A macabre makeover: This is a golden age for horror on the small screen

From zombies to sadistic nuns and reboots of everyone from Hannibal Lecter to The Munsters, Sarah Hughes reports (from behind the sofa)

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The Independent Culture

The rule regarding horror on television used to be clear: keep it on the light side. Because while audiences will willingly flock to movies to be terrified, they won't tune in week after week to watch characters they've invested in get gruesomely killed off. In recent years, that has all changed as shows such as True Blood, Dexter and The Walking Dead have championed a darker, more adult type of horror story, one that acknowledges the conventions of the genre even as it subverts them.

Nowhere is this more obvious than with American Horror Story, which starts its second season on FXUK next week. Walking a fine line between laughably over-the-top and genuinely terrifying, American Horror Story succeeds largely because of the fun it has playing with horror's staples.

In the first season co-creators Ryan Murphy (Glee) and Brad Falchuk riffed on 1970s horror movies from Rosemary's Baby to Black Christmas creating an atmosphere that was both knowingly camp and absolutely terrifying. One moment the audience would be laughingly checking off references to schlock masterpieces such as Burnt Offerings, the next they'd be terrified by the spooky creature in the basement.

Season two takes place in an insane asylum in the 1960s. Naturally it's a dank, depressing place ruled over by sadistic nuns, repressed priests and extremely creepy psychiatrists. Yet even as they gleefully embrace every Catholic cliché they can think of, the writers still find time to scare the audience out of their wits.

For Murphy the show works precisely because of that balance between laughter and thrills. "I've always loved being scared," he says. "But the great thing about 1970s horror movies is that they have a sense of humour. I wanted American Horror Story to hark back to those Seventies films, to have a wink and a nod, something that makes you laugh so when the scare comes you're not sobbing."

Similarly, zombie thriller The Walking Dead, which pulled in an astonishing 15.1 million viewers on its return to American television at the beginning of the month, succeeds because it forces the audience to care about its characters while making it clear that none of them are safe. "We have more time than a horror film," says its executive producer Glen Mazzara. "Horror movies have really become about shocking sequences whereas we work on the character-driven moments between those sequences."

Given the growing number of people flocking to both shows – the season two premiere of American Horror Story was watched by more than five million viewers, making it the second most-watched show of the night behind the comedy juggernaut Modern Family – it's hardly surprising that television executives are falling over themselves to find the next big horror hit.

From 666 Park Avenue, which stars Terry O'Quinn aka Lost's creepy Locke as the devil and comes to ITV2 early next year, to the new adaptation of Dracula with Jonathan Rhys Meyers flashing his fangs in the title role, horror is set to dominate television next year. In January, the offbeat vampire drama, Hemlock Grove, directed by Hostel's Eli Roth, becomes available on US Netflix (and is expected to air soon after in the UK). The clever, gruesome serial killer tale The Following comes to Sky Atlantic in early 2013. Hannibal, based on the early life of Dr Lecter, and Mockingbird Lane, a darker take on Sixties favourites The Munsters, are both scheduled to start later in the year. Meanwhile modern horror maestro Guillermo del Toro, director of Pan's Labyrinth and Hellboy, recently signed a deal to bring his vampire books, The Strain, to the small screen. Lost's Carlton Cuse will produce.

Mazzara believes that the new hits are just the beginning of a horror's revival. "The current horror bandwagon makes sense because the fan base is so rabid," he says. "I'm not interested in doing torture porn," If you go down that route it becomes sadistic… There's a version of The Walking Dead that could be sadistic but I'm categorically not interested." Murphy agrees. "Horror today has become like snuff," he said. "That's not what we're interested in with this show."

What of Roth himself? Eyebrows were raised when it was announced that the director who made his name with the graphic Hostel films would be adapting Brian McGreevy's gleefully dark vampire tale with a twist, Hemlock Grove.

At a recent Q&A in New York the director was keen to play down his reputation as the godfather of torture porn. "We want to make a show that's accessible, there's a place for movies like Human Centipede… but we're not doing that," he said. "There's a fine line between kicking an audience's ass and making them feel like they've been kicked in the balls."

Instead Roth claimed a less graphic inspiration. "We wanted to make a show that was going to be more like Twin Peaks," he said. "That for us is the benchmark of great television...[it] was so smart and so different and daring… and yet scary and beautifully done." Not that he intends to play down the horror elements: "I think the medium is now at a place where we can certainly appeal to my taste and the type of stuff I like to do," he added.

That may be true but the many television executives gambling that the time is right for horror's return should bear in mind that the surest thing doesn't always cross the line first. Just ask the men behind last year's horror bet The River. The creepy thriller from the makers of Paranormal Activity, now airing on SyFy, was expected to be television's next big thing. It was cancelled after one season.

'American Horror Story' starts on 30 October at 10pm on FXUK; 'The Walking Dead' is on Fridays at 10pm on FXUK