Terrifyingly Good TV: Ranking the Best Scary Shows Ever
Spooky season is upon us. Therefore, we wear costumes, carve jack-o-lanterns, tell scary stories, and watch scary films. Sometimes a film or even Halloween, a day full of ghosts, ghouls, and goblins, isn’t enough. Sometimes we need terrifyingly good TV; shows that allow us to immerse ourselves in dim lighting and jump scares for hours, days, weeks, and months on end. Our adrenal glands have more to produce, and oh, does it feel good. From anthologies and small-screen adaptations of horror classics to newer fiction like Stranger Things and The Haunting of Bly Manor, paying homage to all that goes bump in the night, we’ve ranked 14 of the best scary shows ever (docuseries omitted).
Cover Photo: Netflix
Mandatory Staff Picks: The Best Movies About Ghosts (And Ghostbusting)
If you were to tune into the CW’s Supernatural today, during its final run, you probably wouldn't find it scary. Fifteen years ago, when audiences were first introduced to the monster-hunting combo of Sam and Dean Winchester, Supernatural creator Eric Kripke’s initial goal was to produce a mini horror movie every week. The show’s first and second seasons accomplish this by surrounding its central performances with creepy visuals and a classy horror aesthetic; not to mention the incorporation of real-life lore like Bloody Mary and the Woman in White.
13. 'The Walking Dead''
Robert Kirkman’s comic book series turned full-blown AMC television show, The Walking Dead, was the horror drama no one knew they needed. Its massive following and pop-culture status is a byproduct of its gruesome depiction of “walkers,” and humanity’s precarious perception of morality (in the wake of societal collapse). The living are just as threatening as the dead.
12. 'Channel Zero: Candle Cove'
The anthology series (ish), Channel Zero: Candle Cove follows child psychologist Mike Painter, who thinks that a children’s show from the '80s, Candle Cove, may be responsible for nightmares from his childhood and the disappearance of his twin brother in 1988. He returns home to investigate. Whatever happened back then is happening again. The nightmarish imagery in Candle Cove is next level as the series dives into internet urban legends like "The No-End House," "The Dream Door," and "Butcher’s Block."
11. 'Penny Dreadful'
Old-school Gothic/romantic literature is as enthralling as it is creepy. The psychological thriller Penny Dreadful brings stories like Frankenstein and The Portrait of Dorian Gray to the small screen, following Vanessa Ives as she slays monsters and navigates the deepest, darkest corners of Victorian London.
To this day, no one understands how a show about Hannibal Lector ended up on NBC, the home of comedies like The Office and 30 Rock. Bryan Fuller’s adaptation of Thomas Harris’ series of serial-killer novels, starring everybody’s favorite cannibalistic psychiatrist, is everything fans wanted from those lackluster films. On top of Mads Mikkelsen’s riveting performance as Lector, Hugh Dancy’s as FBI profiler William Graham brings a soul-shivering frenemy dynamic to the table. Why did the show get canceled following its third season? Audiences are a glutton for punishment.
9. 'Bates Motel'
As a prequel to Alfred Hitchcock’s horror classic, Psycho, Bates Motel follows Norma Bates’ purchase of the titular hotel in the coastal town of White Pine Bay. Long before his proclivity for shower stabbings, shy Norman Bates was harmless enough...aside from an intense (and unhealthy) relationship with his mother. The series follows the pair’s perilous life in White Pine Bay; we get to see how Norman’s complicated bond with Norma forged him into one of the most fucked-up serial killers in cinematic history, and boy, is it terrifying. Strong performances by Freddie Highmore and Vera Farmiga make this a must-watch.
8. 'The Haunting of Bly Manor'
Mike Flanagan's follow-up to The Haunting of Hill House, The Haunting of Bly Manor, loosely adapts Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw—a questionable governess goes to take care of children in a spooky house. While James’ novella was subjective, Flanagan’s series is less so. It’s different, and perhaps not as scary as Hill House, but it still has plenty of tricks up and down its haunted halls as well as a whole lot of heart.
7. 'American Horror Story'
Created by the co-creators of Glee (because that needs to be said), American Horror Story was the go-to horror anthology for awhile. The series stars Sarah Paulson, Jessica Lange, and Kathy Bates (among others) and deals with everything from summer camps, insane asylums, and haunted houses to murderous clowns and covens. The same vague themes and characters are incorporated season by season, making it less of an anthology than it would seem.
6. 'Black Mirror'
The Twilight Zone for the new generation. Charlie Booker and Annabel Jones’s Back Mirror, an anthology series exploring humanity's toxic relationship with technology, is an ominous (albeit cynical and horrifying) look at the politics and society in the near future. The show’s quality varies, but when it hits a home run, no one is finding that baseball. Episodes like “White Christmas,” “San Junipero,” and “USS Calister” are shining examples of series styled after The Twilight Zone can and should work. Black Mirror makes us laugh, cry, and scares the pants off of us by taping into the most effective element of good horror: relatability.
5. 'The Haunting of Hill House'
Mike Flanagan, who recently helmed the criminally under-appreciated sequel to The Shining, Doctor Sleep, loosely adapted horror mastermind Shirley Jackson's novella, The Haunting of Hill House, into a fan-favorite Netflix mini-series. The series alternates between two timelines, following a family before and after fleeing the titular mansion in 1992. Thanks to a strong cast and Flanagan’s guiding hand, The Haunting of Hill House is one of the scariest things to grace the small screen in quite some time.
There's no denying the fact that overall, Dexter is an inconsistent series with weak side characters and gluttonous storylines that contribute nothing to the over-arching plot. Thank God they're going to redeem all that with the upcoming revival. When Dexter is firing on all cylinders, it is one of the best shows ever. What makes it scary? Michael C. Hall committing heinous/gruesome acts is enough to satisfy the appetite of any horror fans. Hall perfectly balances his character’s shy awkwardness with a maniacal lust for murder (among other things). Factor in John Lithgow’s Trinity or season one’s Ice Truck Killer and we are more than freaked out. Three serial killers are scarier than one.
3. 'Stranger Things'
No one saw Stranger Things coming. Citing classic '80s popular culture (John Carpenter, Steven Spielberg, the work of Steven King, etc.) as their inspiration, the Duffer brothers created the nostalgia trip that is Stranger Things. While being modern and retro at the same time, the story of Hawkins, Indiana, and its inhabitants has brought this generation back to the future of horror (and no, that's not meant to make sense).
2. 'The X-Files'
Chris Carter's pop culture phenomenon, The X-Files, isn’t just the science fiction show we couldn’t quit; it was a conspiracy thriller that scared the bejesus out of us. "The truth is out there." Chemistry doesn’t get much better than conspiracy theorist Fox Mulder and realist Dana Scully, FBI agents who investigate unexplained cases known as the “X-Files.” The show plays with everything from inbred hillbilly killers to “deep state” and extraterrestrials, never ceasing to feed our paranoia.
1. 'The Twilight Zone'
Writer and host, Rod Sterling’s The Twilight Zone is the be-all and end-all of bone-chilling television. Chances are, you’ve said, “I feel like I’m in the Twilight Zone” before; where the “normal” rules need not apply. The show’s gargantuan run (and top-tier scripts) helped it to enter pop culture’s lexicon the same way as Ghostbusters or Star Wars. Thought-provoking and unsettling, the award-winning anthology series utilizes everything from aliens to time travel to dissect society and confront harsh truths. Not so much concerned with jump scares as it is existential angst, The Twilight Zone taught television how to keep viewers thinking long after the credits roll. Episodes like “The Hitchhiker” will make you think twice about being alone on an open road. People have tried to replicate The Twilight Zone for years with shows like Black Mirror and, more recently, The Twilight Zone’s revival led by Jordan Peele.
Ranked: The Greatest Horror Films Featuring a Creepy Masked Killer (Like That’s What We Need To Watch Right Now)
Visit the Mandatory Shop for great deals on your very own Mandatory merch.