What's the Scariest Show on TV?

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Assessing today's fright-filled series, from The Walking Dead to American Horror Story to Luther

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We're in the scary season, and not just because Halloween is less than two weeks away. The Walking Dead returned on Sunday to huge numbers for a cable network—11 million people tuned in over two viewings to watch zombies shamble through Georgia. 2.5 million people—though presumably not the same ones who watch Glee—came back for a second helping of Glee creator Ryan Murphy's Los Angeles gothic tale American Horror Story. The second series of the acclaimed British crime thriller Luther comes to an end on BBC America tonight, and on October 28, NBC debuts its cops-and-monsters procedural, Grimm.

These shows vary in the extent to which they're traditional horror stories. American Horror Story is a grab-bag of the baroque; The Walking Dead is a classic zombie apocalypse; Grimm goes back to its titular origins to explore the dark side of fairy tales; and Luther falls under the genre mostly by virtue of how completely terrifying it is rather than by inclusion of any particular images or monsters. But they all have one thing in common: The best moments of these shows comes not when a monster lunges onto the screen or a skull appears beneath a character's skin, but when the monstrous and fantastical push characters to places we didn't know they were capable of going.

American Horror Story is a veritable smorgasbord of horror tropes. If bloody medical instruments aren't enough to make your flesh creep, maybe a fetus in a jar will push your buttons. And if not that, severe burn victims, creepily prophetic children with Down syndrome, haunted S&M paraphernalia, ghosts of murder victims, demonic basement creatures, neighbors who are perfectly willing to poison teenagers (though not pregnant ladies), and underemployed young people obsessed with recreating famous murders are all on offer.

But one of the most genuinely frightening moments in the first two episodes had nothing to do with any of that sturm und drang and axes to the stomach: Rather, it was when Vivien (Connie Britton) discovered, on returning home from her obstetrician who is treating her after a violent miscarriage, that her husband Ben (Dylan McDermott) is cheating on her. Having grabbed a knife in the kitchen when she suspected a home invasion, she swipes at him with it, cutting into the muscle of his arm.

Later, under attack from some very real humans who have taken Vivien and her daughter Violet captive and intend to recreate a famous murder that took place in their house, Vivien strikes back. And she doesn't simply defend herself: She bashes her attacker repeatedly with the very eBay-obtained artifact of that past killing that he intended to use on her. Before Vivien moved into the house, we knew she had the capacity to strike out in anger and in grief. Now that the house is working its grubby magic on her, we've discovered she's capable of more, of violence in service of retribution, not just physical or emotional self-defense. Instead of being the victim in that recreation, she becomes a near-perpetrator.

The Walking Dead, unlike American Horror Story with its cornucopia of dreadfulness, just has the walkers. But the show's found myriad number of ways to deploy them, whether they're shattered bodies crawling across the grass, a mob devouring a horse, or a mindless, migratory herd swarming a choked highway. And while dragging entrails, gory mouths, and dead eyes are undeniably unattractive, what's scary about the walkers is what they require the living to do to survive them, the way they complicate the survivors' efforts to carry out normal human tasks.

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Alyssa Rosenberg is a culture writer with The Washington Post.

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