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25 Best Horror TV Shows of All Time

From gourmet serial killers to vampire slayers, the greatest small-screen landmarks featuring scariest monsters and superfreaks

tv horror

Illustration by Ryan Casey

With all due respect to Poltergeist (They're her-rrrre!"), you don't need to live in a haunted suburban house to get sucked into the terror of your television. From the short-story-like psychological shocks of Sixties name-brand anthology shows to today's cable-abetted blood-and-guts extravaganzas, many of the medium's most memorable series have centered on things that go bump in the night. With Halloween approaching, we're counting down the top 25 horror shows in TV history. Vampire slayers and sexed-up bloodsuckers, brainiac serial killers and brain-chomping zombies, paranormal activities and portly auteurs wishing you "Good ev-eee-ning" — they're all present and accounted for. Don't dare touch that dial.

Horror Show

Ryan Casey

8

‘American Horror Story’ (2011-Present)

Ryan Murphy's FX series has been a showcase for some of the most treasured tropes horror has to offer as a visual genre — killer clowns, demonic nuns, haunted hotels, you name it. But every carnival needs its barkers, and Murphy has hired a murderers' row of actresses to fill that role, from Kathy Bates to Emma Roberts, Glenn Close to Lady Gaga. And in an era where the big-screen's genre offerings are still driven by found-footage minimalism, AHS's more-is-more attitude is a throwback to the days of the Grand Guignol. It's horror for the animated-GIF era.

Horror Show

Ryan Casey

7

‘Black Mirror’ (2011-Present)

If you need to sum up British satirist Charlie Brooker's internationally acclaimed anthology series, Twilight Zone: The App is as good a description as any. Like Rod Serling's seminal show, this British show's star-studded episodes use horror and science fiction elements as a lens into contemporary anxieties — with the focus on technology and its alienating, dehumanizing potential. Its best installments (the stomach-churning "The Entire History of You,"the pitch-black, go-for-broke satire of "The National Anthem") demonstrate that the era of selfies and social networks has simply given us new tools with which to do the same damage to one another we've always done. And the second series' highlight "White Bear," in which a woman awakes in a strange house with no idea how she got there, is as warped and eerie a take on crime and punishment as TV has ever delivered.

Horror Show

Ryan Casey

6

‘True Detective’ (2014-Present)

Forget, for a moment, the HBO anthology series’ LA-noir second season, a horror show of a different nature; concentrate instead on Carcosa, the Yellow King, and the fact Nic Pizzolatto and Cary Fukunaga had a nation of viewers sounding off like a cross between H.P. Lovecraft and a paranoid schizophrenic. The Matthew McConaughey/Woody Harrelson–starring first season of this supernova crime drama drew its strength from its occult overtones, a surreal vibe, and scary-as-fuck story of backwoods serial killers backed of a powerful political machine. In the end there was nothing supernatural about any of it — but who cares? The journey was truly nightmarish enough.

Horror Show

Ryan Casey

5

‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ (1997-2003)

High school is literally hell on earth — beat that for a high concept! The genius of Joss Whedon's star-making series was taking a metaphor for adolescent angst, giving it fangs, and handing its heroine a wooden stake. Buffy Summers and her Scooby Gang faced down more than their fair share of menaces from beyond, but like Twin Peaks before it, Buffy realized that great horror was rooted in human experience; the death of Buffy's mother was as harrowing as TV has ever gotten, with nary a demon in sight. That said, there are few more nightmarish TV moments than watching the "gentlemen" of the show's "Hush" episode float by, silently smiling as they steal voices and hearts (literally, in both cases).

Horror Show

Ryan Casey

4

‘The X-Files’ (1993-2002)

"The Truth Is Out There"— the truth being that Chris Carter's sprawling science-fiction conspiracy thriller was also crackerjack horror television. In between "mythology" episodes that chronicled FBI Agents Mulder & Scully's journey through a maze of government and extraterrestrial shenanigans, The X-Files frequently stopped to scare the pants off its viewers. From the Arctic isolation of its first-season standout "Ice" to the still-controversial, Texas Chainsaw Massacre–referencing inbreeding freak-out "Home," the show's best creepy, skin-crawling episodes have lost none of its power to disturb all these years later.

Horror Show

Ryan Casey

3

‘Hannibal’ (2013-2015)

How the hell did a show as visually audacious, narratively perverse, and mind-bogglingly gory as Hannibal wind up on the Peacock Network? Before its unceremonious and unfortunate third-season cancellation, Bryan Fuller's adaptation of Thomas Harris's series of serial-killer novels — starring cannibalistic psychiatrist Hannibal Lecter and his arch-frienemy, FBI profiler Will Graham — was nothing short of a horror lover's fever dream. It treated murder as performance art, peeling away the flesh and gristle of the human body in sensuous, spectacular slow motion to expose the heart of darkness within. In the process it made pretty much every other Prestige Drama look like a student film. As the Phantom of the Opera once said: Feast your eyes, glut your soul.

Horror Show

Ryan Casey

2

‘The Twilight Zone’ (1959-1964)

While most TV promised little more than an entertaining diversion between commercials, there was one show that billed itself as a journey into another dimension. Rod Serling's genre-defining anthology series drew its stories from a who's-who of the finest genre writers in the world, creating a an endless stream of stand-alone episodes that were equal parts spine-chilling and thought-provoking: the nuclear-apocalypse cautionary tale "Where Is Everybody?"; the telepathic terror of "It's a Good Life" ("Wish it into the cornfield!"); the alien-invasion irony of "To Serve Man" ("It's a cookbook!"); the airborne breakdown-cum-showdown of William Shatner and his little friend in "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet." Its best stories used horror, sci-fi, and fantasy as doorways into the shadowy hopes and fears that drove a nation in transition. A full four decades before the New Golden Age, The Twilight Zone was already making high art out of low culture.

Horror Show

Ryan Casey.

1

‘Twin Peaks’ (1990-1991)

"Who killed Laura Palmer?" It was the driving question behind David Lynch and Mark Frost's small-town murder masterpiece, but the answer was never going to be a matter of a simple whodunit. Laura's death, like her life, concealed an ocean of evil beneath the surface — specifically, a group of terrifying supernatural entities hailing from another place called the Black Lodge. They were personified by a being called Bob: Played by set dresser turned actor Frank Silva, this cackling, shrieking demon's long gray hair and denim jacket gave him the appearance of a metalhead crank dealer — the sight of him crawling through the Haywards' living room toward the camera is the single scariest scene ever shown on television. (Try not to cringe away from your screen as you watch it. You can't.) But through all the surreal, red-curtained quirkiness, Lynch and Frost never lost sight of the human suffering at the heart of the horror. It's what continues to make Twin Peaks the all-time television terror champion.

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