From Black Mirror to The X Files, we rundown the scariest episodes on the small screen!
Lumbering from the same wasteland as such gruesome hillbilly horrors as Wrong Turn and Alexandre Aja’s The Hills Have Eyes remake, this X Files episode – which was the first to be accompanied by a viewer discretion warning – in fact predated them.
To briefly recap: this monster-of-the-week story saw Mulder and Scully in a small Pennsylvanian town investigating the discovery of a dead deformed baby. The detective duo quickly find their chief suspects, three local brothers, one of whom may have fathered the baby, and who may have actually buried the baby alive. The brothers quickly increase suspicion over their culpability by murdering the town sheriff and deputy, before going on the run. During the ensuing chase Mulder and Scully discover a horrifying truth about the three brothers… and the mother of the baby.
Pffffft children. Nothing scary about them, no sir-ee… Pfffffffffffft gas masks, need to try harder than that if you want to scare me…. Hold on a second, what’s that child doing wearing that gas mask? Oh God, no. NO!
James Hawes takes the director’s reins – with a script penned by Dr Who stalwart Steven Moffat – to create a truly creepy Dr Who yarn set in WWII London, where a group of homeless children are being terrorised by Jamie, a sinister, “empty”, gasmask-wearing child…
Often compared with classic occult horrors The Wicker Man and Rosemary’s Baby, Play for Today episode Robin Redbreast is a chilling exploration of pagan beliefs in 70s rural Britain.
After a break-up, urban sophisticate Norah leaves her busy London life to seek refuge in the country. The tranquil rural life and friendly villagers are exactly what she needs, and on the village’s Harvest Festival celebrations Norah even gets intimate with one local, Rob. Unexpectedly, Norah gets pregnant from the encounter, and when she tries to leave the village subsequently, everything starts to get weird, and sinister, and cult-y. It’s clear the villagers want Norah to stay, at least until Easter when her baby is born.
An antithesis to slow burning doppelganger thrillers such as Black Swan and The Double, in which the double goer in question slowly and methodically destroys the hero’s life, our Hammer House of Horror episode The Two Faces of Evil gets to the point much more quickly…
During a rainy country drive with his wife, Janet, and son, David, Martin decides to pick up a hitch-hiker whose face is hidden by a yellow raincoat. Once inside the car, the mysterious traveller does nothing for the “evil hitch-hiker” stereotype as he promptly gouges at Martin’s throat with a grubby fingernail. In the ensuing struggle the car violently crashes. When Janet wakes in hospital, she is interviewed by the police about the incident, who tell her that her husband is injured and the hitch-hiker is dead (her son is fine, for now). When asked to identify the hitch-hiker’s body however, Janet is faced with a grim shock at his familiar appearance. Naturally, things gets worse from there…
The fact that this segment, from the fourth episode of the first season of the 1980s resurrection of The Twilight Zone, is directed by one William Friedkin, should set excitement bells (they exist) ringing.
The story centres on a roadside diner, in which a shaky Vietnam veteran tells customers that the ghosts of his old war buddies are trying to kill him. The episode covers themes of paranoia, post-traumatic stress disorder and the possible existence of the supernatural, and The Exorcist helmer Friedkin manages to shred the audience’s nerves in the process.
The second ever episode of Tales From the Crypt was directed by another famous hollywood filmmaker, though one known for more family friendly entertainment: Robert Zemeckis!
The story follows a pretty horrible lady on Christmas Eve. She’s foul mouthed, materialistic, a bad mother, and she’s just killed her husband. Little does she know that an escaped mental patient dressed in a Santa costume is on his way to her house, a Santa who knows the lady’s been naughty, and who has a worse gift than coal for her in mind.
In a time before “factual entertainment” and Derren Brown, when the British public were a little less cynical (or a little more naive) about the perceived authenticity of documentary programming, a little television special aired on BBC. It was called Ghostwatch, and it sent the country into a panic.
The one-off special centred on an ordinary household in Northolt, North London, which was supposedly being terrorised by a malevolent poltergeist. Real BBC personalities Sarah Greene and Craig Charles investigated the scary paranormal presence, while Michael Parkinson and Mike Smith offered even more authenticity from their studio (almost a double of the BBC Crimewatch studio at the time). To top it off, a phone number was displayed at the bottom of the screen throughout the episode, through which viewers could report any supernatural sightings of their own. But two things many viewers failed to notice- the programme was billed as a drama, and even had a writer: Stephen Volk. D’oh!
The success of this episode, which scarred me on a profound level as a timid teen, lies with its chief antagonists – the Gentlemen. Playing on that horrible common nightmare of being unable to speak while something horrible is after you, these grinning maniacs had the ability to take the voices from the residents of Sunnydale, leaving them in terrified silence. This allowed the Gents to carry out the next phase of their plan- the removal of their chosen victim’s heart- in peace. Absolutely chilling.
Yes, there are more traditionally horrific episodes of Black Mirror- the dystopian “White Bear” is particularly memorable- but our pick, The Entire History of You, stayed with us longer thanks to its groundedness and believability.
By introducing the “Grain”, a device which allows the wearer to replay moments from their life, episode writer Jesse Armstrong explores the ways in which technology can highlight and facilitate human jealousy and obsession, to particularly destructive ends… When Liam (an relatable, unnerving Toby Kebbell) becomes suspicious that his wife may have been unfaithful to him, his Grain allows him to pull at the thread of paranoia, but when the proverbial sweater unravels it’s surprisingly Liam who’s left freezing without a top on. So to speak…