Has Halloween Become the Start of Fall Cable?

Some big horror shows have completely changed the landscape

Since AMC first unleashed The Walking Dead in 2010, Halloween has served as a launch pad for horror-themed cable series. The obvious synergies aside, Oct. 31 is a great night to showcase content that’s too harrowing for the networks, and it arrives just as viewers are looking for alternatives to the newly canceled broadcast shows.

This year is no exception, as two new series are set to launch Thursday night. Perhaps the most inspired take on the reanimated-corpse trope is Sundance’s French import, The Returned. Rather than splatter viewers with gore, the drama offers a more nuanced approach—the dead simply return to their homes and try to resume their old lives.

The Returned comes on the heels of the BBC’s similarly themed miniseries In the Flesh and predates ABC’s upcoming drama Resurrection (March 9).

“In cable, we’re always opportunistic,” said Sundance Channel president Sarah Barnett. “When it comes to scheduling, we’re constantly looking for the sweet spot.”

Also bowing on Halloween night is Tim & Eric’s Bedtime Stories: Haunted House, an Adult Swim special that is also the first episode in a new anthology series.

Horror has worked so well on cable that many series have begun to encroach on broadcast’s turf. Season 4 of AMC’s The Walking Dead returned in the third week of the 2013-14 campaign, drawing a record 8.2 in the adults 18-49 demo. Four nights earlier, FX trotted out the third installment of its hit anthology series, American Horror Story.

Fear isn’t a fad. “It’s only going to get bigger for a couple of reasons: one, it’s popular; two, it’s cheap,” said horror historian Jason Zinoman. The Shock Value author dates the start of cable’s horror boom to HBO’s campy vamp drama, True Blood.

“[It] was a show critics didn’t really like and HBO seemed slightly embarrassed by, and then its numbers were so undeniable, you couldn’t do anything but imitate it,” Zinoman said. “That’s the real sign of commercial power—it doesn’t get great reviews, and [yet] it still gets huge, huge numbers.”

Not everyone agrees that the genre is here to stay. “It’s cyclical just like other stuff,” said one TV buyer. “It’ll die out.” If nothing else, a ratings meltdown will scare off most of the copycats. “If The Walking Dead goes in a bad direction, it’ll kill the cycle in general.”

If horror does prosper, expect some cable nets to start investing heavily in Karo syrup and red food coloring. “Part of the horror fan base is really, really into gore,” Zinoman said. “As TV gets carved up into smaller and smaller bits, I think it’ll get more and more graphic.”

For her part, Barnett is trying to keep things fresh—and more accessible—by going in the opposite direction. “[The Returned] is about zombies, but it’s very intimate and domestic,” she said.

Barnett recognizes that hard-core horror fans are always going to have a taste for blood. “The greatest thing about the genre is that you do have those self-identified fanboys who provide a really solid core,” she said. “On top of that, I think, you have people who are open to any kind of form.”