Television is as good as its ever been: premium cable dramas and comedies are of such high quality and big name talent that they often eclipse what’s playing at your local multiplex. This has also applied to the horror genre, with shows like The Walking Dead, American Horror Story, Ash vs. Evil Dead, The Strain and more, all of which bring big scares to the small screen.
But horror on television isn’t anything new, and there has been a slew of terrifyingly memorable creatures over the decades, from classic anthology shows, monster-of-the-week dramas and original made-for-TV-movies. And that’s allowed for a variety of menacing monsters over the years — but not all creepy creatures are created equal.
With that in mind, here’s our list of the 15 most terrifying monsters ever to appear on television past and present, from the most instantly iconic beasts to some noteworthy contemporary creatures. Without further ado, here are the most memorable monsters you’ll ever encounter in the comfort of your home theater.
15. Walkers – The Walking Dead
We think it’s sufficient to say that AMC’s The Walking Dead is the grossest television show ever made, pushing the boundaries of blood and guts to levels that many R-rated horror films fail to achieve. And the series defining visual aesthetic lies in make-up artist-turned director Greg Nicotero’s gruesome “walkers,” the rotting zombie horde that gives the show its title.
While the show’s overall sense of quality has become a source of impassioned debate, no one can say its walker sequences aren’t inspired, from waterlogged walkers, burning walkers and all types in between. The show (inspired by Robert Kirkman’s comic series of the same name) has introduced so many undead variations, that they even have nicknames, including roamers, lurkers, empties, deadies, floaters, infecters and rotters.
No matter the name, the unifying theme for all walkers is that they are revolting and terrifying, and that the series is always at its best when putting its cast of heroes in close proximity to their undead nemeses.
14. Demon Spawn – Ash vs Evil Dead
Ash vs. Evil Dead is been a wildly successful premium cable adaptation of director Sam Raimi’s cult classic “splatstick” horror film series. And thankfully, it hasn’t skimped on the gore fans of the chainsaw-handed adventurer (played by Bruce Campbell) have come to expect.
While the show features plenty of “deadites,” the stock-in-trade demonic zombies that Campbell has waged perilous battles with over three films, the Starz series has also introduced a new nightmarish variation on a theme with the Demon Spawn.
Originally summoned by series regular Ruby Knowby (Lucy Lawless) using the magical power of the Necronomicon Ex-Mortis, they are infantile incarnations of the so-called deadites. The combination of undead demons with childlike characteristics (she refers to them as her children) is disquieting to say the least, and their terrifying appearance is augmented with large fangs and cavernous black eyes. Ash vs. Evil Dead is big on comedy, but these undead children are nothing to chuckle at. Seriously creepy stuff.
13. Tooth Monster – Channel Zero: Candle Cove
Speaking of creepy. Syfy original series are usually pretty hit and miss, but their latest, Channel Zero: Candle Cove is a sleeper hit, and one of their most tonally diverse offerings to date, drawing comparisons to Netflix’s Stranger Things.
The show’s first season focuses on a strange children’s show that apparently has the power to influence its young viewers to commit murder. But each killing acts as a bizarre sacrifice, where two of each victim’s teeth are removed and offered it to the Tooth Monster, a truly unnerving beast comprised entirely of…er…teeth. The noise it makes is total yuck, and it’s the essence of nightmare fuel.
Candle Cove (based on Kris Straub’s “creepypasta” tale of the same name) is a self-contained season, meaning Channel Zero season two will be something new entirely. But it’ll be hard to top such an unusually unappealing monster whose primal imagery makes you want to curl into the fetal position.
12. Kurt Barlow – Salem’s Lot
The first television adaptation of a novel by Stephen King is also one of the best. Salem’s Lot (directed by Tobe Hooper of Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Poltergeist fame) is a story regarding a small town with a supposedly haunted house that has fascinated and terrified locals for decades.
When writer Ben Mears (David Soul) returns to write a book on the infamous property, he discovers it’s been purchased by the mysterious Kurt Barlow (The Man Who Knew Too Much’s Reggie Nalder). When townspeople go missing, Mears soon learns Barlow is a vampire feasting on and enslaving local residents.
What helps makes Salem’s Lot so chilling is Barlow’s vampiric incarnation — a bald, fanged predator clearly inspired by Nosferatu — but terrifying and memorable in its own right. With a vampire army at his disposal, he makes for a particularly imposing villain, complete with make-up effects that were miles above television production standards of the time.
11. Demon in Lace – Kolchak: The Night Stalker
Kolchak: The Night Stalker is one of the most underrated and unfairly forgotten shows in television history. Running for only two seasons, the series starred A Christmas Story’s Darren McGavin as the title character, a wise cracking reporter with a knack for discovering and battling a variety of supernatural and extraterrestrial creatures that threaten his native Chicago.
The series’ monster-of-the-week format would inspire other shows like The X-Files, Supernatural and Buffy The Vampire Slayer (while also launching the career of The Sopranos creator David Chase, who directed several episodes). While its low-budget effects were often hokey, there were several memorable creatures, including The Demon in Lace (Maria Grimm), an evil Succubus from Mesopotamia who assumes the identities of recently deceased beautiful women to lure and kill young men in order to maintain her youthful immortality.
10. White Walkers – Game of Thrones
HBO’s Game of Thrones is full of foreboding monsters, but the most chilling (literally), are The White Walkers, a race of humanoid ice creatures who spell death for any warm-blooded beings in Westeros or beyond.
Originally human, the White Walkers were created by magic to protect the Children of the Forest. But they soon grew too powerful, and turned to their own evil ends and agenda.
If the White Walkers’ unsettling appearance wasn’t imposing enough, their ability to reanimate the dead to do their bidding is downright frightening, giving them an unfair advantage over pretty much anyone else living in George R.R. Martin’s literary and small screen world (see the heart-pounding “Hardhome” episode for proof of their horrific battle craft).
With any luck, they’ll get melted by Daenerys Targaryen’s (Emilia Clarke) flame-belching dragons at some point, but until then, the White Walkers seem pretty much unstoppable, making them absolutely scary as hell.
9. Flukeman – The X-Files
One of the most disgustingly creepy monsters in the history of television, the Flukeman appeared in one of The X-Files‘ most notable “monsters of the week” episodes. Featured in the second season episode “The Host”, its origin was as bizarre as it was gruesome: a human-sized variation of a flatworm, created in a stew of irradiated sewage from Chernobyl, Russia (home of the infamous 1986 nuclear power plant disaster).
Upon arrival in America via a Russian freighter, the half-man/half-parasite attacks victims through the sewer system in Newark, New Jersey, secreting flatworm-like larvae with its bite, and leaving agents Mulder and Scully in a race against time to stop an unsettling threat they don’t fully understand.
Featuring movie-level prosthetic effects, a totally icky method of killing, and near-indestructibility, the Flukeman is a gross, terrifying and unforgettable beast, making “The Host” one of the best (and most nightmare-inducing) episodes of The X-Files to date.
8. Zuñi Fetish Doll – Trilogy of Terror
Anyone who grew up in the ’70s or saw it in syndication will fondly recall Trilogy of Terror as one of their earliest introductions to horror. The made-for-TV movie — written by Richard Matheson and directed by Dan Curtis — was an anthology featuring three vignettes (all of which starred horror icon Karen Black as different characters).
But one segment easily shines above the rest. Amelia features Black as the title character, who lives alone in her high-rise apartment. Returning from a day of shopping, she unearths her prize purchase: a Zuñi fetish doll. Despite its assumed inanimate status, the spear-wielding doll soon takes on a life of its own and faces off against Amelia in a battle to the death.
While at times unintentionally comedic, the Zuñi fetish doll is surprisingly creepy, offering plenty of jump scare moments and a unique power that builds to a surprise twist ending, making the doll an indelible pop-culture image of the 1970s.
7. Airplane Gremlin – The Twilight Zone: Nightmare at 20,000 Feet
One of the first television monsters to give children nightmares has to the Gremlin, a creature intent on bringing down a commercial jet-airliner in the iconic Twilight Zone episode “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” (penned by Trilogy of Terror writer Richard Matheson).
But the only one who can see the Gremlin on the wing of the airplane is Bob Wilson (Star Trek‘s William Shatner), a man recently released from an asylum after a nervous breakdown. With his wife and the airplane staff thinking his suspicions are paranoid delusions, Wilson must take matters into his own hands to stop the flying, furry beast from crashing the plane.
Clad in a furry suit with over-exaggerated facial features, the Gremlin is probably the goofiest looking monster on this list. But under the taut direction of filmmaker Richard Donner (Superman: The Movie, The Omen, The Goonies), he’s a pest of dangerous intent, capable of providing a classic jump scare and capturing audience’s imaginations the world over.
6. The Thing From The Grave – Tales From The Crypt
HBO’s Tales From The Crypt kept the horror anthology format alive in the 1990s, with stories inspired by the controversial EC Comics title of the same name. Being on premium cable meant the visuals could be appropriately ghoulish, and the series definitely took advantage.
But of all the episodes, it is “The Thing From The Grave” that wins the award for scariest monster in the franchise. Based on an issue from another EC Comics title (The Haunt of Fear), it told the story of a love triangle gone bad. Stacey (Teri Hatcher) is a model caught in an abusive relationship with her agent Mitch (Miguel Ferrer). When she seeks refuge (and a new romance) with her photographer friend Cates, Mitch murders him in a fit of jealous rage.
Cates swore to protect Stacey no matter what, and this even applies from beyond the grave. Arriving to seek his revenge, he’s in particularly grotesque shape — all rotten flesh, with some maggot infested eyes. Hey, he may be disgusting, but at least his heart is in the right place. We wouldn’t recommend watching this episode on a full stomach.
5. Weeping Angels – Doctor Who
One of the most deadly adversaries of British sci-fi adventurer Doctor Who has to be the “weeping angels.” Sentient beings that resemble stone statues, the angels are actually humanoid creatures with fittingly god-like powers. They have the quantum-mechanics-powered ability to trap their victims in different time periods while living off of their energy. Or they could just snap a poor soul’s neck — it’s all about which mood strikes them first.
What makes the Weeping Angels so terrifying is right in their name; as long as one looks at an angel in the weeping pose, you’re in safe hands. But take your eye off of them, even for an instant, and you’re going to die in some horrible way.
While Doctor Who has been going strong ever since the late ’60s, the Weeping Angels weren’t introduced until 2007. Their ascent in pop-culture popularity and geek-lore is a testament to just how memorably menacing these seemingly peaceful looking creatures can truly be. The only person weeping is anyone who gets caught in their presence.
4. The Dem0gorgon – Stranger Things
Netflix’s 2016 sleeper hit Stranger Things is a love letter to all that was the best and brightest in 1980s horror and science fiction. And the series primary threat, The Monster (aka, The Demogorgon) is clearly indebted to the Spielberg/Carpenter era.
Based off of a character in the role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons, the Monster exists in “the upside down,” a parallel dimension that resembles Earth — with the exception of floating spores and strange spider-web-like plant life.
When a scientific experiment breaches the hidden realm, the creature begins to murder victims in the small town of Hawkins, Indiana. The Demogorgon is attracted by the scent of blood, and it possesses a wide variety of powers, including the ability to teleport between dimensions, enhanced strength, regeneration, and dread-inducing physiognomy. The Monster is a cinema-worthy creation, and the perfect enemy for the telekinetically gifted Eleven/El (Millie Bobby Brown) to face-off with in the first season finale. But odds are good that we haven’t seen the last of its kind, so buckle up, folks.
3. The Gentlemen – Buffy The Vampire Slayer
Appearing in the 1999 Buffy and The Vampire Slayer episode “Hush”, The Gentlemen are without a doubt the scariest foes Buffy and company ever faced. In an episode appropriately utilizing silence, the four entities (who resemble zombies in suits) steal the voices of everyone living in Sunnydale, California. Robbed of the power to speak or scream, the residents are terrorized as the Gentlemen utter an ominous lullaby and go about harvesting their victim’s hearts.
Without the ability to converse, Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) and her friends must communicate non-verbally and try to remain calm in the face of overwhelming panic. This unique storytelling device resulted in one of the most memorable (and terrifying) episodes in the series.
The Gentlemen are insanely creepy, from their corpse-like features to their methods of murder, with the performance of actor Doug Jones (Pan’s Labyrinth, Hellboy) a particular standout. They may be called The Gentlemen, but they are anything but. Yikes.
2. Peacock Family – The X-Files
The X-Files knew how to bring big scares to the small screen, but it’s fairly remarkable that the 1996 episode “Home” ever aired on network television at all, given its disturbing storyline.
In the episode, agents Mulder and Scully are investigating the remains of a deformed baby in rural Pennsylvania. Their mission leads them to the Peacock family, three brothers living in a dilapidated house, cut off from the rest of society. Sensing that the deformed physical appearance of the brothers and the infant’s body might be the product of inbreeding, the agents are at a loss as to how the hermit brothers are able to reproduce. Soon, they make a repulsive and disturbing discovery upon finding the Peacock’s mother. She’s a quadruple amputee who has bred with her sons for years, all with fatal results.
“Home” proved so controversial that it has the distinction of being the first episode to bear the TV-MA warning, and it only aired once (although you can now stream it on Netflix). Needless to say, the Peacock family is one of the scariest clans ever to grace television screens, and “Home” is so disturbing that you’ll want to shower after you watch it.
1. Pennywise The Clown – It
The 1990 ABC miniseries It (based on the Stephen King novel of the same name) is one of the central reasons people remain so creeped out by clowns. The story revolves around a group of young children living in a small town in Maine. They’re all attacked by a murderous inter-dimensional predatory life form capable of taking on the form of each of the child’s worst fears.
But the monster’s most infamous incarnation is Pennywise the Clown (played with otherworldly menace by The Rocky Horror Picture Show’s Tim Curry). After the group of young victims realize the nature of his powers, they use their imaginations to wound Pennywise and force him to retreat. But he’s just too evil to stay away for long, and the group must do battle again thirty years later, as he peels back all their childhood traumas all over again.
Curry’s performance is what makes It such a triumph, and overcomes the occasional “movie of the week” limitations that network television had in the early ’90s. His sinister grin and psychotic glee are etched into anyone’s psyche who watched it as a kid. We wish Bill Skarsgård luck on even trying to top Curry’s work in the upcoming cinematic adaptation.
Well that concludes our list of the scariest monsters on television. Which ones are your favorites? Any that you’d add to the list? Tell us in the comments!
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