From campfire tales to books filled to the brim with dark folklore, horror anthologies are almost as old as storytelling itself. Exploring the varied results of our imagination at its most sordid, there’s something universal about anthology storytelling, as the work is often more impulsive, visceral, and eerie than longer, detail-oriented tales. However, horror anthologies are perhaps best defined by their diversity, offering many different takes on traditional terror tales to create a work unlike anything else the genre has to offer.
From a storytelling perspective, anthologies allow a sense of freedom to address multiple topics, spinning a narrative web that does not need to be intricate to be immersive. It also offers a sense of freedom as an artist as well, as they’re able to explore stories that focus more on the abstract, emotional and unusual rather than crafting an entire universe and a complicated storyline from scratch. Horror anthologies also allows narratives to be shared from an alternative perspective, showcasing the conflicts and mysteries surrounding characters who are normally relegated to the fringes of a novel.
Before we dive too deep into the history of horror anthology storytelling, it is probably best to nix any confusion on the subject by defining what exactly horror anthologies are, and the many ways in which they can be presented. At its core, an anthology is an assembly of short-form stories that are linked by theme, subject matter, genre, or shared elements, often times in order to compose content that is of equal value to a long-form story. While these short-form stories can be wildly different in execution, presentation, and perspective, there’s always some central conceit by which they are tied together, and often contain a twist or inspired point-of-view that reflect the art as a whole.
In film, a horror anthology can either be several short-form segments delivered through a singular filmmaker’s vision, varied short films by different filmmakers connected by a “wrap-around” story, or an experimental assembly of micro-short films that share a common theme or narrative directive. In the case of the former, look no further than the likes of Creepshow or Tales from the Hood, or, in a less traditional sense, Trick ‘r Treat, which thrives on the narrative connectivity of each tale. For the second format, one might look at the likes of Twilight Zone: The Movie or, more recently, the V/H/S films, the first of which ushered in a recent wave of tonally-diverse horror anthologies. Lastly, the third format, the most recent to become popularized, can be found in films such as The ABCs of Death, Holidays, All Hallows’ Eve 2 or Tales of Halloween.
In television, a horror anthology can either be a series that solely offers brand new stories featured new characters within a given genre on a week-to-week basis, or a seasonal anthology in which thematically-similar stories are told over the course of a limited number of episodes on a year-to-year basis. The first format is the most historically rich, as The Twilight Zone, Tales from the Crypt, and Masters of Horror all fall into that categorization; even The X-Files has flirted with the anthology format for its varied “Monster of the Week” episodes. The latter, however, is closer to the more commonly seen televised horror anthology these days, largely due to cost sensibility, as seen with shows like American Horror Story and Channel Zero.
In literature, horror anthologies can either be a compendium of short-form works from an author (sometimes accrued from previously published works from throughout their career), a non-linear and structured multiple-part story that are tied together by characters or an environment, or a series of books that offer thematically similar stories within a genre or a shared universe. In the first category, one can look at the many Stephen King anthologies such as Night Shift or The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, or Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. One example of the second route would be the notable Dark Regions Press anthology Madhouse, which interweaves connected tales through multiple authors . The third example could be best reflected by the Goosebumps or Fear Street book series, each of which serves as both a unique story in itself and, arguably, as a part of a greater fictional world.
While it might be unclear as to what exactly was the first tried-and-true published horror anthology, the format was certainly popularized with Grimm’s Fairy Tales, published in 1812, which served as a series of dark and often times violent morality plays meant to instill good behavior into children. With several reprints and edits over the past two centuries, this anthology has inspired countless storytellers and artists in the genre, even as many stories have come and gone through the compendium depending on the edition. And while several scholars may argue as to whether Grimm’s Fairy Tales leans closer to either fantasy or horror, there’s no doubt that the horrifying imagery and words of the Brothers Grimm redefined how culture in general consumed and reacted towards the darker side of literature.
From there, horror anthologies were largely relegated to radio plays and literary compendiums, often times retrospectives to celebrate popular authors of their respective eras, but the format would go through a renaissance during the 1940s in multiple mediums. On the page, EC Comics would ride a wave of immense popularity among the youth of America through the ‘40s and ‘50s with lines such as Tales from the Crypt and The Vault of Horror, much to the chagrin of censors and parents around the country. Meanwhile, the 1945 UK film Dead of Night, the second ever horror anthology following the 1924 German film Waxworks, introduced the world to the wrap-around-centric horror anthology format, and remains an iconic entry into the subgenre to this day.
The following decade, the horror anthology format would make its way to the small screen with trio chilling yet challenging television series: Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits. The first series, which had an impressive 250+ episode run over 10 years, would see the legendary filmmaker in the director’s chair over 17 times, and largely felt interactive in nature as it often invited the audience to look for the mystery at hand. The second, considered to be one of the greatest television series of all time, would offer a cavalcade of the genre’s top writers, including Ray Bradbury and Charles Beaumont, to create twisty horror and sci-fi stories with affecting allegorical themes at their heart, including several from Serling himself that touched upon incredibly personal subjects such as the Holocaust. The third, which sadly only ran for two series before an incredibly successful reboot in 1995, saw the likes Psycho writer Joseph Stefano behind the scenes before being supplanted by Ben Brady for its final season, yet was largely oriented in more cerebral and darker tales. Both series were benchmarks in making the horror anthology format accessible to a new generation, and laid the groundwork for terrifying contemporary hybrid anthology series such as Black Mirror and Dimension 404.
Yet the success and influence of The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits wasn’t strictly found on the small screen, as the anthology format soon began to flourish as a commonly accepted and commercially viable method of storytelling. While series like Night Gallery, Thriller, The Night Stalker, and more would rise in the television space, the medium also welcomed several TV-movies that explored the horror anthology format, including Trilogy of Terror and the 1977 Dead of Night. Meanwhile, European audiences would find horror anthologies flourishing on the big screen, with Amicus Productions’ many anthologies sweeping the UK while Mario Bava’s Black Sabbath brought the format to horrifying heights in Italy. Meanwhile, the literary space would find a renewed interest in anthologies as well, from new reprintings of classic anthology comics and new compendiums of tales from the likes of H.P. Lovecraft and Edgar Allen Poe.
By the 1980s, the horror anthology reached a new apex of popularity, lead by the success of a horror fan’s dream project: Creepshow. A love letter to EC Comics, zombie film pioneer George A. Romero teamed with FX icon Tom Savini and horror writing legend Stephen King to craft a 6-part genre tale that all horror anthology films are measured against. Leading directly to the Romero-produced Tales from the Darkside series the following year, Creepshow’s popularity brought forth an anthology revival that included the likes of a Twilight Zone reboot, a Steven Spielberg-produced Amazing Stories, Monsters, and Freddy’s Nightmares.
Yet while Creepshow inspired horror anthologies on the big screen en masse, the subgenre would rarely translate into runaways successes, and even times would be at the focus of great controversy. The on-set tragedy on Twilight Zone: The Movie would cast a shadow on the film that lingers to this day, while Cat’s Eye, Deadtime Stories, After Midnight, and even Creepshow 2 would fail to match Creepshow in quality or box office revenue. Add in the fact that the slasher craze relegated horror anthologies to sheer irrelevance by the late ‘80s, and the outlook on horror anthologies began to look as bleak as the subject matter they frequently displayed.
However, at the tail end of the 1980s, the genre found hope from three incredibly unlikely sources. The first would be the Hollywood elite, as Richard Donner, Robert Zemeckis, Walter Hill, and many more would band together to bring EC Comics’ Tales from the Crypt to HBO, emphasizing the dark humor and, in turn, crafting one of the most beloved horror series in modern pop culture. The second savior turned out to be Canada, who would begin production on a kid-friendly horror series called Are You Afraid of the Dark?, influencing a new generation of horror fans through syndication on the incredibly popular U.S. cable channel Nickelodeon. And lastly would be the publishing industry, as authors such as King, Clive Barker, and Skipp & Spector gained traction for their respective assemblies of scary stories.
Sadly, the horror anthology would take a substantial dip in the 1990s, with post-Tales from the Crypt malaise and another slasher revival pushing the spotlight elsewhere within the genre. That’s not to say there were not anthologies during this time, with Tales from the Darkside: The Movie and Tales from the Hood both garnering critical acclaim and cult followings, but with no small-screen anchor, many of these films would get lost in the shuffle, growing their fanbases during late night screenings on premium cable networks alongside various sequels and extreme foreign imports. And, truth be told, the anthology never quite recovered, as horror anthologies rarely find their way to the multiplexes in this day-and-age, which is a damn sad fact.
Yet, in the 2000s, the horror anthology would creep its way back into genre relevance, thanks to newly minted ways of finding and consuming content. Netflix’s disc-delivery service would bring foreign anthologies such as Three…Extremes and Rampo Noir to audiences that could not find either at their local video store, while Masters of Horror would bring the big-screen horror filmmakers of yesteryear to Showtime with complete creative freedom. And though Mike Dougherty’s Trick ‘r Treat was poised to bring the format back to Hollywood in a big, bad way, a last-minute release change saw the film go direct-to-video…yet overcome the odds and become a classic of the subgenre, with a sequel on track in the hopefully-near future.
Nowadays, the horror anthology almost feels commonplace among the independent horror scene, with the likes of V/H/S, XX, and Holidays among the many that made waves, with many more, including Nightmare Cinema and The Field Guide to Evil, on the way. Meanwhile, the format has certainly found a home on television with American Horror Story, Room 104, Black Mirror, Channel Zero, and Darknet all making their impression on contemporary audiences to varying degrees of success. Meanwhile, the audio field has also welcomed the horror anthology format, whether it’s via creepypasta-centric podcasts and full-on radio plays such as Glass Eye Pix’s Tales from Beyond the Pale, which recently debuted its fourth season earlier this month. And with the horror short film field as wide in breadth as it is today, many producers are opting to acquire shorts by the handful for either digital distribution, such as Crypt TV, or for patchwork horror anthologies with micro-budget wraparounds to tie them together.
Will the world ever get a yearly horror anthology in mainstream theaters just in time for Halloween? Unlikely. Will the classic EC Comics’ style ever inspire a new wave of horror anthology comics with nostalgic art and puns a-plenty? Probably not. But given the twisty nature of the horror anthology, this writer isn’t one to close the book on horror anthologies. And with the future of media as unpredictable as ever, one might assume the generations to come will discover their Twilight Zone, Creepshow, and Grimm’s Fairy Tales, in whatever weird and wicked form they might take.