While cinema and books, ever since their inception, have given us some of the most famous moments to chill the blood and frighten audiences, it’s easy to forget that the small screen has also been capable of striking fear into the hearts of viewers. Maybe it’s because it’s a box (or flat screen rectangle nowadays) that sits in the corner of our living rooms, that it makes those moments when a television production pushes the horror buttons even more powerful than its big-screen cousin. It’s an entity that we invite into our homes, and when it decides to strikes fear into our hearts, it’s doing so while we’re comfortable in our own living rooms, our places of safety. We’ve revisited five moments from TV that truly scared the pants off us!
Twin Peaks – ‘May the Giant Be with You’
In truth, there are many moments from David Lynch and Mark Frost’s groundbreaking game-changer that one could pick: BOB attempting to crawl out of the television in a POV shot from the episode after this especially; or the eventual reveal of Laura Palmer’s killer later in season two, depicted in a sequence that saw US television push itself towards 18-rated levels of horror.
However, perhaps nothing can come close to the legitimately terrifying sequence that concludes the season two premiere. In its final moments, Lynch and Frost showed themselves not to be messing around with the limits they wanted to push with their creation. In a flashback scene to Laura’s murder, the audience is treated to an onslaught of horrifying images that includes Laura herself screaming at the television viewing audience, a distorted look of violent terror etched onto her face, effectively breaking the fourth wall as BOB kills her.
Everyone wanted to know who killed Laura Palmer; it was the question that dominated pop culture for a short but important period at the start of the 90s. The final scene of the season two premiere hints at the horror lying in wait, and yet for a medium that was more famous for playing it safe with sitcoms, crime procedurals and soap operas, Lynch pretty much took that little box that sat in our living room corners and plunged it into the realm of surreal, violent and disturbing horror more akin to one of his films that anything he had done in season one, or anything else that was produced for US television at the time.
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The X-Files – ‘Irresistible’
Chris Carter’s iconic sci-fi/horror procedural gave the 90s some truly imaginative moments throughout its run, especially in its peak years during the 90s, and while the infamous ‘Home’ might have been the obvious one to choose here, in truth it’s season two’s ‘Irresistible’ that saw the series push itself thematically and emotionally. So many television series with a crime procedural slant frequently rely on the trope of putting women in danger, but Chris Carter’s second season episode takes the casebook of Mulder and Scully away from the more overt supernatural trappings it was famous for and threw it into something more real and terrifying.
The series gave us some of the most iconic monsters to adorn television through its run, but Donnie Pfaster, in a genuinely creepy performance from Nick Chinlund, is not a supernatural entity in the shape of Eugene Tooms or The Flukeman; he’s an all too real serial killer that you might see mentioned on the news or becoming the subject of a Netflix true-crime documentary. That it filters its brand of terror through an emotional performance from Gillian Anderson makes it all the more powerful. Donnie Pfaster isn’t a monster conjured up from the imaginations of a wonderfully talented writers’ room; he’s literally been taken from the front page of a newspaper or a segment on America’s Most Wanted.
In a season that would see the series start to hit its groove in terms of developing its mythology as well as producing some full-blooded (literally) stand-alone tales, ‘Irresistible’ really stands out thanks in part to some very intelligent writing from Carter (who is a better writer than he is perhaps given credit for) and fantastic work in front of the camera from Gillian Anderson. It’s an episode where you can see the cogs running in Chris Carter’s mind and with it the genesis of what would become his next production, Millennium, a series that would take the serial killer story and make it the groundwork for its own set of darkly terrifying concerns.
The Haunting of Hill House (2018)
Mike Flanagan’s reinterpretation of Shirley Jackson’s seminal work of literature wasn’t even the first attempt at trying to make a more modern version of the source material. Following on from Robert Wise’s superb 1963 adaptation (one of the most genuinely frightening films ever made), Speed director Jan de Bont attempted a more bombastic, CGI overloaded version in 1999, that while profitable was met with howls of derision from critics, despite some good work in front of the camera from Lili Taylor.
Instead of just simply redoing the story yet again, Flanagan took the source and refashioned it into a gorgeously mounted ten-episode event on Netflix, that placed as much emphasis on character and emotion as it did on scares; and yet it was also incredibly scary, hiding ghosts on the periphery of the frame in certain scenes, and utilising some effective jump scares, one of which involves a car journey that might just very well be the best use of the technique since Ben Gardner’s head said hello in Jaws.
The series is truly gorgeous, beautifully constructed, and played to perfection by its cast, and when the horror comes, it does so powerfully, and not just because it’s scary, but because Flanagan crafts characters that you cannot help but root for, especially when the supernatural itself is as unforgiving about life and death as it is here.
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American Gothic (1995)
When The X-Files was hitting its peak in the mid-90s, many television networks and channels attempted to ride the wave of its popularity by greenlighting projects with a supernatural or UFO bent. Amongst a sea of Dark Skies, Profiler and The Outer Limits remake, the one that really stood out was Shaun Cassidy’s underrated and brilliant American Gothic. If anything, it perhaps owed more of a debt to Twin Peaks, what with its small-town setting, weird soap opera vibe and serialised nature, where moments of genuinely disturbing horror lay in wait amongst the genre tropes.
Running for only one season, the series was badly treated by CBS who aired the episodes out of order, threw it around the schedules and even released its DVD set with the episodes out of sync years later. Unlike other series that were chasing the Mulder and Scully pie so to speak, American Gothic had its own set of weird and strange concerns and was centred around one of television’s most frightening characters, Sheriff Lucas Buck, played by Gary Cole in a horrifyingly chilling mode that is a long way away from his droll comedic work on Veep.
It is perhaps a series that was ahead of the curve, placing more emphasis on serialisation and content that pushed the limits of what was acceptable for horror on network television at the time; rape and sexual violence haunted the periphery of the series’ story arc and while future anti-hero series maybe invited some sense of audience participation in the antics of its characters, the same could not be said for Buck who was a figure of authority who wasn’t afraid to rape and murder to achieve his goals.
That it was on a network more famous for crime procedurals and sitcoms that would dominate its schedules years later, such as the plethora of CSIs and NCIS’, as well as The Big Bang Theory, says a lot about how ill-fitting a series it was for its home network, but for anyone that was drawn into its dark web it was hard to look away from, boasting Sam Raimi as one of the executive producers and launching the careers of Sarah Paulson and Lucas Black at the same time.
Doctor Who – ‘Blink’
For a series famous for having generations of children hiding behind the sofa, it’s sometimes easy to forget that Doctor Who can be genuinely terrifying when it wants to be – especially for a series that goes out before the 9 pm watershed. Airing as part of new Who’s third season, Steven Moffat’s ‘Blink’ in some respects feels like a conceptual pilot of sorts for the type of storytelling that awaited the series when he took over as showrunner a few years later; wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey plotting is at the centre of it, but it also boasts the most frightening villains the series perhaps ever concocted.
The Weeping Angels and their modus operandi is a superb concept on paper for a set of villains, and the execution of it is even better on-screen, the visual design for the characters makes one want to hide behind the sofa even before you come to the realisation that they can send you back in time if you don’t keep your eyes open in their presence.
The episode itself is a lot of fun, with Moffat’s script going to town with its play on the time travel narrative, and being a reminder of just how wonderful it was to discover easter egg bonus features on DVDs (ah, the days of physical media). That it’s centred on a guest performance from Carey Mulligan just before she went off to become a massive star makes the whole thing even better, but it’s Moffat’s writing here that makes the episode sing. It’s genuinely scary, unafraid to be emotional, and very funny too; but its nervy tension and commitment to making those Angels as frightening as anything the series had ever delivered means that it became an instant classic, and it’s remained that way ever since.