Submitted For the Approval of the Midnight Society: The Rise and Decline of Horror Anthologies on TV

The history of television is marked throughout by horror anthologies: shows that presented standalone terrors night after night. In spite of a healthy birth and a productive span of decades, the form has–sadly–witnessed a sad decline. That television as a medium is currently booming makes this decline all the more puzzling.

The heyday for televised horror was the 50s and 60s, though the 80s and 90s saw a sharp creative run (the 70s, by contrast, were a freakin snooze). Post 2000, the anthology format has all but died out–Stephen King’s Nightmares & Dreamscapes  a long standout.

Where is the modern Twilight Zone  or Outer Limits? Audiences still hunger for horror. Just look at current successes on the silver screen: It Follows, The Witch, The Final Girls, 10 Cloverfield Lane

If audiences still fork over hard-earned money to be scared witless, why then are there no anthology shows gracing the small screen today?

Let’s take a quick peek at the history of the landscape, which may help us understand why this particular dark flower is no longer blooming.

The Fifties and Sixties: The Wellspring of Horror

Horror anthologies–the televised kind anyway–were born in the 50s and matured in the 60s. Many of these shows remain popular today, having fed deep into the wellspring of common culture.

The following is not a complete list, but should at least give you an idea:

  • Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1955-1965)
  • The Veil (hosted by Boris Karloff but never aired: 1958)
  • The Twilight Zone (1959-1964)
  • Way Out (hosted by Roald Dahl: 1961)
  • Thriller (hosted by Boris Karloff: 1960-1962)
  • The Outer Limits (1963-1965)

What should be immediately clear is the connection here between horror, suspense and science fiction. Many anthology shows present stories addressing each of these genres, thereby widening the scope of their audience.

As well, certain shows—such as The Twilight Zone—offered episodes with little to fear in them at all, stories that may have been weird, offbeat or even outright comical, but not necessarily scary.

From the beginning, anthology shows often identified with a particular individual who acted as the Host. Alfred Hitchcock, who in America was still a little-known British director, became a household name thanks to his role in AHP. Boris Karloff, Rod Serling, and Roald Dahl all took their turn (Dahl, as it turned out, would later host a similar show for British television, Tales of the Unexpected, which enjoyed a much longer run—1979 to 1988—than the American version, Way Out). Hosts were responsible not only for their nightly monologues, but for acting as anthologist: the individual who decided which stories to tell each week.

More noteworthy, though, is that these screenwriters and showrunners grew up in an era when short stories were a major staple of the entertainment world. Horror short stories in particular peaked in the 50s. Writers like Robert Bloch, Richard Matheson, Jack Finney, Henry Kuttner, Ray Bradbury, and John Keir Cross were all producing tremendous stories at that time.

Consider for a moment the range of writing talent tapped for Alfred Hitchcock Presents. All of the following writers had short stories adapted for the show: Dorothy Sayers, Cornell Woolrich, Ray Bradbury, John Collier, Evan Hunter (aka Ed McBain), Fredric Brown, AA Milne (yes, of Winnie the Pooh fame), John Keir Cross and Ira Levin (author of Rosemary’s Baby).

AHP not only mined stellar fiction for inspiration, but also employed a host of well-known wordsmiths to write the actual teleplays:

  • Robert Bloch (10 episodes)
  • John Collier (7 episodes)
  • Roald Dahl (6 episodes)
  • Ray Bradbury (5 episodes)

Most of the episodes, however, were written by tremendously skilled television writers who had worked in the industry for years, such as Henry Slesar, James Cavanaugh, Robert Dennis, Francis Cockrell, and William Fay.

Slesar’s career spanned everything from AHP to The Man from U.N.C.L.E. to the Batman TV series. Dennis wrote for Have Gun Will Travel, The Fugitive, The Outer Limits, Perry Mason, The Andy Griffith Show, I Spy, The Wild Wild West and Mission Impossible. Fay had produced scripts for Studio 57, Wagon Train, Riverboat and 87th Precinct. These were pros who understood the structure and potential of television and how to adapt a story within the limits they were given.

Many of these same talents were used on later shows, such as Thriller and The Outer Limits. In fact, top-shelf writing was the single most defining quality of these early anthologies, whether the net was cast widely, as with AHP, or narrowly, as with Twilight Zone, which was scripted primarily by the prodigious talents of Rod Serling, Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont.

The 70s and Beyond:

If the 50s and 60s were watershed decades for horror anthologies, the 70s were a wasteland. The only show of note was Rod Serling’s followup to TZ, Night Gallery, which ran from 1969 to 1973. Where TZ explored a number of odd corners that weren’t exactly spooky, Night Gallery focused almost entirely upon supernatural horror.

Serling was always an excellent reader, and he chose his material well: Algernon Blackwood, Robert Bloch, Fritz Leiber, Richard Matheson, HP Lovecraft, Russel Kirk and Clark Ashton Smith all saw tales adapted for NG.

The 80s and 90s hosted a strong resurgence:

  • The Hitchhiker (1983 to 1991)
  • Ray Bradbury Theater (1985 to 1992)
  • Tales From the Darkside (1983 to 1988)
  • Amazing Stories (1985 to 1987)
  • Tales From the Crypt (1989 to 1996)
  • Are You Afraid of the Dark? (1991 to 2000)
  • X Files (1993 to 2001)
  • Nightmares and Dreamscapes (2006)
  • American Horror Story (2011 to current)

Two of the above shows are not true anthologies: X Files and American Horror Story. Both utilize the anthology format in varying ways, but each is working on a larger canvas.

In fact, X Files, to my mind, rang the deathknell for horror anthologies on television. Not because the show wasn’t any good—it most certainly was—but because it offered a new format that had not previously been available: a long-running anthology with a grand, connected arch. The stories XF told week to week may have been standalone episodes, but the use of recurring characters and deeper story lines that could be revisited time and again was a distinctly different approach than what had been done on, say, Twilight Zone or The Ray Bradbury Theater.

Some elements of the anthology format remained the same during these decades. The Host was still employed: Ray Bradbury, the nameless Hitchhiker, the Crypt Keeper, even the various teenage tale-tellers in Are You Afraid of the Dark?

But other elements changed, the most critical being the quality of writing talent hired for these shows. Some projects bucked the trend, such as Tales From the Darkside, which showcased such taelnts as Stephen King, George Romero, Robert Bloch, Harlan Ellison, Clive Barker, John D. MacDonald, Charles Grant and John Cheever.

But by the mid-80s, this was the exception rather than the rule. Furthermore, as television evolved, studios came to rely less and less on actual print writers and more upon pure script writers.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with script writers, but I think one has to acknowledge a difference in the skill sets of someone like, say, Richard Matheson—who not only wrote dozens of episodes of The Twilight Zone, but gave us hundreds of short stories, as well as the staggeringly great novels I Am Legend and The Incredible Shrinking Man—and a writer whose only billing is half a dozen episodes of Tales From the Crypt.

In addition, this newer generation was not raised in the same world of short story reading. Short stories as a popular medium began to die a slow death in the 1940s, and by the 1970s and 80s were basically just a few rungs up the ladder from poetry. How many people do you know read Trust Me by John Updike, published in 1987? Or The Progress of Love by Alice Munro, who won a Nobel Prize writing short stories? Even in the genres the form has declined in popularity. How many readers discovered Dennis Etchison’s crafty collection The Dark Country in 1982?

As the short story declined, our familiarity with its unique traits and strengths declined as well. Of all the great practitioners of the horror short story, only Stephen King has continued to produce tales that are both artistic and commercial successes (his son, Joe Hill, wrote the mind-blowing 20th Century Ghosts, a collection that had to be published in Britain in order to find an audience).

A Changing Medium

The collapse of the short story as a popular form is only one half of the story. The falloff of horror anthologies coincides with a drastic change in the format for television as well. Through most of its existence, TV shows were slotted into short windows, generally half an hour, and broken up with commercials. Even shows centered around a set group of characters aired primarily standalone stories. Audiences knew that while certain plot devices or themes might shift over time, the one constant was the episodic nature of the medium.

Take Murder, She Wrote. While certain love interests, friends, and family may flit in and out of Jessica Fletcher’s life, audiences knew that the basic structure would remain static: murder followed by bumbling police work followed by brilliant deduction a la Angela Lansbury. As long as audiences kept tuning in, this formula could be reproduced forever.

As noted previously, shows like The X Files began to alter that concept, aiming for a more distant endgame. Standalone episodes provided the foundation of massive story arcs that would pay off years down the line.

But the real revolution would come with the new century thanks to the success of The Sopranos and the flood of long-form television that came in its wake: Mad Men, Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, Westworld, etc. Suddenly showrunners and studios were embracing huge stories that couldn’t unfold in a single season, let alone a single episode. Hour-long formats became standard, and with the rise of video-streaming, even commercials got booted out the window.

Television today offers many possibilities, but the most distinctive productions are basically televised novels. Shows like Breaking Bad have a definite arc, one you can trace from beginning to end. Studios have also embraced what was once anathema: the climactic ending. Prior to our modern era, a successful show was like a runaway Rolls Royce coasting endlessly until it finally ran out of gas. Today, screenwriters are given leeway to craft a definite endpoint, even when a show is peaking in popularity.

The appeal of this long form is obvious, especially for writers. What screenwriter wouldn’t want to develop their characters in greater depth, advance their plot into more challenging conflicts, explore their themes with more subtlety and nuance? Writers are storytellers, and storytellers want to keep telling their stories.

Is it any surprise then that this crossroad—the recession of the short story and the rise of long-form television—has led to the decline of the horror anthology?

The Future

It is hard to speak with any accuracy about where the format of television horror anthologies go from here. Currently, there are whispers in the wind of M. Night Shyamalan producing a remake of Tales From the Crypt, but this project has already seen fits and starts, and an end product is not yet certain.

It is also clear that horror as a field remains popular. Horror film is running strong, and there are more quality short stories being written in the field than perhaps any other era. The irony is that while so many great stories are being penned, the form remains unpopular (at least commercially) and thus many of the best practitioners are unknown (Lynda E. Rucker, Steve Duffy and Laird Barron come to mind). Nor are studios tapping these talents. Of the three writers just mentioned, all of whom have been repeatedly printed in various Year’s Best Horror collections, there is but a single screenwriting credit—Barron, whose story 30 was adapted in 2016 to no acclaim.

Compare this to, say, Cornell Woolrich, who wrote novels and short stories throughout the heyday of horror anthologies but never achieved major commercial success. In spite of his middling print sales, he was utilized by Hollywood time and again. IMDB lists his writing credits at 103, including episodes of Suspense, Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Thriller.

Somewhere along the way, short story writers and Hollywood parted ways.

Will we see a rebirth of the horror anthology anytime soon? Personally, I’m optimistic. The medium is ripe, with everything from Stranger Things to Wayward Pines connecting with audiences. Viewers want the creepy and the strange.

Whether or not studios and showrunners will oblige with an anthology show remains to be seen.

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2 thoughts on “Submitted For the Approval of the Midnight Society: The Rise and Decline of Horror Anthologies on TV

  1. No mention of the superb BBC now Netflix anthology series, “Black Mirror”
    I think this show is starting a revival, its up to writers with track records (M Night) and ones with the vision to follow though.

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