With Stranger Things returning on October 27 and Halloween right around the corner, it’s the perfect time for a marathon of television frights. When people think about TV horror, they probably think of the zombies of The Walking Dead or an old episode of an anthology series like The Twilight Zone or Tales From the Crypt that haunted their dreams. The truth is that horror has been a reliable part of the TV landscape for generations, and it’s a remarkable diverse genre. Trimming this list down to a mere dozen was difficult: There are truly terrifying episodes of Hannibal, Supernatural, Dexter, Angel, The Outer Limits, and Fringe that just barely missed the cut, and you could put together an entire separate list from the very best of Rod Serling’s groundbreaking masterpiece. With that in mind, here are the diabolical dozen — the 12 best TV episodes to watch when you’re looking for a truly chilling scare.
American Horror Story, “Halloween”
This list wouldn’t be complete without a chapter of Ryan Murphy’s pop-culture phenomenon, right? Even if it hasn’t been truly “scary” for a few seasons, this two-part episode from American Horror Story’s first season revealed just how far Murphy and his team were willing to go. Written by James Wong and Tim Minear of The X-Files, both halves of “Halloween” represent Murphy’s vision for Murder House, burning the American dream down in a nightmare vision of rubber men and child ghosts. Freak Show and Coven had more WTF moments, but “Halloween” is American Horror Story at its most horrific. Available to stream on Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon.
Black Mirror, “Playtest”
There are better episodes of Black Mirror — “The Entire History of You” and “Be Right Back” come to mind — but none that are as flat-out horrifying as this third-season episode starring Wyatt Russell. With references to genre classics like Bioshock and Resident Evil, “Playtest” features a man who literally enters a survival horror video-game experience. At first, he presumes he can stay emotionally detached from the nightmare around him, but he soon realizes that his experience will be more reality than virtual. Directed by Dan Trachtenberg of 10 Cloverfield Lane, “Playtest” is as adrenaline-pumping as television gets. Available to stream on Netflix.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer, “Hush”
The best horror is often not about what is said, but what is seen. Who could guess that one of the scariest hours of TV history would be largely silent? In “Hush,” Buffy and the rest of the Scooby Gang cross paths with the Gentlemen, a nightmarish group of well-dressed demons who steal your voice before they cut out your heart. Written and directed by Joss Whedon, “Hush” is a stand-alone masterpiece, the rare hour of an episodic series that someone could watch and love never having seen the rest of the show. Available to stream on Hulu.
Channel Zero: No-End House, “This Isn’t Real”
The least famous show on this list is one you should definitely watch if you’re a horror fan. Now in its second season, SyFy’s Channel Zero is based on the most popular tales from the web horror genre known as creepypasta. The first season was a solid outing, based on the Candle Cove story, but the second has stepped up the weird terror to another level. No-End House initially appears to be a standard haunted-house tale — the new mansion on the end of the block that promises six rooms of spine-shattering fear — but episodes like “This Isn’t Real” owe more to David Lynch and David Cronenberg than anything else. Plus, co-star John Carroll Lynch does fantastic supporting work. The season premiere was the creepiest hour of TV this year that didn’t star Kyle MacLachlan. Available to stream on SyFy and rent on Amazon and Google Play.
Doctor Who, “Blink”
“Don’t blink. Blink and you’re dead. Don’t turn your back. Don’t look away. And don’t blink.” Starring a pre-fame Carey Mulligan, this third-season episode of the British hit stands out for a number of reasons, but none more than the Weeping Angels. As with most episodes of Doctor Who, there’s time travel and witty banter, but what’s unforgettable about “Blink” are those aliens masquerading as angelic religious statues, figures with their hands over their eyes and murder in their hearts. They move if you’re not looking at them. They’ll kill you in the time it takes to blink. Like “Hush,” this is a perfect stand-alone hour of TV that you can watch even if you’re not in the cult of the Doctor. Available to stream on Amazon.
Lost, “The Man Behind the Curtain”
The ABC sci-fi hit had moments of terror throughout its run, but never more chillingly than in this season-three episode written by Drew Goddard and Elizabeth Sarnoff. In an hour clearly inspired by horror filmmaking, Ben Linus takes John Locke to Jacob, the mysterious unseen leader of the Others. The interaction takes place in a creepy run-down house with whispering voices, objects flying in the air, and windows suddenly shattering. The disembodied voice that says “help me” added to the mythology of the show, while also reminding us how dangerous and deadly the island could be. Available to stream on Netflix.
Masters of Horror, “Cigarette Burns”
It’s difficult to choose only one episode of this underrated Showtime anthology series. Masters of Horror has great half-hours directed by Takashi Miike, Brad Anderson, Tobe Hooper, Dario Argento, and many more. When all else fails, though, it’s worth trusting the true master of horror, John Carpenter. A ton of people will be watching Halloween and The Thing in the coming weeks, but don’t forget about “Cigarette Burns” too. It’s his best directorial work this century. The story of a film with the power to kill is perfect for a filmmaker whose best movies changed the world of horror forever. Available for rent on Amazon, iTunes, Google Play, and Vudu.
Tales From the Crypt, “And All Through the House”
Speaking of great filmmakers, Tales From the Crypt allowed dozens a chance to have some fun with horror storytelling. Consider “And All Through the House,” a 1989 beauty by Robert Zemeckis. The masterful director gets the pacing of this 22-minute roller-coaster ride perfectly, as we watch a woman (Mary Ellen Trainor) drive a fireplace poker through her husband’s head in the first scene, only to be tormented by an asylum-escaped, ax-wielding madman (Larry Drake) in a Santa Claus costume for the rest of the episode. The image of a child helping a bloodied, homicidal man through her window because she thinks he is Santa is definitive of Crypt’s great blend of horror and dark humor. Available to rent on Amazon, iTunes, and Google Play.
The Twilight Zone, “Living Doll”
Much like the other anthology series in this list, there are so many Twilight Zone episodes to choose from. Obvious choices like “To Serve Man” and “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” are ones you’ve probably seen a dozen times, so why not dig a little deeper and pull out some nightmare fuel? Before Chucky and Annabelle, there was Talky Tina, a young girl’s new best friend and her stepfather’s new enemy. “Living Doll” is worth a watch just for the perfectly chilling final line: “My name is Talky Tina … and you’d better be nice to me!” Available to stream on Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu.
Twin Peaks, “Lonely Souls”
There are plenty of choices from Twin Peaks and Twin Peaks: The Return that would fit this list, but the season-two episode “Lonely Souls” is the one that will most haunt you. Directed by David Lynch himself, it gave viewers what they thought they wanted at the end of season one — the truth about Laura Palmer’s murder — but then made them realize how much they really didn’t want to know or see. When Leland Palmer, flipping back and forth between his real self and that of the demonic Killer Bob, kills Madeline, it was like nothing ever seen on television. Available to stream on Hulu and Showtime.
The Walking Dead, “Days Gone Bye”
This AMC hit has so many deaths and horrific moments, they can often blend together after all these years. Although season three’s “Seed” might be more straight-up terrifying, “Days Gone Bye” is where the Walking Dead phenomenon began. Directed by Frank Darabont, this episode felt like a breakthrough when it aired in 2010. It was more like a short film than what we expected from basic cable TV — partially because it was shot on 16mm — and it revealed how far The Walking Dead would go in terms of gore and violence usually reserved for R-rated films. “Days Gone Bye” played a big role in tilting prestige TV toward horror, and it’s still one of the best episodes you’ll find. Available to stream on Netflix.
The X-Files, “Home”
An episode of television so disturbing that Fox seems almost apologetic that they ever aired it. For years, “Home” wasn’t included in syndicated rotation of The X-Files because it was deemed too much for audiences to experience again. In this stand-alone episode, Mulder and Scully investigate a family of deformed people who haven’t left their home in years — and they find dark secrets hiding under the floorboards. Incredibly violent and grotesque even by today’s standards, “Home” has lost none of its brutal power two decades later.