Halloween is officially here — and, according to the lore of “American Horror Story,” it’s the ghosts’ day to come out and play. But “American Horror Story” isn’t the only excellent horror show to watch on Halloween. The Daily TV/New Media writers have a whole list of terrifying TV to satisfy your craving for a good scare. (Your craving for candy corn must be fulfilled somewhere else.) So, what’s the scariest show on TV?
I made the mistake of watching an episode of “Hannibal” when my family was in the room. They immediately questioned my mental health, staring dead-faced as a killer turned human organs into cello strings. Through images like this, “Hannibal” brings a disturbing beauty to brutality. The series subjects viewers to human totem poles, beehives and murals along with the cannibalism associated with Hannibal Lecter, played to perfection by Mads Mikkelsen.
However, the imagery would ring hollow without the emotional resonance provided by Hugh Dancy’s Will Graham. Through Will, “Hannibal” explores the longterm effects of horror. Hannibal and the evil surrounding him are so powerful that they cut into the physical and mental health of Will. The lines between reality and nightmares are destroyed, where both are equally terrifying. Will’s lack of certainty in what is real and what is imagined creates a series that is both visually and psychologically frightening.
While it’s true that in the more recent seasons “Supernatural” has been more of a teen drama than a true horror, the show still maintains a reputation for playing on basic fears, such as the dark, bugs and demonic monsters. For a truly terrifying experience, I point you towards an early episode. “Skin” plays on the fear of losing your own identity to a Shape Shifter. Around the 31-minute mark of the episode is a scene – set in a sewer, to the soundtrack of “Hey Man, Nice Shot” by Filter (Or “Mary” by The Death Riders on Netflix) — in which the Shifter changes from the visage of the show’s protagonist, Dean, to a new form. The show pulls no punches. We see teeth falling out, skin being torn off, and bones reforming with loud cracks. In effect, it’s pure nightmare fuel.
The Twilight Zone
To find the scariest show on television, you must take a time machine back to 1959. “The Twilight Zone” was the original horror anthology series, and served as an inspiration for many contemporary horror shows. Every episode of “The Twilight Zone” wraps in 30 succinct minutes, and its terror is only compounded by the fact that the story’s over so quickly. Its scares hold up, too. “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” is part of the reason I’m a nervous flyer, and “Walking Distance” is stunning, heartbreaking and cinematic in a way that was unprecedented for 1959. But “The Twilight Zone” doesn’t exist in a vacuum. When watching all the episodes about alien invasions, time travel, panic and the terrors of technology, you can’t help but relate the show to its historical place in the Cold War years. Despite the temporal remove, though, it’s telling that “The Twilight Zone” remains scary to viewers today. Across time and space, its themes of isolation, paranoia and displacement are universally terrifying.
The Scariest Places on Earth
I remember catching glimpses of “The Scariest Places on Earth” on television back when my innocent, impressionable mind decided to ingrain these images for life.
The series is a documentary style reality show where ordinary families investigate paranormal activity at the world’s most notoriously haunted sites — most of which are in States, possibly down the street from you. Linda Blair of “Exorcist” and Zelda Rubinstein of “Poltergeist” narrate these events in the most harrowing voices that refuse to escape your memory (because they still haunt me ten years later).
Unlike other horror shows where fear is elicited through gore or supernatural phenomena, this show is more about the reality of these situations in such close proximity. The families are commoners like us, not fabricated characters. The footage is a documentary, so the ambiguous shadows, the moving inanimate objects and voices that shriek in pain, are all real.
In addition, each of the investigators describe in excruciating detail how people have been brutally murdered or tortured in those very places. I can disprove concepts of ghosts or monsters, which obviously don’t exist in our realm; I can eventually forget about the graphic violence I see on television — but I can never eradicate fear of what truly exists in our world.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Joss Whedon brought a range of tones to “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”; at different times during its seven year run, it was everything from hysterical to heartbreaking, often in the same episode. At its core, though it was a horror series about a girl who kills vampires. Whedon came up with many terrifying villains for the Scooby Gang to fight. The thought of the Gentlemen, demons dressed in suits who take away your ability to speak, eliminating your ability to scream when they kill you, still brings chills. There’s also the horrifying preacher played by Nathan Fillion and a transformed Angel, to name a couple more of the show’s most unnerving. “Buffy” won’t be remembered solely because of its scares, but without that spooky base, the show wouldn’t have been able to achieve new heights in the genre.
I spent the majority of my middle school years in a love-hate relationship with the show “Ghost Whisperer” — definitely the scariest show on TV for me. It gave me my first taste of addiction; but though I would obsessively watch every episode, I would always end up afraid to use my peripheral vision for a week, petrified of seeing ghosts everywhere I turned.
In “Ghost Whisperer,” Melinda Gordon helps earthbound spirits to resolve their lingering problems and cross “into the light.” Though it was often slightly saccharine, as Melinda mediated tearful resolutions among families, the episodes where ghosts turned their rage onto Melinda were terrifying, especially because she was only trying to help them. “Ghost Whisperer” was unnerving in its emotional manipulation; it played on everyone’s curiosity to know what happens when we die, and made you wish that ghosts exist. And then it made you enormously thankful that they don’t. I still binge-watch Ghost Whisperer from time to time — and I’m not ashamed to admit I still keep all the lights on when I do.
There are plenty of horror television shows out there, but none kept me up at night as well as the first season of “True Detective.” There are no ghosts here, just horrifying spine-tingling dread. Besides, let’s look at the elements here: creepy kid in an asylum? Check. Traumatized former servant who speaks in enigmatic whispers about a hidden city and a satanic king? Check. Creepy video with occultists in masks engaging in human sacrifice? Check. I’ve seen my fair share of horror, but nothing on TV ever scared as much as those black and white polaroid’s of blindfolded kids and that video tape. Ghosts and zombies are made up. Monsters can be real.
American Horror Story
In an interview with The Backlot, Brad Falchuk, co-creator of FX’s “American Horror Story,” said, “The main goal is to scare people. You want people to be a little bit off balance afterwards. You want people to have their friends sleep over that night.”
It’s safe to say that Falchuk’s goal has been accomplished. Since the show aired “Murder House” in 2011, viewers have been sleeping with the lights on. Now, with three haunting seasons still lingering in the background and spinning its fourth tale “Freak Show,” “AHS” retains the power to get under viewers’ skin.
Why is “AHS” so freaky? Maybe it’s because it overthrows today’s horror expectations: instead of choppy sequences of “torture porn,” the show has intricate stories and well- constructed characters. Beneath the outrageously weird, over-the-top plotlines, each season is its own unique mini-series, grounded by real issues of infidelity, sanity, oppression and discrimination.
I watched the “Medium” premiere with my Mom in January 2005; we were so scared that we vowed never to watch again. Fortunately, it was a promise we didn’t keep. By the series finale — six years and a network change later — we hadn’t missed an episode. Looking back now, was “Medium” really the scariest television series ever? Probably not. But the Patricia Arquette-led procedural expertly balanced police work, family drama and the supernatural, all the while terrifyingly piecing together Allison DuBois’ dreams that always solved the case. “Medium” might not still resonate in the crowded TV landscape, but its sharp writing, great performances and exciting guest stars (young Jennifer Lawrence!) make it worth a Netflix binge — and a place on our list.