If you’ve ever ask someone what scared or freaked them out as a child, most responses will revolve around a horror film or terrifying personal experience - like seeing a clown. But if you really think back, many of the times we were disturbed as youngsters happened when we were sitting in front of the TV. Watching some of our favorite kids' shows after school or on weekends, we’d come across imagery or moments that would scar us for life. Those shows that were intended to be silly fun often had the opposite effect, making for a sleepless night.
Children’s television has always been a labyrinth of the strange and twisted, with the 1980s and 1990s in particular having a plethora of programming that entertained and traumatized in turn. Most of these shows we end up loving as adults because of that same dark tone.
In creating this list, we looked at animated and live-action shows specifically made for kids that incorporated supernatural, other-worldly, and bizarre fantasy elements in its plots or characters. No TV specials or movies-of-the-week found here. So without further ado, here’s the 15 Creepiest Kids Shows of All Time.
15 GHOSTWRITER (1992)
Any kid growing up in the ‘90s remembers this unusual educational kids show from PBS. Produced by The Sesame Workshop – the group behind Sesame Street and The Electric Company – this series debuted in 1992, about a group of friends living in Brooklyn who solved mysteries and crimes through their use of words and literature. Intended to make children love writing and reading, the supernatural catch was that the young sleuths were aided by a ghost. Yep, apparently specters and the deceased can’t let go of their love for the written word.
Except for moving letters around, the Ghostwriter never took form or talked, as producers probably figured it be best for younger viewers not to see Unsolved Mysteries-level apparitions before dinner. That doesn’t mean the show didn’t have creepy episodes. Do you remember the nightmare inducing character of Gooey Gus? It was the Toxic Avenger-looking purple monster that spit slime into the mouths of the kids!
To get a little more bizarre, in a recent interview, writer Kermit Frazier revealed that Ghostwriter’s true identity was that of a runaway slave during the Civil War who was killed by his owners. Talk about morbid.
14 AAAHH!!! REAL MONSTERS (1994)
Does this one require any explanation?! It’s about monsters and the three main characters are disgusting looking. This Nickelodeon animated series that debuted in 1994 revolves around Ickis, Krumm, and Oblina, three monsters who go to monster school to learn how to scare humans. It was a sort of precursor to Monsters, Inc. but without the Disney wholesomeness. With auburn skin and large ears, Ickis looks like a demon elf. The hair, naked Krumm holds his own eyeballs. Then there’s Oblina who looks like a Tim Burton creation, with crazy eyes and a Twizzlers mouth.
For the ‘90s, the show was edgy and outrageous. Klasky Csupo, the production company that created it, incorporated wild designs and a subversive sense of humor which their other shows like The Simpsons, Rugrats, and The Wild Thornberrys had as well. An example of its perverse humor is found in the character of Gromble, a four-legged crossdressing monster that’s headmaster of the school.
13 PEPPERMINT PARK (1987)
And the award for the show most-likely to be made by a deranged serial killer goes to: Peppermint Park. Not many of you have seen it, but for those of you that have, you probably still have nightmares about these demonic puppets, that were supposed to be helping kids learn numbers and letters.
Unable to find a home on any of the main networks or PBS in the ‘80s, this obscure series was mostly available on home video, produced Mark V Productions. We're guessing that the production took place in a backyard shed due to its extreme low-budget/public-access quality. The puppet heads were placed on a body but with human hands (similar to the viral dogs with human hands videos). Any sensible, child-loving parent wouldn’t dare let their kids watch this for fear of the evil it could summon. In this YouTube age we live in, the show has taken on a cult status with friends sending friends video links and clips for the show appearing on group forums.
12 THE HAUNTING HOUR (2010)
If you’re going to produce a horror anthology aimed at kids, you might as well have it be from the “Stephen King of children’s literature”, R.L. Stine. Wanting to capture the success and acclaim of Stine’s previous TV series Goosebumps, The Hub - now known as Discovery Family – produced R.L. Stine’s The Haunting Hour (based on the popular book series), an updated and slightly darker children’s anthology series covering horror, sci-fi and fantasy. If Goosebumps was The Twilight Zone, then The Haunting Hour was HBO’s Tales from the Crypt, in terms of harder scares and dark imagery.
The series ran for four seasons and made a name for itself by having not-so-happy endings for many of its episodes. It was popular with teens and pre-teens because it was actually scary. From creatures to ghosts and monsters, the series had no shortage when it came to creating nightmare fodder. Some episode highlights include: “Dreamcatcher”, which had a sinister man/spider creature; “The Weeping Woman”, based on the Mexican urban legend “La Llorona”; and “Scarecrow”, about an evil strawman.
11 LAND OF THE LOST (1974)
We’re going way back to the 1970s with this pick about the Marshall family, a father and his two children who get sucked into an alternate world filled with dinosaurs and monsters. Being the ‘70s this was at the height of popularity of Sid and Marty Krofft (creators of the show), who were known for their psychedelic and fantastical worlds. The Kroffts are legends in the eyes of college kids and stoners due to the stuff they came up with.
While most parents saw the series as quirky and filled with wacky creatures, children saw the scary side with the Sleestaks and Cha-Ka. The Sleestaks could give horror movie villains a run for their money, as these humanoid reptile creatures with massive pitch black eyes could terrify any audience. From their disturbing appearance to their squeals and hisses, these creatures were the last thing you’d want to see on Saturday mornings, especially with their awkward movements. The series also had a group of ape-like people, with Cha-Ka being the most memorable. The young monkey-boy looks like the love child of Chewbacca and Bigfoot, which is a disturbing thought.
10 JIM HENSON’S THE STORYTELLER (1987)
From the mind of Jim Henson, comes this short-lived but memorable show that was an elevated children’s series about folk tales. While everyone tends to associate Henson with The Muppets or Sesame Street, the legendary man had an interest in the dark side of life and tapped into that part of his imagination with these stories. Very much like his feature film, The Dark Crystal, this series had a darker tone with eerie creatures. John Hurt served at the title character, retelling European and Greek stories and myths, with Jim Henson utilizing impressive puppetry and animatronics, which fans and critics applauded.
For our money, the spookiest episode is “The Soldier and Death”, which is a wonderfully compelling story that deals directly with death, as a solider returns home after 20 years and plays cards with a group of devils. The size of toddlers, these gambling devils are quite possibly the nastiest thing Henson’s ever created, with their crimson red raw skin, large bat wings, and wicked grins. Most kids definitely covered their eyes or changed the channel every time they came onscreen.
9 BEETLEJUICE (1989)
“Hey, I’ve been to Saturn! Whoa. Sandworms. You hate ‘em right? I hate ‘em myself!” – Beetlejuice (Michael Keaton). The Ghost with the Most’s disdain for sandworms is just one of the many things we learned about him in Tim Burton’s 1988 feature film Beetlejuice. You wouldn’t think the film would be an ideal pick to be a kids cartoon, but a year later we got just that as it premiered on ABC. A crude, over-the-top corpse ended up being a hit with the kiddies!
While the film focused on the Maitlands, the animated series was all about Beetlejuice and his friendship with Lydia Deetz. The show embraced the macabre and gothic sensibilities of Burton’s character and world. The show is a comedy about two friends, but it got really weird as they traveled to surreal dimensions (like the Netherworld) and dealt with the dead, the recently deceased, and those dreaded sandworms in animated form. For kids that hate bugs there’s plenty of cringe worthy gags involving nasty critters in episodes as well. Just remember if: you’re in the mood to watch the show, don't call out his name three times.
8 JIGSAW (1979)
Before there was Slender Man or The Babadook, there was Mr. Noseybonk, quite possibly the most chilling thing you’ll find on this list. Jigsaw (the series he appeared on) was from the UK and produced by the BBC. How British children didn’t lose their minds upon seeing this walking nightmare, we’ll never know. Maybe they did and the Noseybonk epidemic was contained there. Regardless, American kids growing up in the 1980s should just be thankful that they didn’t have any encounters with this silent freak.
Played by creator and mime artist (of course) Adrian Hedley, Mr. Noseybonk wore a butler’s style tux, with white gloves and an all-white mask that had a perma grin and a Pinocchio sized nose. Intended as a children’s entertainment puzzle show, Jigsaw had a variety of different segments that mixed live-action and animation, sprinkling in fantasy and bizarre characters along the way. Mr. Noseybonk is the one people recall most and due to his creepy appearance, fan-fiction and CreepyPasta stories have been written about him.
7 THE REAL GHOSTBUSTERS (1986)
Just like the classic film it’s based on, The Real Ghostbusters was able to find the right balance of comedy and fright in telling a story. The show was sold to kids as the animated adventures of their favorite ghost hunters: Peter Venkman, Ray Stantz, Egon Spengler, and Winston Zeddmore. But looking past the comedy, the series' writers (like J. Michael Straczynski) were able to tell intelligent and twisted tales of terror, in just under 30 minutes.
As fun as the show was, the endless barrage of cool and disgusting looking ghosts is what kids loved and came back for (which toymaker Kenner loved). This series set the animation bar when it came to creating interesting and well-designed ghosts/monsters that, to this day, are still popular. People know about the kid friendly Slimer and Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, but there were also scary and famous terrors like The Boogeyman, Samhain, The Grundel, The Sandman, and Lovecraft creation Cthulu. Watching an episode truly felt as if you were being told a scary campfire story. That’s how fantastic the writing was.
6 REN & STIMPY (1991)
There have been various cartoons about cats and dogs on television but Ren & Stimpy is in a category of its own. It doesn’t matter if you were a kid or adult, this show took pleasure in shocking, offending and creeping out viewers of all ages. Hatched from the degenerate yet genius mind of John Kricfalusi, the series surprisingly ran for five seasons on Nickelodeon. It followed the unusual relationship of Ren - an unhinged Chihuahua - and Stimpy – a simple-minded, portly cat. The sheer lunacy, clever humor, and in your face disgust this show crammed into episodes was something kids and parents hadn’t seen before or since.
Ren & Stimpy traumatized young children through its use of extreme violence, bodily fluids, and sexual innuendos. Parents and family groups looked at the series as one of the worst cartoons ever due to that explicit content; kids on the other hand couldn’t get enough. Who can forget that scene of Ren painfully pulling out the nerve endings in his mouth? Ouch! While being grotesque, the series was also influential, paving the way for other extreme animation such as South Park and Beavis and Butthead.
5 EERIE, INDIANA (1991)
Having directed horror classics like The Howling and Gremlins, Joe Dante took that love of genre and helped usher in a supernatural kids show in Eerie, Indiana.
Watching TV, kids could only wish that their lives were exciting and interesting as that of Marshall Teller's. The show’s young protagonist moved from New Jersey to Eerie, Indiana, a strange small town where the weird is commonplace. Kids were immediately drawn into this strange version of suburbia as Elvis and Bigfoot lurked around in the opening credits. When the series premiered on NBC in 1991, there was nothing else like it on TV. This cleverly written show, made just for kids, didn’t dumb down the horror or science fiction storylines.
Before we had Agents Mulder and Scully, Marshall Teller and his buddy, Simon Holmes, were the best investigators of the strange and unexplained. The series developed a cult following with fun and creepy episodes like “Foreverware”, “The Retainer”, and “The Hole in the Head Gang.” The series only lasted one season but in 1998 Fox Kids reimagined it into Eerie, Indiana: The Other Dimension, though this new version never reached the popularity of the original.
4 GRAVITY FALLS (2012)
In recent years no other series (animated or live-action) has proudly carried the torch of “creepy” kids' show like Gravity Falls. Similar to the way Eerie, Indiana introduced us to a mysterious fictional small town, The Disney Channel’s Gravity Falls took us to the animated town of Gravity Falls, Oregon where the supernatural lives. The series follows 12-year old twins, Dipper and Mabel Pines, who are sent to live with their uncle Stan Pines in the town of Gravity Falls. A hit with critics and kids alike, this cartoon is loaded with paranormal characters and nightmare images.
For those not old enough to read a Stephen King novel or watch an R-rated movie, this cartoon is an amazing gateway to discovering horror themed content. Light on scares but big on creeps, the show is known for its horror movie references like The Thing, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and some J-Horror films. Even though the series just wrapped up this past February, if you come across a marathon showing this Halloween season, just stay home and enjoy this pop culture hit.
3 TALES FROM THE CRYPTKEEPER (1993)
A horror anthology that catered to the hard R crowd-- delivering graphic violence, nudity, and heavy gore-- doesn’t sound like it would make for a kid’s Saturday-morning cartoon. Back in the early ‘90s, trivial things like that didn’t matter, as the HBO hit series Tales from the Crypt was watered-down and spun into an animated show called Tales from the Cryptkeeper. Seizing on the mega success of the adult show, the pen and ink version dropped the hard elements, focusing on the franchise’s EC Comics past pushing morality tales.
Just like its live-action counterpart, that funny corpse The Cryptkeeper played host, but this time he was joined by The Vault-Keeper and The Old Witch, who appeared in the comic books. Even though the cartoon lacked gore, it was stacked with monsters, demons, and vampires that kept kids spooked. Probably the best thing about the series is that the bullies and bad characters always got their comeuppance at the hands (err, claws) of the supernatural. With Tales from the Crypt being remade by TNT, maybe there’s a chance the animated show comes back from the dead as well.
2 R.L. STINE’S GOOSEBUMPS (1995)
It doesn’t matter if you’ve read the book, seen the show or watched the movie, Goosebumps is a horror brand that keeps attracting new fans every year. While kids and preteens love reading the books, what really created a phenomenon was the 1990s television series that brought R.L. Stine’s characters to life, providing fun and scares. Just like the previously mentioned The Haunting Hour, R.L. Stine’s stories are known for having children battling it out with monsters and villains from the dark side.
From the moment that creepy theme song would play over the equally unsettling opening credits, we knew the episode had frights in store. Premiering on Fox Kids in 1995, kids would tune in each week to see their favorite books take flesh in the episodes. Terrors like Slappy the Dummy, The Haunted Mask, The Mummy, yard gnomes, and vampires would freak out viewers. Today’s tech savvy kids might not find the series as frightening as past generations, but the show is still an excellent example on how to adapt a popular book series without losing the original tone.
1 ARE YOU AFRAID OF THE DARK? (1991)
Nickelodeon sure did have the market cornered when it came to creepy kids shows. At the top of their list (and ours) is the horror/fantasy anthology series, Are You Afraid of the Dark? This live-action, half-hour show told the story of “The Midnight Society”, a group of teens who would meet in the woods and tell a scary story over an open campfire. The premise was simple enough, and Rod Serling would be proud with how the show presented dark content without ever having to go over the edge. The well-crafted stories would many times surpass the scares found in adult themed anthologies like Tales from the Darkside, Monsters, or The Hitchhiker.
If you want to play a cruel Halloween joke on your children, then have them watch some terrifying episodes such as “The Tale of Laughing in the Dark”, “The Tale of the Ghastly Grinner”, and “The Tale of Watcher’s Woods.” However, if you really want them to sleep with a nightlight on for the foreseeable future, have them check out “The Tale of the Dead Man’s Float.” The crimson red corpse that rises from the depths of a pool, looks like a Poltergeist escapee. Nightmare fuel for life!