I wrote in my book, Terror Television: American TV Series, 1970-1999 that horror television has it hard anyway because it seeks to blend a homogenized, mass entertainment venue (television) with heightened, discomforting emotions. In other words, horror and the medium of television are at odds. Horror seeks spiky, uncertain heights. Television wants to sell you a car, or a cheeseburger, and therefore make you feel good.
Again, your mileage may vary.
9. Dark Skies (1996 - 1997)
Coming in at number nine is the soon-to-be-released cult series from the 1990s, Dark Skies. Watching these credits, you realize that this series -- which focuses on an alien conspiracy inside the U.S. government, -- was ahead of its time by about a decade-and-a-half. Right now, we're living in Conspiracy America, with a fear of secret agendas everywhere..or at least on Fox News . But this title sequence is so good because it depicts a kind of an "evil wind" blowing across a rippling American flag; buffeting it, a reflection of the urgent warning (and narration) from series lead Eric Close that "we may not live through the nineties" and that "history as we know it is a lie." The imagery begins with a perfect view of a man and a woman in a kind of Camelot-styled, 1960s environment (before the U.S. Capitol Building) but then a ticker races from the 1960s through 1998. The urgent notion heightened by the fast score from Michael Hoenig and Close's line reading? We may be running out of history. And fast. The enemy is already here.
8. Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997 - 2003)
She is not your traditional damsel in distress. Nor is she your traditional vampire slayer. And this infectious tune from Nerfherder reminds viewers of Buffy the Vampire Slayer of these facts. We start with traditional visual and audio elements of the horror genre: a wolf baying at the moon, a look at a gravestone, but then the rock beats kicks in and shatters tradition and expectation, just like Sarah Michelle Gellar's iconic hero. The title montage takes us from horror convention to horror trail-blazing and does so with a jaunty sense of fun and pace that lets the audience know it is in for a good time.
Alas, you'll have to take my word on this one. No official Buffy title sequences (except fan-made ones) available on YouTube today. Instead, I just put up the song, so you have to kind of imagine the imagery (or stick in a DVD...).
7. Quinn Martin's Tales of the Unexpected (1977 - 1978)
This is a forgotten, short-lived anthology from the disco decade, but one with a great and memorable title sequence. It opens with quick-cuts of an eyeball, to a fast, jazzy, addictive tune. Then, trippily, we start to see horror images inside the rotating eyeball as the song's pace gets faster and more intense. Before long, we're bracing quick cut views of horror staples like haunted houses, black cats, graveyards, snakes and the like. The whole thing skates by with its sense of extreme pace, and quick cuttting. David Shire wrote the pacey theme song that accompanies the trippy imagery.
This series from the age of Woodward and Bernstein is all about the little guy fighting City Hall; in this case a dedicated journalist fighting monsters in 1970s urban Chicago. Given the theme of a "man alone" fighting monsters (and city bureaucracy too...), the title sequence displays Kolchak (Darren McGavin) alone in his office, whistling a happy tune and getting down to the task of writing. It's very...intimate. But as Kolchak clacks away at his typewriter and the word "victim" appears on the paper before him, the tune begins to turn darker and and more sour. The clock stops. We get a fast zoom, and then Kolchak turns to his side, as if seeing something monstrous out of the corner of his eye. We freeze frame, going into the corner of his eye, actually. Like the series itself, this title is surprisingly idiosyncratic and unusual. Very memorable.
5. Tales from the Darkside (1984-1988)
Simplicity can also be elegance. That's the case in this ultra-creepy title sequence for the low-budget 1980s Laurel anthology, Tales from the Darkside. We start with cloudy skies, and then simply gaze at these lovely pastoral views of nature as a macabre-sounding narrator warns us that there is another world too; one that we don't see. One just as real as these pastoral worlds, "but not as brightly lit, ...a darkside" If that bit of flowery voice-over doesn't give you goosebumps, nothing will.
4. Rod Serling's Night Gallery (1970 - 1973)
We're endlessly falling through successive realities here, both gazing at ghoulish works of arts, and seemingly being gazed upon by really creepy old crones (whose faces appear distorted and horrible). The Night Gallery intro represents a fast, endless series of alternate worlds, all represented by paintings of different stripes and styles. All they share in common is the fact that they are downright scary. There's a space helmet on the moon surface -- a sign of disorder. And then a view of an M.C. Escher landscape/labyrinth. And it's all accompanied by that diabolical sounding, repetitive, non-traditional score.
3. Millennium (1996 - 1999)
This opening to Chris Carter's artistic nineties masterpiece is a montage of unsettling images, all accompanied by an absolutely haunting violin score from Mark Snow. On screen, messages warn us to "wait" and "worry," and then one pointedly ask "who cares?" The images are subtle, but discomforting. A woman slumps over as though life is too much for her to bear. A child walks uncertainly across the tightrope of a roof, threatening to fall (a symbol of children heading into an uncertain future?). Over Frank's sanctuary -- the perfect yellow house -- the sky itself appears unsettled; as though time is racing too fast. We are surging, out of control, into a dark future. Also, there are signs of elements out of balance in the Millennium montage: fire burning; wind blowing open drapes, etc. It's subtle, gorgeous and extremely powerful.
2. Dexter (2005 - )
1. Darkroom (1981 - 1982)