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.

The prospects of shooting a child, of stabbing a man in the eye, of killing your own sister are all repugnant. But they're all things that the characters are forced to do to stay alive, and they do them, pulping the brains of what were once people, learning to live splattered in gore. But even when they don't have to kill, and to kill with a particular closeness and visceralness to get the job done, the walkers make it extraordinarily difficult to accomplish even the simplest human tasks. It's bad enough to see your son shot before your eyes on a jaunt in the woods. How much more terrifying is it to see your son shot and know that the closest doctor probably has a brain rotted to black mush and reduced to endless hunger? After you've seen the Centers for Disease Control, a technocratic but still primal source of medical relief, go up in flames? It's not just that zombies make you do bad things, but that their existence, and the cataclysm that produced them, makes doing good, and neutral, and normal things impossible.

In contrast to American Horror Story and The Walking Dead, Grimm lies closer to fairy tale traditions than to contemporary horror tropes. Its characters are creatures like werewolves—some cranky but affable, others capable of kidnapping children—and the family apparently designated to hunt them. Most of its chills lie less in horrifying acts than in the moments when the main character Nick, a police detective, sees something familiar shift into something very strange. Some of these images are more striking than others. When a pretty girl's face changes into a skull as she walks down a street, it's a sickening rebuke to girl-watchers. It's unsettling to think of him desiring a corpse, less so for him to see his biases confirmed in the face of a criminal with lizard-like scales and teeth.

Luther, alone among these shows, has no supernatural elements. But in making its monsters entirely human, it may be the scariest of them all because it's so unsettlingly plausible. We meet the show's main character, DCI John Luther, as he lets a criminal fall to his death. In a subsequent episode in the first season, the distraught wife of a serial killer clubs her husband to death with a hammer. To be fair, it took a mummified body and a terrified hooker in the bathroom to push her into sickeningly brutal retribution, but it most certainly didn't require monsters. When, in the first mystery of this season, a serial killer donned an antique Punch mask to commit his crimes, the image was terrifying not because new threats were seeping into the established order, but the established order had revealed a face that most of us would prefer not to acknowledge.

"My god, that could happen at any petrol station, anywhere in the world," the show's producer, Phillippa Giles, says of the most recent episode of the show, when a man unleashes a silent and deeply unsettling attack on the patrons of a London gas station setting off a story that concludes in tonight's finale. "That's what [show writer Neil Cross is] the master of."

That he is. When a show like Luther can make a scene of a woman ordering a nail to be driven through a man's hand in between sips of tea seem plausible, we hardly need the hysterical theatricality of a haunted rubber gimp suit to make us afraid of the world around us.

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Alyssa Rosenberg is a culture writer with The Washington Post.

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