This post was originally published in 2017 and has been updated to include even more terrifying television.
With 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 — or, lately, Netflix’s very scary Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities. The truth is that horror has been a reliable part of the TV landscape for generations, and it’s a remarkably diverse genre.
Trimming this list down to fifty was difficult: There are truly terrifying episodes of Dexter, The Outer Limits, Fringe, and others 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 scariest ones to make our cut — the 50 best TV episodes to watch when you’re looking for a truly chilling scare.
Amazing Stories, “Mirror, Mirror”
Steven Spielberg’s brilliant anthology series didn’t often go straight horror but they sure went for it in this incredible episode from a story by Spielberg and directed by, believe it or not, Martin Scorsese. The Oscar winner helms the tale of a horror writer, played by Sam Waterston, who starts to see a disfigured man in every reflection. And the man is coming to kill him. It’s bad enough when it’s just in a mirror, but it’s eventually in glasses and even eyes. Some of the production values are dated, but Scorsese delivers enough great shots to justify a revisit.
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.
American Horror Story: Asylum, “I Am Anne Frank”
Given that we named the basement scene from this two-part episode the scariest moment in the history of American Horror Story, this one was a no-brainer. Revealing that Dr. Thredson is the horrible serial killer Bloody Face, who also happens to be a necrophiliac, it is arguably still AHS at its most insane. With its images of Wendy’s desecrated corpse and the mangled form of the tortured Shelley, the episode got some flack for being misogynistic, but it undeniably contains some of the most unforgettable imagery in a series that’s designed to get people talking. Even with all the memorable seasons and episodes that followed, this still has people chatting.
Angel, “Rm w/a Vu”
The Buffy the Vampire Slayer spin-off was still trying to find its voice early in season one when the great Jane Espenson penned this effective hour that presented Cordelia with a tough question: Would she stay in a haunted apartment if it was rent-controlled? The excellent character actor Beth Grant plays a ghost who haunts Cordelia’s new pad, and there’s some great imagery here, such as a face coming through the wall and Grant’s first appearance in the mirror. It’s an episode that sneaks up on you, revealing that Angel could play with different tones and themes than fans may have been expecting.
Archive 81, “Mystery Signals”
Rebecca Sonnenshine’s underrated thriller was canceled by Netflix after only one season, but it feels likely to develop a cult following with time. That would be a fitting destiny for the series in that Archive 81 is about discovery, the kind that reshapes the way you see the world. While there’s not one standout terrifying chapter of the show, the series premiere really casts a mood, setting up what’s to come perfectly. It introduces us to Dan (the excellent Mamoudou Athie), who has been hired to restore some mysterious video footage regarding a deadly apartment fire. As he watches a grad student named Melody (Dina Shihabi) investigate, he is drawn into the tapes, eventually leading to a riveting break in time and space. This was a perfect tone-setting premiere, an episode that warned viewers they were about to experience something unlike anything else on Netflix.
Are You Afraid of the Dark?, “The Tale of Laughing in the Dark”
“Pick the right door and you’ll go free. Pick the wrong door, and there he’ll be.” An entire generation was permanently scarred by the ‘90s cable executive who thought it was cool to put this show on Nickelodeon. Yes, the child performers and generally goofy tone scream Nickelodeon, but then there’s the damn clown episode that no one can forget. While a lot of Are You Afraid of the Dark? was harmless cheese, this one merged both creepy carnival culture and the scariest thing in the world: clowns. A kid goes into a fun house in a carnival and dares to steal the nose of the legendary Zeebo. Refusing to believe the urban legends about the clown or the carnival, the cocky Josh gets what he deserves when Zeebo comes looking for his red squishy nose. No wonder so many ‘90s kids grew up to be horror fans — they were chasing Zeebo.
Atlanta, “Teddy Perkins”
In general, Donald Glover’s masterful FX show would be classified as a comedy — but then there’s the sixth episode of season two, which is something else altogether. The great director Hiro Murai collaborated with Glover on one of the most unsettling half-hours of TV in the 2010s, an experience that unfolded without commercial breaks. Darius (Lakeith Stanfield) goes to a mansion to pick up a free piano with a U-Haul, and gets sucked into the realm of a man named Teddy Perkins, played by Glover under so much heavy make-up that Stanfield reportedly didn’t even realize it was him and he isn’t credited in the episode itself. Murai and cinematographer Christian Springer were influenced by The Shining in the design of the episode and Glover’s whiteface make-up was compared to Michael Jackson, although there is a lot more going on here beyond parody. It’s as innovative a half-hour of television as any show had the guts to air in the last decade. And it’s deeply unsettling.
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.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer, “Hush”
The most effective 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.
Bonus episode — Buffy the Vampire Slayer, “Conversations With Dead People”
The best episode of Buffy’s final season isn’t really designed as a pure frightfest but it contains some startling, horrifying imagery nonetheless. Just imagine if your dead loved one came back to you but was being held prisoner by a demon. Or if you could talk to your murdered girlfriend only to have that discussion turned into a nightmare. The writing on this episode by Drew Goddard and Jane Espenson (again) has really held up over time, as have the deeper, more heartbreaking fears with which it plays.
Castle Rock, “The Queen”
One of the many remarkable elements of Hulu’s excellent Castle Rock, a show set in the Stephen King multiverse, is that it doesn’t scare you in a traditional way. The writers aren’t even big on killer clowns or creepy kids in hotel hallways. The sense of unease and horror in this series often hinges on a supernatural construct but comes from something relatable. Take this incredible episode. In one of the best performances of Sissy Spacek’s career (and shame on all the awards-giving bodies who snubbed it), the Oscar winner plays a woman teetering on the edge of sanity, unsure not just of what is happening but when. It’s a perfectly constructed examination of dementia, a state in which our memories and our present day can intertwine and get jumbled to such a degree that tragedy can ensue. The final scenes of “The Queen” are as devastating as anything in genre television over the past few years.
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. Ending its four-season run, 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 in 2017 that didn’t star Kyle MacLachlan.
Bonus Episode — Channel Zero: The Dream Door,“Ashes on My Pillow”
E.L. Katz (Cheap Thrills) directed the fourth and final season of SyFy’s Channel Zero, a clever, underrated show inspired by some of the most popular internet horror stories of all time. There are strong episodes throughout the 2018 season, but there’s something about that series premiere that hangs in the memory because it emerges from such a relatable premise: What if something appeared in your basement that wasn’t there the day before? A newlywed couple discovers a door in their bottom floor that they know shouldn’t be there, and it leads to secrets emerging from their own marriage. Would you go through and see what was on the other side? Before he played Nick on Dead to Me, Brandon Scott starred in this series, and the legendary Barbara Crampton is in the supporting cast.
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.
Bonus episode — Doctor Who, “Listen”
One of the best modern episodes of Doctor Who is also one of the most chill-inducing hours of television of the 2010s. Sure, there are other solid choices from the Whoverse to include on this list (“The Empty Child,” “The Impossible Astronaut”) but this is not only the best overall episode of late but works from a spine-tingling concept: What if we’re never really alone? What if there’s a creature out there who has evolved to never be seen or heard but is always present? Feel the hairs rising on the back of your neck? That’s it saying hello.
Evil, “Genesis 1”
One of the most effectively creepy shows you could watch this Halloween is on Paramount+. With echoes of classic network genre TV like The X-Files (the two leads here are so much like Scully and Mulder in their skeptic-and-believer dynamic that Chris Carter deserves royalties), Evil is incredibly effective television. The best example is the excellent premiere episode, which introduces us to Kristen Bouchard (Katja Herbers), David Acosta (Mike Colter), and, oh yeah, a demon named George (Marti Matulis), who torments Kristen in the middle of the night while she lies frozen in bed, unable to move. Creepy and moody haven’t been used to describe a CBS show in a long time, but they definitely fit here.
Fear Itself, “Eater”
In summer 2008, NBC launched its own version of Masters of Horror with the short-lived Fear Itself, created by Mick Garris. It was a massive bomb, pulled from the network before its final five episodes were even allowed to air, but it did have a few standout chapters, including “Skin & Bones” by Larry Fessenden and “The Sacrifice” with a young Jesse Plemons. The best episode was the fifth, “Eater,” directed by the legendary Stuart Gordon (Re-Animator) and starring Elisabeth Moss, Russell Hornsby, and Pablo Schreiber. Moss plays a young cop at a station that happens to be housing a vicious serial killer who has been known to eat his victims, slowly and painfully. As the night goes on, the Mad Men star becomes convinced that there’s more to the Eater than mere cannibalism, coming to believe that her fellow male cops are being impacted by the killing machine. It’s hard to believe this commentary on gender roles, washed in Gordon’s skillfully rendered gooey gore, was on network TV.
Often more science fiction than horror, FOX’s Fringe still had a tendency, not unlike The X-Files, to get pretty damn creepy — and never more so than in this season-three episode, a brilliant hour that tied the overall narrative about alternating universes into a terrifying case-of-the-week. The great Mark Ivanir plays a man who has been compassionately harvesting organs all around town, leaving his victims more alive than they should be after he takes their body parts. As if that’s not creepy enough, it’s revealed that he’s been taking the organs to put in the body of a ballerina who committed suicide and bring her back to life. The image of his own Frankenstein’s monster installed in what’s basically a marionette system by her creator is one of the show’s most memorable in its entire run.
Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities, “The Murmuring”
The brilliant Guillermo del Toro has produced an anthology series for Netflix that echoes projects like Masters of Horror, presenting eight different episodes by eight excellent horror directors, including Panos Cosmatos (Mandy), David Prior (The Empty Man) and Ana Lily Amirpour (A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night). The best of the bunch reunites The Babadook director Jennifer Kent with the star of that film, Essie Davis. The phenomenally talented Davis plays a grieving bird expert, filming flocks of birds on a nature project with her husband (an excellent Andrew Lincoln) and living in a creepy old house while she does. As something in the house starts to try to get her attention, “The Murmuring” becomes a perfect distillation of Kent’s interests and those of del Toro, who wrote the story on which this chapter is based. A bit of Babadook maternal horror plus a helping of Crimson Peak haunted house fare equals an unforgettable short film. Available to stream on Netflix as of October 28, 2022.
Bonus Episode – Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities, “Graveyard Rats”
If there’s a theme to the entire run of Cabinet of Curiosities, it might be the cost of greed, captured very well in the chapter directed by the great Vincenzo Natali (Splice), who reunites with his Cube star, David Hewlett (Stargate), in this grisly chapter. Hewlett plays a desperate grave robber, someone who truly needs the gold fillings that will only go to waste in a coffin. He becomes convinced that rats are stealing the bodies of the dead before he can even pillage them. As Hewlett goes deeper and deeper below ground, “Graveyard Rats” gets a little ludicrous, but its images of rodents crawling on (and in) human bodies are hard to shake (and the practical effects are pretty badass, too). Available to stream on Netflix as of October 25, 2022.
Hammer House of Horror, “The House That Bled to Death”
Only the Brits would pour blood all over a children’s birthday party. That’s the climax of this excellent hour of the ’80s horror anthology series in which a family of three moves into a home that appears to be, well, not quite right. First, the cat ends up dead in a freak accident and then sharp weapons keep popping up. Then there’s a hand in the fridge and the aforementioned blood shower. The end of “House” has a wonderful pair of twists, but it’s the creepy factor of the majority of the episode that makes it unforgettable.
There was enough gruesome gore throughout the entire run of Bryan Fuller’s masterful NBC series (a show that it’s still hard to believe actually played on network TV) but it’s difficult to actually pick out a single episode as “terrifying.” The whole show, sure, but it’s a program that set a tone more over a season and not really in stand-alone chunks. However, nothing on network TV in the last decade was more jaw-dropping than the closing scenes of “Mizumono,” when Hannibal Lecter’s viciousness and cruelty resulted in stunning bloodshed. It remains unforgettable and, especially for fans of the series who had been watching up to that point, terrifying.
The Haunting of Hill House, “The Bent-Neck Lady”
How could we leave one of the scariest show in years off the list? Picking one episode of Hill House is the toughest part. “Two Storms” is a brilliant technical achievement and “Steven Sees a Ghost” really sets the table in ways that you can’t appreciate until you watch the series twice, but the heartbreaking saga of Nellie Crain tops the list, not only for its remarkable emotional gravity but those final images of the truth behind the title character.
Bonus episode — The Haunting of Bly Manor, “The Altar of the Dead”
The second installment of Mike Flanagan’s “Haunting Collection” goes for more of a season-long mood, making picking one episode out of its 9-chapter run a little more difficult than the obviously terrifying centerpiece of Hill House. And yet the one that likely lingers the most in nightmares is again the middle of the mini-series, a stunning piece of editing work that jumps back and forth in time, sending the viewer deeper down the haunted rabbit hole of Bly Manor. This chapter focuses on Hannah Grose, the housekeeper of Bly Manor, and her story is haunting, but it’s the way the episode keeps circling back on itself, revealing the patterns of the supernatural residents of the mansion, that makes it so unforgettable.
Legion, “Chapter 5”
Noah Hawley’s FX series was not your typical superhero show. Technically a Marvel product, Legion starred Dan Stevens as David Haller, a mutant with unimaginable powers, but Hawley was more interested in a surreal journey through a damaged psyche than a traditional comic-book adaptation. Consequently, Legion often played with perspective in a manner that could produce nightmare fuel. Take the fifth chapter of the first season, an episode that seems to be almost heartwarming in the way it figures out how to bring David and Syd (Rachel Keller) together before spiraling into something else entirely. After David rescues his sister Amy (Katie Aselton), reality fractures in a few places that allow both Aubrey Plaza’s riveting Lenny and the monstrous Devil with Yellow Eyes to reveal the depth of David’s pain. And cause some frightened viewers too.
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.
Lovecraft Country, “Strange Case”
HBO won’t soon be forgiven for canceling this ambitious horror drama after only one season, but it’s going to age very well, especially as its stars become household names. The premiere is a fantastic table setter for the series, but it’s the standalone centerpiece that comes in chapter five that got the most people talking. Wunmi Mosaku (Loki) is fearless as her Ruby undergoes a metamorphosis that turns her into a white woman. She decides to use her new privilege to get a job at a department store, but discovers that the virulent racism that exists around her can’t be waved away because of how she looks now. Whether it’s the rotting flesh from Ruby’s body or the vicious violence she inflicts on her racist boss, Paul, this is an episode filled with memorable imagery. Lovecraft Country may have been an imperfect show, but any program willing to take risks as laudable as “Strange Case” deserves a place somewhere on TV.
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.
Bonus episode — Masters of Horror, “Incident On and Off a Mountain Road”
The Showtime anthology series, which is really overdue for a reboot right now if you think about the recent resurgence of the genre, sometimes overcomplicated its storytelling, which is one of the reasons this series premiere is so memorable. It’s so perfectly simple, tapping into that fear that rises in all drivers when they traverse isolated roads in the middle of the night. A nighttime car accident leads to a cat-and-mouse game with a driver and a serial killer in this clever half-hour from Don Coscarelli, director of Phantasm and Bubba Ho-Tep.
The Midnight Club, “The Wicked Heart”
In October 2022, The Haunting of Hill House mastermind Mike Flanagan produced another of his now-annual series, this one an adaptation of the books by Christopher Pike. The main structure of the program about teens living in a potentially haunted hospice comes from the Pike novel that gives the show its name, but Flanagan and Leah Fong also incorporate some of the author’s other works, including 1993’s The Wicked Heart. Kevin (Igby Rigney) tells his own variation on the tale of a serial killer who is haunted by the deformed ghosts of the women he has killed. Perfectly placed in the third chapter of the season, the intensifying action at Brightcliffe is given even more fuel by Kevin’s twisted tale, one that will wind through multiple episodes. Kevin’s story is one of grief and regret, themes that work through all of Midnight Club, but it’s on this list mostly for the imagery of the screaming-yet-silent murdered women. They’re haunting.
Midnight Mass, “Book VII: Revelation”
Mike Flanagan’s 2021 Netflix series was arguably his deepest, a rumination on faith, sacrifice, and responsibility that’s built more like a seven-part film than an episodic series. It’s hard to pick out a single chapter for a list like this one, so consider this entry a stand-in for the whole twisted thing. Midnight Mass tells the very Stephen King–inspired tale of a young man (Zach Gilford) who returns home to an isolated island after doing time behind bars. He meets a young priest (the brilliant Hamish Linklater) who has a secret of his own. Flanagan has never been more ambitious than he is in this original project, one that’s more haunting than instantly terrifying. It’s a show that’s hard to shake.
Monsterland, “New Orleans, LA”
Hulu’s 2020 adaptation of Nathan Ballingrud’s North American Lake Monsters is as hit-and-miss as any anthology series, but this third chapter in the set is the most striking in terms of pure fear. Nicole Beharie plays a woman who discovers that monsters are real, and she’s married to one. Her husband (Hamish Linklater) is accused of and then confesses to a lifetime of horrific crimes involving his patients as a pediatrician, leaving Beharie’s character haunted by the decisions she’s made over her life, and maybe even the times she looked the other way, including possibly with her own son. Nothing is scarier than the thought that your entire life has been a lie, and the setting allows director Craig William Macneill to play with Bayou imagery, particularly in a terrifying New Orleans street band leading our protagonist straight to a Hell of her own making.
Night Gallery, “The Caterpillar”
The king of TV horror, Rod Serling, wrote this segment of his anthology series Night Gallery, an episode that terrified anyone with even the mildest aversion to things that creep and crawl (and everyone else too, really). More accurately called “Earwig,” this is the story of a man (Laurence Hervey) stuck far away from his British comfort in a remote, rainy, section of the world. His boredom leads him to a beautiful woman and her older husband, deciding that he will do whatever it takes to have her. When another Brit suggests a regional murder technique in which an earwig is put in the victim’s ear and eats its way to its brain, Hervey agrees, only to wake up and find out that he’s become the host of the bug of death by accident. A final twist puts some lemon in the wound for anyone who worries about bugs in the middle of the night.
The Outer Limits, “It Crawled Out of the Woodwork”
Rod Serling’s anthology series The Twilight Zone often gets more attention, but The Outer Limits was nearly as influential. Most of the show hinged more on science-fiction ideas than horror, but this 1963 episode is a nice blend of the two. It basically turns something as intellectual as a California physics research center into a haunted house. The opening scene is a beauty, as a cleaning lady tries to suck up a dust bunny and appears to be scared to death by what comes bursting out of the vacuum cleaner. The reveal — that a mad scientist is using a malevolent force to kill people and then bring them back to life — is something straight out of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Some of this one is a bit dated, but try to watch it now through the eyes of a 1963 audience just sitting around the old TV after family dinner. It must have been terrifying.
The Ray Bradbury Theater, “Playground”
Ray Bradbury is a literary and television legend, his work adapted multiple times over the years, but he actually headlined his own anthology for two years on HBO in the ‘80s and then on USA for a few seasons after that. Bradbury wrote all 65 episodes himself, many of them based on his own stories, including this gem that dropped in only the second episode back on HBO. Airing in 1985, it stars William Shatner as a man who has never recovered from the deep trauma inflicted on him by childhood bullies on the playground. When his son reaches the right age, he takes him to the same playground, but his demons come with him. Some of it is a bit clunky in that ‘80s TV way, but Shatner makes the terror of his own trauma feel palpable, and the images of demonic children on a lonely playground has visceral power.
The Returned, “The Horde”
Consider this entry reflective of the entire first season of this French supernatural hit (also known as Les Revenants). All eight episodes are skin-crawlingly creepy and culminate in this action-heavy finale with an unforgettable scene on a bridge. Fabrice Gobert’s concept is so great that the show has already been rebooted with an American remake. That concept: What if your dead loved ones … just came back? Not as brain-eating zombies but exactly as they were when they left your life. The mystery of why these people have returned is the central focus of season one, but there’s also the unsettling question of what they want now that they have come back. This is atmospheric, haunting television, focused more on being subtly unsettling than on traditional jump scares or shocking scenes.
The Sandman, “24/7”
Everyone who had read Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman was excited to see how the Netflix adaptation would handle the terrifying “24 Hours,” the sixth issue of the comic, originally published in 1989. Quite possibly the scariest comic book to ever sit on the same shelf as Superman, “24 Hours” is the tale of an average diner caught in a nightmarish loop that people can never leave, their dreams, fears, and desires gaining supernatural fuel. The adaptation lacks some of the visceral power of the source but enough remains for a list like this one, and David Thewlis is excellent as the mysterious John, the puppet master controlling all the lost souls who wandered into his trap.
Stranger Things, “The Vanishing of Will Byers”
People forget that this Netflix blockbuster was once pretty damn scary. Each subsequent season has become a little goofier and more action-driven than the one before, but go back to those first four episodes, the ones that introduced the world to the Upside Down and the story of Eleven and notice how this show was more of the dark side of Stephen King than the fun one. The premiere represents that quartet of scary episodes best, defining the tone and mood of the first season as a threatening one, opening the season with the disappearance of a child. For any parent out there, losing Will Byers is scary enough for this to make the list, but the terrifying images of what he could be going through adds to the scare factor. Barb’s fate may have been technically “scarier” a few episodes later, but the premiere is the most effective in terms of creepiness because of how much of the foundation it laid for what was to come.
Supernatural, “Everybody Loves a Clown”
For a show called Supernatural, there are surprisingly few actually scary episodes of the long-running hit, a program that’s more action-drama than horror. In fact, one could argue that the scariest image the show produced was in the season premiere. However, there were a few spine-tinglers after that, including “Roadkill” and “Croatoan,” but nothing gets the blood curdling quite like an expressionless clown waving in the middle of the night.
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.
The Terror: Infamy, “A Sparrow in a Swallow’s Nest”
It’s hard to pick out a single episode of AMC’s The Terror and say it’s the “scariest.” Both seasons played the long game, working mood and atmosphere across multiple episodes. You could really pick any episode as representative of the whole season in both installments, which is the way one should consider this entry for the powerful sophomore year of the show. It could make this list just for its opening image alone, in which a Japanese woman takes one of the chopsticks from her hair and drives it, too damn slowly, into her ear. The season is filled with ghosts and actual horrors of American history, but that opening suicidal image haunts the entire thing.
This underrated spinoff of Doctor Who has a number of series highlights but often tends more toward the sci-fi side of the genre aisle than horror. That’s one of the reasons this series-one episode is so effective, as the Torchwood crew investigates a series of brutal murders in the country, we assume it’s going to the product of some alien invasion. Naw, just creepy villagers who like to eat people. You might want to cancel that road trip about now.
Thriller, “Pigeons from Hell”
Thriller doesn’t get the same attention as beloved anthologies The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits, but it produced some absolute gems. The best episode of the Boris Karloff series adapts a short story written by Robert E. Howard that was published way back in 1938. Broadcast in the first season of the NBC show in 1961, two years before The Birds by the way, “Pigeons from Hell” tells the tale of two brothers (Brandon De Wilde & David Whorf) who break down in the deep South and find themselves at a haunted plantation. After one of the brothers appears to lose his mind, the other brings in a Sheriff to investigate, discovering the history of the plantation and the unsettling birds that keep appearing there. It’s a little dated but there’s an eerie power to its visuals that’s timeless.
The Twilight Zone, “Living Doll”
Much like the other anthology series on 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!”
Bonus episode — The Twilight Zone, “The Hitch-Hiker”
There are obviously a dozen or more choices to make from Rod Serling’s masterpiece, one of the best shows of all time. You could really just sample it all day on Halloween and find enough frights. But make sure to include this gem, the story of a woman who barely survives a car accident only to be visited over and over again by a mysterious hitchhiker as she continues on her way. Based on a radio play by Louise Fletcher, “The Hitch-Hiker” also has echoes of the masterful horror movie Carnival of Souls, a personal favorite. See that now if you have yet to do so.
The Twilight Zone, “Nightcrawlers”
People often forget that Jordan Peele wasn’t the first person to reboot The Twilight Zone. In the mid-’80s, an incredibly talented crew that included Wes Craven and Harlan Ellison teamed up to reimagine the Rod Serling classic for a new generation. This is the peak of their endeavor, the third chapter of the fourth episode, from way back in 1985. The story of a Vietnam vet who ends up at a rain-soaked diner in the middle of the night was directed by the legendary William Friedkin (The Exorcist), and his incredible talent shows through in every paranoid frame. A cop pushes a vet to talk about ’Nam before realizing that the sweaty traveler has literally brought the war home with him. The action-packed finale shows off Friedkin’s gift with such things, and the theme of the piece — how veterans sometimes feel like they never left combat — comes out in fascinating, horrifying ways.
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.
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.
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.
Bonus episodes — The X-Files, “Squeeze”/“Tooms”
Yes, this is a bit of cheating, but you really can’t watch one without the other, and they work perfectly as a Halloween double feature. The X-Files became famous for what could be called “monster of the week” episodes, which often worked better than the mythology episodes, and these remain two of the best. “Squeeze” was actually only the third episode ever, introducing us to Eugene Victor Tooms, an unforgettable creation of actor Doug Hutchison, and a man who could squeeze through any gap to commit his brutal murders.