Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a difficult series to define, genre-wise — any devoted fan can tell you that. It’s funny. It’s emotional. It’s introspective. It’s action-packed. With seven seasons worth of vampires, witches, werewolves and countless other creepy creatures, too, we can’t deny it is, in large part, a horror series. Sure, not every episode was designed to keep us up at night — but there were plenty that stack up nicely against many other incredible horror-themed TV series.
Some are scary because Joss Whedon and his friends pulled out all the stops when it comes to gory horror. Others gave classic supernatural themes a uniquely Buffy twist. Some got under our skin because they mess with our minds and remind us that even the most commonplace things in our lives can be terrifying. All of them are among the best the series ever produced. Here, in chronological order, are our picks for the 16 Scariest Episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
For a series that billed itself as part-horror, it might seem strange that it took Buffy the Vampire Slayer so long to directly deal with the idea of fear. Near the end of its first season, we got an episode in which our main characters have to face their biggest nightmares as they try to help a little boy. Not surprisingly, the Scooby Gang’s fears run the gamut. Some are more benign — Buffy’s fear of having to take a test she didn’t study for, and Willow’s terror at having to perform on stage are real-world horrors that feel very relatable. Xander getting attacked by a killer clown is definitely chill-inducing, and watching Buffy become the very thing she hunts — a vampire — while Giles is overcome with grief over losing her is downright chilling.
By letting us live in each of these nightmares for just a moment with the Scoobies, “Nightmares” doesn’t just succeed in becoming the first truly creepy episode of the series — it also helps us get to know the characters just a little bit better.
When Whedon and crew decided to make Buffy’s lover, Angel, the main antagonist of the second half of Season 2, they created a unique challenge for themselves. Angelus had to do something truly terrible to Buffy for him to really feel like a credible threat — and after a few episodes of playing a kind of cat-and-mouse game with the Slayer, he finally went in for the kill.
“Passion” sets fans on the edge of their seats right from the get-go, because the episode’s narrative is framed through Angelus’ eyes. He ruminates on what keeps humans alive as he lurks in the shadows, watching Buffy and her friends. From killing Willow’s pets and leaving a drawing of Buffy sleeping on her pillow to going after her mother, Angelus’ predatory actions throughout the episode are all pretty hair-raising. But the sequence in which he goes after Jenny Calendar, chasing her through the school before gleefully breaking her neck, is edge-of-your-seat, can’t-catch-your-breath terrifying. “Passion” not only served to completely rattle fans — it reminded us that none of our beloved Buffy characters were truly safe.
14. Killed By Death
What do you get when you combine a sketchy hospital and a low-rent Freddy Krueger? On a show like Buffy, it’s a surprisingly effective horror tale that taps into multiple primal fears and delivers one of the series’ scariest villains ever.
“Killed By Death” finds Buffy waylaid by a common flu bug in the hospital. Of course, it turns out the doctors are performing weird experiments on the sick children there. And of course there’s also an especially evil demon, Der Kindestod, with teeth like razors and detachable eyes that suck the souls right out of little kids. Only the sick kids, Buffy included, can see him, and that adds an extra psychological component to the already disturbing story. Thanks to Der Kindestod’s especially creepy presence — roaming the halls, unbeknownst to anyone but those sick enough to see him — the entire episode is an eerie meditation on childhood fear that often doesn’t get the credit it deserves.
13. I Only Have Eyes For You
This somber, harrowing tale of forbidden love doesn’t usually make “Best of” lists for Buffy episodes, but it’s one that horror fans can’t miss. Rounding out perhaps the creepiest slate of back-to-back episodes in Buffy history, this standalone episode follows a 1950s couple who possess the bodies of unsuspecting Sunnydale High students and staff. See, as a teacher and student, their love was forbidden — and it ended tragically in a murder-suicide. They use the bodies of anyone they can find to replay their twisted final moments.
The Scooby Gang encounters numerous spooky roadblocks in their attempt to solve the mystery — a cafeteria full of snakes, quicksand-like tiles in the hallways, and rotting apparitions, just to name a few. A Buffy-and-Angelus-themed twist to the doomed love story wraps the story up neatly, and elevates their already operatic romance to almost ridiculous levels. What really stands out from this episode isn’t the sweeping melodrama, though — it’s how well the Buffy team managed to tell a good old-fashioned ghost story.
12. The Wish
Alternate-reality episodes are either very good or very bad — but few have managed to turn out quite this horrifically. Cordelia unknowingly enlists the help of vengeance demon Anya to wipe Buffy’s presence out of Sunnydale — and basically transforms her hometown into Hellmouth Central in the process. Seeing Willow and Xander wearing leather and chowing down mercilessly on their victims is fun in a “this doesn’t happen every day” way — at least, at first.
Before too long, though, the world becomes too much to bear. The Master rules the roost, and creates blood-sucking production lines that turns Sunnydale’s residents into nothing more than cattle ready for the slaughter. Buffy is stone-faced and steely-eyed, Angel is nothing more than a vampire’s tortured plaything, and the Scooby Gang end up killing one another without a second thought. The icing on the terrible, stomach-churning cake happens in the episode’s final moments, when the Master snaps Buffy’s neck and we see the light leave her eyes. Jump-out-of-your-seat scary? No, not really. Terrifying in a wow-things-could-actually-be-a-lot-worse way? Absolutely.
There are a few things that Buffy fans always know to be constant about the series and its heroine — one is that as her watcher, Giles, always has her back. That fact turned out to be not-so-true in “Helpless,” a gut-punch of a midseason episode that sees the Slayer’s mentor bend to the will of the Watcher’s Council and put her, unwittingly, through a dangerous and difficult test of her abilities.
Buffy, stripped of her super-strength, has to fight off a criminally insane and especially bloodthirsty vampire named Kralik. The premise of the episode is frightening enough, but the devil is truly in the details: Christophe Beck’s discordant strings-based score; the claustrophobic camera work; the walls, littered with bloody handprints; and Polaroid photos of a horrified, bound-and-gagged Joyce. Though it ties in heavily to the bigger mythology of the series, it also easily stands alone as a work of horror.
10. Fear Itself
Despite being a horror-themed show, Buffy the Vampire Slayer produced only three Halloween-themed episodes. Though “Halloween” and “All the Way” were fun in their own ways, “Fear Itself” is the only one that’s really all that scary. It focuses on the Scooby Gang as locked inside a haunted house brought to life, isolated from one another and forced to confront their biggest fears. The house itself is pretty horrific once the college party gag-games come to life, and the gang has to maneuver through real skeletons, bowls full of eyeballs, and undead frat dudes trying to kill them.
The most disquieting moments, though, are the ones they spend alone, consumed by terror — particularly when Oz uncharacteristically unravels as he desperately tries to stop himself from transforming into a werewolf. That the ultimate evil they have to squash is about the size of a bug is a little bit of a heavy-handed reminder that we can control how much power our fear has in our life; but the moments leading up to the humorous conclusion are definitely worthy of a Halloween scare.
It’s one of the most beloved Buffy episodes of all times — a true gem that’s as humorous and entertaining as it is terrifying. “Hush” is also an episode that lives up to its hype, even after all these years. As far as Buffyverse monsters-of-the-week go, the Gentlemen are hard to beat, with their jarringly skeletal smiles, sunken eyes and penchant for cutting out the still-beating hearts of their victims. Their straight-jacketed, lumbering henchmen are equally unnerving.
The fact that so much of the episode occurs without dialogue forces us to really pay attention to what’s happening on screen — and that only ups the tension. “Hush” features probably the single best jump-scare in the entire Buffy series, as Olivia Williams is shocked away from Giles’ window while watching the mayhem outdoors. In a series where so many of the villains are larger than life and engage in rough-and-tumble fights with our heroine, there’s something extra terrifying about the delicate, silent method to the Gentlemen’s madness.
Dreams don’t make sense — and in many ways, the fourth season finale episode didn’t, either. That’s part of what made it so unforgettable and, often times, so unsettling. “Restless” isn’t scary because of monsters, demons, or anything else that typically freaks us out on Buffy. It isn’t even really frightening. Still, the episode is tonally one of the most off-putting and jarring episodes in Buffy’s entire canon, because it truly feels like a dream that you can’t quite shake.
The presence of the First Slayer, who stalks Giles, Xander, Willow and Buffy through their dreams, is at times frightening — she crashes into the narrative when we least expect it, violent, unpredictable and hostile. Though it never really seems like the characters won’t somehow escape her as we glimpse them struggling against her in their sleep, we do get the feeling that she’s not going to leave them easily — even once they’ve awoken.
7. Listening to Fear
In seven seasons of battling just about every supernatural and sci-fi creature imaginable, Buffy only faced off with extra-terrestrials once, in “Listening to Fear.” They certainly aren’t the biggest or most disgusting baddies that the Slayer had to contend with, but the way in which they infiltrate her life at a particularly inopportune moment does make for one hell of a scary episode nonetheless.
As the caterpillar-like alien slither along the walls and ceilings of the Summers household, Buffy is none the wiser. She’s too busy focused on keeping it together in the midst of her mother’s brain tumor crisis. Buffy is so used to her mother babbling nonsensically that she pay no attention when Joyce her mother really needs help – because the alien is hovering over her, ready to pounce. There’s something especially haunting about watching the helpless Joyce beg a slimy monster to leave her alone — a reminder that in Buffy’s world, it’s sometimes hard to tell what’s more dangerous: the supernatural or the regular, everyday threats.
6. The Body
Vampires are scary. Monsters, ghosts, aliens, too. We learned, though, midway through Buffy’s fifth season, that the actual scariest thing in the world is death — the kind that sneaks in the front door unannounced and catches us completely unaware. The kind that turns our lives upside down.
“The Body” features the least amount of supernatural activity in any of Buffy’s 144 episodes, but it’s easily one of the most haunting. It gets into your bloodstream and chills it from the opening moments, when Buffy finds her mother lying dead on the couch — not from a monster, or ghost, or alien, but from a perfectly ordinary brain aneurysm. It’s evocative and emotional, an episode that demands we lean in and pay attention to every surreal detail, that we live through Joyce’s death with Buffy and her friends, no matter how terrifying a prospect that may be. Every second of the episode is unforgettable — and a chilling reminder of how fragile life can be.
As much as Buffy is about life and death, the series taught fans a valuable lesson over and over again: bringing things back from the dead is a dangerous endeavor. Unfortunately, it took most of the characters a while to figure that out — as evidenced by Dawn’s fervent attempts to make her mother un-dead in “Forever.”
Still reeling from the loss, Buffy is too busy taking care of the funeral and the aftermath to notice that her sister is feeling especially unhinged. Dawn pays no mind to the repeated warnings she receives that people sometimes come back “different” (cue the Pet Semetary theme song). Buffy confronts Dawn just after she’s completed the spell to reanimate Joyce, but their cathartic argument is intercut with eerie images of their mother’s feet walking across the graveyard, and her shadow in the living room window. We never see the result of Dawn’s spell; she puts the kibosh on it just in time. But hearing her knock on the door was plenty frightening enough.
4. After Life
Speaking of bringing people back from the dead, let’s talk about that time that Willow and Xander did just that for a very peacefully resting Buffy. In “After Life,” we see the terrible aftermath of their actions — from their best friend’s uncertainty about the corporeal world, to the incredibly evil and powerful spirit that the Scoobies unleashed in the process of bringing her back.
What’s scariest about this particular supernatural entity is that it not only mentally messes with Buffy and her friends by making the world around them seem like it’s overrun with ghostly images; it physically inhabits them as well, when they (and we) least expect it. The result is multiple seriously frightening sequences, both narratively shocking and aesthetically unnerving. You can pretend you didn’t almost crawl out of your skin when a white-eyed, evil-grinning Anya took a knife to her face, but you’d probably be lying.
3. Normal Again
Buffy the Vampire Slayer certainly wasn’t the first TV show in history to try a “what if it was all a dream?” narrative on for size. It was one of the only series that made that whole idea feel like a particularly hellish nightmare, rather than a dream. “Normal Again” finds the Slayer living out an elaborate hallucination in which she’s been institutionalized for delusions. She isn’t the Slayer, she’s just a normal girl — and she has to decide whether or not she’s going to return to the incredibly dysfunctional life waiting for her in Sunnydale.
The sequences with Buffy in the hospital, backed into a corner like a terrified animal, are hard to swallow — especially in the end, when she’s retreated back into her mind for good. The episode does such a good job of messing with Buffy’s mind and her concept of reality that by the end, you’re not entirely sure if it wasn’t all in her head, anyway. From a psychological perspective, it’s one of the most disturbing episodes in Buffy history, because it forces us to really consider the possibility that the world we’ve come to love may not be all it seems.
2. Same Time, Same Place
Buffy had its share of gruesome enemies over the years, but there’s likely none more off-the-charts disgusting than this demonic creature that has a craving for human skin. We meet him in “Same Time, Same Place,” an episode that is really about Willow finding her place amongst her friends after her apocalyptic meltdown at the end of Season 6. The horror she experiences when she encounters Gnarl, though, ends up taking priority over the whole homecoming thing. It’s not the most sophisticated narrative Buffy ever put together, but in the realm of pure, fun scares, “Same Time, Same Place” seriously brought it — and helped to at least temporarily ground the series firmly back within the horror genre.
It’s all thanks to Gnarl, a fantastically frightening creature. With bat-like ears, a grotesque, bulbous nose and a ghoulishly skeletal frame, he looks like he walked — well, crawled — straight out of a hell.
1. Conversations With Dead People
The dangers of isolation, the connection between the dead and the living, and the tenuous hold that we all have on our own mortality; these were all themes that made Buffy the Vampire Slayer a truly remarkable series. And they were all at play in “Conversations With Dead People,” easily the best episode of the series’ final season — and perhaps the scariest of them all.
Many of the series’ core characters have frightening encounters with the undead while on their own one evening; Jonathan and Andrew meet up with Warren’s ghost; the Slayer encounters an old classmate-turned-vampire; Willow thinks she’s communicating with Tara’s spirit, but learns it’s something far more sinister; and Dawn tries to get in touch with her mother only to find she has to free her from a dark, otherworldly creature. Like so many of Buffy’s best scary episodes, this one works as a horror because it effortlessly builds a tension that’s impossible to escape. We can feel that it’s going to go bad for every character from the opening seconds of the episode — but it’s impossible to look away.
What episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer scared you the most? Let us know in the comments!
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