Top horror TV shows to watch this Halloween
Ivan Radford | On 25, Oct 2020
Horror is all about movies, right? Wrong. Because in this golden age of TV, there are oodles of scares that can be found on the small screen – and not just the TV series that are based on horror movies. From ghosts and ghouls to aliens and the undead, we dig up the best horror TV shows currently available on-demand…
The Haunting of Hill House
“No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality.” That’s the first line of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. First published in 1959, it has gone on to inspire two films and a play. Here, it’s resurrected once again as a TV series, which reimagines the story as a 10-part drama. The tale may have changed, but director Mike Flanagan returns to Jackson’s opening sentiment and proves it over and over again. The series charts the lineage of the Crain family, starting with father and mother Hugh and Olivia (Henry Thomas and Carla Gugino). After moving into Hill House to renovate the old mansion and sell it on, things go very wrong, and Olivia ends up dead one dark night, as Hugh and their five children flee the estate in a panic. The series follows them as adults, jumping between their dysfunctional lives in the present and the origins of their problems several decades past. Each character gets an episode devoted to their experiences, and Flanagan uses that age-old device to weave a freshly compelling, complex tapestry of trauma and the mechanisms humans have devised to cope with it. The result is as much family drama as it is horror story, and it’s all the better for it; like the best entries in the genre, it’s as moving as it is purely terrifying. (The Haunting of Bly Manor, also on Netflix, is a Gothic romance that’s also heartfelt and visually impressive, but lacks the consistency of Hill House – if you’re choosing between them, stick with this one.)
There’s nothing scarier than writer’s block. That’s certainly the case in Netflix’s new French series, which juggles familiar tropes into something completely and utterly scary. It follows a famous horror writer who takes a break from writing, only to discover the demon from her book exists in the real world. This malevolent spirit named Marianne draws her home and insists she continues writing… or else. Created and directed by Samuel Bodin, it’s stuffed with jump-scares, haunting flourishes, emotional torment and one heck of a scary stare from creepy old lady Madame Daugeron.
Chilling Adventures of Sabrina
“Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa’s Riverdale spin-off is a world (make that a galaxy) away from the light-hearted 1990s sitcom starring Melissa Joan Hart. Some elements are familiar – Zelda, Hilda, Salem the cat – and it does keep the former incarnation’s retconned ‘half-witch, half-human’ plot device (a key change from the original 1960s Archie Comics scenario), but the vibe it goes for (and achieves with aplomb) is a riveting mashup of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and – quite surprisingly – Harry Potter. A coming-of-age saga with a rich and well-written mythology. Like those titles, too, Aguirre-Sacasa’s latest show values friendship as the lynchpin of survival in a hostile and constantly threatening world. Funny, dark, politically-charged, weird, subversive, spooky, occasionally violent and always compelling, this reboot is another big winner for Netflix.” Read our full review
When was the last time a TV show surprised you? Penny Dreadful, starring Eva Green, Timothy Dalton and Timothy Dalton’s moustache, mashes up classic horror literature, such as Frankenstein and Dorian Grey, to produce a piece of pulp art that sounds trashy but rings with class. How close will it stick to the stories we all know? John Logan’s script weaves it all together with a taste for mortality – and adds a whole heap of freaky witchcraft in Season 2 (and Brian Cox in Season 3). The result would scare even the manliest of facial hair off, and never quite goes where you expect.
“I can’t emphasise enough the risk you’re taking,” cautions Father Marcus (Ben Daniels) at a key turning point in The Exorcist Season 1. He might as well be talking to writer/executive producer Jeremy Slater, who dares to invoke the holy ghost of William Friedkin’s 1973 movie on the small screen. But from the unsettling first episode, this TV series confidently brushes aside any doubts in the show’s ability to possess the spirit of the feature film for 10 episodes. Smartly expanding the film’s universe, introducing some cheesy new villains and finding time for some nuanced exploration of doubt and conviction? Sometimes, you’ve just got to have a little faith.
The hit show of 2016’s summer, if you haven’t seen Stranger Things, you’ve certainly heard of it. Netflix’s sci-fi horror mystery, which follows the disappearance of a young boy from a small US town in the 1980s, leaving his mum (Winona Ryder) devastated and his friends no choice but to play detective themselves, is a deft mix of retro nostalgia and modern-day storytelling. With its synth soundtrack, entertaining young stars and gripping screenplay, it takes strange children with telekinetic powers, nasty monsters, sinister scientific corporations and bike rides and turns them all into something entirely its own. If you haven’t seen it, watch it. If you have, watch it again to spot all the pop culture references.
The Walking Dead
AMC’s zombie smash hit is one of the biggest TV shows of all time – and it’s been willing to spill blood to do it. Andrew Lincoln brings gruff earnestness to the struggle of human survivors in the wake of an undead uprising, well balanced by a string of horrifying villains, from David Morrisey’s well-meaning Governor to Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s totally amoral Negan. Alongside strong character work with its supporting ensemble, the show never skimps on the red stuff either.
Note: Available on NOW TV until 31st October 2020.
Over three seasons, Charlie Brooker’s Twilight Zone for the Twitter age has tackled everything from political engagement to relationships and all the pixels in between with a harsh, satirical hand. Brooker’s Big Brother zombie spoof proved his knack for scaring us, but Black Mirror goes one step further, tapping into a nerve in society and combining its fevered love of new technology with its most neurotic digital fears; a topicality delivered with detached cynicism that, even in its weaker instalments, feels bleakly, terrifying relevant.
An idiosyncratic FBI Agent investigates the murder of a young woman in the small town of Twin Peaks. If that premise sounds familiar, wait until you see David Lynch and Mark Frost’s show in action. Things quickly go from weird to strange, from strange to odd, from odd to disconcerting and from disconcerting to fascinating. Kyle MacLachlan is our window into this world as the FBI’s Dale Cooper, who has a thing for pie and coffee (and dictating things to his secretary, Dianne, who may or may not exist). But as a parade of bizarre characters grace our screen, the story takes a back seat to atmosphere and style, resulting in something that’s inexplicable, scary and downright iconic. Sometimes, it’s even funny too. If you’ve never binge-watched this remarkably unusual programme, do so – and then catch up on the 2017 revival. If you’ve seen it already, you don’t need us to convince you to watch it again. (Starting from scratch? The original series is on Sky Box Sets and NOW TV until 31st December 2020.)
Beyond the Walls
David Lynch meets Doctor Who in this fascinating horror. The French mini-series sees a woman inherit a haunted house, but while that might suggest this is a run-of-the-mill bumps-in-the-night affair, Beyond the Walls is something unique. Spanning three episodes, it’s a masterclass in stretching out tension without breaking it. Writer-director Hervé Hadmar unfolds the mystery at his show’s heart at a slow enough pace to keep you unnerved throughout, but never bored. Our full review – plus where to watch it online.
The Enfield Haunting
Not impressed by The Conjuring 2? Sky’s mini-series telling the same true story is wonderfully spooky stuff. The three-part drama is a dramatisation of the terrifying and bizarre events that took place at an ordinary house in Enfield during the autumn of 1977. Timothy Spall plays Maurice Grosse, a paranormal researcher who strikes up a connection with Janet (Eleanor Worthington-Cox), when he investigates the strange happenings at the Hodgson family home. Matthew Macfadyen plays Guy Lyon Playfair, Grosse’s sceptical co-investigator, while Juliet Stevenson plays his wife, who is struggling to come to terms with his all-encompassing obsession with the investigation.
American Horror Story
Glee’s Ryan Murphy goes all-out every season with his horror anthology, which never fails to deliver fresh, spooky surprises. There’s fun to be had in the way that actors crossover between the standalone stories, but it’s the novelty of each new run that really works, allowing newcomers and aficionados to enter this twisted universe, from the circus-based Freak Show to the haunted house of Season 1 and the asylum of Season 3. Season 7, Cult, shines a creepily pertinent light on modern America in the age of Donald Trump. Things don’t get more disturbing than that.
“Ever since creepy French drama Les Revenants became a surprise global hit in 2012, producers have been drawn to its basic premise – people return from the dead, but not as zombies. The latest spin on the idea is Glitch, from Australia’s ABC, and the happy news is that it works far better than the po-faced American attempts. The core reason for its success is an elegant simplicity. We have a taut plot, told over six episodes, focusing on a small band of characters, thus avoiding the flailing narrative strands that brought down the other shows. The six episodes cover a lot of ground, but Glitch doesn’t feel rushed or crowded. As many questions are raised as answered – why are they back, for starters? – and the season ends with a fantastic, tantalising twist.” Read our full review
Whether you’re a fan of the 2016 reboot or not, there are countless hours of TV to enjoy from the colossal archive of the classic sci-fi series, from creature-feature-style shocks to tiny figures crawling through other people’s innards. A newcomer’s guide to the best episodes
Scream: The TV Series
“You can’t do a slasher movie as a TV series,” says Noah Foster (John Karna) at the start of MTV’s Scream. It’s par for the course for the franchise, at once undermining its own existence and yet staying faithful to the rules. That’s the series’ inevitable weakness: Wes Craven’s original film was a smart re-imagining of the slasher genre, subverting expectations and traditions at every turn. But if self-awareness is no longer novel, the series introduces something more surprising to the formula: sincerity. Led by Willa Fitzgerald’s Emma and Bex Taylor-Klaus’s Audrey, the characters actually have time to reflect on the growing pile of corpses, bringing an unexpected depth to the trashy, entertaining scares. The show’s aim throughout is to make you forget it’s a horror story – and then let that fact creep up on you every episode. You might not always scream, but for undemanding thrills, this TV series gets you every time. (Tip: Skip the Halloween special after Season 2.)
The CW’s series, based on the Vertigo comic book series, follows Olivia, a medical resident on the fast track to a perfect life… until she’s turned into a zombie. Transferring to the city morgue to get access to human brains, she finds that chomping on them gives her flashes of the corpse’s memories – including, at times, clues as to how they were killed. Her boss, a brilliant but eccentric conspiracy theorist, encourages her to embrace this gift and to work with an eager, unproven homicide detective to help solve these murders.
Ash vs Evil Dead
“How does it feel to be back?” “Groovy.” Ash vs Evil Dead nails its homecoming in its opening episode – and this series does feel very much like a homecoming. Small-screen spin-offs from popular movie franchises have become two-a-penny in recent years, but many are made by a different team to their source material. Sam Raimi is involved with this new show from the ground up – and you feel it in every splatter of blood right up until the final episode. The show catches up with Ash 30 years after the events of the first film, which plays out in brief visual recap for newcomers. He’s exactly as you remember him: not exactly PC, slightly dim, but darn good with a chainsaw. He’s not the nicest guy in the world. He’s not the smartest guy in the world. And he’s certainly not the kind of guy you’d choose to star in a typical, modern show. But when the undead crap hits the fan, he’s exactly the guy you want on the telly. How does it feel to have him back? Groovy.
This revival of the classic anthology of horror is an enjoyably old-fashioned ride, with two episodes squeezed into each one of six episodes. From a serious drinking problem transforming a father into a monster to a dollhouse plagued by a miniature murderer, they range from entertainingly daft to hauntingly simple, making for a selection box of scares that’s just right for a dark night’s binge.
From the creator of Misfits, this twisted horror (which has already been snapped up by Netflix in the US) is reassuringly zany, fast-paced and gruesome. Any show that opens with a woman screaming and tied up, only to discover it’s her friend who’s doing it because they think she’s possessed, is a sure-fire winner. That breakneck warped humour doesn’t let up, as we watch Raquel (Susan Wokoma) attempt to conduct an exorcism based on what she’s reading off the internet on her phone. But there’s a unique streak to this Buffy the Vampire Slayer-esque affair – Raquel’s friend, Amy (Cara Theobold), thinks her ability to “see” demons is less a gift and more a symptom of mental illness. It doesn’t help that Raquel is so blunt that she comes across as crazy herself. The result are two fun, fleshed-out characters, who just happen to be killing evil spirits in their spare time, an inconvenience that makes their lives as young adults even more complicated. Two words: cold semen. Another two words: more please.
Inside No 9
When The League of Gentlemen finished, the question on everyone’s lips was “When will the gang get back together?” When Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith teamed up to make Psychoville, then, you expected something special – a promise delivered upon in their standout Rope-pastiching episode, which co-starred Mark Gatiss as a detective stumbling across two serial killer fanatics. While Psychoville developed The League’s loosely-connected sketch format into a more plot-driven tapestry, though, 2014’s Inside No. 9 goes in the other direction, telling six standalone stories. The result is a more controlled showcase for Pemberton and Shearsmith’s combination of horror and comedy, refining their knack for colourful characters and shocking situations into a string of perfectly formed 30-minute plays. The sheer diversity of the bill is striking, but within each genre is an impressive level of precision. Flawless, funny and always unsettling, the result is the BBC’s best horror show in years – and a programme that, in its best moments, even manages to eclipse The League of Gentlemen.
Netflix’s second Indian original series, this horror follows a prisoner who arrives at a remote military interrogation centre and turns the tables on his interrogators, exposing their most shameful secrets. The result is a twisting, turning thriller that combines jump scares and spooky visuals with themes of hyper-nationalism, the horror of book burning and the threat of spiritual possession. Accomplished, atmospheric TV – and, best of all, it’s only three episodes, so it’s a simple, but scary, all-nighter.
Vampires are young, sexy and cool. Everyone knows this. Everyone except Guillermo del Toro. Thank goodness, then, that he is the one behind The Strain, the latest fanged creation to swoop onto our screens. In his world, vampires are neither sexy nor cool. They definitely aren’t young. They’re not even called vampires. The Strain, as its title suggests, dresses vamp lore for the modern age: gone are capes and fangs, in their place a viral plague. So when an airplane full of dead bodies – and a large, suspicious-looking coffin – lands on the tarmac in New York, the immediate response isn’t a priest or hunter, but a virologist: Ephraim Goodweather, played by Corey Stoll. He’s joined by Mia Maestro as loyal colleague Nora Martinez and David Bradley as Van Helsing-alike Abraham Setrakian, and the cast are as enjoyably hammy as the creature design is seriously creepy – a gross, clammy revision of Dracula and co., which casts the exotic, erotic myth as a bottom-of-the-chain parasite; a disease that worms its way under your skin and makes it crawl.
Available until 16 January 2021.
“All that hope and change bullshit didn’t get us anywhere. America was circling the drain until the Purge.” Turning the ongoing film franchise from Blumhouse Productions into a series sounds like a strange move, but The Purge as a TV show is an impressively rounded thing – it gives us the chance to delve fully into the moral dilemmas opened up by the series’ premiere: a 12-hour period introduced in America when all crime – including murder – is legal. While someone frustrated at work and determined to climb the career ladder might find the 12-hour loophole a useful way to eliminate a rival – but what do you say to everyone, including your boss, the following day? What if you commit a heist, but you don’t let go of the loot until one second after the immunity window closes? And how, exactly, do you save someone from a cult that’s sprung up encouraging people to sacrifice themselves on Purge night? The result is an intriguing portrait of an altered America where selfish needs are put first, social tensions are high and the country’s relationship with guns and violence has never been more pertinent. A hostage scenario bubbles nicely towards the Season 1 climax, while Season 2 switches things up by taking us away from the Purge entirely, instead following the consequences of that night’s events for four interconnecting lives.
Fear the Walking Dead
AMC’s spin-off from its smash zombie hit gets off to an uneven start, but grows into something impressive and unique by its third season, combining confident pacing and a likeable cast (particularly Kim Dickens’ tough former teacher, Madison, and Colman Domingo’s enigmatic, ruthless hustler, Victor). And, of course, the undead gore is all present and correct, in increasingly inventive ways, as the show takes us from the urban decay and dread of Season 1 to the wide open claustrophobia of the ocean in Season 2 and the expansive isolation of Westerns in Season 3. (Skip Season 4 and 5.)
Don’t you hate it when you turn up to work at the train station and you find dead body with a bull’s head stuck on top? That’s the starting point for The Passenger, and it’s a sinister omen that promises a darkly gripping thriller. Within minutes of the gruesome discovery, the minotaur and King Minos’ labyrinth have been name-dropped. A mysterious murder with ties to ancient mythology? It might sound like True Detective, but these kind of conceptual killings have been on our screens for decades, going back to ITV’s Messiah, starring Ken Stott, and David Fincher’s Se7en. But while The Passenger promises standard thrills, it also has one surprising ace up its sleeve: Captain Anaïs Châtelet. Played by the remarkable Raphaëlle Agogué, she’s the kind of hard-nosed detective that all crime stories should have. With another man – their prime suspect – found wandering along the road at night, drenched in blood, clutching a hammer and suffering from acute trauma-induced memory loss, the stage is set for a compelling and shocking ride.
Netflix’s Castlevania is a dark and violent animated adventure that certainly isn’t for kids. This is old-school vampire fiction that may only span four episodes but s nonetheless bloodthirsty and beautifully drawn. (Read our full review.)
Buffy the Vampire Slayer
“Sorry to barge in. I’m afraid we have a slight apocalypse.” If you’ve never seen the whole of Joss Whedon’s classic series, from its ass-kicking turn by Sarah Michelle Gellar as a vampire-fighting high-schooler to its moving exploration of loss, its silver-fox support from Anthony Head as librarian mentor Giles and its infamous musical episode, get watching now.
Claes Bang is wonderful in Steven Moffat’s and Mark Gatiss’ bold, inventive and playful take on Bram Stoker’s seminal horror story.
Available on BBC iPlayer until December 2020
If you’ve been impressed by Joko Anwar’s feature films, don’t miss this exciting, imaginative Indonesian show from HBO Asia, which brings together present-day Jakarta with a parallel world of bloodthirsty creatures. Read our full review
Locke & Key
Netflix’s supernatural horror based on the popular comic books is a surprisingly dark and darkly surprising ride.
What We Do in the Shadows
This wonderfully silly, superbly written comedy transforms vampire horror into flatshare sitcom.
HP Lovecraft, a sci-fi/horror legend whose gothic imagination was only outshone by his horribly racist views. Tellingly based on Matt Ruff’s novel of the same name, rather than Lovecraft’s work directly, HBO’s new series is a riposte to the author’s influence, both in terms of genre and more insidious social nastiness. Misha Green’s blend of pulp thrills and human horror is a playful exploration of American prejudice with real promise.
Available until 17th November
Available on: Apple TV+ (£4.99 a month)
Dorothy (Lauren Ambrose) and Sean (Toby Kebbell) are a wealthy married couple who are currently dealing with the loss of their baby son, Jericho. To cope, Dorothy has got a reborn doll, a plastic toy figure to stand in for him. And, by the time the 30-minute opening episode is up, things have only gotten eerier. M. Night Shyamalan’s stylish, sinister thriller is enjoyably ridiculous viewing. Read our full review