The artistic capabilities of television shows may have grown leaps and bounds over the years, but few think of TV shows as a primary source of horror. It’s not hard to understand why that is. After all, we may live in a golden age of TV drama, but horror television hasn’t been nearly as prominent in recent years. Even with shows like The Walking Dead dominating the ratings race and American Horror Story remaining a fan favorite, the horror television genre as a whole has fallen on some rough times.
That wasn’t always the case, though. If you look back through television history, you’ll find not just television shows that managed to be as scary as their film counterparts, but some that are even scarier. Even those shows which aren’t all-time horror greats, or even horror shows at all, are still capable of producing that one incredibly terrifying episode we never forget. Indeed, sometimes it is those single episodes that we remember long after the show they appeared on has faded into history. It’s why you must bow down to the spooky supremacy of these television episodes, no matter how you feel about small screen horror as a whole.
Here are the 15 Scariest Television Episodes Of All Time.
15. Long Distance Call – The Twilight Zone
“Long Distance Call” doesn’t necessarily jump to mind when most people think of the all-time great Twilight Zone episodes. It lacks the iconic status of entries like “To Serve Man,” “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” “The Masks,” or “Living Doll.” Yet that anonymity is part of what makes this one so effective. Unlike those aforementioned episodes, “Long Distance Call” hasn’t been endlessly parodied and copied to the point that its effectiveness has become diluted. Instead, you are able to watch it just as viewers years ago did.
Well, if you can stand the terror, that is. “Long Distance Call” is the story of a young boy who is very close to his grandmother. Naturally, he is devastated when she passes away. He is so devastated, in fact, that he begins to “talk” to grandma across the toy phone they used to play with. What starts as an innocent coping mechanism turns decidedly darker once the boy’s parents start hearing voices on the other end of the phone. Even worse, those voices seem to be talking the young boy into killing himself in order to join grandma. Children in danger will always be frightening, but it’s the method by which this kid’s life is put on the line that really makes this one scary.
14. And All Through The House – Tales From The Crypt
Much as it is throughout Tales From The Crypt, justice is the central theme of this classic Tales From the Crypt episode featuring a greedy wife who has just killed her husband in order to collect insurance money. Her plan is complicated by the fact that an escaped mental patient dressed as Santa Claus just so happens to drop by the house that the wife, her daughter, and the body of her now departed husband occupies.
There are two reasons this episode is as effective as it is. One is the direction of Robert Zemeckis, who expertly utilizes the full range of classic Christmas colors and themes to set a stage that feels so warm and familiar. At a glance, you could easily confuse this episode with Home Alone, A Christmas Story, or a dozen other holiday classics. The other key component is the brilliant work of veteran character actor Larry Drake, who plays the stalker Santa with sheer glee. His maniacal glee only escalates the danger of a very tense situation and makes it so that the only innocent party is the poor little girl just waiting to see Santa.
13. Playground – The Ray Bradbury Theater
The Ray Bradbury Theater was one of HBO’s first attempts at original programming. Much like Tales From the Crypt, it was an anthology-style show that told a different tale each week. But unlike Tales From the Crypt, it relied more on suspense than shock. For instance, “Playground” is a story of childhood trauma starring William Shatner as a father that will not allow his son to play with other children due to incidents of bullying he suffered in his own life.
Much of this episode plays out as a classic story of overcoming your fears and learning to let go of the past. Towards the end, however, “Playground” takes a decidedly dark turn by exploring the idea that confronting your demons isn’t always going to yield positive results. There’s a supernatural element to this episode thanks to the presence of some creepy demonic children and the magical properties of the playground in question, but what really makes this episode stick with you is the way that it presents itself as an uplifting story throughout 90% of its runtime — before pulling the rug out from under you with an ending that is tough to accept.
12. Blink – Doctor Who
Doctor Who doesn’t often explore the realm of horror, but when it does, it almost always proves to be incredibly effective. With all due respect to episodes like “Midnight,” however, there is no way that a Doctor Who episode will ever top “Blink” in terms of sheer terror. The plot is a little complicated, but the general story at play here is that the Doctor and Sally encounter a series of angelic statues that, at first glance, do not appear to be all that unusual. However, it is quickly discovered that when you’re not looking at these angel statues, they have the ability to move around as they please.
It’s an incredibly simple premise (one that even Mario games have explored), but it’s made terrifying here thanks to the way in which this episode is shot. You quickly realize that the logic of this episode is that if the camera is on the statues, they don’t move. The feeling of utter helplessness you experience whenever the statues are not in view as a result of this fourth-wall breaking tactic has been haunting Whovians for years.
11. An Incident On And Off A Mountain Road – Masters of Horror
Masters of Horror was not all it could be. The idea of getting all of horror’s greatest creators together to contribute to an anthology show seemed like a good one, but the quality of the show varied so wildly from week to week that viewers soon found themselves unable to stick with it. Then again, it’s possible that the quality of this premiere was so great that those that watched it knew the show would never be able to produce anything quite so good.
This episode (written and directed by Don Coscarelli of Phantasm fame) follows a young woman who encounters a physically and mentally twisted serial killer named Moonface after crashing her car into the woods. This classic horror movie premise is complicated by the fact that the young woman also so happens to be an expertly trained survivalist that is more than capable of defending herself. You would think that such a capable potential victim would ruin some of the horror elements of the episode, but the terrifying design of Moonface and the expertly implemented moments of shock ensure that you will remain horrified throughout. Of course, the genuinely unexpected twist ending certainly doesn’t hurt its legacy, either.
10. The Perils Of Punky – Punky Brewster
Punky Brewster? That show about the adopted girl that only lasted a couple of years in the ‘80s when just about every sitcom back then, no matter how good it was, seemed to run for at least five seasons? As unbelievable as it is that this show above all others would contain one of the scariest episodes to ever air on television, you’re going to have to trust us on this one. First off, let’s be clear that the biggest reason why this episode is so scary is because you never see it coming. Punky Brewster was as innocent as shows got.
This Halloween special, however, was decidedly not innocent. Unlike other Halloween sitcom specials that throw a few plastic spiders into the formula and call it a day, this Punky episode suddenly morphs into a David Lynch on an acid trip experience without notice. The final minutes of this two-part episode throw so many disturbing visuals at the viewer that people found themselves unable to believe that they were watching the show that their TV Guide had assured them was on the air. Even to this day, some fans that were young when this episode aired doubt that they remember it properly.
9. Lonely Souls – Twin Peaks
Punky Brewster may have featured a pretty impressive David Lynch imitation for one night, but it could never beat the man himself at the art of small screen terror. While Twin Peaks was dropping in ratings and losing some of its initial audience by the time that “Lonely Souls” aired, the fans that stuck with the show through some creative rough patches still desperately wanted to know who killed Laura Palmer. They knew that they were going to get the answer to that question at some point, but few expected that it would be delivered like this.
Some have gone so far as to cite this episode as David Lynch’s finest work, and it’s not hard to see why. Much of the praise it receives has to do with a four-minute sequence towards the end that not only reveals Leland Palmer to be the murder, but also indicates that Leland is possessed by a mysterious force. Through the use of jump cuts, Lynch manages to include both Leland and the entity (known as Bob) in the murder scene in order to create the kind of overtly horrifying moment that the show had teased for months.
8. That’s My Dog – Six Feet Under
“That’s My Dog” is an odd entry for this list. Six Feet Under may be a show about death, but there’s nothing supernatural in this particular episode. Instead, it’s a pretty normal outing for Six Feet Under, one that becomes a lot more interesting when David decides to pick up a hitchhiker named Jake while transporting a body across the city. This decision soon leads to a series of events that justifies every repeated warning you’ve ever received about picking up hitchhikers, as Jake proceeds to torment David while dragging him along for his wild, impulsive ride.
Jake, played brilliantly by actor Michael Weston, is a sheer force of nature the likes of which few psychotic fictional characters have ever been able to conjure. A good deal of the credit here must go to the writers, who expertly delay Jake’s reveal as an absolute maniac until the last moment, but it’s Weston that sells the role. Whether he’s robbing a store, forcing David to smoke crack, or simply relaying false promises to David regarding how soon this will all be over, Jake is the expert guide on a living nightmare.
7. Mirror, Mirror – Amazing Stories
Back in the ’80s, when moving from movies to television was still considered slumming it, Steven Spielberg decided to take his talents to TV in order to kick start Amazing Stories. Rather than simply throw his name on the show and collect producing checks, however, Spielberg actually managed to attract a pretty impressive number of Hollywood talents to the project. Even better, he actually ended up writing the majority of the show’s episodes. This particular episode, for instance, is written by Spielberg, stars Tim Robbins, and was directed by Martin Scorsese (seriously).
The talent involved is evident right from the start. “Mirror, Mirror” is all about a horror novel writer who begins to see a very scary phantom creature in one of his home’s mirrors while he’s sequestered himself in order to finish his latest novel. The problem is that nobody else seems to be able to see it. The brilliant quality of this episode is that it manages to effectively call into question whether the phantom is real or if the author is just that crazy. By the time that it’s revealed that the Freddy Krueger-like creature is indeed the genuine article, the episode compellingly concludes with a dark ending that effectively ties everything together.
6. Amelia – Trilogy of Terror
Trilogy of Terror is a bit of a cheat on this list, considering that it’s actually a made-for-TV anthology movie, but since “Amelia” is an episode of that anthology, it gets a pass. Over the years, the other two episodes featured in this anthology have been largely forgotten — and rightfully so. They’re not awful, but they’re entirely forgettable. This entry, however, has stood the test of time. It’s the story of a woman named Amelia whose modern lifestyle is interrupted by the arrival of a Zuni fetish doll in the mail. This doll soon springs to life and begins to chase Amelia throughout the house.
Why does this story stand above so many other stories about murderous dolls and inanimate objects, like Child’s Play? Part of its infamy has to do with the design of the doll itself. The Zuni fetish doll is an instantly terrifying article that strikes fear on a primordial level. The other effective element, oddly enough, is the episode’s run time. At just over 15 minutes in length, this story never suffers through bouts of boredom and instead delivers sheer terror at a breakneck pace.
5. Pigeons From Hell – Thriller
Thriller was the Tales From The Crypt of the ‘60s, in that it adapted classic pulp horror stories into anthology tales. Due to the times, however, it lacked the nudity, gore, and language that earned Tales From The Crypt cult-classic status. That might sound like a pretty big handicap, but really, it just forced the television writers to find creative ways to push the limits of what they could get away with. Nowhere is this more evident than in the infamous story known as “Pigeons From Hell.”
That title grants the impression that this is a story about some killer flock of birds (not unlike that famous Alfred Hitchcock film), but in actuality, it’s about two brothers that find themselves pursued by an evil spirit following a car crash. The episode is in one part a pseudo-slasher film that sees them flee the ax murderer physical form of this spirit and enter a haunted mansion to find refuge. That mansion serves as the second part of the story, and it supplies the fright in overwhelming doses. You’ve seen a million haunted house stories before, but there are few quite like this. This isn’t just a theme-park tour of terrors; it’s a tightly constructed exploration of fear itself.
4. White Bear – Black Mirror
When describing Black Mirror to someone that’s never seen it, the fallback description is typically “It’s like a darker Twilight Zone that focuses on technology.” It’s a serviceable description, but it doesn’t quite convey the true intent of the majority of the show. Black Mirror is more like a parody of our modern times disguised as a horror tale. Its terrors are the result of a painfully accurate examination of our own society and where we are heading. There is one glowing exception to this rule, however.
“White Bear” seems to be Black Mirror’s take on what a modern day Twilight Zone episode might look like. It starts as the story of a woman that seems to suffer from a bout of amnesia that becomes all the more dangerous when she finds herself in the middle of a pack of relentless hunters. The mystery of the circumstances combined with the terror of the hunters contributes a great deal of horror, but “White Bear” earns its Twilight Zone comparisons thanks to the quality of its twist. It’s one of the few twists in horror entertainment that actually makes the story better every time you watch it.
3. The House That Bled To Death – Hammer House of Horror
Hammer House of Horror was Hammer Films‘ attempt to revitalize the television horror genre in the same way that they revitalized the horror film genre in the ‘60s. Their techniques were the same; ominous atmospheres, classic stories, and copious amounts of blood were all in play. By and large, their attempt did not work. The show wasn’t bad, but it often failed to produce anything that television viewers hadn’t seen before. If you’re ever wondering what the show could have been, however, then you need only watch “The House That Bled To Death.”
In this episode, a young couple buys a home for a good price only to find that it is haunted following a series of murders that occurred there years ago. You’ve heard this story countless times before, but then again, Hammer has always had a fondness for revisiting the classics. Just as it was in their classic Dracula and Frankenstein movies, however, what gives this story new life is a heavy insert of blood and gore. “The House That Bled To Death” is a genuinely troubling piece of work that’s visceral value has only increased over the years. To this day, few television scenes are as disturbing as the blood shower that occurs at the children’s birthday party in this episode.
2. Hush – Buffy The Vampire Slayer
Buffy The Vampire Slayer was built around fear and scares to an extent, but it wasn’t long after the show’s first season that Joss Whedon and crew realized that that wasn’t where the show’s strengths lie. Instead, Buffy could get much more mileage out of expertly executing clever concepts that so happened to dabble in the supernatural. It was more of a character show that valued wit over scares.
On occasion, however, Buffy would feature an episode that was downright terrifying. While stories such as “The Body” are terrifying in a unique way, it’s impossible not to cite the classically scary “Hush” as the show’s greatest horror outing. With the exception of the episodes’ opening and closing minutes, “Hush” is an entirely silent story. At first, this technique is actually played for laughs. Soon, however, the arrival of a gang of fairy tale characters known as The Gentlemen makes the inability to speak or scream a terror beyond reckoning. The way The Gentlemen float just above the ground as they move from home to home collecting the hearts of victims places them immediately atop the pantheon of television monsters.
1. Home – The X-Files
This season four episode of The X-Files immediately presents itself as something a little different. Of course, for a show as different at The X-Files, different here means surprisingly normal. A twisted family out in the backwoods of America certainly has the potential to be frightening (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and many other films have proven that), but it’s hardly a case that seems worthy of the efforts of Agents Mulder and Scully. Before too long, though, this family proves to be well above the call of duty for Mulder and Scully — or any other human being, for that matter.
“Home” isn’t just far and away the scariest X-Files episode ever made; it’s far and away television’s finest horror hour. Sometimes, when you hear that an episode has been banned from television, you shake your head and wonder if that’s really necessary. In the case of “Home,” it’s a miracle that it made it to airwaves at all. The implication introduced at the end of the episode concerning how this family keeps itself alive through the help of a quadruple amputee mother is quite possibly the most twisted piece of television ever aired. Well, at least with the possible exception of the home invasion scene that happens moments before.
What do you think is the scariest TV episode of all time? Let us know in the comments.
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