21st Century Horror Anthologies: A Guide
As we have more and more choices for TV viewing, providers are scrambling to fill their platforms with enough content. That’s one of the reasons why we’re seeing more limited series, including anthology programs. And like the last century, horror anthology shows have remained a popular option. In fact, 21st century horror anthologies might be more popular than their predecessors. But there’s a wide variety of them out there, so here is our guide for you.
(First, our ground rules again: This guide will cover shows that change story per episode, not per season like The Terror or American Horror Story. We’re also not covering horror comedy or children’s horror…yet. In addition, these are generally American shows, because that’s what is most available to us.)
The Horror of the Aughts: 21st Century Horror Anthologies and Their Beginnings
Fear Itself, image via Lionsgate Television
It’s no secret that real-life horror invaded and infected fictional horror at the beginning of the 21st century. After the tragic events of September 11 and the never-ending wars that followed, it came as no surprise that we saw that trauma reflected in art. The anger, grief, and terror we felt manifested itself in the “torture porn” that haunted multiplexes, as well as in the rising popularity of zombie stories. This was artistic expression in which human life was cheap and people met brutal ends. And at the same time, our technological capability kept advancing, encroaching on our lives like one of those zombie viruses. Along with in films, we can also see these elements–the rising tide of technology, the political becoming very personal–reflected in 21st century horror anthologies. First up, the first decade.
Okay, so I watched…some of an episode. Hosted by Eric Roberts, who delivers his lines like he’s late for a plane, this series is only for completists (and Joe Elliott fans). It aired in syndication in 2001, and then was rerun on Chiller at the end of the aughts. As far as subject matter, it’s pretty standard for horror anthologies: Faustian deals, haunted objects, were-creatures, etc. To me, the IMDB reviews are more entertaining than any episode, but your mileage, as always, may vary.
(available nowhere but our memories and occasionally on video sites like Youtube)
From the sound of it, this show never stood a chance. Host Henry Rollins remembers it as the next step after Fox wanted him to appear on The X-Files. However, co-creator Billy Brown didn’t want the show to have a host, and that was just the start of his troubles with the network. For example, Fox execs deemed some stories he wanted to shoot, like one by Dean Koontz, as too scary. At the same time, the brass complained that the stories they had weren’t scary enough.
The show, comprising two stories in an hour-long format, eventually debuted on Fox as a summer replacement series. On Friday nights. Again, during the summertime. And it was the summer of 2001. Although it had big-name actors and directors like Tobe Hooper, it unsurprisingly wasn’t picked up as a regular series. And that’s a shame, because it was really before its time. Episodes, including those scuttled for September 11th updates, eventually reran on Syfy (back when it was still spelled Sci Fi) and on Chiller, though it’s never made it to streamers or physical copies.
(available on Youtube)
Masters of Horror
Now we’re getting somewhere. Created by director Mick Garris, this show, whose title was coined by director Guillermo Del Toro, debuted on Showtime in 2005. A who’s-who of contemporary horror directors helm each episode, which are based both on stories written for the show and on old favorites like Lovecraft and Poe. As these are the masters of horror, many episodes aren’t for the faint-hearted. Showtime itself put the kibosh on the Takashi Miike-directed “Imprint,” apparently because of its graphic nature. My favorite episode remains “The Screwfly Solution,” a tale of a plague-driven dystopian future that may interest Handmaid’s Tale fans. And fun fact: That episode is based on the story by sci-fi writer James Tiptree, Jr., who was revealed in 1977 to be Alice Sheldon.
(available on DVD, on Tubi for free, and pay per episode on multiple other streamers)
Spun-off from two specials, A Haunting in Connecticut, and A Haunting in Georgia, this show purported to reenact real-life spooky stories. Specifically, as it says on the tin, they showed reenactments of alleged paranormal encounters. Each episode followed a similar format: a family or an individual runs into some ghost trouble, tries to live with it, and then contacts a specialist. This ripped-from-real-life format, obviously, isn’t typical of 21st century horror anthologies. However, it deserves inclusion because several times, the experts were Ed and Lorraine Warren, whose work inspired the Conjuring Cinematic Universe. (In the business, we call it the CCU.)
(available on TLC.com, DVD, subscription streamers like Youtube TV, pay per episode on other streamers, and it reruns on Discovery networks like the Travel Channel)
Nightmares and Dreamscapes
Based on the stories of little-known horror author Stephen King–no, I will never tire of this joke–this show was a mid-aughts summer series. Despite the title, though, not all of the hour-long episodes were based on stories from King’s short-story collection Nightmares and Dreamscapes. Five of them were, but two came from Everything’s Eventual, and one, “Battleground,” is my favorite story in The Night Shift. Killer toys, dude!
(available for pay per episode on several streamers, including Prime Video)
This short-lived anthology show was kind of a spiritual spin-off of Masters of Horror. Like the previous series, Mick Garris created Fear Itself, and both shows shared a few directors. (This time around, though, they managed to find a lady, American Psycho director Mary Harron, to helm an episode.) Episodes feature appearances by actors like Anna Kendrick, Elizabeth Moss, and Eric Roberts, who really gets around. To my great personal disappointment, an actual monster wrote my personal favorite episode. The rest of the writers, thankfully, are perfectly decent, though. And so is this show, especially for a network series.
(available on DVD and Youtube)
21st Century Horror Anthologies in this Decade
Black Mirror, image via Netflix
As we entered the 2010s, technology crept even further into our lives. M.T. Anderson’s book Feed came out in 2012 and reads now like an oracle. Anderson’s dystopic future, where schools exist only to make children into better consumers and almost everyone is biologically connected to a distant version of the internet, doesn’t seem that far-fetched. While political hot topics have changed somewhat since the aughts, our fears over technology, including privacy issues, have only intensified. This decade’s shows are a perfect example.
And what better show is there to exemplify that than the show whose title references our ubiquitous companions, our phones? From the start, with the barn burner of an episode that is “The National Anthem,” Black Mirror has laid bare the technological horrors that are or could be. While not strictly horror–one of the best episodes is, in fact, a love story–there are several that leave the viewer with the same unsettled feeling that a good scary story does. The endings of episodes like “White Bear,” “Shut Up and Dance,” and “Crocodile,” for example, cannot be described any other way than horror. It may not be terror, like a good scary story, but it’s horrible, nonetheless.
(available on Netflix)
Like Black Mirror, this is British and really more of a sci-fi series. The stories, after all, are based on the work of Philip K. Dick. However, like Black Mirror, there’s still a disturbing edge to them. Science-fiction, as you might know, isn’t a genre known for its overwhelmingly positive themes (just check out some of these Top 10 Sci-Fi book series in the past decade). Or maybe I’m just biased, as a gal whose favorites run more toward stuff like “There Will Come Soft Rains.” As such, these episodes tell tales of an uneasy future. Or is it now? (Nah, it’s in the future.)
(available on Prime Video)
Based on Aaron Mahnke’s podcast of the same name, Lore uses reenactments and real footage to tell true stories of the past. These stories explore, for example, the possible origins of vampires, the truth behind the legend of Elizabeth Bathory, and Hinterkaifeck, a still unsolved 20th century German murder mystery. And it stars actors you’ve heard of, like Robert Patrick and Colm Feore. Episodes range from around a half hour to slightly under an hour. It’s great for people who like to learn and be scared at the same time.
(available on Prime Video)
Into the Dark
“Culture Shock,” Into the Dark, image via Hulu
Each episode of this Hulu series is technically a movie, but I make the rules, so it still counts. Anyway, each feature-length episode draws its inspiration from a different holiday. With the second season, they’ve begun repeating holidays. That’s understandable, as there are only so many major ones. (Sorry to anyone desperate for that Arbor Day horror flick. But you could write it yourself.) Beginning with its first episode, the Halloween-based film, “The Body,” each episode, from different writers and directors, varies in quality. The best I’ve seen so far has been the Independence Day-inspired “Culture Shock.”
(available on Hulu, like I just said)
Two Sentence Horror Stories
Speaking of wildly varying quality, there’s this show. Inspired by a Reddit post, which asked folks to write examples of the title–a horror story in two sentences–this show began life as a webseries. Then the CW picked it up as a summer 2019 show. Each half-hour episode spins a creepy yarn based on a different one of those two-sentence tales. Some episodes fizzled out, but there were a couple of stand-outs, including “Hide,” which has a gut-punch ending.
(available on CWTV and Netflix)
I’ve already covered this show in my review of Shudder’s Creepshow premiere, but we obviously have to mention it. It is, after all, the most recent example of 21st century horror anthologies. Like its 80s film predecessors, it tells a story by a different horror author in each 30-minute installment. Like any anthology show, there are hits and misses. But these are short episodes and they’re all generally entertaining. “By the Silver Waters of Lake Champlain” wouldn’t have been my Full Throttle pick, by the way, but that’s okay. My pick, “Faun,” will be a feature film at Netflix.
(available on Shudder)
And that is your guide to 21st century horror anthologies. In case you missed it, here’s my guide to the horror anthology series of the 20th century (so old!). And if I missed something, especially if you want to tell me about non-American shows, please let us know. Should I have covered Channel Zero, for instance? Drop some spooky science in the comments or on social media.
(featured image from “Hide,” Two Sentence Horror Stories, via The CW)
Salomé Gonstad is a freelance writer who grew up in the swampy wilds of south Alabama. When she's not yelling about pop culture on the internet, she's working on a supernatural thriller about her hometown. Also, we're pretty sure she's a werewolf. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.