Hamish Linklater’s performance as Paul Hill, the mysterious young new priest of Crockett Island who seems to have the power to perform miracles. Linklater is dynamite, making all the speechifying worth it just for his electrifying performance, which is far scarier than any boogeyman seen in Flanagan’s other shows.