Over the past few years, television horror has enjoyed a bit of a renaissance. From series about serial killers to the return of the anthology thrillers, most major networks have at least experimented with adding more frightening elements to their primetime lineups. Series like Scream and Bates Motel pay homage to beloved horror movies. Others, like The Vampire Diaries and Penny Dreadful tap into timeless lore about things that go bump in the night.
But some series truly stand out as fantastic examples of how terrifying TV can be with the right creative minds calling the shots. Some were ahead of their time and were cut unmercifully short as a result, while others have become true classics, creating iconic characters and shaping the genre for generations to come. All of them have given us a reason to sleep with the light on. Here are the 14 Best Horror TV Shows Of All Time.
14. Twilight Zone
The driving theme song. Rod Serling’s foreboding introduction. Surreal stories about impossible twists of fate. The Twilight Zone wasn’t a horror show in the strictest sense of the word, in that it rarely creates a true sense of fear. But more than 50 years after its original run ended on CBS, it remains one of the most unnerving TV series ever produced.
Each episode was designed to chill audiences and, ultimately, to teach a lesson. With six seasons during its original run, the anthology series told sci-fi and psychological suspense stories from Ray Bradbury and Richard Matheson, and delivered countless — and often brilliant — twist endings. The Twilight Zone also created a mood that’s been almost unmatched on network TV since. Serling crafted the types of stories that stay with us long after we’re done with them. And with lively mannequins, living dolls, pig-faced humans and flying creatures that stalk William Shatner while he’s trapped on an airplane, it definitely had its share of hair-raising moments along the way.
13. The Outer Limits
Like The Twilight Zone, this ABC series focused its efforts on telling creepy standalone stories. It had two incarnations — a short run in 1964-1965, and then a revival on Showtime that lasted from 1994-2002. Though The Outer Limits has often been compared to its predecessor — with good reason — it does have plenty of its own merits, especially where the scare factor is concerned.
Throughout its second run, the series consistently featured bizarre and often fantastical stories from an impressive range of writers, most notably George R. R. Martin and Stephen King. Both versions of The Outer Limits offered up ambitious makeup and special effects: glass hands that can see the future, sea creatures, and human-faced spider aliens bent on colonizing Earth with their most undesirable citizens. While monsters ran amok throughout many of The Outer Limits episodes, many of its most memorable moments focused in on psychological impact of the unknown. They explored nuclear holocaust, hostile extraterrestrials and the threat of surveillance, tapping into a primal paranoia about not only the world around us, but those things we can sense but cannot see.
12. Night Gallery
Rod Serling just couldn’t get enough of the weekly anthology series. After wrapping up The Twilight Zone, he turned his attention to Night Gallery, a show that focused on purely supernatural stories. The premise was pretty simple: Serling introduced three paintings, which then more or less came to life in the form of three separate macabre tales. Like other anthology series of the time, Night Gallery employed a list of notable talent to bring its stories to life — Joan Crawford and Sally Fields each appeared in memorable episodes; Serling adapted stories from H.P. Lovecraft and August Derleth; and the very first episode featured Steven Spielberg’s directorial debut.
The creative team — star-studded and not — delivered stories that were positively chilling. We’re talking ghosts, macabre medieval death rites, omniscient children that foresee bleak futures, and parasitic caterpillars that really love ear canals. For its time — it ran from 1970 to 1973 — Night Gallery certainly pushed the boundaries of how far a TV show could go to scare the living daylights out of people.
11. Kolchak: The Night Stalker
In so many ways, Kolchak: The Night Stalker was ahead of its time. It broke the mold set by other horror series, which primarily told standalone stories with little to no larger arc. A thriller about a Chicago journalist/supernatural investigator, it was part mystery, part monster-of-the-week, and 100 percent fun.
At the center of the series was Carl Kolchak, a dogged reporter with a penchant for wry humor and seersucker suits. His investigations took him to some of the darkest parts of Chicago imaginable, where he encountered all manner of nefarious beings: vampires, witches, succubus and Native American spirits, just to name a few. Kolchak: The Night Stalker struggled to find an audience when it originally aired — it was canceled after just 20 episodes during the 1974-75 TV season — and an ill-fated 2005 reboot didn’t fare much better. But it has a longer-lasting legacy, paving the way for some of our favorite horror series by showing us that there was a place for non-anthology horror on network TV.
10. Tales From the Crypt
For years, television horror was spooky enough, but always a little bit watered down thanks to network content restrictions. Then came Tales from the Crypt, HBO’s raunchy, profanity-laced, gore-filled anthology that made The Twilight Zone look like Sesame Street. Based on several EC Comics titles, the series was hosted by the Crypt Keeper, a pun-loving re-animated corpse with access to an endless archive of scary stories. Many episodes were crafted by seasoned Hollywood veterans like Robert Zemeckis and horror legends like Tobe Hooper and William Friedkin. The constantly revolving door of characters were brought to life by the likes of Demi Moore, Joe Pesci, and dozens of other prominent ‘90s celebrities.
In its seven years on the air, Tales From the Crypt gave us money-hungry murderers, cannibals, a depraved Santa Claus, and dozens of despicable people getting a healthy dose of karmic payback . It also reminded how much fun horror can be in the right hands. M. Night Shyamalan and TNT recently teamed up to bring Tales From the Crypt back for a new generation of horror fans — here’s hoping the Sixth Sense director can strike the right balance between horror and humor, too.
9. Twin Peaks
Arguably one of the most popular cult TV shows of all time, Twin Peaks isn’t horror in the strictest sense of the word. In fact, a majority of Mark Frost and David Lynch’s seminal series was a suspenseful study of human nature and other-worldly elements — but scary, it often was not. FBI Agent Dale Cooper’s quest to figure out who killed Laura Palmer was punctuated, however, by supernatural hallucinations, disturbing acts of violence, and encounters with places and entities that made it occasionally like a horror masterpiece. Forays into the surreal Red Room and Black Lodge lead to encounters with spirits and other alternate reality inhabitants, and, eventually, run-ins with one of the most terrifying villains in television history. Killer BOB was a demon with a passion for pleasure and fear — and he was had no qualms going to disturbing lengths to feed on his victims in an attempt to get what he craved.
Twin Peaks only aired for two seasons before ABC pulled the plug — but in 2017, we’ll get a chance to enjoy new episodes, in all their bizarre and unnerving glory, when Showtime reboots the series for a limited revival run.
8. Are You Afraid of the Dark?
When compared to some of the other series on this list, Are You Afraid of the Dark? probably doesn’t seem all that scary anymore. As a show about kids and designed for kids, its thrills are pretty tame, all things considered.
But back in the mid-to-late ‘90s, the Midnight Society was a SNICK staple, and the go-to source for all things terrifying. When you heard the haunting, echo-y theme music and saw that unnecessarily terrifying clown doll in the opening credits, you knew some serious horror was about to go down. Yes, in retrospect it can be cheesy as hell. But some of Are You Afraid of the Dark’s most memorable creatures — from the Nosferatu-like vampire to the Ghastly Grinner — still hold up as viable contenders for nightmare fodder.
7. The X-Files
Over nine seasons, The X-Files ran the gamut when it came to covering horror themes. Mulder (David Duchovny) and Scully’s (Gillian Anderson) investigations into the unexplained and paranormal touched on just about every sci-fi and supernatural element imaginable, from ghosts and vampires to elaborate alien colonization conspiracies.
Even the most ardent fans agree that Chris Carter’s iconic series was prone to getting bogged down by its mythology, but in terms of delivering unforgettable monsters, The X-Files is hard to beat. Mulder and Scully’s encounters with the fluke monster, a clan of inbred murderers and the stretchy-fingered, organ-eating Eugene Tooms are still some of the most disturbing moments ever broadcast on network TV. Even the series’ shaky reboot earlier this year managed to deliver a couple of noteworthy creatures, proving the X-Files team may still have it in them to expand on their horror legacy.
6. American Gothic
In the realm of criminally underrated horror television, American Gothic might take the cake.
It followed Caleb Temple (Lucas Black), a young boy with the unique ability to call upon ghosts for help, including his sister Merlyn (Sarah Paulson!). He needed to do that a lot, since Lucas Buck (Gary Cole), his father and the sheriff of his small South Carolina town, was a brutal murderer and rapist with his own supernatural allies and a strong desire to take Caleb under his incredibly evil wing. Shaun Cassidy’s series was way too heavy for its original 1995 audience, and it only lasted one season on CBS. But with its sinister look at the battle between good and evil, it remains one of the most compelling plot-driven horror series of the 20th century.
5. Buffy the Vampire Slayer
What started as a campy ’90s teen horror ended up becoming one of the most beloved TV shows of the 1990s. Buffy the Vampire Slayer followed its titular heroine through the hell of high school all the way through adulthood. Along the way, Buffy Summers (Sarah Michelle Gellar) slayed countless vampires, and plenty of other enemies — and both were the source of the series’ scariest moments.
Throughout the series, Joss Whedon’s breakthrough series introduced us to snake monsters, an ancient vampire Master, reptilian demons moonlighting as kindly old men, and the scariest bad guys of all, the floating, grinning, heart-stealing Gentlemen. Each were terrifying in their own way — and they all made worthy foes for one of the coolest TV characters ever.
4. True Blood
It might seem easy to write True Blood off as just a campy genre show. With its plethora of shape-shifters, werewolves, fairies and, yes, vampires, it certainly did its part to draw in fantasy and horror fans from all walks of life. But while the series had more than its share of lighthearted moments, it was also just plain scary.
On HBO, True Blood creator Alan Ball had free reign to up the ante on gore. In seven seasons, we witnessed heads being turned 360 degrees, possessed witches and innumerable vampires being violently reduced to a sticky puddle of plasma. There was also enough sex to make even the most seasoned HBO fans blush. So while Sookie Stackhouse’s (Anna Paquin) adventures in Bon Temps were blood-soaked more often than not, they were also frighteningly fun to boot.
Two brothers join forces to travel across the United States and take down as many evil entities as they can manage. It’s a deceptively simple premise — one that’s helped to make Supernatural the longest-running horror TV series of all time.
At its core, the series borrows heavily from those that came before it by combining a larger story arc with monster-of-the-week elements. And those monsters have definitely been worth tuning in for on more than one occasion. Over the years, Sam and Dean Winchester (Jensen Ackles and Jared Padalecki) have fought off modern incarnations of Bloody Mary, the hitchhiker, and many other frightening urban legends. They’ve also taken on Lucifer himself, a task that would look good on any demon-hunter’s resume.
2. The Walking Dead
You know what’s scary? Zombies. You know what’s scarier? Human nature. Over the course of six seasons, AMC’s The Walking Dead has shown us how truly terrifying an undead apocalypse can be, as it follows Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln), his allies and his enemies in their attempt to survive in a desolate, walker-filled landscape.
Throughout the course of the series, the decrepit, seething, flesh-hungry beings that Rick’s crew encounter have been downright horrifying. But the human foes they meet are often far more disturbing. From tyrants to unabashed cannibals, The Walking Dead’s evolving list of villains have helped make the series as much about psychological horror as it is about gore. We’ve watched characters we know and love resort to depraved acts — namely killing friends and children, and gnawing on throats — in the name of staying alive. And we haven’t even seen what the terrifyingly imposing big bad Negan has up his sleeve yet.
1. American Horror Story
If American Horror Story had one tagline that encompassed its very different seasons, it would probably be, “Let’s get weird, then scare the crap out of ourselves.” Ryan Murphy’s anthology series has become famous for focusing each season on a different spooky location and often reusing core cast members in wildly different roles. Since it premiered in 2011, American Horror Story has taken us inside haunted houses, covens, hotels, freak shows, and one incredibly dysfunctional insane asylum. The characters that inhabit these terrifying places are disturbed, depraved, or just have the incredible misfortune of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Sometimes it veers into truly bizarre territory, and struggles to find its way back. But when it’s at its best, dishing out vengeful French maid ghosts, deformed demonic babies, serial killer clowns, and Sarah Paulson (always Sarah Paulson), AHS is hands-down the scariest series on TV right now.
What’s your favorite scary TV show? Let us know in the comments!
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