I have listed these movies with an eye towards being scary. There are a number of great horror and Gothic shows that aren’t as concerned with being scary so much as playing with the scary toys in a new way. One of my favorite new shows is The Santa Clarita Diet, a played-for-laughs look at the zombie plague idea that works like a charm, is gross as hell, and distinctly not-scary. But it’s certainly a horror series in that it underscores the horrific with pitch-black humor. These Top 5 contenders deliver the scares and also the urge to binge-watch.
Also, I have not seen The Haunting of Hill House on Netflix, which, as of this writing, dropped last week. I would have no problem bumping number five to make room for it on the list. That’s how these things work. So consider this accurate to my tastes right up to the end of September, 2018, until I can get caught up.
5. The Walking Dead (2010-ongoing)
I’m a child of George Romero’s zombie movies and his metaphor about empty, rampant consumerism informed my worldview and continues to do so. No one did zombies like Romero. And yet, one of the most frustrating things about his (and other) zombie movies is that they inevitably end at a point where you think, “Hey! What happens next? Aw, Dammit, C’mon!” The Walking Dead is the answer to that age-old question.
Originally a comic book created by Robert Kirkman, Tony Moore, and Charlie Adlard., The Walking Dead opens with a sheriff’s deputy, Rick Grimes, our point-of-view character for the series, waking up from a coma in a hospital. Rick is alone and the hospital is abandoned. The zombie apocalypse has happened, and he was comatose throughout. Through the whole of season one, Rick’s sole concern is finding his wife and son, who, it turns out, are under the care and protection of Rick’s partner and fellow deputy. He stepped into Rick’s role (and Rick’s marital bed) believing Rick to be dead. The rest of the season is watching these old interpersonal relationships die and become redefined in the wake of the zombies.
The series is fascinating, if uneven, but the first season was developed and directed and shepherded through the process by Frank Darabont—yes, that guy. He’s no longer affiliated with the show (google it at your own risk—it’s a rabbit hole of despair) but he set the style and the tone early on: No one is safe. You like this character? Oh, that’s nice, we’ll bite his arm off. Is she your current TV crush? We’ll pull her through sheet rock walls and rip her guts out. Ain’t nothing sacred in The Walking Dead, and you know this if you’ve ever been on Facebook on Sunday night at 9:01 PM and seen the lamentations of the fans.
Over the course of the series, the zombies and the people change places in terms of metaphors. It’s a neat trick and you don’t notice it at first, but in the first season, it’s classic Romero undead roaming free and munching on the clueless. What more can anyone ask for?
4. Stranger Things (2016-ongoing)
Netflix blew its own doors off with this series, an homage to the Stephen Spielberg generation by way of Stephen King, conceived and produced by Matt and Ross Duffer. It’s hard to say if Stranger Things is better informed by its nostalgia of 1980s popular culture or if it fetishizes it out of necessity to paying an aesthetic debt to John Carpenter, Don Coscarelli, and other luminaries of the era. However, the fact that the series is set in a kind of liminal, unspecified 1980s time frame actually helps smooth over the seams on the overt references and adds a veneer of realism to the series that makes the emotional horror more resonant.
The series revolves around four friends in the sixth grade: Lucas, Dustin, Mike and Wil. They are geeks, the weirdos of the school, and we know this because we are introduced to them playing Dungeons & Dragons in Mike’s basement. And it’s actual Dungeons & Dragons, too; not “Mazes and Monsters,” okay? Wil is abducted by something on the way home from playing D&D and his friends all join the effort to find him, along with Wil’s mother, played perfectly by Winona Ryder, who is convinced that he is still alive, and the local Sheriff, Jim Hopper, played by David Barbour, who is battling his own metaphorical demons.
Even the set-up feels like King’s early work, from the kids that know more than the adults, to the thing in the woods that lives in an alternate dimension that the eggheads call “The Upside Down.” Oh, yeah, there’s a government think-tank working on figuring out what is inside the Upside Down, and they are using psychics to find out. One of them, a girl named “Eleven,” escapes and is found by the boys. I mean, this show checks every damn box. I mean that in a good way.
If you grew up watching E.T. and The Goonies, or The Bad News Bears and Phantasm, if you snuck downstairs late at night to watch John Carpenter’s The Thing and Christine on HBO after your parents were asleep, if you were like the kids in the show, playing D&D and trying to get girls to notice you and bullies to forget you, then this is your love note. And best of all, when it gets dark and creepy, it doesn’t hold back on those things, either. If you really care about these characters, you’ll be more panicked when it appears that they are going to get their faces ripped off by a Lovecraftian Gug-like monster from another dimension.
3. American Horror Story: Murder House (Season 1, 2011)
Subsequent seasons of this FX series have made fans hurl their remotes at their very expensive televisions in frustration, and that’s mostly because the first season of American Horror Story was so good in so many ways. To date, none of the other seasons managed to capture that lightning-in-a-bottle quality of the first season.
The Harmon family has moved from the East Coast to Los Angeles, California, a massive cross-country endeavor, in an effort to start a new life by leaving the old one as far away as possible. See, Vivian Harmon (Connie Britton) had a miscarriage and isn’t taking it well, of course. This is compounded and complicated by the discovery that her husband, Dr. Ben Harmon (Dylan McDermott) had an extra-marital affair with a crazed student. Dr. Harmon sets up his psychiatric practice, seeing patients out of their awesome historical house, leaving his wife to deal with the next door neighbors, the gawkers taking pictures of the house, and a creepy old man with a burned face. It turns out, the house is infamous, not for being the location of one murder, but actually several over the years. And we get to experience them all in flashbacks, while the harried family, including their teenage daughter, experiences them all at once.
This is the Overlook Hotel, re-imagined as historical home in a nice, upscale neighborhood in Los Angeles, and that juxtaposition of maintaining a facade of normalcy and projecting that everything is all right when, underneath, everything is as bad as it can be, is a big part of the subtext in this series. All of the backstories in the house are fascinating and what’s left over—the psychic energy, the ghosts, whatever you want to call it, is unbelievably creepy. Everyone in this show gives fantastic performances, even Dylan McDermott, who I normally can’t stand, but this first season was Jessica Lange’s “big comeback” and she is beautifully ugly to watch in every scene. Lange plays a Sunset Boulevard-esque former actress and her daughter, who has Down syndrome, and may or may not be psychic. These two just about steal the show and it’s no surprise why the actresses have since appeared in many other seasons of the show.
When your horror series starts out as Lynchian and then takes an abrupt left turn, you know you’ve got something good. American Horror Story has more twists and turns than a ball python, and it rewards binging in clumps so you can keep the narrative thread. Don’t let the later series turn you off of watching the first, and the best, American Horror Story.
2. Castle Rock, Season 1 (2018)
This latecomer to the list debuts at number 2 with a bullet. We are in the middle of a Stephen King re-discovery, it seems, with his movies being re-imagined, better this time, and several successful Netflix and Hulu mini-series adapting his novels for the better. But Castle Rock is a little bit different, in that it’s not a Stephen King story, but rather every Stephen King story.
Set in King’s fictional town of Castle Rock, Maine, and featuring characters and places from across his entire body of work, the story is about Henry Deaver, a Death Row lawyer who comes back home because an unidentified young man is found in the basement of Shawshank Prison, claiming to be, well, Henry Deaver. As Lawyer Henry reconnects with the people he left in town decades ago, Shawshank Henry escapes, killing some guards to do so. That gets the ball rolling, and as the questions and the weirdness pile up, stacked like cordwood, each character’s past sins are laid out for us to see, from retired sheriff Alan Pangborn (remember the sheriff from Needful Things? Or one of my favorite King novellas, The Sun Dog?) to Henry—both of them, and as we see their lives intertwine, everything else starts coming apart.
If King has a tool kit of favorite themes, ideas, and tropes, he has let J.J. Abrams borrow them for this show. Series creators Sam Shaw and Dustin Thomason are well-versed in King’s work, from Cujo to Needful Things and all points in between. The terror of childhood, alternate realities, insanity, family, isolation, and of course, murder, all play their part in hammering these characters into proxies for King’s own work, and the results are impressive and sufficiently spooky in that “Stephen King” kind of way that you don’t get anywhere else.
This series plays out like a horror version of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. King’s use of Castle Rock has been pretty consistent over the years, so this series is liberally sprinkled with incredible easter eggs, casual asides, and “oh, was that…?” moments. You don’t have to be a King fan to appreciate the series, but for long-time readers of his work, Castle Rock is less a crazy thriller mystery series and more like a thrill ride through a place you’ve been experiencing all your life.
1. True Detective, Season 1 (2014)
It was only eight episodes, but they were game-changing episodes that hit the zeitgeist right at the time when people were willing to dig past a superficial examination of television and look for deeper, darker themes and meanings. True Detective is one of the most-written about series on HBO, both academically and critically, as well as generating a ton of fan and lay scholarship. And it was only eight episodes in length.
Series creator, writer, and director Nic Pizzolatto took a dark and simple narrative—a supposedly solved ritual murder of a prostitute has been re-opened in the wake a some new killings with the same Modus Operandi, and the two detectives who originally caught and solved the case are bought in for questioning as they may know more than their 1995 report suggests. Spoiler alert: they DO!
Using the modern-day interviews as a framing sequence for the 1995 story being re-told, in true unreliable narrator form, we learn about former Detective Rustin "Rust" Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) and former Detective Martin "Marty" Hart (Woody Harrelson), two guys who are as different as night and day, but good cops in their own specific way. This is not a buddy cop story; these guys hate each other, and it shows. And if that were everything, this series would have been imminently watchable, as a kind of Neo-Gothic Southern Noir think piece. But then Nic Pizzolatto had to drop a reference to The King in Yellow. And Carcosa. These guys aren’t chasing Satan worshipper. They are chasing Lovecraftian cultists.
True Detective handles this mythos material deftly, and many of Lovecraft’s themes and ideas (as well as Thomas Ligotti, who should be credited as an influence) are ascribed to the cultists and Rustin’s outlook on life. One of the strongest conceits in Lovecraft’s weird tales is the idea that knowledge and power corrupt and frankly, us humans aren’t built for it. This idea comes across in the form of the police case that broke both detectives, where they stared at the abyss of human depravity and it stared back at them. In particular, there is a VHS cassette tape that does a serviceable stand-in as the book of blasphemous secrets that litters Lovecraft’s fiction.
Everything from masculinity to the use of color in True Detective has been discussed, dissected, and analyzed, seemingly ad nauseum, but you won’t remember any of that when you’re watching the almost Texas Chain Saw-like ending and genuinely fear for Rust’s and Marty’s souls. The ideas in the this series linger long after you’re through watching—the essence of a well-told tale and something every horror story should strive for.