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 The Haunting of Hill House. 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 thirty 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 30 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. Available to stream on Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon.
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.
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 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. Available to stream on Hulu.
Bonus episode — Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s “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. 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.
Bonus episode — Doctor Who’s “Listen”: One of the best modern episodes of Doctor Who is also one of the most chill-inducing hours of television this decade. 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.
Believe it or not, one of the most effectively creepy shows you could watch this Halloween isn’t on HBO or streaming but sitting right there on basic network television. 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 within the constraints of ad-driven TV. It’s proof you can still do this kind of thing right on the networks. 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.
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 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.
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.
Bonus episode — Masters of Horror’s “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 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 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.
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. Available to rent on Amazon, iTunes, and Google Play.
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.
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!” Available to stream on Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu.
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. 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.
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.