It takes discipline and ruthlessness to narrow down decades of horror TV to just a “devil's dozen.” There can't be any kindness. If a horror TV show once ruled from a throne of gory guts but now seems about as appealing as a colonoscopy, it didn't make this list.
If another show scared us as kids but didn't scare us as much as we remembered as adults, it didn't make the list. And if everyone else put it at the top of their list (hello, Twin Peaks), we left it off just to be funny. There are a lot of great horror TV shows, but the ones below are the best.
Because there are only 13, these are only in English (so no Les Revenants, Marianne, Kingdom, or The Kingdom) and are all series instead of one-offs (so no Ghost Watch). They aren't horror comedies either, or it would have been fair to give every spot to What We Do In The Shadows. Besides that, there's nothing else to say.
Penny Dreadful's appeal isn't all about Eva Green as spooky medium extraordinaire Vanessa Ives, but it is mostly about her. Green ruled over a library's worth of bad writing for three seasons with spellbinding intensity and unrivalled elegance. Ives' soul was the battleground for a battle between Lucifer, his followers, and the (questionable) forces of good.
Penny Dreadful was made by John Logan and Sam Mendes, who used to work together on the James Bond movies. It was a deep dive into the bloody Gothic imagination of the 19th century. Its jewellery box of book characters included Dracula, Dorian Gray, Victor Frankenstein, Dr Jekyll, and many more.
They were all brought back to life by a strong cast that included the excellent Rory Kinnear (pictured above, left) and the redoubtable and much-missed Helen McCrory as Madame Kali, the leader of the Nightcomers who was determined to win Vanessa for their master. Penny Dreadful was gruesome, well-made, and full of atmosphere.
There was always the smell of blood and incense in the air, and the show got bigger and better with each season. It was full of blood and violence and a master class in not holding back. It paid a full-on tribute to the horror books that inspired it.
Children of the Stones (1977)
“And kids are supposed to do this?” People say that when Peter Graham Scott read the first script for Children of the Stones, he had a lot of questions. That can't be the only time that question was asked during the making of the scary ITV serial by Jeremy Burnham and Trevor Ray.
How about the first time you heard Sidney Sager's very scary choral score for a horror movie? Or when Iain Cuthbertson played his first scene as the lord of the manor/magus Hendrick?
Someone must have asked when the art department sent the cursed painting that young Matthew brings to the village of Milbury, where his professor father has been sent to study the druidic stone circle. Maybe someone said it the first time the creepy words “Happy Day” was spoken on set?
The Happy ones, who look like puppets and live in Milbury, say “Happy Day.” This is just one of many things that make Children of the Stones a great book for kids. It's a codeword that can be used in a playground game. It proves to the child that adults are robots controlled by a mysterious and evil force and that they're the only ones who can see through the lie.
This excellent, complex, and scary series plays on that unsettling fear as Matthew and his father try to figure out the dark truth about Milbury (which is really Avebury in Wiltshire) and the secrets of its standing stones.
American Horror Story
“If you look at evil in the face, evil will look back at you.”You can't throw a rock in the streaming era of TV without hitting an anthology series. Anthologies are perfect for a TV landscape that has too many shows. They come in, tell their story, and then leave to make room for the next story in their franchise.
With this in mind, it can be hard to remember how groundbreaking the first season of American Horror Story, a surprise anthology series on FX, was. Sorry to ruin a TV season from ten years ago, but the first act of American Horror Story, which is now called “Murder House,” ends with almost everyone dead.
And if that wasn't surprising enough, FX soon announced that the Ryan Murphy-created show would continue with a new, almost completely unrelated season. Since then, American Horror Story has had new, loosely connected seasons about asylums, witches, haunted hotels, and, unfortunately, the end of the world.
Some seasons of American Horror Story are better than others, but that's just how anthologies work. Even after all these years, there is no other show on TV that is as focused on horror as this one.
Inside No. 9 (2014)
We've already broken our own rule about not including horror comedies, but we did so for a good reason. Inside No. 9 won the Bafta for best comedy, but it's also a drama and a horror movie, and it's often all three at the same time. No matter how the stories are told, though, horror is always at the heart of how strange and fun they are.
It picks up where Tales of the Unexpected, A Ghost Story for Christmas, Play for Today, and others left off. From series one's “The Harrowing” to series six's “Hurry Up and Wait” and “How Do You Plead?” and hopefully beyond, it has an uncanny and unpredictable ability to switch from funny to scary (series seven is already on its way).
So far, this BBC Two show has had six seasons and 36 episodes. Some of the scariest moments have happened in the Christmas special and the Halloween episode that tricked the whole country. Cannibalism, skeletons, possession by demons, people who worship Satan, angry ghosts, vampires, and more murders than you can count…
The creators, Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton, and producer Adam Tandy, along with the excellent actors and directors who are drawn to their scripts, have done all of this on a small BBC budget. May its pizzicato strings and dust particles keep showing up on TV for a long time.
The Fades (2011)
IMDb lists The Fades, which came out in 2011, as a miniseries, which is a shame. The Fades shouldn't be a mini-series, but most British TV shows, even the ones that run for years, are mini-series compared to the average length of US shows.
The acclaimed horror drama by Jack Thorne should have at least three beautiful runs of episodes, plus a movie and a Christmas special. The British public, or at least the people BBC Three wanted to watch it, came to the party too late, and this unique horror show with a great young cast was cut off when it was at its best.
In The Fades, Iain de Caestecker plays Paul, a teenager who can see the dead. Because of a break in the ascension process between life and death, Earth is full of wandering wraiths who are getting more angry and vengeful every year. When the Fades find a way to get back at the living, they have to be stopped by a group called the Angelics.
It's funny, real, touching, scary, and full of horror, from the designs of the monsters to the chilling tension. What a great cast! Daniel Kaluuya! Natalie Dormer! Tom ‘Lucifer' Ellis! Joe ‘Gendry' Dempsie! It's a well-drawn series, so even though it ended too soon, it's still worth watching.
Hannibal (2013 – 2015)
“When the rabbit screams, the fox runs after it. Not to help, though.'
Since this list is being written by an American and a Brit (“Hi, Louisa!” – Alec), I'm suddenly very aware of how content restrictions are different in the US and UK. In the United States, it's well known that sex scenes are not welcome on network TV, and sometimes not even on cable.
Still, acts of violence that are hard to describe are often able to get through. Hannibal, a great horror show on NBC, is a good example. Hannibal is one of the most violent, gross, and scary shows that has ever been on TV. It aired at 10 p.m. ET on NBC, probably after an exciting episode of The Voice. Like, yeah, it's a school night and the kids are sleeping, but they're not that asleep.
The idea and characters for Hannibal come from Thomas Harris's books about serial killers. Mads Mikkelsen plays the main character, and he manages to put his own spin on a role that Anthony Hopkins won an Oscar for. Due to the great chemistry between Mikkelsen and Hugh Dancy as criminal profiler Will Graham, the show was and still is a big hit with online fans.
But that shiny fandom sheen shouldn't take away from the fact that this is a really scary show with dismembered bodies, Colombian neckties, and human totem poles everywhere you look.
Tales From The Crypt (1989 – 1996)
Even if Tales from the Crypt only showed the rotting Cryptkeeper telling stories during the opening credits, that would be enough to make it one of the scariest TV shows ever. The camera creeps past creaking gates and zooms into a clearly haunted mansion at the start of each episode of the horror anthology on HBO.
After the audience walks through a lot of spider webs and candles, this scary little jerk opens the door to his coffin and starts screaming. But after that, things seem to get even scarier. Based on the same-named series of EC comics, Tales from the Crypt is the natural successor to shows like The Twilight Zone, as well as to comics and movies like Creepshow.
The idea behind this show is simple: each episode tells a new scary story of bad luck. Even better, many of these episodes feature famous Hollywood actors like Brad Pitt, Patricia Arquette, Whoopi Goldberg, Tom Hanks, and others. It's hard to tell scary stories in a long-running series, so this show keeps things simple by telling single-part stories.
Tales from the Crypt ran for seven seasons and had some real classics like “The Ventriloquist's Dummy,” “Television Terror,” and “What's Cookin'.”
Channel Zero (2016 – 2018)
Channel Zero was only on TV for a short time. There are only four six-episode seasons that were spread out over two years. Also, it's hard to find now because it's only on AMC+ in the U.S. But don't let the fact that it's not very well known to fool you. This Syfy show is one of the scariest things that has ever been shown on TV.
Just look at how amazing the monster costumes are in those pictures up there. In a TV market that was already full of horror IP, Channel Zero knew that the internet was a gold mine of pure horror that hadn't been used yet. Starting with its first season, which was based on the online short story “Candle Cove,” Channel Zero looked for the best “creepypastas,” or online scary stories, and turned them into TV shows.
Channel Zero made “No-End House,” “Butcher's Block,” and “The Dream Door” after “Candle Cove.” Nick Antosca, who created the series, has a good sense of how to tell a story and an even better sense of how to make a monster. Every season of the show feels like someone else's nightmare, struggling to get out of its cage and into the viewer's head.
Tales of the Unexpected (1979 – 1988)
Horror isn't always about demons and the supernatural. There's enough evil in people to keep scary stories going for years, which is exactly what Tales of the Unexpected did for nine seasons on ITV. Some of these half-hours touched on the supernatural (who could forget the fat baby in “Royal Jelly”? ), but most of them were about corruption on earth and domestic noir, like the scary story of a child being taken away in “Flypaper.
” About a third of the 112 episodes were based on stories by Roald Dahl. In the early years, his name was at the beginning of the title, and he filmed introductions by the fire that teased what was to come. People who have read Dahl's children's books know how nasty and mean-spirited his mind is, and this book is full of stories about revenge, lies, murder, and even cannibalism.
If you ask people what they remember most about the show, they'll probably say the hypnotic opening credits, which kept many kids up all night when they were allowed to watch.
A white-painted woman dances in front of flickering flames, a roulette wheel spins, the barrel of a gun points out, a demonic mask grins, and a set of tarot cards all while Ron Grainer's nightmarish fairground music plays in the background. The stories are clever, devilish, and hard to forget. Sometimes they are funny in a dark way, and they are known for their crazy turns.
The Haunting of Hill House (2018)
People have been telling scary stories for a long time. So, many modern horror stories try to keep things interesting by adding a bit of deathly fear to things or events that would otherwise be harmless. Think about the shower scene in Psycho, the simple crew dinner in Alien, or the sunny public beach in Jaws.
We all agree that dark back alleys, funeral homes, and huge, falling-apart manors are already scary enough. What could be the point of keeping on beating these dead horses? Luckily, Mike Flanagan, who made the show Haunting of Hill House, knows that old horror tropes can still be used in new ways.
The only thing Hill House takes from the classic Shirley Jackson book is its name. In the early 1990s, the Crain family tries to fix up a clearly haunted house, but no matter what they do, the house keeps getting worse. Then, the story jumps to the present day, where we see how living in a violently haunted house changed the Crain children.
The fact that The Haunting of Hill House never lets up is the key to its success. From its fast-paced opening scene to some of the most terrifying jump scares ever caught on film, the show doesn't let too much time pass between terrifying moments.
In The Haunting of Hill House, even when things are “peaceful,” the audience can't help but feel like they're being watched, which is true. Throughout the series, Flanagan and his team put dozens of ghosts in scenes that you can't see. This shows how widespread and all-encompassing Hill House's hunger for souls is.
This limited series is only three years old, and Flanagan has since made other good horror movies like The Haunting of Bly Manor and Midnight Mass, but you can bet that this one will be a Halloween TV classic for years to come.