For the horror genre, that maturation took the form of a truly groundbreaking show which to this day remains among the most well-known--if not the most well-known--genre program of any kind. Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone (1959-64) began as a rejected pilot submitted to CBS in 1958, which thankfully was reconsidered and greenlit the following year.
Mostly written by Serling, each episode was narrated by the writer himself, and utilized a brilliant formula that set the standard for all anthology shows to come. Blending elements of horror, science fiction and fantasy, The Twilight Zone presented tales of the bizarre and unsettling, in which nothing was as it seemed. The conclusion of each installment would bring a shocking twist that was sure to keep the audience coming back week after week.
In classic episodes such as "Time Enough at Last", "Eye of the Beholder", "To Serve Man", "The Hitchhiker" and "Terror at 20,000 Feet", genre elements were used to both comment on the culture of the day and creep the holy hell out of viewers. With Serling at the helm, The Twilight Zone was one of the best written, directed and acted shows ever seen on television, and remains a benchmark in genre entertainment.
Naturally, such a successful formula did not go unnoticed, and it wasn't without its imitators. And although devotees of the show may object passionately to its description as such, The Outer Limits (1963-65) was by far the best of them. Focusing more on sci-fi than The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits still never failed to deliver nightmarish monsters each and every week, and its iconic opening ("There is nothing wrong with your television set. Do not attempt to adjust the picture...") is arguably even more famous than that of its higher profile counterpart.
As innovative as Twilight Zone and its copycats may have been, they still fell within the tried-and-true formula horror had stuck with since the birth of TV: anthology. But by the mid '60s, programmers were finally willing to try something different.
It began with a pair of horror-comedy series which both debuted in the fall of 1964: The Addams Family (ABC) and The Munsters (CBS). The former was based on Charles Addams' morbid series of New Yorker cartoons, which had by then been running for 30 years. The latter was produced by Universal, and spoofed their famous movie monsters by placing them in a family sitcom setting. Although both shows ran for only two seasons, they have since been immortalized in syndication (and now DVD), and will forever be inextricably linked in the popular consciousness.
Still, it remained for television to produce a serious, non-anthology horror series. Ironically, when it finally did, it was almost by accident. When Dark Shadows debuted on ABC in the summer of 1966, it was a gothic soap opera, airing in the afternoon. But a year into its run, it introduced the character of Barnabas Collins, played by Jonathan Frid, changing the landscape of the show and sending its ratings through the roof. The reason was that Collins was a vampire. From then on, the show took on a supernatural horror theme, thus adding teenagers to its traditional audience of housewives. The brainchild of horror TV maven Dan Curtis, Dark Shadows ran five days a week until the spring of 1971, comprising 1,245 episodes in total.
Although perhaps on the wane by the end of the decade, anthology TV was far from dead. In fact, six years after the end of The Twilight Zone, Rod Serling brought a color follow-up to the small screen: Night Gallery (1970-73). With a pilot episode that marked the directorial debut of Steven Spielberg, Night Gallery followed a similar format to the Zone, except that it often combined more than one story in a single episode. It also had less input from Serling, instead featuring short story adaptations. Unfortunately, Serling never matched the success of his first show, and was disappointed by his lack of control over the series.
With the level of sophistication for productions higher than ever, it looked for a time like the future of the genre on television was the made-for-TV movie. The late '60s and early '70s saw a bumper crop of quality examples. Among them was the 1968 adaptation of Dr. Jeckyll & Mr. Hyde, produced by Curtis and starring Jack Palance (they would resume their partnership with even greater results five years later.) A young Michael Douglas starred in the 1972 movie When Michael Calls, an ultra-creepy offering about a long-dead boy making contact with the living via telephone. Among the very best was Gargoyles (1972), featuring some of the earliest work of the late special effects legend Stan Winston.
By the early 1970s, horror on television had come a long way from the radio adaptations of 25 years prior. Nevertheless, it was facing an unprecedented challenge from a motion picture industry that was less restricted than ever before. Horror was changing, and although TV remained largely constrained by network censorship, it nevertheless found a way to stay relevant and innovative--as exemplified by a short-lived series that would prove to have a profound impact on the entire genre.
Other major shows:
- Thriller (1960-62)
- Late Night Horror (1967-68)
- The Sixth Sense (1972)
Soon to come: Part 3 - How to Scare Without Losing Sponsors
Part 1: Fear Invades the Living Room