The horror anthology series is not a new beast or demon or monster under your bed. While many of us fondly remember turning down the volume so we could watch Tales from the Crypt without our parents knowing, that series was far from the first horror anthology show. And of course, horror anthologies existed off-screen, as well. The first half of the 20th century saw an explosion in pulp magazines, including ones that catered to horror fans, like Dime Mystery, Horror Stories, and Weird Tales. TV anthologies waned somewhat, but they never truly went away. And with more platforms today competing for viewers, they’ve reappeared. But with all that choice, it can )be hard to separate quality from…well, pulp. So here’s your guide.
(Note: This will be a guide to anthology shows that feature a different story every episode. It won’t cover shows like American Horror Story, which changes the plotline every season. I’m also not going to talk about kids’ shows–sorry, Midnight Society!–or shows that were primarily broadcast outside the US. But there will be some shows that are often classified as science-fiction, since there is frequently overlap between scary and sci-fi.)
1950s-1960s: The Early Years of the Horror Anthology Series
image via NBCUniversal
Ah, the baby years of TV, when everything was the Wild West. You could put on a show called like, King Biscuit Flower’s Christmas Chipmunk Party and people would watch it. They literally had nothing else to watch. So while early TV is littered with (a lot of) flotsam, that pirate spirit did produce some gems. Take, for example, Tales of Tomorrow. Running from 1951-1953, this show produced science-fiction stories and they did it live. Although they didn’t have the biggest budget, what they lacked in money they made up for in charm. And in star quality of their actors, even if some of them–James Dean, Paul Newman (in his first credited role)–hadn’t yet become iconic. Tales of Tomorrow (available on Amazon Prime) lasted only 2 years and it may be mostly forgotten by all but the most dedicated genre fans, but we have to acknowledge it.
Alfred Hitchcock Presents
Hitchcock’s movies loom so large in our cultural memory that it’s easy to forget about his TV show. While it wasn’t strictly horror, like Tales of Tomorrow, it presented a lot of bite-size unsettling tales. One standout includes “Man from the South,” which stars dreamboat Steve McQueen and which was based on a story by Roald Dahl. Dahl’s stories, incidentally, formed the basis for 5 other episodes.
(Available on Hulu)
Alcoa Presents: One Step Beyond
Although not as influential as other programs on this list (particularly the one coming up), One Step Beyond is nevertheless important. Hosted by John Newland, the show focused on supposedly true events with a paranormal or illogical twist. This means that it covered everything from ghosts to natural disasters that defied easy explanations. Today, besides its subject matter, it’s most remembered for the episode that saw Newland go down to Mexico and trip on psychedelic mushrooms. That was a whole episode. They just did that kind of thing back then. (That episode was later yanked from syndication, by the way.)
(Available on Tubi and Amazon Prime)
The Twilight Zone
image via CBS Productions
And now we have the king of them all, y’all. Pick any important word–iconic, influential, landmark, groundbreaking–and they would all apply to The Twilight Zone. Developed, hosted, and largely written by Rod Serling, a WWII vet haunted by his war experiences, the show used fantastical settings to explore the human condition. Through encounters with aliens or just with each other, the show probed the paranoia, prejudice, and injustice of the America to which he’d returned. Although not every episode was a winner, the show left such an indelible mark on TV history that we still reference individual episodes today. And there’s perhaps no bigger evidence of its influence than the fact that it’s been rebooted 3 times since the original run. (Those later episodes, by the way, are very hit-and-miss.)
(Available on multiple streamers; also reruns on Syfy, which usually has a marathon on New Year’s Eve)
No, not the song. We’re talking about the early 60s horror anthology series. Featuring horror legend Boris Karloff as the host, this show ran for 2 seasons, presenting horror tales that starred fresh faces like Leslie Nielsen and William Shatner. Local programming often preempted it, though, so it never really found a foothold. However, in his 1981 book Danse Macabre, Stephen King called it “probably the best horror series ever put on TV.”
(Available on Amazon Prime)
The Outer Limits
Beginning with an opening narration (“There is nothing wrong with your television set. Do not attempt to adjust the picture.”) that is almost as memorable as The Twilight Zone‘s, that was always The Outer Limits‘s problem: it was doomed to stay in the other show’s shadow. It’s been revived almost as many times and is beloved by many, but its episodes never quite cracked the cultural consciousness like The Twilight Zone‘s. Outside of “The Zanti Misfits,” I couldn’t name or describe one. (During the X-Files episode “The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat,” when Mulder can’t find a Twilight Zone episode he remembers, Scully suggests it was actually an Outer Limits episode. Mulder says, “Confuse the Twilight Zone with Outer Limits? Do you even know me?!” and I felt very seen.) Nevertheless, I know it has its fans.
(Available on multiple streamers)
Horror Anthology Series Honorable Mentions:
Also hosted by Boris Karloff, The Veil was an anthology series from the late 50s that never aired. They made 10 episodes before studio issues forced production to cancel. That was too few to sell, so the show never made it to TV. The episodes finally became available in the 90s, though, and Something Weird Video has released them on DVD.
Another short-run program was 1961’s ‘Way Out. (I’m not sure what the apostrophe is doing there.) Hosted by Roald Dahl, who wrote the first episode, about a woman and her husband’s disembodied brain, the show ran for 14 episodes before its cancellation. Today, you can see episodes at the Paley Center or just stay in your pajamas, as several of them are available on Youtube.
Also from 1961 is the summer series Great Ghost Tales. Although difficult to find today, it holds the distinction of being the last regularly scheduled show to be filmed and broadcast live.
The Modern Return of the Horror Anthology Series: The 1970s-80s
image via NBCUniversal
Why did horror anthology series seem to fall out of favor for the majority of the 60s and 70s? If I were back in college, I’d say, “Uh, Vietnam?” and then tap-dance until I had a compelling argument. But the truth is, I’m not sure. Uh, Vietnam?
While the 1970s weren’t completely devoid of horror shows, they were few and far between. The most notable was, of course, Night Gallery (available on NBC) the series that Rod Serling created after The Twilight Zone. This show focused more on horror than Serling’s previous effort and also wasn’t as good. It still has its charms, though. Check out the pilot segment “Eyes,” for instance. Not only does it feature one of the last performances by the great Joan Crawford, but it was also directed by a 22-year-old wunderkind named Steven Spielberg.
Other 70s anthology series include Ghost Story (aka Circle of Fear), which featured more conventional spooky tales (read: witches and ghouls), and Quinn Martin’s Tales of the Unexpected. The latter dealt with stories that all had a twist at the end, but wasn’t particularly new or noteworthy. And that’s pretty much it for the 70s!
This show ran from late 1981 to early 1982. It starred a bunch of big names and was hosted by James Coburn. It’s not remembered as well as say, Night Gallery, but it has its fans. Contrary to popular belief, though, the 1983 film Nightmares was not based on Darkroom segments the network thought were too intense for TV. The movie began as a pilot for an entirely different anthology show.
(Available on NBC)
Before it began airing its most famous horror anthology series, HBO tested the water with this show, one of its first original offerings. The titular hitchhiker, played by Nicholas Campbell and then Page Fletcher, introduced each episode. The series ran for 4 years on HBO and 3 years on the USA Network. And if you remember it, please tell us about it, because I’m experiencing a Westworld-esque “Doesn’t look like anything to me” short-circuit when I try. You talk about an 80s hitchhiker, and all I remember is Rutger Hauer.
(Available on DVD)
Tales from the Darkside
After the success of the Creepshow films, a TV show seemed like the next step. However, since there was a conflict between Warner Brothers, who was part-owner, and the producers, George Romero created this show instead. Like its inspiration, it featured a lot of episodes based on work by well-known authors, including Stephen King and Clive Barker.
(Available on DVD; has been available before on Shudder)
The Ray Bradbury Theater
image via HBO
HBO must have really liked The Hitchhiker, because this series debuted on the cable network 2 years later. As it says on the tin, this show was based on Bradbury stories, both new and old. As such, they leaned more toward science fiction. But I’m including this, because I know someone will protest if I don’t.
(Available on Vudu for free and on other paid streamers)
Debuting the same year as Ray Bradbury’s show, this was from a relative (in comparison) newcomer to the science fiction/fantasy/whatever-you-wanna-call-it world: Steven Spielberg. (That guy gets around.) Spielberg wrote many of the episodes, although he directed only a couple. I have to watch “Mirror, Mirror,” in which Sam Waterston (!) is haunted by the ghost of Tim Robbins (?!) in his mirror, immediately. That one was directed by *checks notes* Martin Scorsese. Other episodes were directed by Joe Dante, Robert Zemeckis, Clint Eastwood, and Tobe Hooper, to name a few. And if you like it, it’s being rebooted for Apple TV+.
(Available on NBC and paid streamers)
Friday the 13th: The Series
I vaguely recall this show. Mostly I remember my mom telling me I couldn’t watch it, but I didn’t want to, because it wasn’t even about the mask guy. That’s right–despite some overlap with cast and crew, this series has nothing to do with the slasher flicks. Instead, it’s about a couple who own an antique store–what every kid wants to watch, MOM–and their quest to find cursed antiques.
(Available on DVD)
Think of this as a kind of sequel to Tales from the Darkside. While not a literal sequel, it shared a producer. It also has a similar vibe, although it’s more straight horror (and monster-focused, obviously) than the previous series. It’s also a bit campier.
(Available on DVD and Amazon Prime)
Unlike the Friday the 13th series, this was closely tied to its muse, the Nightmare on Elm Street film franchise. Hosted by Robert Englund–Freddy Krueger himself–the series was set in the world of the movies. Although Krueger didn’t appear in all of the stories, the implication was that he was responsible for the horror that ensued, similar to how Pennywise has poisoned Derry, Maine, in It.
(Available on DVD; reruns have also aired on the El Rey network)
Tales from the Crypt
Hosted by the Cryptkeeper (voiced by John Kassir), this HBO series gave many xennials and millennials one of their first tastes of horror. It ran for 7 years on HBO and had a number of spin-offs, including movies, a Christmas album, and even children’s versions of the program. Various folks have tried to reboot it over the years, including M. Night Shyamalan in 2016, but nothing’s come to fruition. Reportedly, the rights to the program are such a tangled mess, legally, that no one wants to bother. That’s a shame, because it was a really fun show.
(Available on Tubi for free and per episode purchase on several other streamers)
Beyond Belief: Fact or Fiction
While not a strict horror series, this show still deserves a spot on the list. Owing a debt to One Step Beyond, this Jonathan Frakes-hosted* series presented stories with surprising and sometimes supernatural twists. At the end of each episode, Frakes would reveal which stories were true (or at least, based on reported events). Incidentally, two montage videos from the show became memes this year.
(Available on IMDB TV and Amazon Prime)
*James Brolin hosted the first season, by the way.
Running for a year on the Family Channel, this show was hosted by Rip Torn. The series originally started with hour-long episodes featuring 2 scary tales, always with a supernatural element and usually with a twist. The show later switched to a half-hour/1 story format, though. Like The Twilight Zone, the stories often came with a moral.
(Available on DVD)
And that is the guide to horror anthology series of the 20th century. Stay tuned for a guide to 21st century horror anthologies! In the meantime, though, let us know if we missed anything and tell us your ones to watch, by commenting below or getting spooky with us on social media.
featured image via HBO, EC Comics, Tales from the Crypt Holdings, Warner Bros, et al (we told you the rights were tricky)
Salomé Gonstad is a freelance writer who grew up in the swampy wilds of south Alabama. She now splits her time between the Appalachian wilds (of Alabama) and the considerably more refined streets of New York City. 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.