Inbred hicks and killer clowns and talking dolls, oh my! Here, in honor of Halloween, are our picks for TV's five scariest episodes ever. We were going to go with a list of strictly Halloween-themed episodes, but those usually aren't all that scary. But you could still watch these particular episodes on Saturday night to get in the ghoulish spirit of the holiday.
1) "HOME" -- THE X-FILES, SEASON 4
Without a doubt the most frightening, most disturbing episode in the entirety of The X-Files' many-season run, "Home" is terrifying because it doesn't really traffic in the supernatural--it could be real. Well, sure, it's highly unlikely that there would actually be a murderous family of insanely inbred brothers who keep impregnating their limbless mother who they keep on a cart under the bed and killing the deformed offspring (that's really what the episode is about!) in modern-day America, but there aren't any aliens or ghosts or telekinetic weirdos lurking the periphery to firmly place the episode beyond the realm of possibility. Directed by Kim Manners, "Home" is so mesmerizingly repulsive, unbearably suspenseful, and shockingly dark that it's no wonder Fox was famously reluctant to ever rerun the episode after its initial airing. A true stunner.
2) "LIVING DOLL" -- THE TWILIGHT ZONE, SEASON 5
As the title would suggest, the inanimate children's toy that shows up at Telly Savalas' house one day isn't actually as inanimate as one would hope. Though just about as campy and silly an episode as The Twilight Zone ever made, there's still something wonderful and terrifying about the wicked Talking Tina, a cutesy doll who promises to murder her owner's cruel step-father in a sing-songy tinkle of a voice. Perhaps we find it kind of funny these days because it spawned a series of seriously campy imitators--from the Child's Play movie series (replace Tina with Chuckie) to The Simpsons' "Treehouse of Horror" installment "Clown Without Pity," about a murder-minded Krusty the Klown doll. But at its core, "Living Doll" is a childhood nightmare--that our toys might come to life at night and not be as nice as we'd thought--made horribly manifest. She's Talking Tina, and she's going to creep the hell out of you.
3) FIRST HALF OF IT -- MINISERIES, 1990
Based on a Stephen King book of the same name, It definitely has its moments of bad TV movie lameness. Particularly the closing battle climax, that comes complete with asthma inhaler and giant spider. But other parts of it--the parts that explore the unknowable horrors of childhood, the Its that kids are convinced are lurking somewhere, waiting to get them--truly startle and scare. Just the idea of something terrible and mysterious--be it Pennywise the Clown or some other awful manifestation--waiting in a storm drain, luring children to their doom, is enough to send shivers up our spines, even in the relative safety of adulthood. In his novel, King was investigating something big and universal about childhood, an idea that though much of the big, unknown world can seem exciting to young people, a lot of it can feel pretty menacing and dangerous too. The TV miniseries captures this haunting theme best in its first half, when the characters are children forced to deal with a local horror in their small Maine town (the heart of King Country). Both melancholy and eerie, It is a chilling embodiment of what scared us as kids, and what still scares us now.
4) "HUSH" -- BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER, SEASON 4
Noted more often for its technical mastery than its outright scare-factor, "Hush" is writer/director/show-creator Joss Whedon's almost-completely-dialogue-free masterpiece. The image of ghoulishly smiling demons, wielding heart-gouging knives, floating toward a victim who tries to scream for help but cannot (due to the monsters' magicks) lingered with us long after the end credits had rolled. The idea of being robbed of our most visceral defense against a baddie--to just scream bloody murder--is sheer terror indeed. That Whedon pulled off such a ghastly motif with an artist's grace and innovation is just the cherry on top of a dread-filled sundae. "Hush" is in the top five of best Buffy episodes ever, and certainly the series' scariest.
5) "NIGHTMARE" -- THE OUTER LIMITS, SEASON 1
As much about the horrors of the military-industrial complex as it is about the awfuls of torture, "Nightmare" presents us with a group of Earthling soldiers captured on a hostile alien planet. Subjected to all manner of torment, both physical and psychological, the soldiers begin to turn on one another as survival seems less and less likely. This being The Outer Limits, of course there is a society-skewing twist ending that makes you think more than shriek. But the moments before are gut-churning and harrowing. The particular Limits explored in this episode are those of human compassion and endurance. "Don't touch meeee!!"