Who’s ready for a little pre-Halloween, small-screen fright fest?
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As the culmination of spooky season approaches, we thought it’d be fearfully fun to revisit some of TV’s scariest scenes. Because if you don’t wake up in the middle of the night worried that, say, Twin Peaks‘ murderous Bob is hovering in the shadows, are you even living?
Below, the TVLine staff has rounded up the scariest TV scenes we can think of. Some, like a Fall of the House of Usher jump scare outta nowhere, are relatively recent. Others, like a blessed event on the original V or a Trilogy of Terror-izing clash, are a bit older. But all have cost us sleep and/or peace of mind over the years — and that’s precisely why we love them.
The list below features an updated 32 of the most spine-tingling moments we’ve encountered on TV in the past decades. You’ll see that a bunch of your favorite series (Supernatural, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Evil, Chucky, The X-Files) are represented, as are some more obscure outings (Courage the Cowardly Dog, anyone?). And, of course, we’ve provided video (where possible) so you can get the shivers all over again.
And if your preferred eerie excerpt isn’t here, we want to know about it! Scroll down to see what made our cut, then hit the comments with the TV scenes that scared you silly.
American Horror Story: Asylum: Putting the ‘Hell’ in ‘Shelley’
American Horror Story has given us countless moments that made us want to bathe our eyeballs in bleach, but none can hold a candle to the sight of Chloe Sevigny’s mangled corpse emerging from the stairwell at an elementary school playground in the FX anthology’s second season. And if we were traumatized, just think about how the children felt! Won’t somebody please think of the children? (Watch above, at the tail end of a Shelley supercut.)
Black Mirror, ‘PlayTest’: Game Over
Without getting into any spoilers… let’s just say that given how this episode ended, no viewer ever blew off a phone call from Mom ever again.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer: That’s Not Gentle, Man
In Sunnydale, no one can hear you scream… because these nattily dressed nasties steal everyone’s voices before they rip out their hearts. We’re not sure which aspect of the bald demons was scariest. Their eerily genteel gestures? Their straitjacketed henchmen? Their grimacing grins? Their otherworldly gliding? (Yeah, it was the gliding.)
Castle Rock: Death of the Party
We couldn’t entirely decipher what caused the events of this chilling Season 1 scene, in which Bill Skarsgard’s inscrutable Kid watched a Castle Rock birthday party go from joyous to deadly within seconds — but that only served to make it more horrifying. Was The Kid causing the ordeal, simply by standing near the family? Was he perhaps watching an old memory play out? Whatever the accurate interpretation of this scene might be, it still lifts the hairs on the backs of our necks to hear Gordy’s parents suddenly antagonize and threaten each other moments after singing “Happy Birthday” to their son, culminating in an off-screen stabbing spree that remains Castle Rock‘s most frightening sequence. (No clip available; watch on Hulu, at the 17:00 mark.)
Chucky: A Splitting Head-Ache
We’ve seen many disgusting deaths over the course of Chucky‘s small-screen run, but none have been as memorable or as frightening as Michelle Cross’ murder in the Season 2 finale. When Lexy’s mom was distracted by an intruding “Jennifer Tilly,” the killer doll took a running leap, sinking a razor-sharp chainsaw deep inside her head — and the madman didn’t relent until she was entirely split in two. The gruesomely bloody scene has been living rent-free in our brains (and our nightmares) ever since.
Courage the Cowardly Dog: The Cold Slab of Fear
Even though its target demographic was children, Courage the Cowardly Dog was often a bit disturbing, serving up unsettling visuals and terrifying scenarios for its titular canine. But the show’s most memorable scare centered on grumpy farmer Eustace, one of Courage’s owners, who was visited by the ghost of King Ramses in Season 1 when he wouldn’t return an ancient stone slab he believed to be very valuable. Even as adults, we don’t want to look at the creepy animation on King Ramses, and his repeated, ghoulish threat — “Return the slaaab…” — still makes cowards of all of us.
DC’s Stargirl: Child’s Play
Season 2’s cold open was downright chilling, as the heretofore light ‘n’ bright superhero team-up series readied us for Eclipso’s imminent darkening of the JSA’s doorstep. Take a Halloween-like slice of doomed suburbia, add the sing-songy way that “Bruce” egged on 10-year-old Rebecca, and play up the dread as the wan lass unwrapped her pilfered gift…. Not even the “Summertime Blues” needle drop that followed could erase Mrs. McNider’s blood-curdling scream from our memory.
Doctor Who: Angels as Demons
Statues that move… whom you can’t take your eyes off of… and who’ll snap your neck in the time it takes you to blink? Anyone else keep their distance from the sculpture wing of the museum after watching the iconic, Season 3 Doctor Who ep, “Blink”?
Evil: Hell-evator Pitch
The Paramount+ drama took an urban legend-esque story and elevated it (get it?!) to a thing of horrific beauty. From the bloody tekka-tekka girl screaming in Kristen’s face as she dangled between floors to Ben’s dread as he realized that he’s probably going to die in a secret, corpse-riddled subbasement, the whole thing made us want to take the stairs for the rest of our lives. (Watch the episode on Paramount +, jumping to the 31:00 mark.)
The Exorcist: Satanic Sister
Up until the final moments of the Fox adaptation’s pilot, the audience (as well as Marcus and Tomas) were under the impression that the depressive Kat was the Rance daughter under demonic influence. But then in a dark, disorienting and deeply unsettling sequence in the attic, sunny Casey Rance revealed herself as possessed, nearly choked a gobsmacked Tomas and then quickly reverted as though nothing happened. Chilling.
The Fall of the House of Usher: Unholy Mother of….
Young Roderick and Madeline’s mother was not well, and suffering. So when the God-believing, science-denying Eliza finally succumbed to her illness in Episode 1, the kids obliged her presumed wishes and buried her in the backyard. What happened next — barely 15 minutes into the season! — made clear that Mike Flanagan’s latest spookfest would have you watching through your fingers. Roderick and Madeline realized that Mom had clawed her way out of her makeshift grave, intent with a final, murderous purpose!
Fringe: Rebecca Mader’s Wicked Glitch
Yes, Season 3’s “Marionette” offered up some traditionally frightful horror. But when nanite victim Jessica Holt (played by Lost alum Rebecca Mader), after being shot dead, was briefly revived by one of Walter’s gizmos in the Season 4 finale, the combination of garbled voice and asynchronously blinking eyes made Jessica’s erratic info dump super unsettling.
Game of Thrones: Spiraling Out of Control
Q: When is a White Walker spiral even creepier than when it’s made out of dismembered dead bodies?
A: When it’s made out of dead bodies and the corpse at its center — poor little Ned Umber — suddenly starts screaming… proving that sometimes, the phrase “Kill it with fire!” really is apt.
Garfield’s Halloween Adventure: A Ghost Story Turns Us Into Scaredy-Cats
Wait, a scary moment from a Garfield animated special? YES. On the hunt for candy, Garfield and Odie visited a run-down house where a very creepy old man spun a tale about ghost pirates returning for lost treasure. And when the ghost pirates came back and cornered Garfield and Odie in that old house… we still get the shivers just thinking about it.
Hannibal: An Unappeeling Facial
It’s hard to choose just one moment from the NBC adaptation’s laundry list of grotesque gore, but we were both “enchanted and terrified” when sadist Mason Verger finally wound up in Dr. Lecter’s crosshairs. After being force-fed a hallucinogenic drug cocktail by Hannibal the Cannibal, Verger took a knife to his own face, peeling his flesh off and feeding it to Will Graham’s dogs. Yes, the scene was seriously disturbing, but this bit of horror is exactly the drug-induced realness they should start showing in D.A.R.E. class.
The Haunting of Hill House: Backseat Driver
We thought we were safe for a few minutes, while Theo and Shirley argued in the car. After all, ghosts can’t haunt moving vehicles, right? But nope: Dead Nell’s sudden, shrieking appearance between her sisters was a jump scare so effective, we haven’t stopped thinking about it since.
Lost: Eerie Iterations
Even after all these years, the moment at the end of the pilot when Jack, Kate, Sawyer & Co. realize that the French woman’s distress call has been repeating on a loop for 16 years (and five months) still makes our stomachs drop faster than Flight 815.
Episode 6 of Mike Flanagan’s existential scare-fest offered up an Easter mass like no other as the Crockett Island townsfolk were finally introduced to the terrifying celestial being brought back by Monsignor Pruitt. What transpired was an absolute bloodbath, as the “angel” ripped its parishioners apart and converted the horrified onlookers into blood-sucking monsters. The scene’s intensity and feelings of utter panic were only topped by the gallons and gallons of gore that sprayed across the screen. (Watch the full episode here.)
Penny Dreadful: Prized Possession
In the Season 1 scene that should have won Eva Green all the Emmys, her Miss Vanessa Ives participated in a parlor-game séance that turned into a realer deal than anyone expected. Taken over by the spirit world, the would-be Mother of Evil embodied a series of ghosts, speaking in tongues, taunting Sir Malcolm with cruel reminders of his failings as a father and, finally, literally bending over backwards to ensure that we have nightmares.
Six Feet Under: Stranger Danger
David Fisher’s torturous abduction is still seared into our brains as one of TV’s most unsettling turn of events. Not only was he nearly beaten to death with a gun jammed in his mouth, but the funeral director was also forced to smoke crack, and doused with gasoline while being tormented with a lighter. By departing from its typical beats, the series showcased how true evil can rear its ugly head at any given moment of any day, and nothing is more terrifying than that.
Stephen King’s It: An I-clown-ic Moment
“C’mon, bucko. Don’t you want a balloon?” The visual of Tim Curry’s smiley, colorful clown lurking in the inky shadows of a sewer was jarring and laden with menace. With what followed, the ABC miniseries made clear that It meant business, creating a horror-ble moment that would years down the road spawn many a meme.
Stranger Things 4: Vecna Twists, We Shout
Viewers had barely met iconoclast Eddie Munson (played by Jospeh Quinn) and cheerleader Chrissy Cunningham (Grace Van Dien) when circumstances brought the seeming polar opposites together, in a most unexpected “meet cute.” The sweet vibe didn’t last very long, though, rudely interrupted as it was by Vecna’s appearance inside Eddie’s trailer home, where Season 4’s Big Bad introduced to Chrissy, a helpless Eddie and us his very unique and highly disturbing style of killing-by-way-of-body mutilation. From that moment on, we instinctively shuddered every time a character began floating off the ground.
Supernatural: Bloody Mary Is Bloody Scary
The CW drama has tackled plenty of urban legends during its 15-season run, but its Bloody Mary outing during early Season 1 remains of the show’s spookiest hours. The sight of a twisted Bloody Mary crawling out of a mirror is the kind of old-school horror move that never fails to strike fear in the hearts of viewers.
THEM: One Terrifying Teacher
Gracie (Melody Hurd), the youngest of the Amazon horror series’ surviving Emorys, was alone in her bedroom when she heard a noise on the other side of her door. She walked into the darkness of the long hallway and stopped when she thought she heard and saw her mother, Lucky, sitting alone in the kitchen. It wasn’t Lucky. And when the horrifying and larger-than-life image of the teacher from her book, Miss Vera, crept up on Gracie and eventually choked her, Gracie was too scared to run — and so were we.
Trilogy of Terror: Th-Th-That’s Doll, Folks
All three segments of the 1975 TV movie produced by Dark Shadows creator Dan Curtis and starring Karen Black are creepy enough to bring on a flock of goosebumps. But it’s the last one that made the telepic an enduring sensation. “Amelia” is an I-can’t-believe-what-I’m seeing spectacle in which Black’s title character is chased around her apartment by the Zuni fetish doll that she intended to give her archaeologist boyfriend for his birthday. It’s bonkers, intense, and it all leads up to that final shot in which…. Well, if you don’t already know, you’ll see in the video above.
True Detective: Welcome to Carcosa
As if Errol’s warren of roots and twigs weren’t creepy enough, his constant whispering as Rust tracks the serial killer through his tunnels tips this sequence over into the category of “nightmare fuel.”
The Twilight Zone: The Ugly Truth
“Eye of the Beholder” is among the original anthology series’ most emblematic episodes, right alongside the cautionary tales about Burgess Meredith’s bookworm and William Shatner’s anxious traveler. As doctors hesitated to remove Patient 307’s bandages following their latest attempt at corrective surgery, we could only wonder what lied beneath. So imagine our relief when it was merely The Beverly Hillbillies‘ beautiful Donna Douglas! Whew. Except in this bizarro world, that meant she was a hideous outcast among a society of deformed humanoids, a fate which launched the patient into screaming hysterics that chilled us to the bone.
Twin Peaks: Bob’s Your Uncle
We know most people would consider Bob’s crawling over the sofa as one of the original Twin Peaks‘ scariest bits. But we’ve never been able to shake the image of Leland staring into a mirror and seeing his demonic alter ego stare back… nor the violent killing of Leland’s niece, Maddy, that quickly follows.
Twin Peaks: The Return: Life Is But a… Scream?
As the Showtime revival inched to a close, Dale Cooper tracked down a grown woman who sure looked like the late Laura Palmer, but went by the name Carrie Page. Carrie agreed to accompany the FBI agent to Twin Peaks, where they went to the Palmer house seeking answers… only to find more questions. As Cooper paced outside, puzzling over what year they were in, his familiar-looking companion regarded the house intently, eventually letting rip a long, blood-curdling scream that echoed into the closing credits. Unsettling and inscrutable? Diane, it’s the perfect Twin Peaks ending!
The Walking Dead: Negan Steps Up to the Plate
Even now, just thinking about the introduction of Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s cocksure villain in the last moments of Season 6’s finale is enough to send us right back to Pee-Pee Pants City. As the Saviors’ leader plays eeny-meeny-miny-moe to decide which of our protagonists he’s going to strike out with Lucille, his barbed-wire-covered baseball bat, the tension rises to such an unbearable level that it’s almost a relief when he finally takes a swing. Almost.
V: Special Delivery!
When impulsive teenager Robin Maxwell hooked up with and got pregnant by a Visitor, we should have been prepared for anything, especially when attempts to abort the potential E.T. were curiously thwarted by blood pressure spikes. Still, the unexpected arrival of twins (!) — an adorable daughter with a forked tongue (!!), followed by a fully reptilian newborn (!!!) — was quite shocking by ’80s TV standards.
The X-Files: ‘Home’ Is Where the Carnage Is
There were so many dark, disturbing moments in this Season 4 episode, we can’t single out just one. But if one of Mrs. Peacock’s offspring held an axe to our necks, we’d have to choose the scene when the messed-up matriarch slides out from under the bed and scares the living bejesus out of Mulder and Scully (and us). (Watch the scene here.)
Now hit the comments with the TV scenes that have scared you silly.
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