There’s always been a rich relationship that’s existed between television and the horror genre, but it’s only grown increasingly fearless in recent years. There are now more networks and streaming services than ever before and it seems as if every distribution channel wants their own prestige horror program. This means new horror shows that would have been impossible only a few years ago, and it continues to be more and more exciting to see genre programs and auteur filmmakers dominate more of the medium.
2021 was another destabilizing year that delivered an avalanche of television content to consume, some of which included groundbreaking serialized horror storytelling from both new shows and returning series. Here are the 10 best horror shows of the year.
Horror anthologies have never been more in fashion and Creepshow has recently made the transition from film to television and become the crown jewel of Shudder’s original programming. Creepshow fans were fortunate enough to get both the show’s second and third seasons in 2021, which contain the kitschy and stylized horror series’ strongest material yet. It carries such consistency and a loving passion for horror that there’s a strong argument to be made for why it’s the best horror anthology show that’s currently on television. Creepshow lovingly embraces the retro B-movie and pulp comic aesthetic of the original movies and showcases some truly impressive practical effects work.
Seasons two and three of Creepshow also get progressively reflexive in ways that will delight hardcore horror fans. “Night of the Living Late Show” inserts Justin Long into public domain horror classic, Horror Express, in an ambitious experiment that feels like something Robert Zemeckis would craft. “Skeletons in the Closet” is basically Night at the Museum, but with horror props from esteemed genre franchises. “A Dead Girl Named Sue” functions as a brilliant riff on mob mentality and toxic masculinity that’s literally set within Night of the Living Dead. “Public Television of the Dead” even features Ted Raimi and Evil Dead’s Necronomicon on a faux piece of public broadcasting that gets to the bottom of why there’s a lock on the cover of Evil Dead‘s infamous book, and it fully functions as an in-canon companion piece to Raimi’s movies.
Servant‘s second season continues to crank up the anxiety over the Turner family’s palpable grief over the loss of their son, Jericho, and the confusing aftermath that’s taken control of their lives. Season two digs deeper into Leanne’s special purpose, but even when Servant doesn’t provide answers it continues to be an excellent exercise in tension. Sometimes the combined stress of the Turner family is too much to bear and it’s amazing how the series gets so much out of negative space, lingering edits, and cryptic music.
The second season of the M. Night Shyamalan executive produced Servant helped kick off 2021 all the way back in January, but fans won’t have to wait long for season three, which will again return in January, with a fourth season already secured. It’s one of the most unique series that’s currently on television and it keeps the audience continually guessing over what’s actually going on.
Slasher: Flesh & Blood
Slasher has quietly delivered four seasons across three separate networks, with the latest and bloodiest iteration of the horror series migrating over to Shudder. Slasher crafts a completely new story each season, yet there’s always a traditionally terrifying masked killer at the core. The hook for the fourth season, Flesh & Blood, feels like it pulls some inspiration from Survivor and Succession, but with much more fatal consequences. A relatively simple series of trials to determine who will inherit a seismic family fortune transforms into a killing spree.
Every season of Slasher truly pushes boundaries when it comes to excessive violence, but Flesh & Blood will make even seasoned genre fans wince. There are absolutely awful murders that go for broke with ideas like acid being injected in someone’s veins, a piano wire decapitation, and an extremely creative use of molten metal. Slasher: Flesh & Blood works best when it’s not taken too seriously and there’s an audience present to cheer at each of its elaborate, unbelievable kills.
What We Do In The Shadows and Wellington Paranormal
It’s fair to say that most viewers aren’t going to get frightened over What We Do in the Shadows’ satire of the bloodthirsty undead, but it still deserves proper horror accolades. What We Do in the Shadows started in a very hilarious place, but it’s only gotten funnier as it’s developed the relationships between these Staten Island immortals. Season three hits great heights as it continues to expand the series’ scope, but also explore new character dynamics, like the unlikely friendship that forms between Laszlo and Colin Robinson.
What We Do in the Shadows has never been stronger, but 2021 also allowed audiences outside of New Zealand to appreciate its spin-off, Wellington Paranormal, for the first time. Wellington Paranormal extends its supernatural purview to an eclectic roster of creatures that goes far beyond vampires, as the show leans into the COPS approach for its handheld presentation style. Impressively, Wellington Paranormal establishes its own voice and doesn’t just feel like more of What We Do in the Shadows. They’re both satisfying expansions to this off kilter look at seasoned horror tropes.
Hellbound is a haunting South Korean horror series that hit Netflix this year at the perfect time. Hellbound doesn’t look at a viral infection, but it presents a confused and helpless version of society who find themselves under the attack of God’s will. Directed by Yeon Sang-ho, the tight six-episode series looks at a series of decrees that doom certain impure humans to damnation in Hell, which is delivered by a horrific beatdown by Hulk-like angels of death. Hellbound triumphs with these brutal attack sequences and the desperate acts that people take in order to make sense of these tragedies.
Shifting perspectives, understandable philosophies, and strong special effects all make Hellbound a standout of the year that’s as likely to provoke thoughts in the audience as it is scares. It feels like Drag Me to Hell meets The Ring and it’s unlikely to disappoint.
The trajectory of the Child’s Play series is nothing short of incredible. The iconic killer doll has been a vital horror figure for decades, but Chucky moves his murderous antics over to television and thrives on the medium. Chucky accomplishes the rare goal of being accessible to complete newcomers, while also containing heavy continuity to the film franchise. Chucky’s new adventure presents the killer doll at his most vicious, but the series is also incredibly inclusive and pushes a positive LBGTQ+ message that can be woefully in short supply in the horror genre.
Lovingly brought to life by not only series creator, Don Mancini, but also Channel Zero’s Nick Antosca, Harley Peyton, and others, this Chucky TV series is so much more than just a television series about a killer doll. It becomes a loving tribute to the slasher genre as a whole and even though mature audiences will unabashedly love it, it’s also easily the best horror series out there for the young adult crowd. There are few examples of a series that so thoroughly understands what it is and the season even concludes with Chucky narrating his own kill count supercut so that the audience doesn’t need to make their own. Chucky will hopefully get many more seasons to increase that grand murder total. A second is on the way next year.
Apple TV+ is relatively new to the streaming wars, but it already has some exceptional horror content in its library. Calls is one of 2021’s best kept secrets and it deserves to be checked out by every horror fan. Based on a French series of the same name, Calls comes from Fede Álvarez and it ambitiously functions as a series of frantic phone conversations that attempt to make sense of strange and disturbing events, which may or may not be the start of the apocalypse.
Calls is so striking because it’s an “audio only” series that fills the screen with creative riffs on audio waveforms and synesthesia designs that make it a visual masterpiece. At only nine episodes, all of which don’t overstay their welcome when it comes to length, Calls is an inspirational exercise in minimalism. It’s incredible how much tension and fear is created through these gripping audio dramas that begin to tell a progressively connected nightmare. Some will want to hang up on Calls, but those that are on board with it will find it hard to not binge through it all at once.
Yellowjackets only crash-landed onto the scene in November, but it’s been one of the most satisfying horror series of the year. Created by Ashley Lyle and Bart Nickerson, with a pilot directed by the exceptional Karyn Kusama, Yellowjackets is a risky series that’s structured through a bifurcated timeline that would easily crumble under its own weight in less capable hands. Lord of the Flies meets Alive! meets Bring It On, with a touch of It thrown in for good measure, Yellowjackets explores a girls’ soccer team’s struggle for survival in the wilderness following a plane crash, as well as the lingering trauma and consequences that are still present 25 years later.
The desperate scenes set in the ’90s push these girls towards madness, and eventually cannibalism, in a very believable manner. It’s a stunning character study as the present versions of these characters come to terms with who they were in the past, with both versions of these casts absolutely killing in their performances. Yellowjackets avoids clichés at every turn and it builds a tense mystery that’s actually able to meet expectations. There’s said to be a five-season plan for Yellowjackets’ story and with the recent news of a season two renewal it will hopefully get the chance to finish this raw, brave, unpredictable story.
Brand New Cherry Flavor
Brand New Cherry Flavor isn’t just one of 2021’s very best horror series, but it might also be the strangest material to ever grace Netflix. Nick Antosca and Lenore Zion’s eight-episode psychedelic revenge story through 1990s Hollywood is the Lynchiest thing that David Lynch never made. It feels like the rebellious love child of Lost Highway, True Romance, and Videodrome.
Brand New Cherry Flavor tells a story about a bitter female filmmaker who hits Hollywood, only to quickly get pulled under by its manipulative and abusive undertow. This is far from unexplored territory, but Brand New Cherry Flavor brings in witchcraft, possession, zombies, and feline-centric body horror that’s unlike anything you’ve ever seen. It’s a neon hallucination that’s terrifying, hilarious, heartfelt, and thoroughly unpredictable. Catherine Keener gives a tour de force performance that needs to be seen to be believed, but Rosa Salazar elevates paranoia and vengeance to unprecedented levels with her exhausting work as Lisa Nova. Brand New Cherry Flavor is the creepiest trip of the year.
Mike Flanagan has an exceptional track record with his projects and he’s established himself as a true modern horror master through the moving work that he continues to create for film and TV. Midnight Mass isn’t Flanagan’s scariest piece of work, but it very well might be his overall strongest. It’s at least his most personal. Midnight Mass elegantly unpacks faith, addiction, and abuses of power as it filters a familiar horror trope through the awe-inspiring nature of the Bible. Midnight Mass focuses on a community on the cusp of change thanks to a mysterious and charismatic preacher who invades their peaceful hamlet.
Midnight Mass is anchored through heartbreaking performances and flowing monologues that come across like powerful church sermons (Leeza’s “you reached through time” speech still brings tears to my eyes). Hamish Linklater is an absolute revelation and the series forces the audience to confront their own values and beliefs. Midnight Mass culminates into such a beautiful message and it’s a testament to how horror is such a useful tool to inspire change and get to the very nature of humanity. With both The Fall of the House of Usher and The Midnight Club set for 2022, fans should expect Flanagan’s TV offerings to also make up some of next year’s most promising horror series.