30 Best Horror TV Shows of All Time - Rolling Stone
Home TV TV Lists

30 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 streaming-abetted scarefests, 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 30 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

21

‘Dark Shadows’ (1966-1971)

Supernatural soaps of all stripes can all trace their roots back to Barnabas Collins, the vampire (played by Jonathan Frid) who made Dark Shadows a bright spot on the daytime dial. He didn't even show up on the series until 1967, a year into the atmospheric ABC soap's five-year run, but after being unchained from a coffin, his arrival transfixed the show's young-skewing viewers. From then on, the afternoon serial went from a mildly Gothic story to a full-fledged paranormal romance, mixing witchcraft and werewolves into its sudsy storylines about lost love. It's now the definition of a cult classic.

true blood
20

‘True Blood’ (2008-2014)

Don’t let the disastrous later seasons distract you: For a few years there, Six Feet Under showrunner Alan Ball was the ringmaster of the sexiest, goriest show on earth. His adaptation of author Charlaine Harris’ Southern Vampire Mysteries — centered on telepathic watiress Sookie Stackhouse, her vampire suitors Bill Compton and Eric Northman, and various other resident beasties — may never have delivered on the sin/sex/salvation promise of its opening credits. But, man, did it offered softcore thrills and bloody spills of the highest horror-TV order. Meanwhile, it gave vampire fans bored with the decidedly PG-13 antics of the Twilight teens an undead romance with a bit more bite. It’s no stretch to assert that neither the Louisiana Gothic of True Detective nor the sensual slaughter of Hannibal would exist without it.

Horror Show

Ryan Casey

19

‘Masters of Horror’ (2005-2007)

Take one look at the veritable who's-who of talent involved with this Showtime series — John Carpenter, Joe Dante, Tobe Hooper, Dario Argento, John Landis — and it's hard to claim that the anthology show did not live up to its name. Conceived by director Mick Garris as a rotating showcase for the genre's best screenwriters and filmmakers, the show gave us a number of short-story–style chillers, including Carpenter's eerie "Cigarette Burns" (starring pre-Walking Dead Norman Reedus as a cinephile hunting for a cursed film) and Dante's no-holds-barred antiwar zombie freakout "Homecoming."

Horror Show

Ryan Casey

18

‘Alfred Hitchcock Presents’ (1955-1962)

The creepy theme song, the striking silhouette, the slowly, slyly delivered "Good eve-eee-ning" — when Alfred Hitchcock migrated from the big screen to the small in order to make a weekly series, his personal brand was the main attraction. In addition to using his hosting gig to become an embodiment of horror (a characterization Tippi Hedren would no doubt find appropriate), Hitch further honed his directorial skills on nearly 20 of the series' episodes, garnering two Emmy nominations. But perhaps the show's' greatest contribution to the genre was Hitchcock's use of much of its crew — cheaper hires than the usual Hollywood suspects — to shoot a little movie called Psycho.

ph
17

‘A Haunting’ (2005-Present)

There are two kinds of horror TV viewers: those who look at a reenactment-driven paranormal series on a Top 25 list and think "huh?", and those who rapidly nod in solemn, wide-eyed agreement. Frequently drawn from the case files of Amityville Horror investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren, this Discovery Channel series dramatizes (allegedly) real-life encounters with ghosts, demons, and poltergeists with jump scares and face-in-the-mirror menace. But by tying its terrors to stories of suburban dislocation — seemingly every episode begins with a divorcée looking to "make a fresh start" in an old dark house — serves as a 21st-century portrait of How We Fear Now.

Horror Show

Ryan Casey

16

‘Penny Dreadful’ (2014-2016)

From Philip José Farmer and Alan Moore to Abbott & Costello, artists have been making mash-ups of their favorite heroes, villains, myths, and monsters for ages. What, then, could this Showtime series that combines characters from Frankenstein, Dracula, Dorian Grey, and Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, have to offer that we haven’t seen before? Plenty, including charismatic performances (notably from Eva Green and Josh Hartnett), Gothic production design that’s lush even by prestige-TV standards, and countless other supernatural elements that add an atmosphere of, well, dread. But mostly, it has a willingness to treat the fears and desires of its characters as seriously as Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker, and Oscar Wilde did back in the day, and that makes all the difference.

Horror Show

Ryan Casey

15

‘Night Gallery’ (1969-1973)

You’ve already defined speculative, intellectually complex genre TV for a generation of viewers. What do you do for an encore? If you’re Rod Serling, the answer is simple: You tap into psychological horror and double down on the darkness. The TV auteur’s Nixon-era series presented short, sharp, scary vignettes (as many as four per episode) that were fueled by murder, guilt, revenge, hauntings, undead predators, and the untapped powers of the mind. By adapting works by such weird-fiction godfathers H.P. Lovecraft, August Derleth, Clark Ashton Smith, and Fritz Leiber, Serling further made the case for his own legendary status. And did we mention that Steven Spielberg made his directorial debut in the pilot?

Stranger Things

Netflix

14

‘Stranger Things’ (2016-Present)

Just mention the title of the Duffer Brothers’ throwback blockbuster hit and you can already hear the eerie synth score; picture the dark world of the Upside Down and its demogorgon denizens; and thrill to the adventures of its tween-to-teen heroes as they battle to save the small town of Hawkins, Indiana from extradimensional oblivion. Like a DNA splice of Steven Spielberg and Stephen King (with a heaping helping of John Carpenter and Dungeons & Dragons to boot), this Netflix smash launched half a dozen young actors’ careers, gave Winona Ryder the renaissance she richly deserved, and proved the power of all the stuff that scared us as kids.

Horror Show

Ryan Casey

13

‘The Kingdom’ (1994-1997)

Before he helped kick off an art-house revolution and his incorrigible outbursts at press conferences made him cinema's greatest troll, Danish director Lars Von Trier made a TV show with a simple goal: creep people out to the Nth degree. The two four-episode series he made for Danish TV (he had planned a third, but abandoned it because too many key cast members kept dying) chronicle the lives and afterlives of doctors and patients at a nightmarish Copenhagen hospital. Its storylines stitch ghosts, body horror, and all-around avant-garde oddness together into one of the medium's most unique hybrids.

Horror Show

Ryan Casey

12

‘Supernatural’ (2005-2019)

If there’s an Achilles heel for horror as a genre, it’s the wafer-thin characters: Why bother crafting the next Jane Eyre if she’s just gonna get chainsawed in half? But no TV series can survive if no one cares about your heroes and villains, and this CW show has taken that lesson to heart. The saga of demon-hunting brothers Sam and Dean Winchester is driven almost entirely by their emotional connection, courtesy of engaging performances by Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles. Yes, creator Eric Kipke’s initial goal of “scar[ing] the crap out of people” is achieved on a weekly basis, but even when the stakes are outright apocalyptic and the monsters all but unstoppable, it’s the ties that bind these bros that have made this show a fervently loved fan-favorite.

 - The Terror _ Season 1, Episode 3 - Photo Credit: Aidan Monaghan/AMC

Aidan Monaghan/AMC

11

‘The Terror’ (2018-Present)

There’s something on the ice: Not since John Carpenter unleashed The Thing have the frozen wastelands of the northern hemisphere felt as frightening as they do in David Kajganich and Soo Hugh’s frigid, claustrophobic masterpiece. Based on the novel of the same name by Dan Simmons, which in turn was inspired by the true story of the vanished 19th-century British Navy vessel the H.M.S. Terror, this chronicle of an ill-fated expedition and the beasts — both supernatural and all-too-human — that devoured it features an amazing ensemble led by Chernobyl‘s Jared Harris. Though it shared no cast or crew with the first installment, the anthology show’s follow-up season — subtitled Infamy — closed strong, proving there are endless dark riches to be mined from this historical-horror vein.

Horror Show

Ryan Casey

10

‘The Walking Dead’ (2010-Present)

In its original form, as a zombie comic book by writer Robert Kirkman and artists Tony Moore and Charlie Adlard, The Walking Dead was the little series that could: an independent, black-and-white horror story that slowly but surely eclipsed all but the biggest full-color corporate superhero comics in popularity. As a television show, TWD’s success has been almost as unlikely. It started, courtesy of Shawshank Redemption director Frank Darabont, as horror’s stab at a prestige drama worthy of sharing AMC airtime with Mad Men; several showrunners and tens of millions of viewers later, it’s a ratings juggernaut that showcases man’s inhumanity to man with at least as much gory gusto as the cannibalistic attacks of the undead.

Horror Show

Ryan Casey

9

‘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

8

‘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

7

‘True Detective’ (2014-Present)

Forget, for a moment, the HBO anthology series’ down-to-earth second and third seasons; 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.

10 Best 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer' Episodes

Everett Collection

6

‘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).

SYFY

5

‘Channel Zero’ (2016-2018)

Hannibal alum Nick Antosca equaled that series’ gruesome vision not once, not twice, but four separate times with this horror anthology series. Each of its quartet of stand-alone seasons is based on a different “creepypasta,” the viral online horror stories that have kept insomniacs up since the dawn of the Web. Standout scares include the gruesome Tooth Child from Season One (Candle Cove) and Rutger Hauer’s cannibalistic one-percenter from Season Three (Butcher’s Block). But it’s the collective power of the full quartet, which seem to get more viscerally nightmarish with each passing episode, that makes this slept-on series one for the ages.

David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson

'The X-Files' appears among our readers' picks for the best TV shows of the Nineties.

Fox

4

‘The X-Files’ (1993-2002; 2016-2018)

“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. And the recent relaunch reminded fans why they wanted to believe in the first place.

Mads Mikkelsen Hannibal

Mads Mikkelsen as Dr. Hannibal Lecter in 'Hannibal'

NBC

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.

rod serling twilight zone

Rod Serling, center, creator and host of the original 'The Twilight Zone.'

CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images, Everett Collection (2)

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 era’s finest horror and sci-fi writers, 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.” A full four decades before the New Golden Age, The Twilight Zone was already making high art out of low culture. The 2019 relaunch, led by modern horror master Jordan Peele (Get Out, Us), proves the Zone is still in good hands.

twin peaks dale cooper

American actor Kyle MacLachlan (as Special Agent Dale Cooper) holds a portable cassette recorder as he drives a car in a scene from the pilot episode of the television series 'Twin Peaks,' originally broadcast on April 8, 1990. (Photo by CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images)

CBS Photo Archive

1

‘Twin Peaks’ (1990-1991; 2017)

“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 might be the single scariest scene ever shown on television. (Try not to cringe away from your screen as you watch it. You can’t.) Then came Lynch and Frost’s 2017 Twin Peaks: The Return, which introduced us to an ash-covered Woodsman and his eternal question (“Got a light?”) and tied the horror into a historical moment. But through all the surreal, red-curtained quirkiness, the show never lost sight of the human suffering at the heart of madness-infected Americana. It’s what continues to make Twin Peaks the all-time television terror champion

Arrow Created with Sketch. Calendar Created with Sketch. Path Created with Sketch. Shape Created with Sketch. Plus Created with Sketch. minus Created with Sketch.