1. Garfield’s Halloween Adventure
Sure, there are TV shows that aim to be scary, like The Twilight Zone or The X-Files, shows that are famous for inventing horrific moments that keep us up nights and make us laugh with recognition when someone says “Flukeman” or “The Gentlemen.” And there are more and more of these shows now, in the wake of The Walking Dead. But far scarier is when a show you’d never expect to be horrifying—one that seems innocuous on its face—abruptly comes up with a scenario straight out of a terror-filled classic. Take the seemingly safe Garfield’s Halloween Adventure. Before it debuted, most kids’ Halloween specials played with the iconography of the holiday, but few went for serious scares. This one, however, was different, trapping Garfield and Odie in a haunted house with a creepy old man and a slew of eerie ghost pirates, designed almost entirely as mist and skulls. The special’s sudden left turn from typical kiddie fare—complete with a lesson about how Halloween shouldn’t just be about getting candy, but about, uh, friendship or something—into straight-up nightmare material comes out of nowhere and leaves its mark on viewers young and old.
2. The Muppet Show, “Vincent Price”
At the top of this first-season episode guest-starring horror icon Vincent Price, Kermit The Frog announces that, for half an hour, The Muppet Show will replace its usual felt-and-fur shenanigans in favor of the “the strange, the weird, and the scary.” That’s mostly a put-on, as the parade of detachable limbs and Muppets devouring Muppets that follows is all in good, campy fun. But there are a few moments of genuine shock, as when the show’s amiable amphibious host sprouts vampire fangs and plugs them directly into Price’s neck. The juxtaposition of Kermit’s smiling face and those threatening eyeteeth is unsettling, to say the least.
3. Too Close For Comfort, “A Portrait Of Henry”
Though superficially a goofy Ted Knight vehicle about a curmudgeonly cartoonist and the darn young people upending his conservative values, the early-’80s sitcom Too Close For Comfort often took the anxiety implicit in its title to some surprisingly dark places. Most famous of these is no doubt the episode where Knight’s constant foil, the nutty, flamboyant Monroe (Jim J. Bullock) is kidnapped by two women and raped, only to have everyone laugh it off—a storyline so scarring to the young generation that witnessed it, there’s an entire website dedicated to therapeutically reliving the awful memory. But even more horrifying was the Oscar Wilde-riffing “A Portrait Of Henry,” in which, after accidentally injuring Monroe and becoming wracked with guilt over whether he might have done it on purpose, Knight’s character becomes taunted by his own recently acquired self-portrait, which grows more hideous and malevolent with each passing hour. By the time the painting finally comes to life—its eyes glowing menacingly, its brows cruelly arched—a thousand painting-related phobias have already bloomed.
4. Star Trek, “Wolf In The Fold”
When the USS Enterprise visits Argellius II for some scheduled downtime, the crew gets embroiled in a murder investigation involving one of its own. Scotty stands accused of killing three women, and while no one really believes he’s suddenly become a killer, it still looks bleak for the engineer—until the Enterprise computer theorizes that Scotty may have been possessed by a long-lived incorporeal creature that’s killed women all over the galaxy. (Perhaps you remember his efforts in 19th-century England, when he was known as… Jack The Ripper!) At this point, the creature, known as Redjac, jumps from his current host and infiltrates the Enterprise computer, howling to Captain Kirk through the intercom in a chilling, distorted voice, “You and all aboard your ship are about to die!” Although Redjac is eventually forced back into his host, it becomes evident that the only way to stop the creature is to beam said host into deep space, an ending that still sends chills more than 40 years later.
5. Star Trek: The Next Generation, “Phantasms”
Plenty of episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation are thrilling, but none are genuinely terrifying like “Phantasms.” The character arc for Brent Spiner’s android, Lieutenant Commander Data, followed his quest to be human, like a 24th-century Pinocchio. In “Phantasms,” this process leads Data to begin having nightmares, whose images—Doctor Crusher sucking liquid out of Commander Riker’s ear, Counselor Troi being served up as a cake—are downright Lynchian, not only in their poker-faced surrealism, but in their effectively distressing uncanniness. The episode is still dashed with TNG’s wit (Data attempts to cure himself by entering analysis under a holodeck Sigmund Freud, only to rebuff Freud’s major theories) and command-issuing intrigue, but Data’s nightmarish sleepwalk through the uglier mental recesses of humanity makes “Phantasms” a standout episode of the series—and a singularly spooky one, too.
6. Quantum Leap, “The Boogieman”
As Dr. Sam Beckett, Scott Bakula spent five seasons working to make the world a better place, swapping places with people throughout history and “trying to right what once went wrong.” Generally, this meant mending broken hearts, facing oppression, and trading quips with his holographic best friend Al (Dean Stockwell), but early in the show’s third season, Beckett leaped into a dark place indeed, taking the place of horror novelist Joshua Rae in “The Boogieman.” It’s all fun and games until people start dying. And there’s this goat stalking Sam that no one else can see… Set in Maine on October 31, 1964, “Boogieman” manages a tone of mild camp mixed with very effective horror; the climax of the episode, which has Sam facing off against a cackling devil, is as freaky as anything the show ever produced. But what’s most notable about “Boogieman” is that it starts with an otherwise fairly straightforward science-fiction fantasy, then suggests that maybe not all is as normal as it seems. The devil is still out there, and who knows where Sam might leap next?
7. Alfred Hitchcock Hour, “The Jar”
Most of the episodes of Hitchcock’s anthology series were fairly tame, mildly suspenseful nail-biters about fairly ordinary folks, but “The Jar,” directed by Norman Lloyd and based on a Ray Bradbury story, is pure hillbilly heroin. Pat Buttram, Green Acres’ Mr. Haney, plays a small-town, backwoods sad-sack who goes to a carnival and buys a sealed glass jar that contains some mysterious, transfixing mass. He plunks it down in his living room, and soon all the locals (including George “Goober” Lindsey, William “Blacula” Marshall, Jane Darwell, and Jocelyn Brando) are coming around to stare at it, projecting their hopes and guilty fears onto it. Buttram’s hot, faithless wife finally can’t take it anymore and threatens to destroy the jar, and with it, her husband’s new status as its respected custodian. Buttram doesn’t take kindly to the idea, and the next time everybody comes over, she isn’t around anymore, and whatever is inside the jar looks kind of… different.
8. Doctor Who, “Blink”
Doctor Who is often cited for terrifying children, and it’s a well-known cliché in Britain for adults to write about “hiding behind the sofa” when watching as kids. But every so often, the show manages to strike upon a truly frightening concept and execute it so perfectly, it even scares adults. Barely featuring the Doctor at all, the Steven Moffat-penned “Blink” instead follows plucky Sally Sparrow (Carey Mulligan), who slowly realizes that the menace in her life causing her friends to vanish is a group of seemingly frozen weeping-angel statues that start coming for you the minute you aren’t looking at them. The show sets the challenge of having a villain that never moves on camera and places almost all of the tension on our heroes having to maintain their line of sight on four motionless statues that suddenly come closer if you turn away, even for a second. That concept is brilliant in its simplicity and its ability to frighten without any kind of onscreen violence. “Blink” is also structured around a complicated time-travel conceit that’s marvelous storytelling without the statues, but the episode doesn’t stick with people simply because it’s well-structured.
9. Little House On The Prairie, “Sylvia, Parts 1 & 2”
Little House On The Prairie came up with numerous episodes that mixed the earnest family drama of the show with spookier elements, including a Halloween special that featured a surprisingly terrifying Headless Horseman. But no episode is as strange and horrifying as the two-part seventh-season episode “Sylvia.” In it, adopted Ingalls son Albert reveals that he’s fallen in love with local girl Sylvia, and the two have a chaste courtship that seems to mostly consist of childhood games. Sylvia, however, has a dark secret: She’s being stalked by someone who’s obsessed with her, a man in a mime mask who rapes her while wearing the mask. The image is straight-up slasher-movie fare, and the episode’s refusal to spell out exactly what’s happening—beyond the fact that Sylvia gets pregnant and Albert decides to claim it as his own—makes things even more disturbing. The episode remains one of the most famous Little House installments (mostly for the wrong reasons), to the point where earnest YouTube fans have created numerous Albert/Sylvia music videos.
10. Boy Meets World, “And Then There Was Shawn”
Aired at the height of the ’90s slasher revival, “And Then There Was Shawn” takes its cues from Scream, I Know What You Did Last Summer, and Halloween—plus a leavening dose of South Park references and an era-appropriate cameo from scream queen Jennifer Love Hewitt—to illustrate the devastating effect of its crumbling central romance. Either that, or credited writer Jeff Menell was so tired of writing variations on “Cory and Topanga break up” that he wanted to put the characters in danger of really losing each other for once. Menell did his spooky-atmosphere-setting homework, and his script actually dispenses with several characters before the third act hits a big ol’ reset button. But before that can happen, at least we get to witness the only pencil-through-the-forehead death in TGIF history.
11. Punky Brewster, “The Perils Of Punky, Parts 1 & 2”
Family-friendly entertainment is based on trust. A series promises to avoid explicit content and tell stories with positive themes like sharing and respect and hugs, and parents take this on faith, assuming that when their 8-year-old settles in to watch the adventures of a spunky foster kid and her grumpy elderly stepfather, there’s no reason to worry about any untoward sex, violence, or scares. It’s hard to know what lesson anyone is supposed to take from the two-part “The Perils Of Punky,” which follows the eponymous heroine and her friends on a camping trip that takes a young-mind-scarring turn when they discover a mysterious cave and the evil spirit that lives inside. Punky faces eerie music, vicious spider puppets, and the sudden disappearance of each of her pals. “Perils” really busts out the nightmare fuel when the friends return, transmogrified into terrifying monsters. The effects look goofy now, and the episode itself tries to wave the horror away with an “It was all a story!” ending, but that doesn’t help the traumatized children who watched their favorite show turn into Nightmare On Poltergeist II Street.
12. Eerie, Indiana, “Just Say No To Fun”
Kids’ shows that try to be scary are sometimes oddly effective: Because they’re written by adults trying to understand what children think is scary, there’s a weird disconnect that can prove horrifying. Observe “Just Say No To Fun,” an episode of the early-’90s NBC tween show Eerie, Indiana, in which all-American hero Marshall Teller sees his proclivity for pranksterism curbed when a nasty school nurse at B.F. Skinner Middle School begins prescribing Coke-bottle lenses that drain children of their personality and general childishness. But the show’s quick fix of a Groucho-styled glasses-and-moustache kit (“Legend has it they were molded directly from the face of the master himself”) proves even more unnerving. As Marshall walks around Eerie, snapping his classmates out of their joyless zombiefied state with his Groucho glasses, they descend into endless strings of giggles and titters. It’s an example of silliness backfiring, and the episode’s third-act solution proves more disturbing than the setup.
13. Soap, Episode 44
As a sitcom that parodied the plots and conventions of daytime drama, Soap never shied away from conflict, suspense, or what-the-hell? moments. But nothing on the show was ever as jarring as the scene at the end of the 44th episode, in which Corinne Tate’s newborn baby laughs demonically and starts telekinetically flinging toys around the nursery. Though there were hints that something wasn’t right about Corinne’s pregnancy, the possession scene arrived out of nowhere, which made it all the scarier. (The episode went sort of like this: “Ha ha ha ha holy crap!”) A generation of young TV fans who happened to be watching ABC that night were scarred for life.
14. M*A*S*H, “Dreams”
While the Korean War series M*A*S*H frequently touched on the horrors of war, it rarely embraced actual horror the way it did in “Dreams.” Exhausted while dealing with a massive influx of patients, the residents of the camp drop into fitful naps, and have nightmares where the symbolism is nakedly obvious, but the emotions run deep and painful. Major Houlihan (Loretta Swit), decked out in a bridal dress, lies down on her marriage bed, but her new husband marches away with some passing soldiers, leaving her standing forlorn in a field, covered with blood. Father Mulcahy (William Christopher) conducts chapel services as the Pope, but finds blood pattering down onto his Bible from a soldier hanging from his crucifix. Klinger (Jamie Farr) runs to assist with a surgery, and sees himself, looking pained and lost, on the operating table. Winchester (David Ogden Stiers) stands on a stage performing useless magic tricks while a soldier dies in front of him. The episode hits its climax when Hawkeye (Alan Alda) dreams that he’s unprepared in a medical class, and is ordered to painlessly, bloodlessly remove his arms as punishment; his bewilderment turns to horror as he subsequently sails along a black river full of floating severed limbs. No wonder “Dreams” became one of the few M*A*S*H episodes to entirely drop the laugh track: There’s nothing in this unsettling horrorshow to laugh at.
15. ER, “Be Still My Heart”
The sixth season of the venerable hospital drama ER contained one of the most shocking and frightening things seen on network drama up to that point: the stabbing of John Carter (Noah Wyle) and Lucy Knight (Kellie Martin), a moment made so effectively chilling by its meticulously crafted surprise. The episode leading up to the big moment is standard ER, with minor hints of the horrors to come: the patient being casually placed of in the break room, where he steals a knife; the offhanded remark from Lydia about the knife being missing; the festive sound of Lo Fidelity All Stars’ “Battleflag” playing in the background, which quickly turns from festive to menacing as it grows more prominent on the soundtrack. By the time the patient lunges out of the corner and stabs an unsuspecting Carter, causing him to fall to the ground and reveal a much more severely injured Lucy, the audience is as shocked as he is. The horror here is how easily a mundane day (or TV episode) can turn into a nightmare.
16. Grey’s Anatomy, “Sanctuary/Death And All His Friends”
For a silly little show about some hot doctors in a hospital, Grey’s Anatomy has covered some pretty heavy stuff, from euthanasia to a main character’s sudden death. For its two-hour season-six finale, though, Grey’s went scary, as an ex-patient’s husband, upset after his wife’s death and an unsuccessful lawsuit, begins to quietly stalk the hospital. For fans expecting a mildly traumatic finale with a few unanswered questions, this seemingly came out of nowhere, and a calm, grandpa-like dude suddenly shooting people in the head point-blank wasn’t what they’d bargained for. Doctors get dragged from under beds, languish bleeding to death in elevators, and die without any sort of fanfare or romantic last words. The finale’s scares work because, realistically, what happened at Seattle Grace could happen any place with disgruntled customers and lax security; theoretically, the only thing keeping traumatized viewers from ending up like one of the dead residents is that they just haven’t stumbled into that horrible situation yet.
17. The Practice, “Happily Ever After”
During the third season of The Practice, the firm defended a serial killer who targeted nuns, as well as podiatrist George Vogelman (played with maximum nebbishiness by Michael Monks), who walked into the office with a head in a bag. Then, in the season finale, a mysterious figure in a nun’s habit sneaks into the office and stabs partner Lindsay Dole (Kelli Williams). The police and the prosecutors assume the assault is retribution for the defense of the nun-killer, but in the episode’s chilling final shot, the audience sees a person in a nun’s habit walking down the street, and when the camera pans up… it’s Vogelman! Fans of The Practice had to wait all summer for the resolution of this storyline, left with the terrifying image of a creepy man in a creepy costume, and the unsettling revelation that a character we assumed to be benign and semi-comic was, in fact, a psychopath.
18. Breaking Bad, “Peekaboo”
Breaking Bad is a frequently tense, edge-of-your-seat show, full of shocking moments and drawn-out drama that fans always discuss in hushed tones. But season two’s “Peekaboo” nonetheless stands out as a uniquely chilling ordeal. Jesse Pinkman goes to the bombed-out house of two tweakers to make them return drugs they ripped off from him. As is common on the show, nothing goes according to plan, and Jesse is plunged into a methed-up nightmare, where the strung-out couple, who are trying to break into a stolen ATM machine, always seem seconds away from flying off the handle and killing someone. In the middle of this is a mute child whom Jesse does his best to protect. The miserable situation takes its toll slowly but surely, grinding away at viewers. Breaking Bad has more than its share of shocks and tense standoffs, but “Peekaboo” is a different beast, especially because it involves a complete innocent.
19. Six Feet Under, “That’s My Dog”
Six Feet Under was, by definition, always going to be a dark show, but with the infamous “That’s My Dog,” the show took a turn for the sinister. In the deeply polarizing episode, David (Michael C. Hall) heads out to pick up a body, an otherwise routine trip that turns into the day from hell when he decides to pick up a hitchhiker named Jake. After a brief flirtation, Jake robs David, forces him to smoke crack, douses him with gasoline, puts a gun in his mouth, and forces him to beg for his life. David’s latent sexual attraction to his tormentor also lends the entire ordeal creepy sadomasochistic overtones. It was especially horrible to see such terrible things happen to the man who was arguably Six Feet Under’s richest and most sympathetic character; it seemed designed to make viewers feel as if they had been violated, too, which may be why the episode was loved and loathed in equal measures.
20. Twin Peaks, “Coma”
Twin Peaks frequently featured a bit of creepiness in its elaborate genre mix; it always maintained a spooky tone that suggested the small town of the show’s title was poised in some weird spiritual gateway between good and evil, heaven and hell. By far the show’s scariest element was Bob, a weird demon-type spirit that possesses people and causes them to commit heinous acts. Bob would appear, seemingly at random, whenever the show needed a supernatural jolt or two, but his scariest moment takes up less than one minute of screen time. In it, Maddy Ferguson (played by Sheryl Lee, who also starred as Laura Palmer) has a terrifying vision of Bob attacking. He enters in the distance, then walks straight at the viewer, methodically stepping over furniture to get to the camera—and Maddy. In a series that was often elusive, this moment was direct, to the point, and terrifying.
21-plus. Unsolved Mysteries, every episode
An entire generation tuned in to this informational program, which was mostly designed to help catch criminals who were still on the loose, and found the strange, stilted re-enactments of crimes scarier than they had any right to be. The re-enactments still pack a terrifying punch, particularly for crimes that remain unsolved all these decades later. The series took as its setting the great, empty, unsafe spaces of the North American continent, and it was filled with stories where someone would stop at a highway rest stop one night only to be shot dead, or a couple would drive past a man stuffing a body into a hole in the ground behind an old building, or a woman was nearly killed, then ended up driving home right behind her killer. When you add in the fact that the series was hosted by the grim, unsmiling Robert Stack and frequently took detours into the paranormal—with stories of alien abductions and haunted houses—it offered up something to scare just about every type of viewer, even if it never meant to.