For all the emphasis on the cinematic horror movie, people often forget that TV has the capacity to be just as terrifying, if not occasionally more so.
As we wrap up a Spooktober look at horror, we Set The Tape staff writers put our heads together and came up with ten examples of TV episodes that will scare you witless this Halloween. In no specific order of chilling your bones. All of them will do that.
DOCTOR WHO 4×11 – ‘Midnight’
Landing right at the tail end of both David Tennant’s exuberant run as the Doctor and Russell T. Davies’ tenure as pioneering show runner who revived Doctor Who‘s fortunes, ‘Midnight’ is a reminder of just how great a writer RTD can be and how elastic Who‘s format truly is. Also, remember how you look weirdly at your parents when they say plunger-spouting teapots the Daleks made them hide behind the sofa? ‘Midnight’ may help you understand the fear.
Not of the Daleks but rather the unseen, unexplained alien menace the Doctor has to face on a trapped space cruiser with a paranoid group of passengers. It’s a masterclass of tense weirdness that feels like a classic Twilight Zone episode spliced with a stage play that RTD ported onto Who, with an incredibly chilling performance by Lesley Sharp. The scariest episode nuWho has ever done, by far.
SUPERNATURAL 1×05 – ‘Bloody Mary’
The first season of Supernatural’s own take on the popular folklore tale turned urban legend, ‘Bloody Mary’ is chilling from start to finish. From the moment a girl chants the name into a mirror, and we see a figure stalking her father in every reflective surface, it’s not long before we have the duo of Sam and Dean Winchester investigating corpses with liquidised eyes and skulls full of blood. The terror continues as you keep catching glimpses of the titular angry spirit and the final confrontation, when she crawls out a mirror, Ringu-style, will have you on the edge of your seat.
Although the amount of mirrors that the Winchester’s break at the end might explain their continued bad luck thirteen seasons later…
by Helen Balls
THE X-FILES 4×02 – ‘Home’
One of the most famous episodes of The X-Files, ‘Home’ also remains one of the most infamous. When first aired in 1996, Glen Morgan & James Wong’s script garnered controversy for a bloody and suggestive tale of a murderous, incestuous family in the American heartland who FBI agents Mulder & Scully find themselves facing.
In particular, despite flashed of dead mutated babies, paraplegic monstrous mothers who live in darkness under the bed, and the glimpses of the Cro-Magnon members of the Peacock family that unnerve, the truly terrifying sequence features the brutal murder of Tucker Smallwood’s sheriff and his wife set to the strains of Johnny Mathis’ ‘Wonderful, Wonderful’ while at home at night, thanks to their doors being unlocked. Harrowing and pioneering television, ‘Home’ is as primal and neo-Gothic as The X-Files gets.
QUANTUM LEAP – The Boogieman
Whilst 90’s favourite Quantum Leap often varies in tone from the serious to the emotional to the comedic, ‘The Boogieman’ has a genuinely creepy feel and a sense of menace about it. Leaping into the body of a horror novelist, Dr Sam Beckett (Scott Bakula) begins his leap by hitting his head – and then strange and disturbing things begin to happen. People die under mysterious circumstances. Things appear where they shouldn’t be. And there is something weird and upsetting going on with Al but Sam isn’t quite sure what it really is… The entire episode is set on October 31st 1964, and goes for a full-on scary Halloween theme, even being set in a Spook House.
The story is unnerving, and what happens with Al (Dean Stockwell) is actually frightening. And then there’s the kiss with history, which will make horror fans everywhere oh so happy!
by Wendy Attwell
BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER 4×10 – ‘Hush’
Though a series about vampires and all kinds of other monsters, Buffy the Vampire Slayer was often funnier and more darkly romantic than it was truly scary. All of that changed as Buffy went to college in the otherwise patchy fourth season of Joss Whedon’s show, when the Gentlemen arrive in Sunnydale in ‘Hush’.
A collection of fairytale ghouls who resemble emaciated spectres, the Gentlemen serve to steal the voices of everyone in the town, forcing Buffy and her Scooby Gang to outwit them without being able to even speak to one another. A truly inventive, format breaking piece of television, ‘Hush’ features only 17 minutes of spoken dialogue in the standard 44 minute running time, and some of the creepiest creatures the show ever delivered. Unforgettable and in the highest tier of Buffy episodes.
MILLENNIUM 2×06 – ‘The Curse of Frank Black’
The second appearance of Glen Morgan & James Wong on this list, the year they took over show running duties on Chris Carter’s Millennium remains the best year of the show, a fact never more apparent than in their masterclass of a Halloween episode, ‘The Curse of Frank Black’.
Strangely elegant and whimsical as much as chilling, set on a Halloween night, Lance Henriksen’s taciturn hero Frank spends an evening haunted by signs and portents from the Devil himself and he is reminded of the demons of his own past. Masterfully constructed with at times minimal dialogue and stunning visual touches, ‘The Curse of Frank Black’ not just underscores the core of Millennium as a show but will leave you as haunted by the Devil as Frank.
INSIDE NO. 9 1×06 – ‘The Harrowing’
In the last five years, Inside No. 9 has steadily grown to become one of Britain’s most beloved cult series. An inventively clever and innovative darkly comic anthology horror series from Steve Pemberton & Reece Shearsmith, both late of BBC dark comedy sensation The League of Gentlemen, Inside No. 9 has had its fair share of weird and creepy episodes. ‘The Harrowing’, which closed off the first season, may be the most terrifying blend.
A fusion of Gothic horror mixed with almost a Carry on Screaming level of comic eccentricity, ‘The Harrowing’ features a young girl arriving at a manor house that wouldn’t be out of place in Crimson Peak in order to housesit and becomes embroiled in a terrifying demonic plot with an ending that will stay with you once the credits have rolled, and then some.
DOCTOR WHO 1×09 – ‘The Empty Child’
Doctor Who has never shied away from horror in the past, but when it returned in 2005 it didn’t take long for it to remind us why we used to hide behind the couch when it was on. ‘The Empty Child’ is a masterclass in horror, and all it takes is one simple sentence – “Are you my mummy?”. Arriving in London during the Blitz, Rose and the Doctor swiftly find themselves running from hordes of Gas-mask clad zombies, all chanting the same phrase again and again and again and all it takes is a touch for them to make you one of them.
Combining all the best (worst?) elements of zombie movies and a dash of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, this episode made even adults want to hide their eyes behind the safety of cushions all over again. Christopher Eccleston was at the top of his game here, and the second part of the story ‘The Doctor Dances’ contains one of the finest moments of any Who story before or since. “Just this once, EVERYBODY LIVES!”
by Shaun Rodger
STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION 1×25 – ‘Conspiracy’
Even now, some three decades after the airing of ‘Conspiracy’, it remains a truly bizarre and unusual episode of Star Trek, particularly The Next Generation. This is a show, up until this point, which has for the most part been a derivative, at times embarrassing, re-tread of the 1960’s kitsch Original Series. Then, suddenly, an episode before the season finale, a chilling and potentially enormous story drops in our lap.
‘Conspiracy’ should have kickstarted a huge Star Trek storyline, as the highest branches of power in the United Federation of Planets are taken over by alien parasites, but Trek meets Invasion of the Body Snatchers is never followed up again on screen and simply exists as a dark, at times weird piece of sci-fi horror with a final confrontation that should never have gotten past the censors of the day. The scariest episode of Star Trek? It just might be.
THE LEAGUE OF GENTLEMEN: Christmas Special
You either get The League of Gentlemen, or you don’t. That’s the experience of many and after two series on the BBC, most people had made their minds up. A trio of actors playing the weird and wonderful grotesques in the fictional Northern town of Royston Vasey in a series of strange sketches, it was either funny or just plain odd. The 2000 Christmas Special added another dimension: it was now plain scary.
Set at Christmas, and made up of three portmanteau horror tales recounted to local foul mouthed Vicar Bernice Woodall–eschewing a laughter track for the first time in the series–the Christmas Special covers three time periods and three stories involving familiar characters from the series covering everything from voodoo to vampires to curses, allusions to films such as Eyes Wide Shut, shot through with brilliantly dark and silly humour. The conclusion, however… just expect to be terrified because there is no happy ending in Royston Vasey.
What are the scariest episodes of TV you have ever seen? Let us know!