For years, the mere idea of macabre horror stories made TV executives squeamish. Blood and gore? Oh no, don't go there.
But with the rousing success of shows such as "The Walking Dead" and "American Horror Story," which launch new seasons next week, programmers are coming to realize that many viewers love a good scare -- and not just on Halloween.
Nearly every major broadcaster plans to roll out some kind of creep show this season. ABC has already launched "666 Park Avenue," about a haunted New York high rise with devilish owners.
Meanwhile, future series preparing to edge into dark territory include "The Following" (Fox), a serial-killer thriller; "Hannibal" (NBC), a new take on sinister Dr. Lecter; and "Cult" (The CW), a spooky crime mystery. NBC also has a fresh approach to "Dracula" in the works.
They'll join a long roster of things that go bump in the prime-time night, including the bloodsuckers of "True Blood" and "The Vampire Diaries," the furry creatures in "Teen Wolf," the eerie ghosts of "Bedlam" and the bizarre freaks of "Fringe," "Supernatural" and "Grimm."
But there are no shows in the genre that are as hot as "The Walking Dead" and "American Horror Story." The former drew an impressive 9 million viewers to its Season 2 finale earlier this year, while the latter garnered 17 Emmy nominations for its initial season.
Advance preview episodes of "American Horror Story" weren't available at press time, but we do know that the second installment will be a complete reboot, with the action shifting from a haunted Victorian to an institution for the criminally insane run by the Catholic church. (The show's surname is "Asylum.")
The story will start with the modern-day tale of two honeymooners (Jenna Dewan-Tatum and Maroon 5's Adam Levine), who encounter a serial killer at the now-deserted Briarcliff Manor. Then it will quickly shift back to the facility's heyday in the 1960s.
And while the cast features some holdovers from Season 1 (including Zachary Quinto, Sarah Paulson and Lily Rabe), they'll be playing completely different characters. Case in point: Jessica Lange, who captured an Emmy award for her portrayal of a nosy neighbor, is now a stern, sadistic nun.
That said, if Season 2 is anything like its predecessor, viewers should brace themselves for a kinky, gory and over-the-top crazy ride. We'd expect nothing less from the twisted mind of executive producer Ryan Murphy.
As for "The Walking Dead," it, too, shifts to a different setting, but mostly will continue to follow the zombie-apocalypse story laid out in the popular comic books that inspired the series. Season 3 will consist of 16 episodes, half of which will roll out this fall and the other half set for next spring.
Sunday's opener picks up with stoic lawman Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) and his gutsy little band of survivors taking shelter in that ominous-looking prison we glimpsed at the end of last season. First, though, they have to clear the place of a huge throng of flesh-eating stiffs. So out come the pipes, crossbows and various other weapons for protracted scenes of zombie overkill, in which brains are cracked open and lots of squishy, crunchy sound effects accent the carnage.
In the past, we've praised "Dead" for being so much more than "gore porn," but it comes perilously close in this drawn-out sequence, which makes last season's barnyard bludgeoning look like a minor warm up act. I realize corpse-abuse scenes such as these might please some fans who felt the show was too light on splatter last season, but how much is too much? It's one of the few times I can ever recall "Dead" feeling monotonous.
The show is at its best when the confrontational tension among the humans is palpable. So, at least in the early going, it greatly misses Shane (Jon Bernthal), who was killed by Rick in an emotional shocker last season.
But while Shane may be gone, his impact lingers: Rick has become a hardened man, and his relationship with his pregnant wife, Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies), is now as cold as graveyard dirt.
Despite this "new" Rick, and a horrific development involving a key character, "Dead" in some ways is spinning its wheels in its first two episodes, taking us over terrain that feels a little too familiar. Maybe the emergence of two new characters -- the mysterious, sword-wielding Michonne (Danai Gurira) and the tyrannical Mayor (David Morrissey), both fan favorites from the comic books -- will add some intrigue as the saga continues.
At least that's my hope, because I'm not quite ready to bury the "Dead."
THE FANGS COME OUT: Speaking of the dead -- or undead -- "The Vampire Diaries" kicks off its fourth season this week (8 p.m. Thursday, The CW) and Elena (Nina Dobrev) is about to go on a gut-wrenching journey of transformation and self-discovery.
After waking up from her auto accident, Elena discovers that she has vampire blood in her system. Now she's faced with a choice: Either die or become a bloodsucker. Not great options.
Producers have hinted at a darker, bloodier season for our leading lady, who must figure out how this whole vampire thing works. It certainly doesn't help that she's getting conflicting advice from Damon (Ian Somerhalder) and Stefan (Paul Wesley). And you thought your senior year in high school was a time of change and confusion.
"Vampire Diaries" airs just before the debut of "Beauty and the Beast" (9 p.m. Thursday, The CW), one of the lamest pilots of the new season.
The drama stars Kristin Kreuk and Jay Ryan in what is basically a police procedural. She's an (unconvincing) homicide cop, and he's a mystery man who reportedly was killed in 2002 in Afghanistan, but for strange reasons, has been hiding out ever since. When he gets angry, he turns into a terrifying -- yet hunky -- "beast."
The premise couldn't have been any sillier if it included a singing teapot.
Contact Chuck Barney at email@example.com. Read his TV blog at http://blogs.mercurynews.com/aei/category/tv and follow him at http://twitter.com/chuckbarney, and Facebook at www.facebook.com/BayAreaNewsGroup.ChuckBarney.
'the walking Dead'
* * *
When: 9 p.m. Sunday
'American Horror story'
When: 10 p.m. Oct. 17