With Showtime’s new Penny Dreadful, Victorian London is beset with all manner of beasties, including Jack the Ripper, Frankenstein, Dorian Gray and a variety of demon-thingy horror shows. And that’s what Penny Dreadful is, a horror show, promising to scare the shit out of you before you can get some shut-eye for that early Monday meeting. Watching the creepfest—which stars Timothy Dalton, Eva Green, Josh Hartnett and Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark‘s Reeve Carney (he of the amazing Vines)—it’s pretty clear: This isn’t for the faint of heart (or those among us who refuse to watch American Horror Story.) Written by John Logan to be a sort of steam-punk scary mashup in the same vein as Alan Moore, we’re definitely going to tune in next week to see if Eva Green can conjure up the ghost of her doppelganger, Jemima Kirke.
Are we living through a renaissance of scary TV? It feels like the real spooky stuff was relegated to reality television for a whole swatch of time between The X-Files and American Horror Story/Hannibal. But TV has a history of giving us some of our best nightmares, and in honor of the season premiere, we’re taking a look at some of Penny Dreadful‘s dreadful predecessors.
1. The Twilight Zone
No-brainer. And of course, we’re talking about the original (though the film was kind of amazing for its Lithgow freakouts and Aykroyd tearing his face off.) Rod Serling’s calm narration seems almost most subversive in our time of hyperkinetic cat scares and “gotcha” moments. The show created the kind of dread you usually only experience in dreams, and the best episodes were such classics they’ve become cliches. (“We’ve been on Earth the whole time!” “It’s a cookbook!” “Man is the real monster!”)
Scariest episode: “Living Doll.” Gave me so many traumatic childhood memories of my American Girls coming alive and saying “I’m Talking Tina…and I’m going to kill you!” NOT IF I KILL YOU FIRST, YOU COLONIAL AMERICAN WITCH!
A show ostensibly about a guy looking for aliens, but all I remember from growing up were the episodes where Mulder and Scully would accidentally stumble upon a guy living with his sentient tumor at a sideshow carnival, or the one with the inbreds who kept their mom alive under the bed. Or the one with Bryan Cranston. Or the one with…okay, there were a lot. Remind me: did they ever find the truth out there?
Scariest episode: I was going to go with “Patient X,” but it really is “Home,” with those inbreds who were like Carcosa’s scary cousins.
3. The Outer Limits
The Twilight Zone for sci-fi nerds.
Scariest episode: Anything written by Harlan Ellison, like “Demon with a Glass Hand.”
4. Are You Afraid of the Dark?
Really surprised they let kids watch this, which was way scarier than that Goosebumps nonsense. Every week was a different story, but once in awhile there would be repeat characters, like Sardo (“accent on the “doh!”) or Dr. Vink.
Scariest episode: Zeebo the Clown. What the fuck, SNICK?? There is a reason my parents won’t let me watch IT!
5. Masters of Horror
You thought I’d be going with Tales From the Crypt, huh? I never went for gore, but Showtime’s 2005 series killed it with the sheer amount of scary talent in one show. Every episode was directed by a horror legend, from John Carpenter to Joe Dante to Guillermo Del Toro. Some were corny, some funny, and some actually shit-your-pants scary.
Scariest episode: “Jenifer” by Dario Argento. Who knew that Steven Weber was actually good at this? He certainly sucked in The Shining remake. (That is the second time I’ve made fun of Steven Weber this month. I don’t know what’s wrong with me!)