The strange history of anthology horror

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Nov 7, 2018, 3:00 PM EST

Of all the formats in which a horror story can be told, one of the most popular is the anthology, either from one creator or several, linked together by a host or a connective story that serve as punctuation marks between the other tales. From The Twilight Zone to the ABCs of Death, anthologies have been a major trademark of horror for a long time with no end in sight.

The question of the first horror anthology is unanswerable, as the format has dated back at least as far as Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales in the late 14th century. It can be assumed the act of gathering and exchanging horror stories dates back even further. Although its past and its future may be yet to be predetermined, there are still some conclusions to draw over the genre’s existence in specific mediums during the 20th century, a time when horror history was well recorded.



Early silent films occasionally utilized the method in such films as Eerie Tales (1919). Three narrators took life at midnight, stepping out of still paintings in an antique bookstore to read five different stories. The horror hosts, in this case, were Harlot, Devil, and Death, setting a fairly consistent theme for host personas going forward. Although Eerie Tales might not age great, it does feature an early rendition of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Black Cat, which would go on to be a staple for anthologies across the globe. Takes on Poe stories have been more than plentiful among horror and art house directors alike, from Tales of Terror (1962) to Spirits of the Dead (1968) and beyond, resulting in dozens of Poe-inspired films and anthologies. Poe’s prominence in horror anthologies has even led to countless parodies, perhaps the most memorable of which was the heavy satirization of Poe stories in various episodes of the Simpsons Treehouse of Horror series.

In 1959, a lifelong fan of pulp magazines known as Rod Serling pitched and made a pilot for his series The Twilight Zone. The format was a spooky horror show that frequently delved into science fiction, but is most remembered for its social commentary. Although it doesn’t always age well, the show often went out of its way to condemn racism and question humanity’s apparent need for war. The heart of its struggle was consistently the evil in the hearts of people everywhere, told through many different lenses during its time on air. Well known as one of the greatest television shows of all time, the series went on to influence the course of horror history, sprouting hundreds of imitations and homages. While The Twilight Zone was still airing, The Outer Limits made its debut, serving as a more science-fiction driven companion. 

Anthologies were popularized in comics via publishers like EC Comics, who introduced series like Tales from the Crypt and Vault of Horror. In retrospect, these stories are considered classics, but, while they were popular in their time, the ‘50s was a strange time for America. The crackdown on “subversives” covered most mediums of art, and EC Comics became a target for censors. With covers featuring a woman’s dismembered head next to a bloody ax, the publisher certainly made for an easy target. After months of lawsuits and slander, the two series were canceled, and the company folded. Meanwhile, comics like Creepy and Eerie sprang up not long after, but they were not similarly targeted due to a censorship loophole. Because they were printed in black and white, it was assumed they were intended for adults, and they were not expected to carry the self-censoring Comics Code seal that appeared on all Marvel and DC comics for many decades. Eerie and Creepy, as a result, produced some of the best horror stories of their era.



While Tales from the Crypt might have been banned from the world of comics, it wasn’t banned everywhere. In 1972, there was a British film version, focusing in on three of the stories from the comics. What was considered to be far too gory for comics was welcomed in movies of the early ‘70s, and although it’s not the most memorable take on the series, it did serve as a predecessor for many more attempts to bring these terrifying tales to life down the line.

Even during seeming lulls, the format continued on. Horror comics, in general, did badly throughout the ‘90s and early 2000s with some small exceptions in the form of the Vertigo line. The now-defunct company Epic began a Hellraiser series that collected various stories of the Cenobites over the ages that eventually went completely off the rails in an attempt to appeal to the action hero trends of the ‘90s, but the first many issues are really strong. In 1999, Vertigo comics launched its own short-lived horror series, Flinch. Although neither of these was to last very long, looking back, they both feature a lot of the top talent of their time period. Pop culture of the ‘90s tended to be more irreverent, so the brutality and the sharp, unforgiving morality of horror anthologies seemed out of place to many comics readers.

Although they might not have succeeded as a comic, horror anthologies did continue to thrive in other mediums. Some of the ones released during this time took the layout in new directions. In Tales from the Hood, the four stories featured all address racism and societal oppression of black people. Although based around the familiar trope of a group of young men breaking into a home to find more than they expected, this take is important for other reasons. It’s one of the few times in horror history in which the commentary on racism actually comes from black creators. Besides that, it’s easily as well-made as any horror film of its time, and parts of it are haunting and memorable.



Of course, the television series Tales from the Crypt (1989-1996), based on the old EC comics, has gone on to be one of the more iconic horror series in recent memory. Featuring a rotating cast of actors and directors and the Crypt Keeper beginning each episode with his trademark shrieking laughter, it became a cultural milestone for horror fans everywhere. Spawning one very interesting sequel in Demon Knight and one very bad sequel in Bordello of Blood, it was recently rumored to be rebooted before plans ultimately dissipated.

As with most things horror related, anthologies have become gradually more graphic. The Masters of Horror series brought famous horror directors to tell a series of tales styled to suit their specific resumes. Rampo Noir was based on the explicit and often disturbingly beautiful stories of Edogawa Rampo and made a huge impact on many who saw it. Three… Extremes and V/H/S challenged viewers with their sheer brutality, while Trick 'r Treat proved a commercial success by focusing in on slasher film tropes.

In all their many forms, a shared element across the board for horror anthologies is their political commentary. Although it’s very true that there are many of these stories that lean more heavily on violence and gore, it’s comparatively difficult to find a horror anthology without at least some point to make on social justice. It’s even likely a major reason why he format thrives. The most successful anthologies seem to be able to push relevant subject matter while delivering scares, and the less challenging they are the less likely they are to be successful.

It’s difficult to say where the genre will go from here, but it’s been getting interesting again. Although recent attempts to reboot Creepy and Eerie didn’t last particularly long, forward-thinking series like Black Mirror has been incredibly popular. Jordan Peele is to reboot The Twilight Zone, and if his film Get Out is any indication, that will offer a return to topical themes that were missing from the last several takes on the series. In XX, we saw a collection of women directors, including a directorial debut from the musician St. Vincent. As horror grows more diverse, the subject matter can only become more relevant, so it stands to reason that the traditional format of the horror anthology will be utilized often for its potential to capture several moods under a single theme.

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