Welcome to This Week In Horror!  In this two-part column I dissect (pun intended) the most popular blood-soaked shows on television.  Part I will be a series of mini-recaps outlining the highlights (and low-lights) of each episode that week.  Part II will be the ‘Dissection.’

But first, for the inaugural column, an introduction:

Nothing is hotter on television at the moment than horror.  Throughout the years there have been a few shining examples of much-loved horror shows (‘Twin Peaks,’ ‘The X-Files,’ ‘Buffy The Vampire Slayer’), but by and large the genre has been dominated by big screen masked murderers, small screen schlockfests, and much-loved but little-watched cult programs.  Now, horror has finally made the leap to critical and commercial success on television in an unprecedented capacity, invading pretty much every channel.  Undoubtedly the tipping point for this sudden surge in scary stories was the astounding success of AMC’s ‘The Walking Dead,’ which now regularly pulls in more viewers than most network shows -- a feat previously unheard of for cable programming.  It would appear that there’s hardly anyone in the country who doesn’t like watching a zombie’s brains get splattered across the pavement.

The roots of this movement can be traced back to even earlier shows such as ’24’ with its unflinching depiction of brutal torture and ‘Lost’ with its mysterious Others haunting the jungle.  These shows helped prove to modern executives that viewers weren’t only flocking to television for light escapism; they were looking for a release of a different kind, too -- and a little cathartic bloodshed can go a long way.

In addition to ‘The Walking Dead,’ there is HBO’s long-running vampire/werewolf/witch/fairy/shapeshifter/blood/sex/gore-fest ‘True Blood,” Showtime’s beloved serial killer drama ‘Dexter,‘ and FX’s gothic anthology ‘American Horror Story.‘  Even ‘Game Of Thrones’ (HBO) features frightening creatures called White Walkers and their undead army of wights.  The first half of 2013 alone saw the rise of several new terrifying shows that attracted large audiences: ‘The Following’ on FOX, ‘Bates Motel’ on A&E, and ‘Hannibal’ on NBC (as well as ‘Under The Dome,’ which will be premiering on CBS in June).  Let’s examine what the hottest new horror shows have in common, how they’re different, and why people keep subjecting themselves week after week to such atrocities as homicidal cults, incestuous mother/son relationships, and cannibalism.

This week on ‘The Following

For most of its run, ‘The Following’ has exhibited an exemplary balance between genuine chills and fun campiness.  What else would you expect from creator Kevin Williamson, writer of the ‘Scream’ franchise?  Sure, the FBI agents are pretty inept.  Sure, the cult has had a few too many conveniently-placed members.  But overall, the show has been an exciting cat-and-mouse game showcasing Kevin Bacon at his skeletal best.

That being said... This week, ‘The Following’ finally went off the rails.  The FBI exhibited a staggering level of incompetence heretofore unmatched.  Knowing that Joe Carroll and his cult of insane killers were loose in a small suburban town, the agents set up a voluntary shelter for the residents of said town to seek asylum from the cult -- and then didn’t screen or ID any of the people coming in, allowing several innocent townfolk to be slaughtered by the very people they were seeking protection from.  I mean, really?  What did they expect?

The FBI weren’t the only incompetent ones: Joe allowed his wife, Claire, to talk him into untying her hands so she could “open a bottle of wine” -- one episode after she stabbed him.  I’m not sure how it came as a shock to him when she grabbed said wine bottle and smashed him over the head with it.  Then, freed of her bonds, with her homicidal husband unconscious at her feet, instead of ending it once and for all -- she just runs away and leaves him alive -- only to later be recaptured by him, of course.  Come on guys, get it together!

This week on ‘Bates Motel

Things looked much better over on A&E this week, with possibly the best episode yet of ‘Bates Motel,’ which saw one major revelation and one major death.

At first, things were looking up for Norma Bates: last week, her cop boyfriend Zack destroyed the evidence that would have (rightfully) convicted her of murder.  Hooray!  This week, she found out he was a sex slave trafficker.  Boo!  Then, Zack found out Norman was hiding his sex slave in the hotel.  Uh oh!  Then, Norma’s other son Dylan saved them all by shooting Zack in the face.  Hooray!  Then, Norma told Dylan that Norman’s father didn’t die in a tragic falling-off-the-ladder accident -- Norman murdered him, although he doesn’t remember doing it.

This week on ‘Hannibal

This week should have been the fourth episode, although it was pulled from the air due to concerns over its ultra-violent nature.  Apparently the episode would have featured guest star Molly Shannon brainwashing children into killing other children.  (Since the pulled episode would have happened so soon after the events in Boston, most people assumed the decision was in response to that, but actually the decision was made a while ago and was more related to the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary.)  Instead, we got the fifth episode, which dealt with the not-violent-at-all topic of a serial killer who peeled the flesh off the backs of his victims to turn them into angels to watch over him while he slept.  Because that’s so much nicer.

It turns out that the serial killer has a brain tumor which has been driving him insane -- and he’s also only killing bad people like rapists -- so he’s kind of a good guy?  The final angel he makes is himself, although how he managed to peel the skin off his own back, fashion the skin into wings, and hoist himself, manacled, to the roof of a barn will forever remain a mystery.

The plot of the cancer-ridden serial killer conveniently helped FBI agent Jack Crawford realize that his own wife has cancer.

Continue to Part II: ‘Dissection.’