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Fear of the Dark: A Brief History of ’90s TV Horror

At the start of the ’90s, television took a turn for the terrifying. In the previous decade, tales of science-fiction terrors and monstrous encounters were doing well, as seen in the success of anthologies like The Twilight Zone (1985-89), The Ray Bradbury Theater (1985-92) and Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1985-89). Slashers were slicing and dicing a pathway, too, with the help of folks like Robert Englund, who brought the dream-jumping Freddy Krueger to life both in cinemas and on the small screen. And, of course, you can’t exclude the massive commercial success of franchises like Ghostbusters.

So naturally, by the time the ’90s rolled around, horror TV exploded. The quantity of bumps in the night hitting the airwaves doubled from the prior 10 years, as witches, aliens and vampires took over. The shift toward more frights also included an increase of series with monster-of-the-week formats, like The X-Files, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Charmed, equipped with heroes unmasking new baddies each hour, often Scooby-Doo style.

At the center of the cultural zeitgeist was The X-Files (1993- 2002), which urged viewers to “Trust No One,” while FBI agents Fox Mulder (David Duchovny), a conspiracy theorist, and skeptic Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) investigated paranormal phenomena. It didn’t always lean into the scares, but when it did, it was wild. Season 4’s “Home” about a Chainsaw Massacre-esque family of inbred Pennsylvanians was so disturbingly violent, it was the only episode of the series to get a TV-MA warning for graphic content. And lest we forget, horror author extraordinaire Stephen King cowrote Season 5’s “Chinga” about a shudder-worthy killer doll.

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Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997- 2003) chronicled the life of teen Buffy Summers (Sarah Michelle Gellar), a Chosen One fated to battle demons. She and her pals were even dubbed the “Scooby Gang.” Sometimes supernatural, sometimes sweet, Buffy had its chilling side. Highlights include the final season’s tension-packed “Conversations With Dead People,” which explored the barrier between the living and the dead, and the fan favorite, Emmy-nominated episode “Hush,” featuring the silent but deadly skeletal ghouls, the Gentlemen. The show was so popular it earned a spinoff, Angel (1999-2004), starring David Boreanaz’s redemption-seeking vampire.

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The bewitching Charmed followed suit (1998-2006). Though the drama, where three witch sisters warded off evil in San Francisco, wasn’t quite as fearsome as Buffy or X-Files, some of horror’s greats stopped by, like Englund, as ladyshrinking demon Gammill in Season 4’s “Size Matters,” and Tobin Bell, who played a creepy gypsy hunter in Season 5’s “The Eyes Have It” before going on to portray Saw’s Jigsaw.

In addition to monster-of-the-week shows, the ’90s were also known for campy horror. Cult hit Twin Peaks (1990- 91) played out like a dark, small-town detective mystery, but it was filled with supernatural elements, surrealism and offbeat humor. Plus, the indescribable Red Room, first spotted in Agent Cooper’s (Kyle MacLachlan) dreams, served as pure nightmare fuel.

Tales From the Crypt (1989-96) was another campy masterpiece of the decade. The comics-based HBO anthology revealed horrific sagas, introduced by the decrepit and cheesy Crypt Keeper. At the show’s best, MacLachlan starred as an escaped convict in Season 3’s “Carrion Death,” and Tim Curry (who had previously frightened viewers as Pennywise in 1990’s ABC adaptation of King’s It) played a terrible trio in Season 5’s “Death of Some Salesman.”

But terror was not just for adults. Another noteworthy trend was the hair-raising number of kids shows that adopted a morbid outlook. Spooky campfire stories were told in Are You Afraid of the Dark? (1990-2000). R.L. Stine brought Goosebumps (1995-98) to TV. Even animated incarnations of The Addams Family (1992-93) and Beetlejuice (1989-91) shone.

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Plenty of these series have had or are getting their own renaissance. FOX’s The X-Files revival in 2016, 2017’s Twin Peaks on Showtime, The CW’s current Charmed reincarnation and even the latest It films prove that horror — especially the type that took the ’90s by storm — isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

This story originally appeared in the October 2019 issue of Remind magazine.

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