Classic horror influences on The Walking Dead, American Horror Story, and Hannibal.

In my last post I talked about True Blood and its placement in the television hierarchy, especially in terms of broadcast TV and “quality TV.” The term “quality TV” is typically applied to shows produced and distributed by subscription and/or streaming channels, and implies that these shows are, by nature, better than anything broadcast on a regular network. All of the shows I’m talking about here, though, are network shows. And they all, in different ways, are similar in narrative, style, and character development to the highest of high-art horror. I’m talking here about The Walking Dead on AMC, American Horror Story on FX, and Hannibal on NBC, all of which adopt horror elements, tone, lighting, and other cinematic techniques from horror cinema history.

On factor that contributes to this blending of horror cinema and horror TV has to do with auteurism in each of these shows. The term auteur comes from the French word for author, and auteur theory is the idea that the the director is ultimately responsible for a completed film’s look, pace, story, etc. In TV, however, the auteur is the showrunner, rather than the director. Audiences know what to expect from showrunners like Shonda Rhimes, Steven Moffat, or Greg Berlanti. Each showrunner comes with a set of themes they’re interested in, preferred editing styles, lighting and color choices, character types, pacing, and tone. The Walking Dead’s Robert Kirkman and Scott Gimple, American Horror Story’s Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, and Hannibal’s Bryan Fuller are no exception. All of these auteurs have artistic approaches to horror television that are derived from movements in horror cinema. Each series channels specific directors, borrowing bits and pieces from horror film history and updating them to adapt the cinematic genre to TV.

The Walking Dead

As is only fitting of a horror-melodrama series about zombies, The Walking Dead borrows from George Romero’s work, especially Night of the Living Dead (1969), and Day of the Dead (1985):

American Horror Story

Each season of American Horror Story has its own theme, paying homage to anthology horror TV. The series is visually consistent in a few ways, the most obvious of which the prevalence of Dutch angles in the show, regardless of the season:

Despite Murphy and Falchuk favoring specific camera angles, individual seasons of American Horror Story draw aesthetic inspiration from the horror canon. Asylum (season 2), for example, bears resemblance to Stanley Kubrick’s films A Clockwork Orange (1972) and The Shining (1980):


While Hannibal’s narrative and characters are far more coherent than is the case with most art horror, the show incorporates elements from various eras in this sub-set of the horror canon. Some examples of films that Hannibal parallels are Don Coscarelli’s Phantasm (1979):

Lars von Trier’s Antichrist (2009):

Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin (2013):


Each of these shows moves horror TV that’s previously been held back by advertising interests, regulations, and low production budgets, in the direction of aesthetic innovation that we’ve come to expect from horror cinema.


Author: Geneveive Newman

Image Credit: NBC © 2014