It takes only a cursory glance at the plethora of TV series being made today to realize that there are almost no boundaries on what kinds of deeply dark stories can be told. From the violent quasi-historical fantasy of Game of Thrones to the literature-bound Victorian horror of Penny Dreadful to the character-driven crime thrills of True Detective, TV is at its most ominously hodge-podgiest.
We’ve rounded up 10 creepy and unnerving slices of history that definitely deserve to serve as the basis for their own TV series. Would the shows need to strictly stick to the reality of each situation? Of course not; this is TV we’re talking about. And we’re also not thinking of these lasting for ten 22-episode seasons, either, but more as limited “event series” with the beginning, middle and end all figured out ahead of time. Feel free to pass this list along to any TV executive buddies you have.
The Winchester House
When it comes to ghost stories, mansions are far more attractive locations than three-room shacks, and the Winchester Mystery House is the granddaddy of them all. A sprawling piece of California construction built by Winchester rifle heir Sarah Winchester, the house was a constant work-in-progress, with carpenters seemingly ceaselessly working on it for many years. Rumors at the time (that have never gone away) claimed that Sarah kept building as a way to confuse the ghosts of the victims of her family’s guns, and the house features several oddities like stairways that go nowhere and doors that open to nothing. Those less inclined to believe such things point out that Sarah has aspirations to become an architect and used her own house as a way to do that, but that doesn’t make for interesting TV. We want to see weird shit happening, and this house is just the mysterious centerpiece to anchor an engrossing horror story.
The Cleveland Torso Murderer
Given how incredible David Fincher’s Zodiac was, it seems only natural that more unsolved serial killer stories would have been made in the last few years. But somehow, the story of the Cleveland Torso Murderer - also known as the Mad Butcher of Kingsbury Run - has yet to make it to the small screen. (But definitely read Brian Michael Bendis' graphic novel.) His lethal streak took place in the 1930s and included at least 12 victims (most of them unidentified), with all of them decapitated and many dismembered. Thus the nickname. Beyond being unsolved, the murders are remembered as one of the last cases that fell under former Untouchables investigator Eliot Ness, although he wasn’t heavily involved. NBC had plans to turn this into a miniseries back in 2013, but there hasn’t been any news about it since. HBO and Netflix are better homes for this gritty mystery anyway.
The Mary Celeste
Like the lost colony of Roanoke, the story of the Mary Celeste is a mystery with many legends and rumors, but not a lot of stone-cold facts to explain things, which makes it perfect for a spooky historical drama. In 1872, the Mary Celeste was found off the coast of Portugal and it was discovered that the ship had been completely deserted, with no overtly visible signs of foul play or a major accident. There was still food on board, and it was reported that none of the crew’s belongings were disturbed, and the log was last written in less than two weeks before the ship was found. How is this not the perfect set-up for a possibly conspiratorial, possibly supernatural mystery at sea? Just don't let anyone who worked on Lost anywhere near it.
The Myrtles Plantation
One of the most celebrated “haunted” locations in the U.S., Louisiana's Myrtles Plantation has been the subject of books, tours, and episodes of Unsolved Mysteries and Ghost Hunters. But it somehow hasn’t been featured in a fictional capacity for TV. Now serving as a bed and breakfast, the Myrtles could inspire a story taken in any number of directions, from the true story of William Winter’s death and subsequent reported haunting, or the legend of the slave Chloe, who supposedly killed her keepers Mark and Sara Woodruff due to their harsh treatment. The Woodruffs are the subject of other legends as well, but even if the story was completely made up for a TV show, it’s still the perfect setting for a scary tale.
The Discovery of King Tut’s Tomb
While Spike has recently started promoting its upcoming historical tale about the life of King Tut, I'm more interested in seeing a show about his tomb being found by Howard Carter, and the "curse" that followed. This project would obviously need to skew the truth in order to spice things up, perhaps by making each of the artifacts cursed in a Friday the 13th: The Series kind of way, or by having Carter and his crew discovering another super-secret tomb of some unknown pharaoh. This was an extremely interesting time, and the joys of discovery are inherent to most people, so I don't get why there aren't more pyramid and tomb series out there. If anything, the blahness of last year's feature The Pyramid should be inspiration to create something amazing.
The Lake Bodom Murders
With the success of HBO's docuseries The Jinx and the podcast Serial, true crime stories are all the rage. But instead of going over already retread events (like the upcoming In Cold Blood series), how about taking a deeper look at the unsolved 1960s murder case that took place around Lake Bodom in Espoo, Finland. Three teenagers were murdered, with a fourth badly injured. Multiple suspects have been looked at over the years, and the sole survivor was even charged with the murders 40 years later, though he was released of all charges. It's a story that's fascinating on all fronts, and would work as either a real-life docuseries or as a Broadchurch-like "everyone's a suspect" mystery.
The Stanley Hotel
But wait, you're saying, the Stanley Hotel already served as the Overlook for The Shining, arguably one of the finest horror films every crafted. And I'm saying that could easily be part of the inspiration for a TV show. Perhaps a group of horror fans travel out to the Stanley to try and debunk the ghostly legends, eventually falling prey to its otherworldly charms. Fiction is now as meta as it's ever been, so if the creators could work with Stephen King and/or Kubrick's estate to mesh The Shining into the story in some way, that would be even better. Or could be, anyway, so long as no holograms of Scatman Crothers are used. We'll see if American Horror Story: Hotel does the concept justice, and then we'll come back to this.
Henry Rathbone’s Madness
Speaking of The Shining, this project would be a tale less involved with supernatural entities and more concerned with the impending madness of a man involved in one of history's most important tragedies. A major in the Union Army, Henry Rathbone was one-half of the couple sharing the Ford Theater box seats with Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln the night John Wilkes Booth assassinated the President, with Rathbone injuring himself in the post-shooting scuffle. His life after that took a downward spiral, as his mental health degraded, with an ever-present dismay that he wasn't able to save Lincoln. He ended up attacking his children, murdering his wife and attempting a self-stabbing suicide before spending the rest of his life in a mental asylum. His story needs to be told.
Locusta the Poisoner
Let's take a trip way back into the past, during the first century of the common era, with a story centering on Locusta of Gaul, long considered to be the world's first serial killer. Her M.O. involved poisoning, and she became something of a professional, reportedly killing thousands with her concoctions, using her talents for her own personal gain. What's more, she was tasked by higher-ups to kill, and was even given a pardon for her crimes by Emperor Nero in exchange for killing his step-brother. Her subsequent life of wealth and power was cut short when Nero fled and eventually committed suicide, at which point she was sentenced to death. The prospect of a historical thriller based on a female poisoner is highly intriguing, and would presumably result in some extravagant death scenes.
This is the one choice on this list that I fully envision as an anthology series, where each episode tells a different story, though they would all start out in seemingly the same way. This Chicago legend began in the 1930s, during which a handful of men reportedly picked up a young female hitchhiker named Mary, always with the same description, always down the same road. In each instance, she asks to be let out at the nearby Resurrection Cemetery, where she goes off into the night. The story goes that she was a victim of a hit and run driver, which is the perfect beginning to a series about a deliciously vengeful ghost who brings hell to those unlucky enough to pick her up, with any number of different situations following her entering the car. And since stories of Resurrection Mary continue today, the show wouldn't even be locked down in a specific time frame.
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Nick is a Cajun Country native, and is often asked why he doesn't sound like that's the case. His love for his wife and daughters is almost equaled by his love of gasp-for-breath laughter and gasp-for-breath horror. A lifetime spent in the vicinity of a television screen led to his current dream job, as well as his knowledge of too many TV themes and ad jingles.