The best horror anthology series ever
The popularity of anthology series has risen and fallen throughout the history of television, but even when they're at their lowest ebb, there's invariably a horror anthology out there somewhere. Why? Because people like to be scared. (Well, most people do, anyway.) Whether you're looking for a terrifying tale with a moral, a monstrous epic, or just a good old fashioned ghost story, there's something here that's sure to creep you out. Check out EW's list, in chronological order, of the best television horror anthology series below.
1. <i>Lights Out</i> (1946 / 1949-1952)
First of all, no, that first date is not a typo. Created by Wyllis Cooper, Lights Out began as a radio show in 1934 and made the jump to television in 1946 as a series of four specials, eventually earning an upgrade to a proper series in 1949. As with all too many television programs from this era, only a limited number of episodes have been successfully preserved, but given its legendary status, it's worth seeking them out to see early performances by Burgess Meredith ("The Martian Eyes"), John Forsythe ("The Pattern" and "The Upstairs Floor") and Robert Stack ("Will-o'-the-Wisp").
2. <i>Alfred Hitchcock Presents</i> (1955-1965 / 1985-1989)
The horror history of its titular presenter would be plenty enough to inspire most people to consider this long-running anthology worth a watch, but Alfred Hitchcock didn't just lend his name to the series. It's mentioned all too rarely that he actually directed 18 episodes over the course of its run, including the premiere, "Revenge," as well as installments starring Vincent Price ("The Perfect Crime") and Claude Rains ("The Horseplayer"), plus several written or based on stories by Roald Dahl ("Lamb to the Slaughter," "Dip in the Pool," "Poison," and "Mrs. Bixby and the Colonel's Coat"). While the '80s revival of the series — a mixture of remakes of old episodes and new stories — has its merits and bears mentioning, the truth is that it doesn't hold a candle to the original.
3. <i>One Step Beyond</i> (1959-1961)
Although created by Merwin Gerard and produced by Collier Young, the name most associated with this series is John Newland, who served as host and directed all 96 of the series' episodes over the course of its three-season run. Filled with tales of the paranormal, the supernatural, and "the world of the unknown," the show featured several notable writers on its staff, including Larry Marcus, Oscar-nominated writer of The Stunt Man, Don M. Mankiewicz, who penned the pilot for Ironside and the "Court Martial" episode of Star Trek, and Howard Rodman, creator of David Janssen's tremendous post-Fugitive series, Harry O.
4. <i>The Twilight Zone</i> (1959-1964)
What more can be said about the series that remains the gold standard for anthology series? Thanks to creator Rod Serling, The Twilight Zone is so venerable that it's been revived no less than three times since originally leaving the air in 1964, and, let's be honest… it never really left thanks to the wonders of syndication. No, the episodes don't all fall under the banner of horror, but when Serling and company decided that they wanted to go in a scary direction, things could get downright horrifying.
From "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" and "It's a Good Life to "Living Doll" and "Death Ship," Serling had a true gift for giving you the heebie-jeebies — and he used it to great effect on a regular basis. Later Twilight Zone ventures, however, didn't quite scratch the same macabre itch, with the 1983 anthology-style film and three television reboots suffering without Serling's trademark penmanship and presence. Not even Jordan Peele could invoke the singular awe of the original Twilight Zone's timeless appeal.
5. <i>Thriller</i> (1960-1962)
Although remembered predominantly for being hosted by Boris Karloff, as well it should be, Stephen King once suggested (in Danse Macabre) that it was the best series of its kind up to that point in TV history… and, really, who are we to argue with King when it comes to horror?
What began as a crime and suspense program not unlike Alfred Hitchcock Presents soon took an admirable turn into the realm of gothic horror, which remains its stylistic legacy today. Notable names guest starring include one Mary Tyler Moore, Airplane!'s Leslie Nielsen, and famed 1940s villain actor Henry Daniell.
6. <i>The Outer Limits</i> (1963-1965)
"There is nothing wrong with your television set. Do not attempt to adjust the picture. We are controlling transmission." So began every episode of this ABC series, one which — though ultimately focusing more on sci-fi stories than outright horror — still manages to offer some seriously creepy installments over the course of its two-season run.
Granted, more of the outright horror stories come in the first season, but tales as disconcerting as "The Architects of Fear," "The Zanti Misfits," and "Don't Open Till Doomsday," are plenty enough to warrant its inclusion. Like The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits was remembered fondly enough to earn a reboot in the '90s, one that actually ended up running considerably longer than the original series.
7. <i>Night Gallery</i> (1969-1973)
While there aren't many who'd claim that Rod Serling's second anthology series is better than the one that brought him the most fame, Night Gallery doesn't deserve to be written off just because it isn't The Twilight Zone.
In fact, the series found Serling steering directly into supernatural horror, as evidenced in particular with its adaptation of a few H.P. Lovecraft stories. It's also worth mentioning that the pilot episode featured the directorial debut of Steven Spielberg, helming an installment starring Joan Crawford in one of her final performances.
8. <i>Ghost Story a.k.a. Circle of Fear</i> (1972)
Director William Castle became a horror legend in the 1950s and 1960s for his love of a good gimmick (take a few minutes to Google his film The Tingler to get an idea of what we're talking about). But when the '70s rolled around, Castle ventured onto the small screen to serve as executive producer of Ghost Story, or as it was known after a mid-series switch to curve low ratings, Circle of Fear.
The first season is hosted by Sebastian Cabot, playing a hotelier named Winston Essex, and the episodes are chock full of stars, including Jason Robards, Gena Rowlands, Karen Black, Carolyn Jones, Helen Hayes, Jodie Foster, Hal Linden, Geraldine Page, Angie Dickinson, and Patricia Neal. Season two did away with the bookending by Cabot, but the cast remained tremendous, including Kim Darby, Tyne Daly, Susan Dey, John Astin, Patty Duke, Tab Hunter, and David Soul.
9. <i>Hammer House of Horror</i> (1980)
Just mention the words "Hammer Films" to a horror fan and watch them start to giggle with glee at their memories of the hallowed hallmarks from the 1950s through the 1970s. By the '80s, however, Hammer was little more than a name, but given the memories associated with it, horror fans were easily sold on the Hammer House of Horror series, which ran for 13 episodes in 1980.
With installments focusing on cannibalism, devil worship, ghosts, serial killers, voodoo, werewolves, witches, and other scary and/or generally disconcerting matters, the series was filled with a plethora of British character actors, including Pierce Brosnan, Brian Cox, Peter Cushing, Diana Dors, Denholm Elliott, Simon MacCorkindale, and W. Morgan Sheppard. Oh, and at least one episode — "The House That Bled to Death" — features a scene terrifying enough to make it onto Channel 4's "100 Scariest Moments" in 2003.
10. <i>Darkroom</i> (1981)
Executive-produced by Peter S. Fischer (who later co-created Murder, She Wrote), and hosted by James Coburn, this series may have only lasted for seven episodes, but the top-shelf talent working both in front of and behind the camera resulted in some terrifying tales that still haunt those who watched Darkroom during its brief run, not to mention one of the most disconcerting opening sequences of the '80s.
Perhaps the best episode of the bunch is the third, which features two stories: "Needlepoint," starring Esther Rolle (Good Times) as a woman who uses voodoo to extract revenge on a pimp who wronged her granddaughter, and "Siege of 31 August," starring Ronny Cox as a Vietnam vet whose decision to buy a military playset for his son leads him back into battle.
11. <i>Tales from the Darkside</i> (1983-1988)
How could any self-respecting horror fan ignore an anthology series created by George A. Romero? Spawned from the success of Romero's original 1982 Creepshow film, this syndicated series was quick to capture audiences with the stories the creator and his producers chose to adapt, including tales by Stephen King ("Word Processor of the Gods" and "Sorry, Right Number"), Clive Barker ("The Yattering and Jack"), Harlan Ellison ("Djinn, No Chaser"), Robert Bloch ("A Case of the Stubborns," "Everybody Needs a Little Love," "Beetles"), Frederik Pohl ("The Richest Man in Levittown"), and other notables.
12. <i>Amazing Stories</i> (1985-1987)
While it was never a ratings smash, the mere fact that Amazing Stories came to NBC courtesy of Steven Spielberg was enough to guarantee that plenty of eyes would be on it at various points. It's another instance of an anthology series that wasn't purely horror by any means, but it's fair to say that certain episodes definitely linger in the mind in an unsettling way. Case and point: the darkly comedic "Go to the Head of the Class," starring Christopher Lloyd as a teacher whose students hate him so much that they cast a spell to get back at him…only for it to horribly backfire.
Other fright-filled installments include "The Amazing Falsworth," starring Gregory Hines as a magician whose psychic powers detect a serial killer in his audience, and "Mirror, Mirror," with Sam Waterston as a horror novelist who keeps seeing a terrifying vision in — you guessed it — his mirror. It's worth mentioning that Apple TV+ rebooted Amazing Stories in 2020, but it consisted of only five episodes, none of which were outright horror.
13. <i>The Ray Bradbury Theater</i> (1985-1992)
To give credit where credit is due, this is the only anthology series on this entire list where each and every episode — that's 65 installments over the course of six seasons — was written by the individual responsible for its creation. Let's give a hand to the incredibly prolific Mr. Ray Bradbury, shall we?
In addition to writing the whole series, Bradbury welcomes us at the start of each episode, inviting us to peer into the inspiration behind his many, many stories. Then, of course, there's the level of talent the series secured during its run, including Peter O'Toole, Jeff Goldblum, Drew Barrymore, Eugene Levy, Donald Pleasance, David Carradine, Sally Kellerman, James Whitmore, Richard Benjamin, Elliott Gould, Ray Sharkey, Len Cariou, Jean Stapleton, Louise Fletcher, and Shelley Duvall.
14. <i>Monsters</i> (1988-1991)
If ever there was an anthology series that couldn't be accused of false advertising, it's this one, which pretty much offered up a different monster in every episode. (There are exceptions to every rule, of course, but this is definitely a situation where the exceptions were few and far between.)
Effectively filling the syndication void left by the end of Tales from the Darkside, Monsters — which, like Tales, was also produced by Richard P. Rubinstein — featured a number of fun casting choices during its run, with episodes starring Meat Loaf and Franco Harris, Rob Morrow and Linda Blair, Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara, and Luis Guzmán and Debbie Harry, early performances by Matt LeBlanc and David Spade, and familiar TV faces like Soupy Sales, Frank Gorshin, Imogene Coca, Russell Johnson (a.k.a. the Professor on Gilligan's Island).
15. <i>Tales from the Crypt</i> (1989-1996)
Of the classic HBO series that currently remain MIA from HBO Max, perhaps none is as disappointing as the absence of Tales from the Crypt. Based on the EC Comics series of the same name, it remains arguably the definitive premium cable horror anthology, thanks to a combination of a cackling, pun-spewing host (the Cryptkeeper), a killer theme song by Danny Elfman, a murderers' row of top-notch executive producers (Richard Donner, Walter Hill, Joel Silver, and Robert Zemeckis among them), and more stars than you can shake a stick at. We're talking Arnold Schwarzenegger, Brad Pitt, Tom Hanks, Demi Moore, Christopher Reeve, Daniel Craig, John Lithgow, Kirk Douglas, and Martin Sheen. Seriously, over the course of seven seasons, it's ridiculous just how many individuals made their way into the Crypt.
16. <i>Are You Afraid of the Dark?</i> (1990-1996 / 1999-2000)
Just because Are You Afraid of the Dark? is intended for a younger audience doesn't mean that it doesn't contain some moments that can catch adults by surprise, too. If you mistakenly dismissed the show, however, it revolves around a group of teens called the Midnight Society, who meet in the woods at night and tell scary stories to each other. (With a nod to The Twilight Zone, each story is "submitted for the approval" of the Society.) Ghosts and vampires, demons and evil clowns, they all make an appearance during the course of the show, which has proven so popular generationally that it was revived a few years ago in 2019 to freak out a whole new generation.
17. <i>Masters of Horror</i> (2005-2007)
Created by writer/director Mick Garris for Showtime, Masters of Horror provides a real treat for horror fans, bringing some of the most iconic horror directors to the small screen, some of them for the first time in decades. The first season alone includes installments helmed by Don Coscarelli, Stuart Gordon, Tobe Hooper, Dario Argento, Joe Dante, John Carpenter, Larry Cohen, John McNaughton, and Garris himself, with several of the directors returning for another go-round during season two.
Oh, and you'll want to make a point of hunting down — or perhaps actively avoiding, depending on your sensibilities — "Imprint," the season one finale directed by Japanese maestro Takashi Miike, which Garris described as "the most disturbing film I've ever seen."
18. <i>American Horror Story</i> (2011-present)
While it's overstating things to suggest that Ryan Murphy can do anything, he's certainly proven that he's not a creator who's beholden to a single genre given his tenure at Glee and recent ventures with true crime, both acclaimed (The People v. O. J. Simpson) and criticized (the unfortunate Dahmer). But when it comes to American Horror Story, it's fair to say that he had a strong hand in helping to revitalize the anthology genre.
Unlike every other series on this list, however, American Horror Story offers its stories as full seasons rather than individual episodes. From its excellent debut with "Murder House" in 2011 to the less-notable "Double Feature" in 2021, Murphy and company continue to deliver twists and takes on iconic horror concepts. And while some have proven to be more creatively successful than others, they've all delivered plenty of scares, which should likely continue with the newest installment, AHS: NYC.
19. <i>Black Mirror</i> (2011-present)
Like American Horror Story, Black Mirror also did wonders for the revitalization of the anthology genre, particularly since it followed the more traditional format of freestanding episodes. Created by Charlie Brooker, it's perhaps less outright horror than mind-warping sci-fi, but there's little question that it delivers enough chilling and/or disconcerting moments to warrant its inclusion.
The series originated in the UK on Channel 4, making its debut in December 2011, but after two seasons, it became known on a more global scale after being picked up by Netflix for season three, and it's been going strong ever since, even delivering an interactive episode ("Bandersnatch") in 2018. "Smithereens" and "Hated in the Nation" might be the ones that pack the biggest punch in 2022, but don't expect "Playtest" or "Shut Up and Dance" to be easy viewing, either.
20. <i>Creepshow</i> (2019-present)
In 1982, George Romero and Stephen King collaborated on Creepshow, an anthology film which was inspired by the EC horror comics of the 1950s, and it spawned a sequel in 1987 which was directed by Michael Gornick with a screenplay penned by Romero that was based on King's stories. As for the third Creepshow film…well, the less said about that one the better, since neither Romero nor King had anything to do with it.
The Creepshow TV series, however, does feature adaptations of some of King's stories, and it's produced by Greg Nicotero, best known as executive producer, director, and the man behind the makeup for The Walking Dead. It's definitely right up there with the original film when it comes to creepy and darkly comedic fun, with a fourth season on the way.