While the movie theater offers size, volume, and shared communal experience, there is an intimacy to television that can provide a very different experience to the big screen. This is especially true when it comes to scaring the audience. The screen might be smaller, but there is something that can’t be matched about sitting alone, late at night, while a truly scary TV episode unfolds.
There have been many terrifying TV shows over the years, but often the scariest episodes come from those shows that aren’t scary week in, week out. Anthology shows such as The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits frequently mixed horror, sci-fi, and fantasy–these were shows that were consistently strange and inventive, but wouldn’t attempt to only terrify their audience. And the scary episodes were all the more effective for that. Equally, there are many forgettable shows, particularly horror anthology series, that tried to consistently deliver the scares, but never really managed to in quite the same way.
In more recent years, shows such as Black Mirror have carried the small screen legacy of those earlier shows. In many cases, the scary episodes are the ones most beloved by fans and still stand up today. It might be getting harder and harder to scare viewers, but these episodes are every bit as effective as they were when first broadcast. So here’s a look at some of the scariest TV episodes ever made.
9. Amazing Stories – “Mirror, Mirror” (1986)
The ’80s sci-fi/fantasy anthology Amazing Stories was produced by Steven Spielberg, and as you’d expect, had plenty of other talent behind the camera. The 1986 episode Mirror, Mirror was directed by the great Martin Scorsese (Goodfellas, Wolf of Wall Street) and is the scariest of the lot. It focuses on a horror novelist who sees a terrifying figure in every reflection, getting closer and closer every time. It’s so damn scary it makes you wish Scorsese had dabbled in horror more.
8. Hammer House of Horror – “The House That Bled to Death” (1980)
This British horror anthology series ran for just 13 episode back in 1980 but is still remembered for this terrifying classic. The title says it all–a young couple and their daughter move into a house where a brutal murder occurred several years earlier. Of course, their experience there is not good, culminating in an unforgettable scene where the house’s pipes burst during their daughter’s birthday party, drenching the young guests in blood.
7. Black Mirror – “Playtest” (2016)
There might be more clever episodes of Black Mirror, but none as scary. Wyatt Russell plays a jaded traveller who agrees to trial a mysterious new augmented reality experience, in which the players are confronted by their worst fears. But really, it just gives writer Charlie Brooker and director Dan Trachtenberg (10 Cloverfield Lane) the opportunity to deliver a series of increasingly nightmarish scenes as Russell experiences the most horrifying survival horror game imaginable. Bandersnatch might have got the hype, but this is the episode where Black Mirror really delivered the ghastly gaming goods.
6. Doctor Who – “Blink” (2007)
Although Doctor Who has a reputation as a show that has scared several generations of kids, it is perhaps less likely to terrify in the 21st century than it was in, say, the 1970s. There are exceptions, however, and the 2007 episode Blink shows that Who can still deliver the scares. It’s the episode that introduced us to the Weeping Angels, deadly and terrifying statue-like beings that slowly move towards their victims whenever they close their eyes. Written by showrunner Steven Moffat, Blink is directed more like an old-school horror movie than a family sci-fi adventure, and has an absolute knockout of a final twist.
5. The Haunting of Hill House – “The Bent-Neck Lady” (2018)
The brilliance of last year’s Netflix horror epic wasn’t just that it was seriously scary–it also had incredible dramatic weight. There are episodes that perhaps had more conventional scares (eg. the technical tour-de-force of Episode 6), but none with the terrifying emotional punch of the the fifth episode. It focuses on the sad life of Nell Crane, and in the unforgettable final moments we learnt that she is in fact the bent-necked lady, the terrifying ghost that has haunted her for decades. It’s an episode that will make you weep and scream in equal measure.
4. The Twilight Zone – “Mirror Image” (1960)
No scary TV episode list is complete without The Twilight Zone, the godfather of spooky television. Rod Serling’s classic anthology show had many scary episodes over the years, but Mirror Image might be the best. Like many of the best Zone episodes, it’s got an incredibly simple setup, and it’s that simplicity that makes it so chilling. A woman encounters her exact double at a bus stop, and we soon learn that this doppelganger is looking to kill and replace her. It’s an eerie and dread-filled episode, and contains a great twist.
3. Buffy – “Hush” (1999)
Buffy dabbled in many genres–comedy, romance, musical, action, drama–but let’s not forget it’s also a show about vampires (and vampire slaying). Creator Joss Whedon would occasionally make sure he terrified viewers. Hush is the show’s greatest scary episode, and a perennial fan favorite. It features an unforgettable monster (the voice-stealing Gentlemen), a fantastic concept (two-thirds of the episode is entirely dialogue-free), and one of best jump scares you’ll see in any show. It remains an absolute classic of modern TV–as clever, daring, and moving as it is damn scary.
2. Twin Peaks – “Lonely Souls” (1991)
While Twin Peaks had been weird and creepy up to this point, it was the seventh episode of Season 2 that took the show into the realms of the properly scary. Written by Mark Frost and directed by David Lynch, this is the one in which Leyland Palmer is revealed as his daughter Laura’s killer. Possessed by the malevolent spirit Bob, Leyland kills again, murdering Laura’s cousin Maddy in a terrifying sequence that pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable on mainstream TV at the time. The episode builds in tense, dread-filled fashion, with Mike attempting to sense Bob’s spirit within the guests at the Great Northern hotel, before it reaches its shocking final scenes. The brutality of the scene, combined with Sheryl Lee’s gut-wrenching screams as Maddy is beaten by Leyland/Bob, is unforgettable. But equally terrifying is the reveal that Laura’s abuser and killer was her own father, a twist that took the show into a much darker place than many were expecting.
1. X-Files – “Home” (1996)
Few individual episodes of any show have quite the reputation of this X-Files classic. It was the first episode in the series to carry a viewer warning, and despite the immense popularity of the show at that time, was only ever repeated once more on Fox (as part of a special Halloween broadcast in 1999). It’s the quintessential ‘monster of the week’ episode, in which the discovery of a dead, deformed baby leads Mulder and Scully into a nightmarish mystery involving incest, a limbless woman, and the disfigured, murderous Peacock brothers. Written by X-Files regulars Glen Morgan and James Wong, Home takes its influence from classic backwoods horrors such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes, and still packs a punch more than 20 years later.