When it comes to what to watch on television, current horror lovers are flooded with options. In 2016, we have The Walking Dead, American Horror Story, The Strain, Supernatural, Grimm, The Vampire Diaries, Teen Wolf and Scream Queens, and that’s just off the top of my head. But if we really want to be scared or shocked, we’ve got to dig deeper. Sure, these shows have supernatural elements, but are they really scary? Do they make us think about our existence and the fluidity of what we call reality? When was the last time a TV show stayed with us long after the final credits rolled?
For me, the only shows that ever actually freaked me out for more than a jump scare or two were the horror/sci-fi anthologies of yore. Nothing was creepier than hearing that manic, tinkling piano from the beginning of The Twilight Zone or hearing Vic Perrin tell me that there was nothing wrong with my television set. I knew that the next thirty to sixty minutes would be thought-provoking and haunting, clawing its way into my brain like a methodical earwig intent on tasting the juiciest bits of my gray matter.
The best of these shows – The Twilight Zone, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Outer Limits, and Tales from the Darkside – debuted this time of year at the end of September and the beginning of October, so I thought it would be fun to take a trip back in time and reminisce about some of my favorite episodes. These four shows were cobbled together by many different writers, directors, producers and actors, but there was one thing they all had in common. They all had the potential to scare the ever living shit out of me. Sometimes funny, sometimes preachy, these shows never fell for the jump scare tactic but would lead me, smiling and naive, off into the darkness every single time. Each episode would start off innocently enough in a world I recognized but would build slowly to a climax like the slow tapping of Chinese water torture… dripping, dripping, dripping. I would swear that, even days later, I could feel the eye-crossing irritation digging away at my subconscious, no matter what I did to try and forget about it.
The Twilight Zone
The Twilight Zone first debuted 27 years ago on October 2, 1959, and ran for five seasons. The show was originally created by Rod Serling and featured modern macabre tales interwoven with psychological horror, science fiction, fantasy, and horror. The best part of these early episodes was the inevitable morally fashioned plot twist that both shocked audiences and gave them some serious ideas to contemplate. Serling was a huge proponent of discussions on war, the government, racism, society and human nature in general, and those views flow heavily throughout the series.
Some of my favorite episodes: “To Serve Man,” about a seemingly obsequious alien species that came to earth, not with a guide for peace but a cookbook; “Time Enough At Last,” about a busy, book-loving man (Burgess Meredith) who finally has all the time in the world to sit and read in his beloved library, but breaks his glasses before he can turn the first page; “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street,” where rumors of an alien invasion turn people into paranoid vigilantes who turn against each other, leading the aliens to hold back and let humanity destroy itself; and most notably, “Eye of the Beholder/The Private World of Darkness,” where a young woman undergoes plastic surgery to look like everyone else, but when her bandages are removed, her doctors proclaim her operation a failure – we see she’s beautiful and everyone else is hideous. The series went on to spawn a feature film – Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983) and two revivals of the TV series – one in 1985 and another in 2002.
Tales from the Darkside
Jumping 25 years into the future, Tales From the Darkside first officially graced our television screens on September 30, 1984, and ran for four seasons. Created by horror icon George A. Romero after the success of the movie Creepshow (1983), Tales From the Darkside focused more on the lighthearted, black comedy vibe of old comic book issues of Tales From the Crypt and The Vault of Horror. Although the series tended to lean more toward the campy that the terrifying, there were some fantastically horrifying episodes of Tales From the Darkside. Tom Savini, Clive Barker, Stephen King and Romero himself have all offered something up at the Tales From the Darkside table.
Some of my favorite episodes: the marvelous “Word Processor of the Gods” (based on the short story by Stephen King) that made anything typed out on it come true; a terrible night for a radio DJ when he realizes his abrasive attitude will come back to haunt him in Romero’s “The Devil’s Advocate;” and in a Savini double feature, “Halloween Candy” has an October Scrooge going toe-to-toe with a real life gremlin while a freaky, black-eyed demon terrorizes a poor young woman by living “Inside the Closet.” This show also had a film counterpart: Tales From the Darkside: The Movie (1990), which was rumored to originally be titled Creepshow 3. King’s son, author Joe Hill, has both penned and filmed episodes of a new version of Tales From the Darkside, but the series was never picked up by any networks and so he turned the stories into both an eponymous four issue comic series and hardcover book, both due out in 2016.
Alfred Hitchcock Presents
That famous intro first debuted on televisions 61 years ago on October 2, 1955, when Alfred Hitchcock took his turn in the land of television. The show was the longest running out of the four, managing to stay on air for ten seasons. The caricature profile of horror’s most famous director combined with Gounod’s Funeral March of a Marionette created an iconic and recognizable intro that firmly placed Hitchcock into the upper echelons of pop culture and is one that still holds to this day. Always finishing in the top 20 in Nielson ratings, Alfred Hitchcock Presents brought both horror and humor into America’s living rooms. Hitchcock himself directed 17 of the 268 episodes, as well as The Exorcist‘s William Friedkin, Robert Altman, and Norman Lloyd (who is, as of this writing, the oldest living working actor, passing the triple digit mark at 101 year old). Notable actors include Steve McQueen, Walter Matthau, Laurence Harvey, Claude Rains, Joseph Cotten, Vera Miles, Peter Lorre, Tom Ewell, and Barbara Bel Geddes, among others.
Favorite episodes include: Roald Dahl’s “Man From the South,” where a man bets his green convertible against his opponent’s pinky finger that the young gambler can’t strike his Zippo ten times in a row; “The Case of Mr. Pelham” has the average Mr. Pelham realizing that another man has taking over his life, slowly edging him out of existence; a woman feeds the police a murder weapon in “Lamb to the Slaughter;” and the beginning of my fear of ventriloquist dummies after watching “The Glass Eye.” Everyone from Quentin Tarantino to Penn and Teller have been inspired by episodes of Hitchcock’s most infamous show.
Last but not least on my list is The Outer Limits, which debuted on September 16, 1963, and ran for only two seasons. The Outer Limits was based much more deeply in sci-fi than in supernatural horror, especially in the second season, but many of the episodes were freaky just the same. Like The Twilight Zone, the stories quite often ended in some kind of unseen plot twist. Author Harlan Ellison wrote several of the episodes, including “Soldier,” which won a Writer’s Guild Award later that same year.
Some of my favorite episodes: “The Architects of Fear,” where Dr. Allen Leighton goes through plastic surgery to transform himself into a look-alike invading alien to force pre-nuclear holocaust humanity to ban together against a common evil; “The Zanti Misfits,” where an alien species called the Zanti send their corruptibles to Earth because they know humans will destroy them since people have no qualms about killing; the time traveling Gilgamesh in “Demon With a Glass Hand;” and a pre-Star Trek William Shatner playing an astronaut in “Cold Hands, Warm Heart.” The show was revived in 1995 by cable channel Showtime for five seasons.
This wraps up my list of some of the best horror and sci-fi shows released in September/October to grace the mini silver screen. What do you think? Is it a complete list or am I missing something? Let me know in the comments!