I don’t know about you, but I rarely jump when watching TV. You should see me in a movie theater: I will cover my face with my hands, plug my ears, and still lose it when the killer pops out from under the bed. On a small screen in the comfort of my home, TV just isn’t as threatening—but that doesn’t mean it never scares me. Here are 10 of the shows I’ve lost sleep over, along with the episodes I’d most like to forget.
What Made It Scary: The Twilight Zone didn’t need sex or gore to drive its point home—each story was a self-contained mystery guaranteed to leave the viewer in distress. Yeah, there were ghosts and aliens, but at its best, the show commented on human nature. Spoiler alert: we’re pretty awful.
Scariest Episode: “The Hitch-Hiker.” I’ll be honest—this is probably one of the least original Twilight Zones episodes produced, and it’s likely not the scariest to most, but it’s haunted me for a long time. Seeing a stranger in your backseat must be awful. Learning you’ve actually been dead all along is maybe even worse.
What Made It Scary: Like many of the other series on this list, Tales of the Crypt blended horror and comedy. Inspired by the ‘50s comics of the same name, this HBO show had the decrepit Crypt Keeper telling darkly ironic tales. But while the comics were mostly good fun, the realistic violence of the show elevated it to another level of terror.
Scariest Episode: “And All Through the House.” Tales from the Crypt got campier as time went on, which is probably why this early episode is the scariest. There’s something really upsetting about a killer Santa. No, Tales from the Crypt wasn’t the first to do it, but in its defense, the story was based on a 40-year-old comic book.
What Made It Scary: In classic David Lynch fashion, Twin Peaks reminded us that there’s always something dark lurking under the surface. The show introduced us to tons of memorable characters, few of whom you’d want to meet in a dark alley. I’m looking at you, Killer BOB.
Scariest Episode: “Lonely Souls.” Laura Palmer’s killer is finally revealed, and it’s a doozy. Not to mention the fact that Laura’s lookalike cousin—same actress, dark hair—also gets offed in tremendously horrific fashion. Oh, and did I mention BOB? Because holy crap. Mirror scares are always effective.
What Made It Scary: Look, if you were a child of the ‘80s, you grew up on and were terrified by this Nickelodeon anthology series. Some of the stories were goofier than others, but there was always something really frightening about a group of kids meeting in the woods at midnight. None of their parents ever caught on?
Scariest Episode: “The Tale of Laughing in the Dark.” This episode should never have been aired. I’m not a fan of censorship, but children shouldn’t be exposed to clowns—they’re just too scary. And this particular clown, Zeebo, steals the noses of his victims. I saw it when I was six, and I’m still not over it.
What Made It Scary: Agents Mulder and Scully encountered a whole mess of badness on a weekly basis. While the series skewed sci-fi overall, many of the episodes had horror elements—ghosts, monsters, serial killers. Iconic horror author Stephen King even penned an (admittedly underwhelming) episode.
Scariest Episode: “Home.” Dead babies? Check. Inbred maniacs? Check. Amputation? Check. “Home” disturbs me on so many levels that I still can’t bring myself to rewatch it. And I’m not the only one. Ask most X-Philes which episode scared them the most and they’ll point to “Home.” Or “Squeeze”—Tooms is horrifying.
What Made It Scary: Vampires, demons, and the forces of darkness. Buffy was a solid blend of action, comedy, romance, and horror—most of the time, it wasn’t about scaring the audience, but some of its episodes continue to frighten. And even at its most lighthearted, there was always the sense that death was lurking right around the corner.
Scariest Episode: “Hush.” The Gentlemen are a group of freaky-looking demons who steal everyone’s voice, then cut out their victims’ hearts. They have severely unsettling smiles and a wonderful musical theme that still creeps me out. The worst part is, no matter how much pain they cause, you won’t be able to scream.
What Made It Scary: See above. As a spin-off of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel retained the supernatural elements that spooked viewers of the original series. But it also captured a more adult tone that allowed for even scarier stories. Add to that the fact that the show’s hero can turn evil at the drop of a hat. Or, you know, perfect happiness.
Scariest Episode: “Calvary.” Angelus is a pretty awful villain, in that he’s the Angel we know and love but really, really mean. Add to that The Beast, who could do some serious damage, and his master, revealed at the end to be Cordelia. That’s two familiar faces on the wrong side of the fight. What could be scarier than that?
What Made It Scary: The epic battle between good and evil is usually pretty tense. Carnivale had lots of other creepy elements, including a corrupt preacher, wicked carnies, and dead things coming back to life. The mythology may not have come together in the end—damn that last cliffhanger—but it’s still good for some quality chills.
Scariest Episode: “Babylon.” It’s tough to pick a scariest episode of Carnivale, which was more about the drawn-out atmospheric horror than episodic scares. Still, “Babylon” has some of the most frightening moments, including the catatonic Appolonia speaking and the brutal death of Dora Mae.
What Makes It Scary: Well, Sam and Dean are demon hunters, which means they’re bound to encounter a whole mess of demons. Like Buffy, Supernatural incorporates plenty of humor and wacky hijinks, too, but at its scariest, the series can be downright scream-worthy.
Scariest Episode: “Bloody Mary.” What did I tell you about mirror scares? They are always awful. And to anyone who grew up playing “Bloody Mary” in the bathroom, it’s truly terrifying to think that something bad might have actually happened. Urban legends are scary enough when they’re just stories—it’s way worse when they’re real.
What Makes It Scary: It’s about a serial killer who kills other serial killers. Did I mention his day job is as a blood spatter analyst? Yeah, Dexter is violent, but the scariest thing about it is how much we can relate to the main character. Sure, he cuts people up, but who hasn’t wanted to dispatch some deserving baddies in his day?
Scariest Episode: “Living the Dream.” The Season 4 opener introduced viewers to the Trinity Killer, played by the wonderfully effective John Lithgow. The opening scene is impossible to forget: a naked Trinity ambushes his victim, slits her femoral artery in the bathtub, then forces her to look in the mirror as she bleeds to death. Gah.
These are Louis' scariest shows, what shows would you put on your list?