Over the past few years there’s been a resurgence in fantasy and horror television shows with many networks and streaming companies going all in on genre content. As an added bonus for viewers, TV intros have been bought back from the grave being used as calling cards for series like Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead amongst others.
From television’s inception, intros and theme songs have been instrumental to a show’s success, with the really great ones weaving themselves into the fabric of pop culture. Over the last fifteen years, however, intros looked to be a thing of the past, but thankfully that’s not the case.
For horror and fantasy fans, there’s nothing like watching a classic scary intro that instantly transports you back in time, bringing up those same anxieties and fears when you first heard it. Much like a short story or a campfire tale, a memorable spooky TV intro has the power to unsettle you for a brief amount of time, as it dives deep into your psyche. Scanning the various eras of television and with the lights on of course, we take a look back at the 15 Scariest TV Show Intros of All Time.
Death, decay, and taxidermy is what this intro delivers. Robert Kirkman, creator of The Walking Dead, didn’t stray too far when creating the intro for his demonic supernatural series, Outcast. Just like his zombie hit, Outcast’s opening sequence utilizes many abandoned and spooky locations, relying heavily on mood and ambiance to build tension and dread about the show.
Instead of having walkers looming just off camera like see in TWD, this intro has black, tar-like viscera seeping and overtaking the world, signifying the demons that reside in the darkness. The opening also has cool editing techniques where many of the town shots are shown upside down providing the sinister reality found in the story.
Premiering in 2016, this Cinemax series may not be as well-known as many of the selections on this list, but this newbie has a quality eerie opening. The theme song isn’t as catchy and recognizable as TWD, but Outcast’s score composed by Academy Award winner Atticus Ross, perfectly suits the evil and possession the show is centered around. Ross’ intense, industrial tune immediately gives the show a foreboding and unnerving energy that drags a viewer in.
A Labrador with glowing yellow eyes. The image of a smiling woman on a billboard suddenly turning sickly and sad. Nowadays, when the intro for Goosebumps is brought up, the dog and the billboard are just a couple of the key images that spring to mind. Based on R.L. Stine’s widely popular book series, Goosebumps was a success for Fox Kids back in 1995 bringing to life some of Stine’s supernatural creations like Slappy the Dummy and The Haunted Mask.
Mysterious with a touch of the absurd is how you could describe the show’s catchy theme song composed by Jack Lenz. The music plays its sinister yet playful tune as a figure dressed in all black holding a briefcase (presumably Stine since the case has his name on it) appears on a hill overlooking a town. The briefcase opens as a gust of wind blows away the papers inside, one of which turns into the letter “G” in the logo font. The shadowy “G” moves throughout the town affecting the environment for the strange, until finally making its way inside a house. The clip ends with a menacing voice saying “Goosebumps. Viewer, beware. You’re in for a scare!” That we were.
13. ARE YOU AFRAID OF THE DARK?
At the top of the list of creepiest kids shows is the 1990 Nickelodeon favorite, Are You Afraid of the Dark? The horror anthology series aimed at kids was the perfect option during the ‘90s if you were too young to watch horror films or didn’t stay up late enough to watch Tales from the Crypt.
Airing Saturday nights on the SNICK programming block, the show’s intro would open at night showing various spooky, abandoned locales like a playground, a dinghy rocking next to the shore and an old attic featuring a clown doll (because you’ve got to have one of those). Out of the dark would appear a hand holding a single match that suddenly ignites bringing light to the title card.
Simple yet very effective in getting kids ready for a scary good time, the images were accompanied by a theme song composed by Jeff Zahn. Just under Zahn’s music, various sounds effects such as a heartbeat, thunder, and a child’s laugh really brought everything together. The Midnight Society’s members changed over the years but the theme song was always there to freak out kids.
12. THE STRAIN
The best vampire series currently on TV also happens to have three of the coolest horror filled opening sequences. We say three because during its 3 season run, the creative team behind the series including Guillermo del Toro, has played around with their intro, overhauling it twice. The Strain’s original intro was short but nasty. Being a vampire show, of course the visuals were heavy on blood, as well as gross parasites and subway tiles, featuring an old world theme song by Ramin Djawadi, famous for scoring HBO’s Game of Thrones.
During season 2 in the episode “Battle for Red Hook”, the show created a special one-time comic book centric opening as a nod to its Dark Horse Comics run. The animated sequence showed the vampire apocalypse in all its bloody glory with the Strigoi (vampires) appearing in the dark with their glowing white eyes and disgusting snake-like tongues. For season 3, the show created an entirely new main intro with a frenetic rock theme to boot! A mixture of live-action and computer animation, we see the outbreak taking over New York, with humanity battling the Strigoi trying not turn into blood sucking monsters.
11. FREDDY’S NIGHTMARES
At the height of Freddy Krueger’s popularity, New Line Cinema decided to roll out a television series based on everyone’s favorite wise-cracking slasher. Using the format of a horror anthology series (of course), the show was able to get Robert Englund to play Freddy, serving as the host/narrator appearing at the beginning and end of each episode. Getting A Nightmare on Elm Street TV show with Freddy was a coup for horror fans who could only see Krueger in theaters prior to this offering.
While the actual series was pretty weak, the intro more than made up for it. The opening offers up a little backstory on Freddy himself as a sign welcomes viewers to Springwood. Through various pictures the town is portrayed as a slice of Americana with kids at the playground, playing basketball, then quickly the tone changes as we see the cover of Springwood Gazette newspaper. The headline reads “Freddy Krueger released today” as flames begin to engulf it and the next thing we see is Freddy on fire, presumably at the hands of the vengeful parents, with him yelling “I’ll be back.” From there he takes his nightmare form, collecting souls with his razors gloved hand. Welcome to prime time kids!
10. THE OUTER LIMITS
“There is nothing wrong with your television set. Do not attempt to adjust the picture. We are controlling transmission.” That’s how the opening narration would begin for the 1963 anthology series, The Outer Limits. The brilliance of this approach is that since it was during the early years of television, people momentarily might believe that something could be wrong with their television sets, as homes would often lose or get bad signals. The narrator or the Control Voice belonged to actor Vic Perrin as he established that there were powers out there that could control our world, taking us to that place known as The Outer Limits.
During the ‘1960s, if you were a fan of fantasy and science fiction your two main TV options were The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits. While Rod Serling’s show was a half-hour morality tale, The Outer Limits tended to be more sci-fi focused running for an hour. While the narration explained what was occurring, viewers would see images of an oscilloscope, the moon and static as the show’s title would move towards you at the end. The overall effect created a strange and unsettling mood especially in the time it premiered in.
9. THE HITCHHIKER
Before Tales from the Crypt, HBO first ventured into the genre anthology world with the often forgotten The Hitchhiker. Airing from 1983 to 1987 on HBO then moving to the USA Network, each episode explored the dark side of humanity with suspenseful and thrilling stories. The series had a very mature, serious tone that separated it from the sillier blood & gore content of the time.
Like any good anthology, the show had an enigmatic and interesting host/narrator that would appear in the opening sequence. Basically the ‘80s version of Rod Serling minus the suit and cigarette. Playing that title role was Page Fletcher, who replaced Nicholas Campbell after only 3 episodes. Book ending each episode, Fletcher would appear with a backpack slung over his shoulder, wandering through a barren desert landscape. Calming yet cryptic is how one could describe this piece.
Doing his best David Banner/lonely man impression, Fletcher would walk along the desert road with his thumb out, hoping for someone to give him a ride. On their own the visuals aren’t scary but when you add the theme music by Michel Rubini, viewers at home would be hesitant knowing that bad things were coming down the road.
8. TALES FROM THE CRYPT
The intro for HBO’s Tales from the Crypt was scary and thrilling at the same time. This journey inside the Crypt Keeper’s abode felt like being in a demented funhouse ride. The horror anthology series based on the EC Comics, premiered in 1989 during a low period for horror on TV. Being on HBO, the series was unrestricted with the gore, violence and nudity.
The MC of the madness was the Crypt Keeper (voiced by John Kassir), but to get to his decrepit corpse, viewers had to traverse through a haunted mansion. Danny Elfman created a playful theme that was just the right piece to go with the visuals. The intro is a long tracking shot that begins at the gates of a gothic-like mansion at the top of a hill. Weaving our way inside where cobweb-filled stairs and hallways greet us, we then head down a secret stone stairway surrounded by gothic faced pillars. At the bottom, we’re at the door of the crypt as inside is a disgusting and ancient looking catacomb as we stop in front of a coffin. That’s when the look-away moment occurs as the Crypt Keeper springs out of the coffin and belts out his trademark cackle.
7. THE WALKING DEAD
The moment this intro plays viewers know that death, torture and zombies are just around the corner. The super-successful series has made the zombie apocalypse cool while growing into an international brand with a plethora of merchandise. While the opening sequence images and credits may change year to year, composer Bear McCreary’s catchy and repetitive tune is a constant. A common thread you’ll notice with many introductions on this list is that the music is simple and very repetitive. That’s a good thing for genre intros because if done correctly, that tune forever imbeds itself into viewer’s heads, transporting them to a dark and terrifying place.
Accompanying Bear McCreary’s strings driven theme is a variety of empty and abandoned locations that correlate to where the story is taking place for that particular season. The intro’s feeling of emptiness is a clever way of placing the viewer inside the show’s post-apocalyptic world, letting them become one of the survivors. Creepy woods, empty buildings, unmarked graves, and key personal items of characters on the show, establish a landscape of death and darkness.
6. AMERICAN HORROR STORY
Five for the price of one is what audiences get with this delightfully wicked series. For six seasons now, American Horror Story has treated fans to a new form of the horror anthology with seasons revolving around separate, self-contained stories. With that, Ryan Murphy and his team have also created new opening sequences for each, incorporating characters and story elements that pertain to that season’s theme. The detail and production quality paid to each is head and shoulders better than what you find with subpar Redbox horror. Each season’s intro could work as individual short films. That’s how good they are.
These frightful works of art are connected by a central theme song composed by Cesar Davila-Irizarry and Charlie Clouser (known for his work on the SAW films). Their industrial rock infused score gives life to the nasty and nightmare inducing visuals each season like “Coven”, “Hotel” and “Murder House” present. Kyle Cooper’s company, Prologue, who created the opening for The Walking Dead, has done most of the title sequences for AMH. The most recent season “Roanoke” however, has dropped the intro in favor of just a title card. Here’s hoping season 7 goes back to using the wicked openings.
5. THE X-FILES
In the 1990s, The X-Files was king when it came to having a TV intro that would scare and give viewers chills. Not since The Twilight Zone, had a genre show’s intro/theme song been so popular and memorable than with this Chris Carter hit. Alongside Agents Mulder and Scully, the opening sequence is an integral part of the show’s success. A perfect microcosm of the series, the montage of images and clips leaned heavy on mystery and the paranormal, letting audiences know that the cases being investigated are of the supernatural variety.
Marc Snow composed the famous score, keeping it instrumental with a shot of synth. While the music hooked you in with its frightful melody, the nightmarish images is what sealed the deal. UFO home footage, apparitions walking down the hall and wording such as “Paranormal Activity” and “Government Denies Knowledge” really played up the genre foundation for the show. Stars David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson are the only actors credited in the opening as we see their character’s FBI badges. The sequence ends with the show’s slogan of “The Truth is Out There.”
4. STRANGER THINGS
The phenomenon of last summer was Netflix’s breakout hit, Stranger Things. The Spielberg and Stephen King influenced hybrid, had misfit kids on bikes battling government agents and monsters from the Upside Down. Fans wouldn’t dare skip the opening title sequence as it, along with the show in general, was a big love letter to the era.
Simplistic in its execution, the almost one-minute long clip has nothing but the red glowing title text slowly moving in front of a black backdrop. Playing over the floating typography is a hypnotic synth score by Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein, members of the group Survive. That short piece of music is something your life never knew it needed until hearing it. Pulling from the synth-wave music of the Ronald Regan decade, the pair were able to create a song that could easily be used in a John Carpenter film or in a scene from Blade Runner.
As the text finally falls into place to form the show’s title, the nostalgic reveal is complete. The old adage of “more is less” certainly rings true here as the Stranger Things intro set the table for the supernatural chapters each episode would show.
3. THE TWILIGHT ZONE
Hands down the most famous TV intro on this list and arguably anywhere else, is Rod Serling’s masterpiece series, The Twilight Zone. If you’ve watched TV at some point in your life, you’re familiar with the music and images for this classic.
Viewers are immediately transported to another world – dimension if you will – upon hearing Marius Constant’s beautiful yet haunting score. Those unmistakable instrumental notes that have become synonymous with the strange and unexplained, create a sense of unease as Rod Serling’s ominous narration warns us that “You are traveling through another dimension.” With space as the backdrop, we see a montage of black and white surrealist images including a door, a swirling vortex, a blinking eye and a clock.
As famous as The Twilight Zone’s intro is, it actually went through various changes over the seasons. The first season’s theme was written by famed composer and Alfred Hitchcock collaborator, Bernard Herrmann, giving it a slower and equally mysterious quality. Serling’s narrations year to year would also vary, as would the combination of images used in the opening montage. Regardless of what season you watched, it’s almost impossible not to whistle the theme song after hearing it.
2. TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE
Finding someone to recall an episode from this horror anthology series might be a difficult thing to do. But ask that same person about the show’s intro and their eyes will get wide and heart starts to race as they describe all of the scenic images that culminate in the chilling opening. Debuting in 1983 and created by horror icon George A. Romero, Tales From the Darkside was supposed to capitalize on Romero’s feature anthology Creepshow. While the TV show lasted 4 seasons and ended up getting its own movie in 1990, what fans loved most was its sinister intro.
Rather than using monsters, ghosts or disgusting imagery for the introduction, the show went the opposite way. Viewers were greeted by a montage of quaint landscapes: forests, farms, bridges and creeks that were accompanied by a synthesized chilling tune. Performed by Donald Rubinstein, the simple and repetitive music was the perfect pairing to the 9 images, creating an atmospheric intro filled with a sense of dread and isolation. To ramp up the darkness, Paul Sparer’s spine-tingling narration explaining the “darkside” of our world, as negative images of the countryside appeared with the title, created one of the scariest intros ever.
1. UNSOLVED MYSTERIES
How could a show meant to help people and solve crimes have such a terrifying introduction? We’re not sure, but Unsolved Mysteries did just that as its infamous theme song created nightmares for kids and adults. There’s no other way around it, this intro is the last thing you’d want to see alone at night.
Before you hear or see any footage the first thing that pops up is a disclaimer stating “What you are about to see is not a news broadcast.” That immediately raises flags that the following isn’t make believe but rather based on actual cases and reported events. If you didn’t change the channel at that point, then that goosebumps inducing music composed by Michael Boyd and Gary Remal Malkin would begin. Robert Stack (host/narrator) would then appear, wearing his trademark trench coat, asking you “Join me, perhaps you may be able to help solve a mystery.” After that it’s a freefall of fright where you’re bombarded with clips and images of killers, UFO’s, ghosts, missing persons and the occasional bigfoot sighting.
The opening logo and graphics may look dated but they perfectly created an otherworldly documentary that hasn’t lost one bit of its eerie impact today.
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