From the sexy vampires of True Blood and The Vampire Diaries to zombies (The Walking Dead), werewolves (Teen Wolf), and haunted houses (American Horror Story), TV is all about the dark side lately. But, while each of these shows features elements of the supernatural, they’re not all actually scary. In fact, over the years, horror — which generally lends itself best to film — has taken a back seat to comedy, drama, and even sci-fi to become one of television’s most neglected genres. Since it can be hard to give yourself a good scare on the small screen, in anticipation of Halloween, we’ve compiled a list of our favorite frightening TV shows of all time. If you’re looking for some seasonal viewing, many of these series are available to stream on Netflix or Hulu, and some are even free to watch on YouTube. Tell us what we missed in the comments.
American Horror Story
People, have you tuned in to FX’s American Horror Story yet? If not, don’t worry — it premiered October 5th, so you’re only a few episodes behind. The story follows Ben (Dylan McDermott) and Vivien (Connie Britton), a couple that moves across the country to Los Angeles, to mend their broken marriage in a beautiful house once owned by a famous Hollywood doctor that happens to have an especially gory past. Other characters include Ben and Vivien’s decidedly dark and self-harming teenage daughter, Violet (Taissa Farmiga); creepy housekeeper Moira (Frances Conroy); and Constance, an unbalanced neighbor straight out of Tennessee Williams (a superbly cast Jessica Lange). Despite its stellar cast, American Horror Story, co-created by Glee‘s Ryan Murphy, is campy to the core — leather bondage suits, naughty servants, and gratuitous Dylan McDermott nudity all figure prominently in the pilot. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t also occasionally terrifying.
The Twilight Zone
The Twilight Zone isn’t just one of the best scary TV shows ever — it’s one of the best series to air on television, period. Spanning five seasons between 1959 and 1964, it mixed horror with science fiction and fantasy and set an intimidatingly high bar for future bizarre programming. Created by Rod Serling, the show featured a new story every week. Although its dark and eerie tone would have been enough to make TV history, The Twilight Zone is also remembered for using its surreal subject matter as a safe way to critique such controversial political issues as McCarthyism and war. The series has been revived a few times since the mid-’80s, but the sequels never compared to the original.
Speaking of scary TV shows that transcend the horror genre! Twin Peaks expanded the nightmare visions of David Lynch’s films into two seasons of seedy casino/brothels, psycho killers, and eerie dreams. It also gave us a town full of eccentric characters to love and hate, and transformed Kyle McLachlan’s righteous, philosophical FBI agent into a national hero. Twin Peaks, like Lynch’s movies, was neither a traditional murder mystery nor a standard slasher — its terrifying moments were few and far between (and also incredibly effective), but its surfeit of haunting imagery still made it the kind of show you wouldn’t want to watch just before bed.
Masters of Horror
Before there was the Showtime series Masters of Horror, there was a loose supper club of famous horror filmmakers who have met since 2002. The show premiered in 2005, with each episode comprised of an hour-long movie directed by a member of the group. Throughout its two-season run, Masters of Horror featured the work of such directors as Dario Argento, John Carpenter, Takashi Miike, and John Landis. While the show was sometimes criticized for being uneven, when it was scary, it was really scary. You can watch Argento’s episode above, and several other selections from the series are free to stream in full on YouTube.
The Walking Dead
We’ve had our problems with The Walking Dead, and Sunday’s season premiere didn’t do much to alleviate them. But the fact remains that the show has crafted a multi-season story line out of B zombie movie material, and win over a huge audience in the process. Although the characters often leave something to be desired, the gore is always top-notch. If you could watch this week’s lengthy scene of Rick and Daryl picking through a zombie’s entrails without looking away, your stomach is officially stronger than ours.
Alfred Hitchcock Presents
Back to classics: Alfred Hitchcock’s TV series actually pre-dated The Twilight Zone, meaning that there’s always been an audience for scary shows. Running for a solid decade (first as the 25-minute Alfred Hitchcock Presents and then as The Alfred Hitchcock Hour), was a series of single-episode thrillers and mysteries. While only some were directed by Hitchcock, he famously introduced and closed the show each week. And although the titular filmmaker won a few Emmys for his work on the show, the episode you may want to start with was written by beloved children’s author Roald Dahl. “Man from the South” starred Peter Lorre and Steve McQueen in a story about a guy who takes a particularly chilling bet, and has inspired several adaptations. You can watch the first part of the episode above.
The Outer Limits
Sure, The Twilight Zone was weird. But The Outer Limits — a show that premiered four years later and was conceived around a similar premise — was really weird. More sci-fi than Rod Serling’s show, its stable of writers featured such twisted minds as Psycho screenwriter Joseph Stefano and Harlan Ellison. Although it wasn’t popular during its initial run, from 1963 to 1965, The Outer Limits became cult-classic late-night viewing, and inspired a successful (and also well worth watching) revival in the mid-’90s. We’ve posted the ’60s show’s pilot above; as with Masters of Horror, you can watch the entire series at YouTube.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Unlike some of the other shows on this list, the purpose of Buffy the Vampire Slayer wasn’t really to be scary. But Joss Whedon’s series was hardly the vampire-romance fluff that disqualifies True Blood (which, for the record, we also love) from any serious discussion of horror on TV. Over the years, the writers came up with some truly frightening vamps, demons, and even goddesses for Buffy to fight — and there was a truly unsettling existential angst that permeated the show’s final few seasons. Pressed to pick the our favorite scary episode, though, we’d have to go with “Hush,” which finds the cast silenced by a band of demons who steal the voices of everyone in Sunnydale.
Are You Afraid of the Dark?
The Nickelodeon series may seem tame now, but back in elementary school, we found Are You Afraid of the Dark? utterly terrifying. One of the few genuinely scary shows for kids, it brought us into the dark circle of The Midnight Society, a group of teens who tell Halloween-ready stories around a campfire every week at the witching hour, deep in the woods. What set Are You Afraid of the Dark? apart from horror series for adults was its frequent need to provide a funny or happy ending, so if you’re dead set on a gory resolution, this probably isn’t the show for you. But for genre beginners and those who get nothing more out of The Twilight Zone than material for a week’s worth of nightmares, this is a gentler alternative.
Tales from the Crypt
Somehow, horror on TV tends to work best in the anthology format — more than half of the shows on this list confine their story lines to single episodes, rather than fleshing them out over the course of several seasons. This makes sense, since it’s hard to maintain mystery and suspense while developing characters, and the high body count most scary stories demand isn’t conducive to dramas with a core cast. So, we end with one last anthology serial: Tales from the Crypt, the ’90s HBO show, which took its name and a few of its scripts from the ’50s EC Comics title. Hosted by the zombie Crypt Keeper, it featured a delightful rotating cast of actors (enjoy a special performance by Iggy Pop above), and everyone from Robert Zemeckis and John Frankenheimer to Arnold Schwarzenegger and Tom Hanks directed an episode.