Whether we’re talking about classics like The Twilight Zone, Tales from the Crypt, and Twin Peaks, or more modern entries like Hannibal or Stranger Things, the truth is scary TV shows offer a distinctly different appeal than scary movies do. A horror movie has just around two hours (or three, if you're IT Chapter Two) to set up a sufficiently scary plot, introduce you to your cast of characters, and then orchestrate the horrible things that will happen to them. Jamming hair-rising horror into such a short amount of time certainly raises the stakes, but it doesn't always yield optimal results.
Television, on the other hand, allows scary storytellers to play with form a little more. Older anthology series like The Twilight Zone changed things up every episode, while Ryan Murphy's American Horror Story picks a new theme and setting every season. If you're watching on a network, suspense builds naturally in the seven days between episodes; if you're binging on Netflix or HBO, you have the option of gorging yourself on spooky content to your heart's content. Either way, the nature of the medium means you have to create shorter episodes, but balance them with longer story arcs, which can certainly be a challenge.
Still, a TV show has more time to set up scary plotlines and build tension, without having to rely on cliché (though often effective) jump scares. Dragging out these scares, so long as it's done right, ultimately leads to a bigger payoff. Additionally, while many successful scary movies do themselves a disservice by trying to continue the story with sequels and spin-offs and other franchise iterations, scary TV shows know that, at least to start, they'll need a premise that can last at least an entire season.
Below is a list of some of the scariest TV shows of all time. Proceed with caution.
Air Dates: Dec. 1, 2017—Present
Best Episode: “Lügen”
A mysterious German sci-fi show, Dark can best be compared to two American shows: Twin Peaks and Stranger Things. The series follows the search for a few teenagers who disappeared from a small, woodsy town, replete with unexplainable supernatural horrors. The show is also (at least partially) set in the ‘80s, and the source of the town’s mysterious occurrences is a nuclear power plant, hence the connection to the aforementioned beloved American fare. The show is decidedly darker and moodier than Twin Peaks and Stranger Things, though, forging a new, complicated—and decidedly more European in style—path for these familiar storylines. The show is fun to watch in the same way Westworld is fun to watch: you’ll be a little confused, very intrigued, and just shaken up enough to start the next episode.
Air Dates: May 11, 2014—June 19, 2016
Best Episode: “The Blessed Dark”
Part Victorian novel adaptation, part psychological thriller, part horror story, Penny Dreadful is a show for true horror nerds. The show is a dedicated reimagining of some of the literary world’s greatest monsters—Dorian Gray, Frankenstein and his monster, and Dracula, among others—and how they would wreak havoc on Victorian England if they were all real, knew each other, and lived in the same timeline. Creator John Logan plays with these pre-existing monsters while still being respectful of their histories and origins, and remains dedicated to creating a constantly dreadful and unpredictable atmosphere throughout. Coupled with star performances from Josh Hartnett, Rory Kinnear, and Eva Green, Penny Dreadful cements itself as one of the most original scary TV shows in recent memory.
Air Dates: July 15, 2016—Present
Best Episode: “Chapter Six: The Monster”
The release of Stranger Things during the summer of 2016 was without a doubt one of the biggest pop culture moments of that year, and possible the decade. On paper, it sounds pretty corny: a group of middle-school aged kids in the ‘80s unleash a monster into the human world while playing a board game. The monster, a.k.a. the Demogorgon, while scary (and gross), is not the best part of the show. The main reason the show works as well as it does is its ability to achieve a very dangerous, yet emotional atmosphere. There's a perfect balance of '80s cheese and very real, often terrifying suspense and paranoia at the heart of the plot. The tone is informed by its time period, but also by the quality of the actors, including Winona Ryder and David Harbour. The real stars, though, are the kids, who have now kept that tone for three seasons and will undoubtedly continue to carry the show for as long as the hype continues.
Air Dates: Dec. 4, 2011—Present
Network: UK’s Channel 4 (2011—14); Netflix (2016—Present)
Best Episode: “San Junipero”
Showrunners Charlie Brooker and Annabel Jones’s Black Mirror is an anthology series styled in the shadow of The Twilight Zone, extrapolating from the latter’s tendency to use the anthology format to tell one-off, bizarre stories that wouldn’t fit neatly into a more conventional plot (though many of them would potentially make for entertaining feature-length films). Black Mirror’s modern twist, of course, is that the series explores humanity as it relates to technology, and how drastically relationships, politics, and basic rules of society might change in the near future if we allow our dependence on tech to continue to go unchecked. The show has a distinctly cynical view of humanity, and although this can sometimes lead to simplistic episodes, when Black Mirror gets it right, they get it chillingly right. Episodes like the Emmy-winning “San Junipero” (which is admittedly not so much scary as it is sad), “The Entire History of You,” and “USS Calister” exemplify the series’ potential for horror by using the time-honored horror tradition of injecting terror into something relatable and commonplace.
Air Dates: July 13, 2014—Sept. 17, 2017
Best Episode: “Creatures of the Night”
Based on the trilogy of the same name by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan, and boasting a pilot directed by del Toro himself, The Strain is sort of like a mashup of 28 Days Later and Dracula. The show centers around Dr. Goodweather, a high-profile doctor in New York City who is tasked with investigating a mysterious airplane accident: by the time the plane landed, everyone in it was dead. Goodweather and his team quickly discover that the deaths were the result of a quickly-spreading virus that mimics vampirism and threatens the entire planet. The show is funny, gory, and, perhaps most memorably, invented a wholly original look for vampires that was pretty refreshing.
The Jinx: The Life and Death of Robert Durst
Air Dates: Feb. 8—March 15, 2015
Best Episode: “Chapter 6: What the Hell Did I Do?”
This fascinating true crime docuseries focuses on the perturbed life of Robert Durst, a real estate heir who found himself in the middle of a series of three gruesome murders between 1982 and 2001. Director Andrew Jarecki first directed All Good Things, a 2010 fictional movie inspired by Durst’s story. Surprisingly enough, Durst enjoyed the movie, so much so that he granted Jarecki the first series of interviews he’d ever granted any journalist. The documentary draws from these, as well as archival interviews, reenactments of the murders, and news footage to trace a shocking, complicated story of a sociopath who is somehow involved in the deaths of three people, if only because he knew them all. Although the doc leaves the viewer to draw their own conclusions, the scariest part is just how close it flies to the sun: Durst was arrested for one of the three unsolved murders in 2015, due to evidence uncovered in the doc. He is currently awaiting trial.
Air Dates: Oct. 27—31, 2008
Network: E4, Netflix
Best Episode: “Episode 5”
Dead Set, which comes from the mind of Black Mirror creator Charlie Brooker, is a little like if you added zombies to UnREAL. Filmed on the real set of Big Brother, Brooker cast former Big Brother participants in his five-part limited series that forced the typical narcissistic reality TV show “celebrities” to deal with a zombie invasion. The finale was broadcast on Halloween in 2008. Aside from being a great and original zombie show, Dead Set is also an interesting blueprint for Brooker’s Black Mirror; his heavily critical view of reality TV previewed the cynicism and dark humor with which he explores our relationship to technology.
Air Dates: April 4, 2013—Aug. 29, 2015
Best Episode: “Mizunomo”
Everyone knows the Hannibal Lecter character from Silence of the Lambs, but there’s much more—four novels, in fact—to this cannibal’s story. To his story for TV, though, Hannibal creator Bryan Fuller had to figure out how to do so without the rights to the most famous installment in the story. As a solution, the show focuses on the psychology of Lecter, and the choice has proven to be a deeply fertile one. In effect, Fuller turned the idea of Lecter upside down by crafting the show around his relationship with frenemy Will Graham, played by Hugh Dancy. The result is a show as gory and raw as it is elegant. Born to play villains, Mads Mikkelsen delivers a truly outstanding performance, bested only by Dancy’s ability to counterbalance him.
Air Dates: Oct. 19—Nov. 23, 2016
Network: Channel 4, Netflix
Best Episode: “A Pine Fresh Scent”
Consisting of just six episodes (it was unfortunately canceled after just one season), Crazyhead comes from creator Howard Overman (also was the brains behind that other great British comedy/sci-fi series, Misfits). Dubbed “the British Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” this genre-defying horror/comedy series centers around two 20-something young women who have been raised to believe they have mental health problems because they see demons and monsters… except these demons and monsters are actually real, and they’re the only two people who can hunt and kill them. The show brings us along for the ride as the duo learns about their own powers and the supernatural forces that govern the world around them.