It’s Halloween! Icicles are glistening from window sills. Chestnuts are roasting on open fires. North Pole elves are… hang on, no. None of that nice, fluffy stuff is happening. At Halloween, demonic creatures hunt for flesh, monsters creep out of their graves, and TV does its level best to freak us all the hell out.
In the spirit of all that, we asked our writers to select and share the TV episodes, horror or otherwise, that have made them whimper with fear. Here they all are, 31 of them, because, well, at Halloween, we like things to add up to 31.
Note that this isn’t a Top 10, or a Best Of, nor is it listed in order of scariness. It’s a collection of the particular TV episodes that left their horror mark on Den Of Geek writers long after the credits rolled. You may share our fear or – more likely – you may well have your own personal suggestions, in which case, do tell…
Buffy The Vampire Slayer: ‘Hush’ (1999)
Legend has it that Joss Whedon wrote Hush as a response to the widespread acclaim his dialogue received, and sought to challenge himself beyond his comfort zone. The resulting episode not only showed he could still make material sing without his inimitable brand of witty conversation, but also introduced a whole new level of terror to the show.
Without doubt, the Gentlemen are among some of the scariest monsters ever created. Dapper, painfully polite, and forever wearing hideous grins, these levitating chaps rendered Sunnydale mute before proceeding to slice-and-dice various unlucky citizens who were now unable to call for help, or even scream (the Gentlemen’s kryptonite).
But the scariest aspect of the show? Not just being deprived of a voice – so often taken for granted – but also the ability to scream. No matter how bad we hurt, no matter how terrified we are, at least we can convey this by opening our mouths and letting rip.
As their victims watch those suited monsters take a scalpel to their abdomens, all they can do is watch. The loss of such a basic human mechanism is part of what makes Hush one of the scariest TV episodes ever made.
By Kyle McManus
Doctor Who: ‘Midnight’ (2008)
Like some of the best, scariest ideas in Doctor Who, Russell T Davies derived the monster in the Tenth Doctor episode Midnight from a banal, everyday idea, i.e. it’s really annoying when somebody starts repeating everything you say. Davies’ masterstroke was in realising that it’s altogether more perplexing when they catch up and overtake you in the conversation.
Stranded on a broken-down space bus on a planet where no life can exist on the surface, the Doctor and a group of paranoid tourists are driven to their wits’ end when something knocks on the door and invades the mind of a passenger. And then things get really scary, when everybody turns on the Doctor and the intruder targets him instead.
The claustrophobic setting and long scenes of dialogue are quite theatrical, (various fans have even remade the episode as an unofficial stage production since it aired in 2008) but conceptually it feels like the scariest episode of new Who to date.
Like the recent Twelfth Doctor adventure Listen, which ratcheted the ambiguity up to 11, we don’t really learn what the monster was, or see it defeated in a satisfying way. It’s not what we’d want every week from Doctor Who, but it’s the quintessential example of how the series derives horror from unexpected sources.
By Mark Harrison
Trilogy Of Terror: ‘Amelia’ (1975)
Karen Black and Richard Matheson were two of the biggest names in the 70s, so it’s only natural that the pair came together for the ABC TV movie Trilogy Of Terror. While the first two segments are good by TV movie standards, the third segment is one of the most frightening things in television history, and it’s all thanks to the puppet known as the Zuni fetish doll, AKA He Who Kills. All giant mouth, pointed teeth, and stringy black hair, the doll is creepy from its first appearance, and when it comes to life, the end results are terrifying. Karen Black gets a show piece here, screaming for all she’s worth and either fleeing from or violently assaulting her surprisingly formidable opponent. Director Dan Curtis does a brilliant job of covering for the limitations of technology, by using his camera as a swooping, diving stand-in for the killer puppet, relentless in his pursuit of Amelia. The surprise ending somehow manages to be more disturbing than everything that comes before it, which is a testament to the skill of all parties involved, particularly Black. The enduring legacy of the Zuni fetish doll is proof that terror comes in small packages.
By Ron Hogan
The Twilight Zone: ‘Little Girl Lost’ (1962)
Falling out of bed and waking up in the gap next to the wall as a kid is a frightening experience. Doing that after having watched Little Girl Lost at an inadvisably young age is utterly terrifying.
Little Girl Lost was a season three episode of The Twilight Zone written by Duel, I Am Legend and The Shrinking Man novelist Richard Matheson, in which six-year-old Tina disappeared through her bedroom wall into another dimension. Scarier than Tina’s disappearance, closely followed by that of her dog, was the fact that her voice could still be heard in the normal world, leading to a very Poltergeist-ish conversation between Tina and her distraught parents through the TV set and walls.
Most of what’s chilling about black and white episode Little Girl Lost though, is achieved through sound as Tina’s disembodied voice floats around the home. The trippy, warped vision camera effects – everything in the dry-ice-filled other dimension swirls and spins disorientingly around upside down – play their part too.
Tina and her mutt are soon rescued by her dad, who drags the pair back into the normal realm with seconds to spare before the portal seals for good. It’s a simple story that distils the fear and panic of a child being separated from her parents into a neat thirty minute sci-fi adventure, but as the likes of this, Doctor Who and The Outer Limits so often prove, it’s the simplest scares that can stay with you the longest.
By Frances Roberts
Halloween 1992 had pretty much gone as expected, I was ten and had consumed some Halloween Treats and watched The Worst Witch as per the norm but the evening was to throw up something completely unexpected and would stick with me for a long time to come. Ghostwatch had been listed as a drama, but along with the majority of the UK it seemed nobody in my house knew that when it started and what proceeded was one of the most genuinely spooky programmes I am every likely to see, because until the credits rolled I thought it was real.
Back in the early 90s the word mockumentary didn’t even really exist so sitting down I thought I was actually watching three really well known presenters (Parky, Sarah Green and Mike Smith) testing the theory if ghosts really exist in a supposed haunted house (the main BBC dial-in number which we all knew from Going Live! was also used to give a more authentic feel) and it started out really slowly with not much happening and a lot of cutting back and forth from the studio to location but then forty minutes in it all kicked off with items flying around the room, kids being possessed and self-harming and the ghostly figure of Pipes, whose creepy name came from the fact the noises made were blamed on the pipes in the house, turning up to creep the heck out of you. But it was the ending that truly terrified me the most, a possessed Michael Parkinson wandering round a dark studio quoting round and round the garden, looking back it was a brilliant piece of drama but to this day I still get freaked out when the pipes knock.
By Carley Tauchert-Hutchins
The Walking Dead: ‘Prey’ (2013)
Though each season of The Walking Dead has had its own strengths and highpoints, the third season was the one that really tipped my love for the show into the realms of fervent obsession. It’s going to take something really special to top it too, as major shock events combined with the constant pace and threat that it provided won’t be easily replicated. What season three really excelled at was the dynamics set up between old and new characters, with the main protagonist at the heart of all the conflict being the mighty Governor. I’ve written at length about the sublime villainy behind David Morrissey’s pitch perfect performance, which was equal parts chilling and charming and the episode Prey was the epitome of all that made him so compelling.
After the thirteen previous episodes we’d spent a lot of time with both The Governor and Andrea, with their relationship always causing a sense of unease on screen knowing, as we did, that her conflicted loyalty between him and her original Grimes gang would eventually lead to no good. Prey spends the first half of its runtime showing us how far ‘Philip’ is willing to take his vendetta towards Michonne, peeling away another layer of his hidden monster as he calmly prepares all manner of torture devices – an unsettling display that only makes what happens next even more terrifying.
Being a fan of the late seventies/early eighties golden era of slasher movies, as well as zombies, there was an absolute thrill to watching director Stefan Schwartz channels the best elements from both into the cat and mouse stalking that dominates the second half of Prey. The combination of Andrea’s desperate attempts to stay quiet and hidden, while negotiating through a clattering warehouse peppered with the ever present undead makes for some fine thrills, punctuated by The Governor’s haunting whistle (echoed from an earlier scene) and explosions of manic violence.
Better yet, like any classic horror movie, just when you think escape is within reach it’s snatched away and the playing of Voxhaul Broadcast’s, You Are The Wilderness over the closing moments make for a perfect end, to a perfect episode.
By Duncan Bowles
The X-Files: ‘Home’ (1996)
There are many, many brilliant episodes of The X-Files, but chief among them is one of the scariest, goriest hours ever broadcast on network television. Indeed, it was only one of two X-Files episodes to receive an audience warning over its disturbing content, and disturbing content is an understatement.
Home is a tense, atmospheric creepshow that refuses to pull any punches, from the cold opening in which a woman gives bloody birth to an infant that is buried alive by three mysterious, raspy-breathing monsters to the very final shot of a Cadillac driving away to the strains of Johnny Mathis’s Wonderful, Wonderful. James Wong and Glen Morgan wrote the episode to set the tone for their return to the X-Files fold, mixing brutal violence with black humour and emotional intelligence. Director Kim Manners crafts some of the most memorable visuals in the show’s run, particularly the slaughter of Sherriff Andy Taylor and his wife by the bat-wielding Peacock Brothers. Home, with its sandlot baseball games and peaceful solitude, serves as a great counterpoint to the monstrous Peacocks and their crumbling, antebellum homestead.
If David Lynch and Tobe Hooper could join forces to direct an X-Files episode, the end result might be something like Home.
By Ron Hogan
Doctor Who: ‘The Empty Child’ (2005)
There are so many terrifying episodes of Doctor Who, it seems almost impossible to pick just one. What’s scarier – the all-too-human threat combined with a terrifyingly mysterious alien presence in Midnight, or the simpler gimmick of Blink, which will have you checking every statue out of the corner of your eye to see if it’s moved? Or do you find the sheer freakiness of the visuals combined with the scare-ification of H20 itself in The Waters Of Mars gives you more chills than either?
But special mention has to go to the sheer accumulation of fright-factors in The Empty Child. We’ve got a creepy child, body horror, gas masks (always creepy), a pseudo-ghost story, telephones that shouldn’t be ringing and an apparent enemy who’ll convert you into a zombie like himself, all playing out in a war zone in which a comparatively ordinary bomb could kill any character at any moment, and with the titular child stalking a group of orphans led by a nervous mother-figure, playing on every child’s fear of losing their parents and every parent’s fear of losing their child. Whatever you’re scared of, chances are high it plays a role in this episode.
By Juliette Harrisson
The Enchanted Castle: ‘Magic Life’ (1979)
This little-seen classic from 1979 from children’s author E. Nesbit (The Railway Children et al) was already giving me the fear in the first couple of episodes before we got to the actual instalment that haunted my mind for so long.
Though seemingly innocuous, this very BBC middle-class adventure saw some kids visit a house in the country, getting up to all sorts of fulsome japes without any kind of adult supervision (save for the odd maid).
Not content with statutes coming to life in a slightly eerie garden and invisible characters who cast shiversome shadows, part three of The Enchanted Castle went the full hog with horror, with the creations of the Ugly-Wuglies.
These monstrosities were the invention of the children themselves. Putting on a play to entertain their maid, the little darlings decide they want an audience.
So they make it. From old jackets, shoes, clothes, mops. And paper-plate faces. They assemble the audience. And then the inanimate bastards come to life – the Ugly-Wuglies are born!
If that weren’t pant-wettingly scary enough, the Ugly-Wuglies can barely communicate, their voices mumbled, obscured and almost distorted. The kids manage to get rid of them but in a scene with disturbingly mournful and upsetting sounds as the Ugly-Wuglies are pushed behind a stone door, trapped, never to return.
Sleep well kids!
By Cameron K. McEwan
Kolchak: The Night Stalker: ‘Firefall’ (1974)
Carl Kolchak manages to defeat many terrifying foes armed with only his camera and trademark dry wit, but even he is shaken by the events of Firefall. When a friend of distinguished conductor Ryder Bond spontaneously combusts, and witnesses place Bond at the scene, Kolchak seems to have found the culprit. Nothing in Carl’s world is ever that simple, though. The unquiet spectre of arsonist Frankie Markoff, himself a thwarted musician, has designs on Bond’s charmed life. Markoff will stop at nothing to destroy his target, and is quite prepared to reduce any obstacle in his way to ashes. As usual, Kolchak’s in the line of, er, fire.
Aliens and werewolves are all very well, but true terror lies in the familiar. Bond’s implacable enemy wears his own face, and murders only those closest to him. It’s a bleak tale, told with the show’s inimitable grisly humour and distinguished by the unusual viciousness of its murders. Fred Beir shows us the tension and torment as Bond’s urbane facade crumbles under stress, while providing us with one of Kolchak: The Night Stalker‘s most memorable moments – the stricken conductor confronted with his grinning, identical nemesis in a church within which he’s sought sanctuary.
By Gem Wheeler
Doctor Who: Pyramids Of Mars (1975)
While Doctor Who has occasionally likened the main character’s “last of the Time Lords” status to godhood, he’s been conclusively overpowered by godlike beings before. In 1975’s Pyramids Of Mars, Sutekh the Destroyer has a bone-chilling command of the Fourth Doctor, when he pits his wits against the Egyptian god’s plan to break out of jail by destroying a Martian power plant.
Sutekh and his minions kill off any opposition ruthlessly, mostly because the paranoid tyrant reckons that if he doesn’t kill any life he encounters, it might one day rally and rise up against him. Voiced by Gabriel Woolf (who would later return to provide the voice of the Beast in 2006’s The Satan Pit), his deep, commanding tone perfectly matches his formidable power and cruelty.
So when he and the Doctor finally come face to face, he could clearly crush him like an ant without a second thought and Tom Baker’s agonised performance completely sells that we should be afraid for him. Sutekh is all the more frightening for only having appeared once, as uncompromising, all-powerful evil.
By Mark Harrison
Are You Afraid of the Dark?: ‘The Tale Of Laughing In The Dark’ (1992)
I am going to lay it on the line here – as a child I was truly and horrifically scared of clowns, this is why Pennywise from Stephen King’s IT (see below) still hunts me and why The Tale Of Laughing In The Dark from Are You Afraid Of The Dark? is one of the creepiest stories because it involved Zeebo the clown. Now not only is he a freaky clown dummy (which is a horror all on its own) he also haunts the kids who steal his nose by whispering in the dark and leaving balloons with messages on. To make it worse, he isn’t just contained to one story, he is so inherently creepy he turned up another five times! Basically if he and The Ghastly Grinner were to team up I’d have to run away and hide for a very, very long time.
By Carley Tauchert-Hutchins
Dexter: ‘Born Free’ (2006)
The temptation when writing about Dexter and the sheer emotional trauma it caused over the years, would be to focus on the infamous closing moments of a later season (you know what I’m referring to) but it’s easy to forget how utterly nail-biting the first season finale was, especially as there was no precedent as to how things would play out.
The main source of adrenaline in Dexter always came from the constant threat of him being caught in the act, as right from the start there was a care and investment in his character despite his behaviour, but the end of season one started to really up the stakes when you realised that his actions and very existence could start to cause harm to others. What made Born Free such a powerful finale though was the realisation that there would never be a happy ending, as both sides of his personality – the protective brother and the brutal killer – are forced to make an impossible choice.
There’s also the constant fear that regardless of where The Ice Truck Killer’s plans may be leading, that potty mouth Deb will force his hand ahead of time, not helped by such blackly comic moments such as her screams from the trunk over classical music that show exactly how emotionless the killer is “I’m sorry, but you’re drowning out Fred’s radio and he was kind enough to lend us his wheels”, he says as she’s flails hysterically next to Fred’s bloody corpse.
It’s the final kill that carries the weight though, in a scene that manages to be upsetting even though both characters are devoid of normal human emotion, as Dexter himself says “My tragedy is that I killed the one person I didn’t have to hide from.” Born Free mixes some conventional horror tropes, with some slightly non-conventional situations, but is no less heart-pounding as a result.
By Duncan Bowles
Penny Dreadful: ‘Possession’ (2014)
One of the most impressive aspects of Penny Dreadful’s first season was its willingness to take its time and build an atmosphere of dread over the course of several episodes before all hell breaks loose in its final two instalments. Possession finds Vanessa unable to hold back the demon that threatens to possess her and her friends find themselves only able to watch as her condition worsens. Even though possessions have been particularly popular in cinema recently, Eva Green’s performance was particularly fearless with an unpredictable quality that was outstanding throughout and a large part of what makes this episode so spectacular. The rest of the cast too provide a solid support for her to play off against, the characters plumbing their respective dark depths to offer a solution to the problem, particularly the excellent Timothy Dalton. However, it’s in the episode’s final moments that the build-up really pays off; it’s a shocking and somewhat revelatory conclusion that wasn’t afraid to hold back some of the answers and leave its audience reeling.
By Becky Lea
Angel: ‘Rm W/A Vu’ (1999)
Angel was conceived as a darker, more grown-up show than Buffy The Vampire Slayer so, considering that Buffy produced some pretty frightening episodes, it’s not surprising that Angel could be pretty creepy. I Fall To Pieces and I’ve Got You Under My Skin may both make your skin crawl for different reasons, but I’m particularly fond of classic ghost story Rm W/A Vu.
The episode starts out as a fairly standard poltergeist story, but the ghost in Cordelia’s apartment becomes much scarier when her modus operandi is revealed – not physically attacking people, but emotionally torturing her victims in an attempt to make them commit suicide. Luckily, Cordelia manages to fight back and the other ghost in her apartment – the much friendlier Phantom Dennis – is able to show her what happened and help her drive out his mother. However, the episode’s scares aren’t over yet, because the truth about what happened to Dennis and his mother is more horrifying than anything else in this story; we see the then-completely-human Maude walling Dennis up in their apartment so as not to ‘lose’ him to his fiancée, You Always Hurt The Ones You Love playing in the background. Now that is truly chilling.
By Juliette Harrisson
Inside No. 9: ‘The Harrowing’ (2014)
Those who’d been watching BBC 2’s Inside No.9 from the beginning probably settled down to The Harrowing with expectations of interesting twists, well-known faces, and some perturbing ideas to ponder over a cup of tea afterwards. Boy, was that naive.
The final episode of the series starts with school girl Katy heading over to the creepy homestead of the Moloch siblings — played by Helen McCrory and Reece Shearsmith as pale, long finger-nailed vampiric types — to ‘babysit’. 1960s’ Hammer Horror goth-camp mixes with jokes at the expense of all the old-school tropes being showcased (The Molochs adorn their gloomy house with paintings of the Harrowing of Hell, but have Last Of The Summer Wine circled in their TV Guide), until 1980s’ slasher movie synths start to sneak their way into the soundtrack around the halfway mark and things take a turn for the nasty. Out goes the parody of cheesy vamp genre flicks, and in comes a milky-eyed cloven-footed monster reminiscent of Freddy Kruger + the ‘Sloth’ victim from Se7en, all full of Castiel the demon wanting into Katy. Seeing him jerkily moving towards her with glee, hissing ‘mischief’…’ straight into camera, is shocking, unexpected, and above all, just horrible.
By Phoebe-Jane Boyd
The X-Files: ‘Squeeze’ (1993)
An early monster-of-the-week (well, monster-of-two-weeks to be precise) episode for The X-Files, Squeeze introduced the world to Eugene Tooms, an organ-eating, body-contorting mutant played by with chilling poise by Doug Hutchison.
Our first glimpse of Tooms as a pair of glowing yellow eyes watching their victim from a storm drain had a distinct whiff of Stephen King’s IT about it, which, in 1993, stood my Pennywise-traumatised brain to attention. The episode that followed saw an elongated Tooms stretch himself (effects created using a mixture of CG and a real contortionist) down lift shafts, air vents and chimneys – memorably and terrifyingly unscrewing some vent cover screws from the inside to gain entry to a victim’s house and snack on their liver.
The first and only X-Files episode directed by Harry Longstreet (extensive reshoots were said to have been required by writers James Wong and Glen Morgan), Squeeze established a monster that would not only return later in the season with Tooms, but would remain one of the creepiest in The X-Files’ long history.
By Frances Roberts
Supernatural: ‘Pilot’ (2005)
Supernatural was conceived as a horror anthology show drawing on urban legends, so while later seasons became more concerned with its over-arching mythology, there are a lot of truly frightening episodes in the show’s first couple of seasons, including Bloody Mary, Asylum, Provenance and No Exit (what’s scarier than a real-life serial killer with a murder house? The ghost of a real life serial killer with a murder house!)
But for many viewers the episode that first made a spine-chilling impression was the pilot, itself one of Supernatural’s scariest episodes. This is where we first saw the show’s trademark flickering-screen effect for ghosts, first encountered one of Supernatural’s twists on classic urban legends, the first time we watched Sam nearly get killed. The Woman in White who features as the Monster of the Week is beautifully spooky and her kids are even spookier – and then there are the opening and closing scenes, which kick off the series’ mythology in epic style. The image of a woman pinned to the ceiling, eyes wide open, bleeding and consumed by flames, is indelible, and ensures that Sam and Dean’s childhood trauma has quite an effect on the audience as well.
By Juliette Harrisson
Torchwood: ‘Countrycide’ (2006)
After weeks of puny attempts at maturity (including sexy gas and sexy Cyberwomen), Torchwood found its first real gem in week six. Countrycide, with a killer of a title that must have had writer Chris Chibnall punching the air when he thought it, is by no means perfect but it’s a tense, savage piece of drama that still gives me the willies whenever I revisit it.
What Countrycide excels at most is the build-up of the first act in which red herrings are dropped here and there, hinting at the alien origins of a spate of disappearances in the Welsh hinterlands that the Torchwood team are investigating. Spoilers from herein – the twist that there is no extraterrestrial behind the missing people was a masterstroke by Chibnall and really paid off in the end. Rather poetically, the monsters are us: a The Wicker Man-ish community of cannibals that ritually feast on unsuspecting travellers. The third half is a gritty, pants-wetting, buttock-clenching tour de force as Gwen, Jack, Ianto and Owen fight for survival.
Think Broadchurch with more rude bits.
By Patrick Sproull
Fringe: ‘Marionette’ (2010)
Fringe was a TV series that could do creepy really well, whether it was producing something icky to turn your stomach or something chilling like Marionette. In this episode, the team investigate the deaths of people who had recently received a transplants, only for their killer to take that heart back again. Woven around this is Olivia’s attempt to take back her life after her disappearance and her parallel universe counterpart, Fauxlivia, taking over her life and her relationship with Peter. The case soon leads them to a young girl, Amanda, who had committed suicide and whose organs had then been donated. It’s a riff on the Frankenstein tale as the killer attempts to use these organs to resurrect the girl; it’s got all the hallmarks of an act of love, but is more accurately one of obsession. It ties into Olivia’s feeling of a loss of control, of someone else pulling the strings. In Amanda’s case, this happens quite literally.
The most chilling scene is when the killer rigs up the still-deceased Amanda to a pulley system to make her dance again, giving the episode its name and one of Fringe‘s most haunting sequences.
By Becky Lea
The Storyteller: ‘A Story Short’ (1988)
Amongst all their Muppet and Sesame Street creations, Jim Henson’s Workshop has been randomly pouring undiluted nightmare propellant right into the eyes of unsuspecting children for years; key examples being The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth, and we aren’t even talking about Jareth’s codpiece, here. 1988 TV series The Storyteller is another instalment from the ‘Wait, Isn’t This Supposed to Be for Kids?’ Henson oeuvre. An aged-up John Hurt telling versions of Celtic folktales by the fire with a talking sidekick dog might not sound scary, but trust us, the Skeksis have nothing on this (…okay, on second thoughts, maybe the Skeksis do). Episode A Story Short features — not in order, or inclusive of all terrors contained within — the Storyteller burning a cook’s hand with a hot stone and laughing; a man putting a rope around the Storyteller’s neck and turning him into a screeching rabbit with a human face; the cook’s fingers and an ear falling off as part of a prank; and a young boy climbing up a rope after a glowing ball, only for the rope to fall, as well as the ball, light now dead: young boy gone.
Watching it as a child is bad, watching it as an adult is somehow worse. The afore-mentioned human-faced-rabbit (shudder) being dangled by its back legs and screaming ‘can’t get away!’ higher and higher would make even Labyrinth’s Goblin King soil his lycra leggings.
By Phoebe-Jane Boyd
American Gothic: ‘Pilot’ (1995)
Being from the American South and having had a taste for the macabre from a young age, as a teenager I was in exactly the right place and time when the tragically short-lived American Gothic had its one and only season. I might have been ready, but apparently network television audiences weren’t, and probably with good reason. The pilot of American Gothic, even by today’s standards, is dark. And by dark, I’m talking about child murder, murder disguised as suicide, words written on walls in blood, rape, ghosts, alcoholism, mental illness – you know, all the charming trappings of a day in a small Southern town.
It’s been nearly twenty years, but those moody, ominous first moments that quickly give way to the shock of a cold-blooded killing are as sinister and disturbing as any horror on TV today. On the night of young Caleb Temple’s birthday, evil has come to Trinity. He’s going to spend the whole season getting to the bottom of it all, but this is the night that his childhood ends and his struggle with the devil himself begins. Give the pilot a watch if you’d like, and see if you can ever hear the words “someone’s at the door” without a shiver again.
By Holly Hogan
Buffy The Vampire Slayer: ‘Conversations With Dead People’ (2002)
Buffy‘s final season was, shall we say, problematic. While it arguably sticks the landing with a pretty ace finale, much of its latter half is hampered by occasionally suspect character work and a somewhat abstract Big Bad whose plans never quite coalesce properly. Plus those ghastly Potentials. It’s a shame, because the initial build-up creates a very creepy, doom-laden atmosphere exemplified by Conversations With Dead People.
Each of the episode’s cleverly interwoven strands are tonally distinct – Andrew and Jonathan’s scenes are very funny, for example, while Willow’s are heart-breaking – but the overall feel is subtly unsettling. Something is very definitely not right, and the fact that each of the main characters is isolated makes them appear that much more vulnerable, particularly Dawn. Her scenes are the most straightforwardly scary, with horrific visions of her mother, blood-spattered walls and that awful banging – a simple device executed well – combining to terrifying effect, although the final “Cassie” reveal is also pretty disturbing. The fact that even at episode’s end we still don’t really know what’s going on, or what connects the various strands, adds to a sense of unease that lingers long after the credits roll. And bookending proceedings with the haunting Blue (written by Joss Whedon and Angie Hart, fact fans) doesn’t hurt matters.
By Stefan Mohamed
Dark Towers: ‘The Tall Knight’s Folly’ (1981)
We’ve talked about Look And Read before on this site, and for a generation of schoolkids, we got exposed to all kinds of stories, that hadn’t had the rough edges knocked off. The one that stuck with me, though, was Dark Towers. And the moment that terrified me actually concerned a character who turned out to be good.
Not that I bloody knew that when he turned up. For weeks, the Tall Knight of Dark Towers had been teased, and it was an inevitability that he’d turn up. But what a rug pull: rather than saving him for the end, his appearance became a cliffhanger just past the half-way point of the series. He appeared, uttered some words that to this day I can’t remember, and then the music played. We practically lynched the teacher to let us watch the next episode there and then, and scoured the TV listings to see if we could find it ourselves. I needed it too: even though the Tall Knight turned out to be a friend, the image of his first appearance remains etched on the insides of my eyelids. Shudder.
By Simon Brew
Steven Spielberg’s Amazing Stories: ‘Mirror, Mirror’ (1986)
“He’s in the mirror!”
The scares that follow you out from the screen and into your day-to-day life are the ones that really linger, and Mirror Mirror, part of Steven Spielberg’s uneven eighties anthology series, understands that brilliantly. We all clean our teeth at a sink, and we all wipe condensation from steamed-up mirrors, so introducing a monster that appears at precisely these banal moments is this episode’s horror coup.
Directed by Martin Scorsese (yup) from a story by Spielberg, Mirror Mirror shows successful horror author Jordan Manmoth (Sam Waterston) stalked around his flash, modern mansion by ‘the phantom’. Said monster is a malevolent creature with a Freddy Krueger face, black hat, and a yard of piano wire, who appears in every reflective surface Manmoth sees, from mirrors to sunglasses to eyeballs.
The episode, which aired in 1986 in the US but didn’t reach the UK until the early nineties, culminates in a dramatic final scene I won’t spoil here for anyone who wants to look it up. Suffice it to say that Spielberg and Scorsese know a thing or two about creating suspense and building to a scare.
(Fun fact, underneath all that make-up, ‘the phantom’ was played by none other than lanky Tim Robbins.)
By Louisa Mellor
Stephen King’s It – TV movie (1990)
Before audience fragmentation and streaming video, there used to be a phenomenon known as event television. Something big happens, everyone tunes in to watch, and everyone talks about it the next day. This could be anything from series finales (M.A.S.H. drew 105.9 million viewers, a full 60% of households in the United States in 1983) to TV movies. One TV movie, upon release in 1990, became the topic of discussion for weeks in every school playground. It is one of the most terrifying things ever broadcast by a major network, and it’s all thanks to Tim Curry’s Pennywise. Popping up to talk to Georgie from inside the sewer is bad enough, but later on when the kids are looking through the book at Pennywise’s history, then he comes running through the old photograph to pop his face out at them, it’s positively pants-soiling. It’s unexpected and brilliantly performed, particularly by the youngsters (Jonathan Brandeis, Emily Perkins, Seth Green, etc.). But the audience reaction is what makes It resonate to this day as part nostalgia and part shared memory. Even if you didn’t watch It live (I didn’t), you heard enough about it to make Pennywise into the stuff of nightmares. Just the idea of a spider-clown monster is enough to terrify a generation of kids.
By Ron Hogan
Doctor Who: ‘Listen’ (2014)
The scariness of this divisive episode of a generally divisive Who season lives and dies on whether you can accept its conceit – i.e. that maybe there wasn’t actually a scary thing in the first place. Does the lack of a concrete resolution, and the idea that maybe the Doctor is just afraid of the dark, make the scene with the figure under the duvet, or the mysterious knocking on the spaceship door, any less chilling? Is it enough to just create a spooky atmosphere, and wring out every possible drop of tension, or is it a narrative cheat to leave things so up in the air? As far as this writer is concerned, the ends most definitely justify the means, although this is the internet, so your mileage will inevitably vary.
Steven Moffat has spent a lot of time exploring the idea of fear at its most primal – things in the dark, things seen in the corner of your eye, things you can’t quite remember – and Listen feels like the culmination of this thematic preoccupation. And even if you don’t care for its analysis of the concept of fear, or its lack of closure, largely thanks to director Douglas Mackinnon, it still has some damned unsettling moments.
By Stefan Mohammed
Mother Love (1989)
Unlike most of the shows on this list, you may not recall Mother Love. In fact, you may be too young to have seen it at all, because it aired on the BBC in 1989 and hasn’t, unless I’m mistaken, been aired since. I was only a youngster myself at the time, and great chunks of it have been lost to the mists of time, but I still clearly remember being shaken to the core by the final episode.
Mother Love was about a well-to-do couple whose life seemed to be perfect other than their mother-in-law, Helena (brilliantly played by Diana Rigg), whose obsession with her son becomes increasingly dark and pronounced. The series was only four episodes long, but the tension mounted in each one, as the true depth of Helena’s scariness became clear. It all came to a head in the final episode which, at the time, frightened the life out of me: Helena attacks a vulnerable man, once a friend of hers, as he lies in a hospital bed.
The moment was so unexpected and brutal that, even 25 years later, I can still remember it, as well as Rigg’s psychotic performance as she began detaching all the life support equipment keeping her victim alive. The human memory is a very strange thing.
By Ryan Lambie
Teen Wolf: ‘Echo House’ (2014)
The majority of Teen Wolf season three was an exercise in doing teen horror really, really well for television, but if you were to pick an example of how the show was using elements of the genre to scare its audience silly, it was Echo House. It says a lot that its the only episode of the show to get a “Viewer Discretion Is Advised” precursor, especially when you consider how far it pushes things on a weekly basis.
There was so much in this episode, in which Stiles checks himself into the kind of creepy, old-school psychiatric hospital you only see on TV. The trouble is, he has to stay awake in order to keep the Nogitsune – the season’s big bad – from possessing him, and the rest of the episode keeps the audience in a vice grip of suspense.
The hour begins by reminding us of the character’s age when his father drops him off and realises he’s forgotten his comfort blanket. Five minutes later, a patient has hanged himself off the stairwell. It’s all helped along by the fantastic creature design of the Nugitsune, portrayed by the same actor as the hospital’s chief orderly, which pops up throughout the episode.
By Caroline Preece
American Horror Story: ‘Unholy Night’ (2012)
For a man once beloved of the people of Britain for his gentle antics as leather-jacket wearing pottery rebel Lovejoy, Ian McShane’s come a long, long way. First we were forced to accept him in the role of whore-house psychopath Al Swearengen in HBO’s mighty Wild West curse-a-thon Deadwood, and then American Horror Story came along and cast him as a Santa-suit wearing spree killer suffering from psychosis.
Few things are as fun as watching Ian McShane ‘going full mental’, but in the prologue to American Horror Story’s second season episode Unholy Night his performance is weighted with so much bleakness that Dickens could use it to build an entire housing estate.
The sequence takes place in the week before Christmas of 1962. McShane plays Leigh Emerson, a man who makes the Grinch look a sap by shooting an alfresco dime-store Santa through the head for absolutely no reason at all. Later that night a little girl discovers Emerson sitting by the Christmas tree in the living room of her family home, dressed in a blood-stained Santa suit. The scene drips with dread and menace, as we already know that Emerson’s eerily calm and avuncular back-and-forth with the girl is a precursor for something deeply terrible; indeed, Emerson makes the girl a cheerful and unwitting participant in the events leading up to the cold-blooded murder of her parents.
Disconcerting dutch angles, the threat of rape, three innocents shot dead: a highly disturbing Christmas special and no mistake, guv’nor. Yet still somehow less depressing than the annual festive offering from Eastenders.
By Jamie Andrew
Twin Peaks: ‘Pilot/Northwest Passage’ (1990)
David Lynch and Mark Frost’s early nineties series combined the eerie, the outlandishly comic, the eccentric and the truly horrid to create a show that quickly became reviewer comparison shorthand for ‘weird and on telly’. Deciding which particular episode of Twin Peaks is the most unsettling is a tricky venture simply because they all are; that’s more or less the point.
My award for most terrifying episode, however, goes to Twin Peaks’ pilot (watched by a whopping 34.6 million in the US). It wins for one scene alone: the brief moment we were introduced to Frank Silva as BOB in Sarah Palmer’s nightmarish vision. The likes of season two’s Lonely Souls and Beyond Life And Death may have given us much more from the demonic presence haunting the show, but that first glimpse of silver-haired BOB crouching behind Laura Palmer’s bed (a cameo inspired by set dresser Silva’s real-life accidental moment trapped in shot) was enough to cement the character in my mind as the scariest on TV.
By Louisa Mellor