“Here’s an axiom that proves true across cinema history: No genre attracts better filmmakers to worse projects than the anthology film.”Calum Marsh, “The Sometimes Brilliant, Sometimes Terrible History of the Anthology Film”
I wrote the first draft for this article almost half a year ago, when I first read Junji Ito’s Uzumaki. While I wouldn’t say that Uzumaki is, strictly speaking, a horror anthology, it has a lot in common with anthology horror: each story is its own story with a horror-infused arc, linked thematically by the concert of spirals. Barring the last chapters (which wrap up the story) and the few chapters that are “two-parters”, you could grab any chapter of Uzumaki without reading the others and still consume a fairly coherent horror story.
The question about whether I could talk about Uzumaki in an article about anthology horror was interesting. Is it anthology horror? On the one hand, each chapter can stand on its own. On the other, it ultimately uses this web of narratives to tell a single story. Then again, you could make the same argument about horror anthology film Ghost Stories. Is the presence of a frame narrative enough to remove the label of anthology from something? What about narratives that use recurring characters, like American Horror Story? How is an anthology different from a television show with multiple seasons?
I’m coming back to this article now, six months later, because I once again find myself thinking about anthology horror, this time for very personal reasons. Slow Burn co-founder Amber and I have finally decided to take the plunge and start work towards the anthology of horror short stories that we originally envisioned as Slow Burn Horror as. Titled “Slow Burn: An Anthology of Household Horror,” its prompt is “stories with a creeping sensation that focus on domestic settings” (and, yes, the anthology is due to launch October 2023 and yes, you should definitely order a copy once we have the preorder link up; I’m so glad you’re interested). While I have a clear idea of the collective “vibe” in the anthology, there is a lot of variety in each story we chose for it. Some stories are modern; others take place in a time outside of time. Some were written for the anthology, others already existed but were a perfect fit thematically. Some stories are 7,000-word dissertations; others are a couple of pages.
This obscurity around what defines an anthology is part of what makes me like them so much. I think there’s a lot of interesting things you can do with anthologies, especially in horror, because there are so many directions you can go. Anthologies let creators break a lot of the traditional rules of narratives adhered to by long-form mediums like movies, television series, and books. No matter how many horror anthologies I come across that are absolute garbage, I still find myself drawn to them as a format. And they’re clearly having a moment. Guillermo del Toro’s “Cabinet of Curiosities”, a horror anthology that came out on Netflix earlier this year, had 50 million hours watched within the week it launched.
Because horror anthologies are so hard to define, I want to use this article to dive deep into exactly what they are, what differentiates them from other horror narratives, and why they can be uniquely well suited to horror.
Horror Anthologies and the Oral Tradition of Campfire Stories
I don’t know about you, but my first brush with horror was over a crackling campfire. It was Halloween night; I was seven years old and invincible. My neighbors had thrown a party that had, as many parties do, split into two camps: children and adults. The adults loitered on the patio, sipping red wine and crooning along to Dad rock. The children ran around the backyard, sugar-crazed and costumed, face paint starting to smudge. The adults had put together a fire for us to warm ourselves on and my father (who’d been consigned as safety officer) produced a bag of marshmallows and an array of long sticks.
As we all munched happily on yet another permutation of glucose and gelatin, my father leaned in and asked if any of us had ever heard the story of Crazy Charlie. We shook our heads. “Well,” he began, “There was a little boy who used to live in the mountains with his parents and his dog, right next to an institute for the criminally insane…” I won’t recount the whole story to you (I’m sure you’ve heard it or some version of it), but it waters down to: escaped lunatic, kid home alone, dog keeps licking kid’s hand all night, kid realizes that not only dogs have tongues. That story scarred me for life. It set me down the path towards watching slashers with my friends at sleepovers and curling up with folk horror on Friday nights and running an active horror blog (hi).
According to Sean Edgar in “Hear the Fear: The Rise of the Horror Podcast,” “the first horror stories, passed on in the oral tradition, served as a public warning system against the very real things that went bump in the night. In the ancient tales collected by early storytellers such as Pliny and Herodotus, grim legends stemmed from concrete threats.” The story of Crazy Charlie (and, no, I don’t super love using “crazy” as a pejorative term – there’s a whole issue in horror of conflating mental illness with violence that isn’t great, but that’s a long discussion that deserves its own article) was traumatizing. I never again slept with my hand curled over the edge of the bed. While my seven-year-old mind interpreted the message as “be careful or else Charlie might get you,” the real, underlying lesson was to beware of strange situations. Not everything is as innocuous as it looks. Perfect safety is an illusion.
And I got all of that from a story that lasted, at most, five minutes. That’s the thing about a lot of these oral horror stories: they don’t overstay their welcome. They get their point across quickly, ending before you get the chance to question their structural integrity. Their effectiveness is what makes them moreish. That night by the campfire, my father’s terrifying tale was a catalyst towards the rest of us sharing other urban legends and spooky happenings we’d heard about during recess and behind the bleachers. As Gabriel Ricard explains in 15 Best Horror Anthology Movies Of All Time, “Horror sometimes speaks to our need to push ourselves. It could be argued that anthologies appeal to our desire to see just how much we can take. After all, who only wants to hear one ghost story around the campfire? No one.”
Netflix’s The Midnight Club is a great example of this “campfire” style of horror. The titular Midnight Club is a group of terminally ill teens who get together in the middle of the night to distract themselves from their real-life horror with horror stories they themselves make up. I mean they literally gather around a fireplace. There is a ritual to it – say the blessing, drink the wine.
Considering how bleak the premise is—a young girl goes into a hospice designed for young people after being diagnosed with terminal cancer—this story-telling element makes it an almost cozy watch. These stories are the characters’ way of coping with death.
They give a break from the more serious elements in the show. While often thematically linked to the storytellers’ personal struggles, they are inherently more free to be whimsical and funny. They are almost a little camp, depicted by the same group of actors that play the main cast. It is a pantomime, a collaborative storytelling session where people interrupt the narrative with complaints or gasps. In my opinion, these stories are the strongest element in the show.
Another spiritual successor to the campfire story is the horror podcast. My two favorite examples are Welcome to Nightvale and The Magnus Archives. While both are long-running enough that they’ve garnered recurring characters and ongoing narratives, they are mostly framed as standalone episodes. You can listen to just one and that’s it (but it’s better if you listen to more). Unlike Uzumaki, the episodes of Welcome to Nightvale and The Magnus Archives don’t feel like they are written with a single end in mind. Yes, there’s an overarching plot, but many episodes also exist on their own. Several of the stories never connect back up to the “main” plot, except thematically. Horror concepts appear once, then are never spoken about again.
As in The Midnight Club, a big part of the appeal is the collaborative nature of oral storytelling. When it comes to campfire tales, it’s not usually one narrator – it is a story swap. While it is impossible to swap stories in the podcast world, since there is always a clear listener and speaker, The Magnus Archives in particular does a good job of capturing the essence by transforming its narrator into both teller and listener. Jonathan Sims is an archivist, meaning these are not his stories he is telling. Each one belongs to a different person and, though he is usually the one narrating them, he, like us, is encountering them for the first time.
Recurring Characters in Horror Anthologies
Just because anthology horror is meant to have unique, standalone stories, doesn’t mean that these stories can’t have anything in common. Sometimes, these stories use recurring characters to connect them. This allows the audience to develop empathy with someone who, like them, bears witness to the horror.
As horror podcasts, Welcome to Nightvale and The Magnus Archives use their narrator as a device to connect and justify the stories. The Magnus Archives, the more blatantly “anthology-esque” of the two, frames itself as a collection of stories from decades of research by a horror institute, compiled by archivist Jonathan Sims. Like protagonist Kirie in Uzumaki, Jonathan Sims narrates the stories, serving as the string connecting them. Unlike Kirie though, Sims doesn’t have a personal connection to everything that occurs. There are some episodes he’s involved with, but the bulk of the episodes feature unrelated, separate narratives. That is one of the biggest distinctions between anthology horror and story serialization.
Another good example of a horror anthology that introduces recurring characters is the American Horror Story series. While not part of its initial plan, as the series grew, characters began to appear in one another’s seasons (ultimately culminating in an apocalypse season where it all comes together, which I have yet to watch because it sounds, um, bad). Because the recurring characters in American Horror Story weren’t part of the original show plan, the seasons (especially the early seasons) maintain their integrity and individual identity.
When characters do start recurring, it feels more like an Easter egg than the reveal of a wider narrative. Usually,the recurring characters are side characters from other seasons, meaning the bulk of the story doesn’t have to cover trodden ground. A good example is Pepper, who appears initially in American Horror Story: Asylum as an in-patient. She appears again in series four, American Horror Story: Freak Show, a season that begins chronologically before season two. It provides backstory for Pepper, giving her character depth and rounding her out. However, the overlap between the seasons doesn’t feel like the story of two is continuing in four: they still exist as their own narratives.
In a similar vein, one of my favorite things that anthology horror can do, especially in television form, is use the same actors for different characters across stories. It allows you to see people you’ve come to love in different lights and gives a sense of continuity even when plot and setting vary.
The characters in the stories told by the Midnight Club are played by the same actors as the main characters in The Midnight Club. In the stories that are more personal and closely tied to the characters’ emotions, this can be a fun way to deliver backstory. Anya’s story about the ballerina who makes a pact with a demon to split herself into two is obviously fictional, but the backdrop is true. These stories provide an opportunity to drip-feed information, or even develop upon existing character relationships. Characters in stories played by Iman Benson (actress for Ilonka) and Igby Rigney (actor for Kevin) tend to be romantically linked, hinting at a relationship that may unfold between Ilonka and Kevin.
But even beyond delivering information, this repeated use of actors is a fun chance to let the actors show their range. The same face can represent the affable, easygoing Kevin, or it can flip to the evil, haunted serial killer Dusty. This kind of versatilty can be hard to showcase outside of anthology horror without requiring some hardcore character development.
That said, this technique can wreak a little havoc when the same series has recurring actors and recurring characters played by those actors (looking at you American Horror Story). You might start to wonder: is this a world where there are just a lot of people that look like Evan Peters, or is there some weird reincarnation/clone magic going on? (Or is it, like in the plot twist to my least favorite season of American Horror Story season [which shall remain unnamed because spoilers], secretly aliens?)
The Hidden Picture: How Anthology Horror Explores Theme and Atmosphere
Consistency is not a requirement of anthology horror. Or at least, it’s not a requirement on the surface. While anthology horror might seem like an almost random collection of tales, good anthology horror all ties together to mean something. This can be on any level: plot, theme, atmosphere. It doesn’t necessarily mean that there needs to be some twist that makes everything come together (although that can definitely work); it just means that there needs to be a reason these stories were all put together in the first place.
While Googling the phrase “horror anthology” mostly pulls up shows and movies, the original horror anthologies were collections of short stories. If you were a horror fan as a child, then you’ve probably come across Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. They are three collections of horror stories targeted at children that remain some of the scariest written stories I’ve ever come across. The thing that connects them is not a narrator or character or even a specific theme; it’s their origin. The scary stories to tell in the dark are all based heavily on folklore and urban legends. This really does make them feel like the kind of terrifying tales told in hushed tones when the light turns out, the kind that didn’t happen to you or your friend, but definitely happened to your friend’s friend.
In Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, things like recurring characters or plots would simply bog the stories down. They all exist on their own terms. I would even argue that this series can only exist as an anthology, that no other format would let these stories to work as powerfully as they do in their current form. You need look no further than the 2019 film adaptation of the books as proof. The movie reimagines the stories as a single narrative about a trio of teens: Stella, Auggie, and Chuck (and a little bit Ramon). In his critique of the 2019 film, William Bibbiani states that the movie “often works very well for several, breathless minutes at a time. But in between those excellent scares there’s a lot of filler, a lot of perfunctory plotting and a lot of mediocre character development.”
The Goosebumps television series offers an opposite approach that showcases the power of anthology in the horror sphere: it transforms a series of complete books into an anthology series that works really damn well. The Goosebumps book series is not a traditional series with recurring characters but a collection of children’s books that all tell thrilling tales of terrible (monstrous, usually supernatural) things that happen to perfectly normal children. What links them all together is in the title itself: the goosebumps that rise on your arms, the hair that stands on the back of your neck, as you delve into the narrative.
When it came to adapting the books as a television series, the creators faced an interesting choice. Option A: they could select some of the most popular Goosebumps books and develop a narrative that connects them all, adding in a core group of characters to serve as witnesses to the story. In other words, they could do what Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark did.
But they didn’t. Instead, they turned Goosebumps into an anthology. Goosebumps the TV series features everything from aliens to monsters to haunted puppets. Trying to cram these all into the same “world” would end up coming off as ridiculous and bloated. By letting each story have only one or two (or at most, three) episodes, they ensured no concept overstayed its welcome. The thrills and twists could exist on their own terms; they didn’t have to build off of pre-established world rules or characterization.
While Goosebumps and Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark are mostly linked together by the atmosphere they aim at generating, it is possible to tell an effective anthology horror story that is linked together by the plot. Ghost Stories, which I mentioned earlier, not only uses a specific frame narrative of tracking down a specific set of stories, it also reveals their underlying connection in the end (trying to keep this as spoiler-free as possible). However, one of the reasons that Ghost Stories works is that it doesn’t exclusively rely on the plot twists and reveals to “justify” its anthology-type storytelling. The stories are also connected by a generally eerie mood. As Jim Vorel puts it in The 25 Best Horror Anthology Movies of All Time, “For most of its duration, [Ghost Stories is] confidently made, atmospheric and deliciously macabre, a movie that feels like a throwback to yesteryear’s horror without consciously acting like a throwback.”
There is one final way that horror anthologies establish consistency without needing to rely on a consistent narrative: theme. The two television series that do it extremely well are American Horror Story and The Haunting. Each season of American Horror Story has a completely different setting and (mostly) different characters, from witches to satanists to campgoers to politicians. But they are all connected by the same fundamental theme: these are American horror stories. They explore different facets of the American horror landscape, from folk horror stories and urban legends to modern-day tragedies. While each season is different, you always know, roughly, the parameters of what the story will cover.
The Haunting series, meanwhile, is always (so far) an adaptation of an existing horror story that features a haunted house. In telling different stories under the same series, The Haunting can expand thematically on the concept of a haunted house. It can explore what it means to be haunted and the physical and emotional meaning of a ghost. It can delve into contradictory explanations, go down multiple storytelling avenues. You know how sometimes stories reach a fork in the road where they can either go one way or another? With anthology horror, they don’t need to choose. They can explore both paths, find out where it takes us. In The Haunting of Hill House, the haunted house follows children through to adulthood, a trauma that colors their development. It is focused more on who they are now than how they got there. Meanwhile, The Haunting of Bly Manor stays much closer to its child characters, instead exploring what happens when someone young and innocent is confronted with corrupting forces.
Another great example is Netflix’s stop motion film The House, which tells three stories set in different times, animated in different styles, and starring different people, but that are all connected by a single, ill-fated house. In fact, the overarching narrative follows the house itself, beginning with its construction and ending with its destruction. This framework evokes an eerie sense of meaninglessness; in the face of time, the actual people in the story are momentary flashes even in their own story. We are merely the beings that fill the structures that will go on to outlive any one of us. (This is your sign to watch The House – I feel like not enough people are talking about it and it’s fantastic.)
Why Anthology Horror Works So Well
“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”H.P. Lovecraft (AKA worst boy who wrote some good books), Supernatural Horror in Literature (1927)
In Horror’s Literary Roots, Karina Wilson explains, “Every culture has a set of stories dealing with the unknown and unexplained. These tales chill, provoke, and keep the listener wondering “what if..?”” Fear of the unknown is one of humanity’s deepest-rooted fears. The problem with longer-form horror stories is: the longer a concept sticks around, the more the unknown becomes understood.
How many times have you exited a horror movie thinking: that was almost so good, but the bad ending/twist/conclusion absolutely ruined it? The stories in horror anthologies, like the stories in campfire tales, are usually too short for that. You’re not investing 90 minutes of your life in a story that falls flat; it’s five minutes of fear (or five minutes of disappointment) and then you’re onto the next one.
According to Adrian Halen, “Suspense is one of the main elements that makes a horror narrative. Be it a movie, a game, a written story or any other product, suspense is an absolute key element.” Manufacturing suspense can be difficult. A jump scare is easy enough. It uses your own physiological reactions against you. But if a movie is made up only of jumpscares, we leave the theatre feeling hollow. We think of the movie as having not done the work creating the kind of horror that lasts. This is where suspense comes in, and where anthology horror shines. Each story is so short, so bite-sized, that it only lasts as long as it is suspenseful. Anthology horror is also open to a wider audience. It lets one piece of media tap into a variety of fears.
I feel like it’s also important for me to now bring up that I don’t think all horror anthologies are great. A university professor of mine once said that, of all books that are published every year, only 10% are any good. The problem with horror is that you might only get 100 books a year, meaning you spend each year wading through trash in search of those 10 bangers. For instance, I didn’t really like American Horror Stories (I thought it was silly), Netflix’s Murder Bus (I thought it was flippant), or even V/H/S (I know – scandal… I just thought most of the stories were lame).
The thing with bad anthology horror is that it can still contain good parts. Unlike a single story, where a bad ending spoils a good beginning, one bad apple in a series of anthology stories does not spoil the barrel. I don’t think every episode of Black Mirror is good. In fact, I’m pretty sure if I tallied my personal opinion about each episode, I’d end up with more “bad” or “meh” content than “good.” But the fact that I don’t like that stupid black-and-white robot dogs story doesn’t make “Be Right Back” any less brilliant. The flat twist ending of “Playtest” doesn’t take away from the perfectly crafted tension of “Shut Up and Dance.”
With the anthology framework, you can also dip in and out of the content based on what kinds of stories personally interest you. You don’t need to watch seasons 1-3 to check out season 4. For example, for the longest time, I’d only seen the first four seasons of American Horror Story. I watched it when it first came out, then slowly lost interest and gave up on it. Then, last year, my friend recommended I check out season 7: Cult. I think cults are interesting and I thought the framework of a post-2016 American was an interesting setting, so I gave it a watch. And I loved it. A lot of what I’d grown bored of in the previous seasons, what I perceived as an excess of supernatural elements and a reliance on demonic monsters, wasn’t there at all. It was a relatively grounded, mostly non-supernatural exploration of the psychology of disenfranchisement and what drives people into political extremism. Only in anthology horror can you have such variety.
Anthology Horror: A Willingness to Experiment
Horror is speculative fiction. It explores fears both rational and irrational, concepts that are either frighteningly real or dreamlike and strange. It is a genre that asks “what if?” But sometimes, the answer that follows doesn’t need to be long. In assessing the success of Black Mirror and The Twilight Zone, Jack Seale explains, “nobody wants a 13-episode season entirely about a weird app, or a forest that turns out to be made of haunted computers, or whatever.”
When it comes to TV shows and movies, we have a culturally established system of how the story should go. There is a shape to stories that most traditional movies/shows don’t deviate from. Anthology horror empowers creators to think outside the box, to follow the rabbit down the strangest of rabbit holes and see what’s on the other side (without having to think about what comes next or how to get back).
A great example of a story that is a slave to its structure (to its own detriment) is Stranger Things. Stranger Things follows the traditional television formula of escalating the action, tension, and scope each season, while also building on character relationships and established character development. Nancy Wheeler evolves from “girl concerned with standard high school issues” to investigative reporter of the paranormal. Hawkins goes from sleepy small town to hotbed of secrets and conspiracies. There are a few problems with it:
- One of the main theme of season one is something shifty lurking beneath seeming normalcy – Hawkins seems like a sleepy town but there are secrets beneath it (both in terms of government experiments and the literal Upside Down alternate dimension). This theme only works in the first season because once it is revealed that Hawkins harbors secrets, it can never go back to “normal.” Unfortunately, in each subsequent season, the show tries to maintain the illusion that Hawkins is just your average town. It does not work.
- The supernatural elements are not coherent enough to last several seasons. Eleven’s powers and the Upside Down are cool concepts, but ultimately, they operate on a system of soft magic. There aren’t hard and fast rules about how these work, and there don’t need to be. But later seasons of Stranger Things explore how Eleven’s powers and the Upside Down work, which weakens the concepts rather than strengthens them. It’s a classic case of explanation overshadowing the effect.
- The plot of every season ends up building down to “Oh no. Someone has opened a gateway to the alternate dimension and now there are monsters.” This is a plot I can only really stomach once.
The first season of Stranger Things is, by far, the best one. With each season, the show gets progressively worse (and that’s not just my opinion – go check out its Rotten Tomatoes scores). My soapbox about Stranger Things is that it 100% should have been an anthology series (like it was originally meant to be). The scariest and coolest parts of its worldbuilding are the Upside Down and Eleven’s powers. With each season, we learn more about these things, but that only makes them less powerful. The story starts to feel repetitive; the newness wears off. But, if Stranger Things was an anthology that used the framework of “strange things that happen with an Americana setting”, I think it could be a show that runs for as long as American Horror Story. Each season could be set in a different part of America, in a different era, exploring a different strange thing. It wouldn’t have to build on its thin existing architecture. Each season could operate independently. You can even bring in the same actors since they all have great chemistry. It would let them flex their ability, without being stuck in the same boring characters.
“Anthologies… make room within the genre for tales that could never have supported feature-length films.”Jim Vorel, “The 25 Best Horror Anthology Movies of All Time”
I want to read about weird ideas. I don’t mind if something takes a risk and fails, especially if it’s short. I think that’s why creepypastas and two-sentence horror stories are still so popular. The vast majority are bad, but when they’re good, they’re really good. They stick with you. Not because they are well-developed horror concepts that carefully manage tension over the course of 90-minute runtime; it’s because they are a spooky moment in time.
I think it’s important to have space for bite-sized stories, for unresolved concepts, for alternate story structures. In real life, some of our greatest fears happen in the blink of an eye: that movement in the corner of your vision that you think is a spider, that split second where your coat rack looks like a lurking man. Weird ideas deserve a place. Going back to The Magnus Archives, one of my favorite stories so far remains the first episode, “Angler Fish.” Its monster, a creepy supernatural something that hides in dark alleyways, dangling the illusion of a person to draw others in, terrifies me. I think about it all the time. It appears once, in a twenty-ish-minute episode, and that’s enough. I don’t know that I could watch a whole season about this monster, but I’m sure glad it exists in a single episode.
Fun read. 🙂