Has TV finally figured out how to do horror? 'Hill House,' 'Sabrina' have us hopeful

Kelly Lawler

Something scary is happening on TV. 

Sabrina the Teenage Witch is back, but now she's dealing with Satan instead of mean teachers. "The Purge" has come to prime time. Even "The Twilight Zone" will be gracing your TV screens again. 

We're in the midst of a mini-boom in horror on TV that's fueled greater diversity in storytelling. Horror is streaming, on cable, on premium cable. Horror even has Shudder, its own dedicated streaming service. 

October saw the premieres of two buzzy horror shows on Netflix, "The Haunting of Hill House" and "Chilling Adventures of Sabrina." Syfy's latest season of anthology series "Channel Zero" premiered Oct. 26.

Violet Mcgraw and Henry Thomas on "The Haunting of Hill House."

Horror isn't exactly new to television, but it's certainly more acclaimed, more successful and more prolific than ever. Unlike its big-screen counterparts, horror shows are harder to pull off convincingly. Jump scares, a staple of many horror films, are less scary when done repeatedly over 10 hours. The communal experience is also lost when fans are isolated at home instead of feeling the fear with fellow moviegoers.

But horror TV is thriving, and it can do things that films can't. 

"TV offers you (the ability) to do a deep dive into character, it offers you the chance to braid in threads of things that you can pay off much later," says "Hill House" producer Trevor Macy, who has worked on horror films including "Oculus" and "The Stranger." 

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"Generally speaking there's a lot more creative storytelling going on in television right now than there is in film, and I think that's true for horror just as much as it's true for anything else," he says.   

Like high-profile hits "The Walking Dead" or "Stranger Things," many series borrow horror tropes but stay in more conventional action-adventure lanes. Shows that wear the horror label with a badge of honor, moving from unsettling to downright terrifying are rare, but they're climbing out of the shadows.

"Hill House," "Zero" and AMC's recent "The Terror" are all excellent examples of how television can make horror better, allowing psychological and character-driven stories to scare you more than any monster hiding behind the door could.

Maria Sten as Jillian on "Channel Zero: The Dream Door."

"Zero" takes its inspiration from another uniquely modern phenomenon: The Internet. Sourcing each season's story from the Creepypasta forum, where the Slender Man myth began, "Zero" taps into anxieties both universal and specific. Its new season, "The Dream Door" (daily through Oct. 31, 11 EDT/PDT), focuses on marital anxiety come to life. 

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The source material for "Hill House" is more old-school: Shirley Jackson's classic 1959 novel. The Netflix series, which reimagines the story of a famously haunted house in a modern setting, makes great use of the "slow burn" TV format, lulling its audience into a sense of complacency before things get scary. Last spring's "The Terror" brilliantly used this format, embellishing the story of a crew of 19th-century sailors who went looking for the fabled Northwest Passage, never to return. Although described by the creators and AMC as a thriller rather than horror, "The Terror" is one of the scariest series of the year, as its snobby Victorian characters collapse with true, primal fear. 

Ciarán Hinds as John Franklin on "The Terror."

None of these series have enjoyed the broad commercial success of recent films like "Halloween" and "A Quiet Place," but they're massive improvements on mainstream failures like Fox's "Scream Queens." And though wildly uneven, "Queens" creator Ryan Murphy's "American Horror Story" remains a ratings hit for FX in its eighth season. 

So why is horror terrifying us more than ever in 2018? Well, 2018 is kind of scary, too. 

"We live in a scary time," says "Zero" producer Nick Antosca. "When things are great and our culture is in a great place, then horror doesn't necessarily come to the forefront in the same way. But when people are feeling anxiety in their daily lives, when they look at the news or they feel under threat, horror tends to thrive as a cathartic place to go." 

So, bring on the scares. (The good ones, at least.)